They're the most insidious of all holiday creations. You can't tiptoe past the counters at Pottery Barn or Wal-Mart without being assaulted by them. Yes, Christmas CDs, once meant for good, have become pure evil.
"Oh, they're disgusting, I know," says breathy, jazzy singer-songwriter Judith Owen, who, in fact, has just released a Christmas album. Christmas in July is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the holidays, California-style. (Owen lives in Santa Monica with her husband, actor-director Harry Shearer, famous for playing Derek Smalls of the legendary fictional metal band Spinal Tap and several Simpsons characters, including Mr. Burns.)
Owen has captured the irony of a Christmas where the only thing "white" is the sand, but what else separates her release from the other schmaltz? "I'm not doing it for the whole 'Let's roll out the Hallmark Christmas songs' all over again," she says in a delightfully lyrical Welsh accent. "And I don't think you can get through Christmas without a lot of laughter."
There are laughs on Christmas in July. The album opens with a sticky-sweet rendition of "Christmas with the Devil," the evil holiday carol from Spinal Tap. But then she turns around and sounds angelic on "Silent Night" and two poignant tributes to her mum and dad.
What makes the project truly impressive is that it's a tribute to a season that, for Owen, can be torturous. "For some time, I was in hell during Christmas," she says. When Owen was a teenager in London, her mother, who suffered from severe clinical depression, took her own life at Christmastime. Owen was later plagued by survivor's guilt and the very depression that took her mother. But she prevailed: "The truth is, I always wanted to live much more than I wanted to die," she says. "Having seen what happened to my mother, I knew I had to do something big -- and I had to change my life."
Owen's life changed in 1993, when, during a mundane gig, she met Shearer. Soon she was on a plane bound for L.A. with nothing but two bags and a new hubby. A musician since childhood, she has since released several albums, the most notable being 12 Arrows (replete with cover photography by actress Jamie Lee Curtis), which showcases her smart, sassy songwriting, jazzy hooks and intonations reminiscent of Tori Amos and Diana Krall.
Now Owen's in the midst of a promotional tour; she'll release another full-length CD in 2005. She says she finds simple joy in touring with Shearer, who plays bass at her shows. "Anyone else at this point would be saying, 'Oh, God, when will it end?' " she says. "But I'm saying, 'I'm alive!' "
As for Shearer, he says he's really taken to the role of supporting musician. "It's been the most fun I've had all year," he says, "as long as I play the right notes." All the touring, next season's Simpsons and projects including a musical on J. Edgar Hoover, a book and a couple of movies haven't slowed him down. "On top of that," he says, sounding a lot like Simpsons anchor Kent Brockman, "I also have plans to host the CBS Evening News."