Getting his Ya Ya’s out – the further adventures of Catatonia’s Owen Powell
Owen Powell and I are waxing lyrical.
It’s not music that’s occupying our mind and firing our enthusiasm, it’s Wales’ footballers.
In these uncertain days of the pandemic, we all need a little light and levity. It’s clear that football as well as music provides that for the 53-year-old Welshman.
Brought up in the Welsh capital, the football-mad youngster started watching Cardiff City at an early age making the trip to Ninian Park with friends and family. He has also long been a fixture of Wales’ away games, loving the sense of community and camaraderie the Red Wall offers those who follow the national team on the international stage.
I’ve known Owen for sometime now. He loves to talk football and would happily spend the next hour of our conversation holding forth on his favourite subject. Indeed, when I tell him after 15 minutes of football chat we best discuss his musical career, he sighs and says, “Oh, do we have to?”
As unassuming and lovely a man as you could wish to meet, it’s rare that the musician gives interviews, despite a glittering CV that leaves plenty to shout about.
Making his name in the much-loved Welsh language band Y Crumblowers in the late 1980s, he tasted international success with Catatonia in the 1990s and was responsible for setting Duffy on the road to multi-million-album success in the noughties.
Spending the intervening years raising a family and as a gun for hire, penning songs for film and TV, he’s back with a very different project – for him at least. For the first time, he’s putting his head above the parapet and releasing music under his own name – well, sort of.
The first single from Don Ya Ya, the moniker under which the musician is working, was released at the tail end of last year. ‘It’s You’ was a classic slice of timeless songwriting, a big-hearted and enchanting love song – a lush introduction to his new project.
It’s a big step for the musician who describes himself as “the perennial sidekick”, someone happy to let others take centre stage.
“I like a bit of mystery in music, nobody wants to buy a record from Owen Powell,” he says, explaining his nom de plume. “What I thought I would do is come up with a character.
“I like Don because it’s the Spanish version of Mister, but it actually means gentleman. Then the Ya Ya thing, when I was a kid my dad was big into The Rolling Stones. They had the 1970 live album ‘Get Your Ya Yas Out!’ I loved the title of that as a kid. It was really cheeky, so I thought I would have the Ya Ya bit.
“When I started out, I was going to do it completely anonymously, but then I worked out that it was just completely impossible because you can’t contact people, you can’t register the songs as Don Ya Ya, as I’ve already got my songwriting set up under my own name. What I decided to do was say this is Don Ya Ya, it’s a new project from Owen Powell.”
The musician admits he is still getting used to the idea of putting out his own music – and to the sound of his own voice.
“I’ve been recording the stuff throughout lockdown,” he says. “A few of the songs I’ve had for a while, but as you know I’m known as somebody who works with singers and artists. I love doing that. I’ve been really fortunate to have some great people singing my songs. It’s such a luxury, like when I was in Catatonia and working with Duffy.
“When I wrote (Catatonia single) ‘Strange Glue’ I thought it was a good song, but when Cerys (Matthews) sang it I never imagined it could be that good. But, of course, since lockdown I can’t go and record with other people, so I thought needs must, I’ll go and do it myself. Now I’m having to learn with the sound of my own voice,” he laughs.
“My mum always used to say that some people can hold a tune, but some people can sing. And I’m definitely on the hold a tune spectrum. When I do songs for other people I’ll sing the demo myself then pass it on. It’s the greatest joy of being a songwriter when a song is sung by somebody else and becomes better because of it.”
Asked if he’s comfortable with his singing voice, he tentatively replies: “I’m getting there, I’m getting there with it. I think ‘It’s You’ was the first thing I’d written and then I thought I’ll give it a go and reckoned, ‘That sounds all right.’ I can live with that.”
So, if we hadn’t had lockdown, would we have seen Don Ya Ya emerging from the shadows anytime soon?
“Probably not, no. I would have probably gone for the default of scurrying around trying to find someone to sing it and record it. I’m kind of glad I have because I’ve enjoyed it.”
Holed up in a little studio in his home at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire, he started to get to grips with the Don Ya Ya project.
“I’ve got all my recording equipment in a tiny little six foot by five foot room at home,” says Owen. “I’ve got my microphone, I’ve got my Macbook, I’ve got my keyboard, so I can sit there and do it.
“I’ve been really fortunate to work on some great stuff, but I’ve also worked on a lot of stuff over the years that has had a lot of time and effort and money put into it that has never seen the light of day. But ‘It’s You’ was one song that I’ve had hanging around for ages. I thought I’d really like to get this out and if it means I’ve got to sing, I’m willing to have a crack at it.
“I wrote the song and then I played it to a friend of mine called Robert Reed, who I’ve done some soundtrack work with. He said, ‘Ooh I really like that,’ but can I add three chords to it? He played me the chorus with a different three chords to the one I had and I was like, that’s magic, we’ll have that. It’s funny sometimes, you can fall in love with the original version of what you do and, whatever people tell you, you ignore them because you think you’re right. I’m the opposite.
“It’s weird that in Catatonia I mostly wrote the songs that I wrote on my own, but since then I’ve always co-written with people and I love that. It really takes the pressure off, because you don’t have to sit there going, is this right, is this the best I can do. If you have another person there and you see their enthusiasm, then the two of you can’t be wrong can you?”
The musician said he has been more than happy spending his career side stage.
“I think I make a good sidekick. I was a sidekick to my brother who was the frontman in Crumblowers, I was a sidekick to Cerys in Catatonia. I’ve always been happy doing that. Some people have this drive and ambition. When I worked with Duffy I’d never met somebody who wanted to be an artist in the spotlight front and centre stage more than she did. I’ve always been in the supporting role and there’s nothing wrong with it, there’s a lot to be said for it.
“I seem to have done all right off it. I’m still here 25 years after I initially became a professional musician. I signed off the dole just before Christmas 1995. On my tax return it says Owen Powell Musician, so it was 25 years in December.
“That was when I joined Catatonia. I joined literally as ‘Sweet Catatonia’, the first single was released. I just turned up and thankfully they let me in the band.”
Singles have formed a huge part of the musician’s life. When ‘It’s You’ was released, followed by second single ‘Pale Moon’ in May of this, they were the latest singles added to his ever-expanding discography, although sadly they weren’t physical releases. It’s digital only, as is the way of the world nowadays.
“I like singles, I remember back to the first records I got,” he recalls. “My mum and dad used to buy me those Ronco compilation albums. They were about the thickness of flexi discs, It was like 72 singles over four vinyl albums. So, that’s what I grew up with and that’s what I loved. Singles were the centre of my universe.
“I still play vinyl, I never stopped playing vinyl, I never stopped buying vinyl. But the truth of it is, I’ve been through the experience so many times of going through that system of getting a record pressed and a year later you’ve still got 900 copies under your bed,” he laughs.
“There’s probably a shared house in Cardiff somewhere with 900 Crumblowers singles still under the bed. Realistically, you just want to get them out and get them heard. I’d love to at some point put out a nice quality vinyl. Who am I kidding, of course I would love to do that. The love of vinyl never leaves you.”
The musician reminisces about the first time he walked into a record shop and saw his own vinyl in the racks.
“I remember it first happening with one of the Crumblowers records,” he remembers. “We managed to get it stocked in HMV in Cardiff and we all went down to the shop and had our photos taken next to it sat there in the racks. They took two copies of it, I think, but we were so chuffed. We thought we had arrived. No other HMV in the country took it and they probably only ever sold those two, but that’s what you want, you want to see your record in the racks in the shop.”
While not quite a complete Catatonia reunion, Owen has started playing again with his former bandmate Mark Roberts and Paul Jones, in a band that also includes Frog, Catatonia’s original drummer, and former Big Leaves and Sibrydion keyboard player Osian Gwynedd.
The band is a vehicle for Mark’s MR project, under which the frontman of former 1980s Welsh language trailblazers Y Cyrff has released three albums, with a fourth on the way.
Owen says his former bandmate’s resurgence has certainly reawakened his own love of music and desire to create.
“Playing guitar and singing in Mark’s live band and being back on stage with him has made me think I’m really enjoying this. You’ve got Osian Gwynedd who plays keys, and played keys on several Catatonia albums, and there’s Frog (Stephen Jenkins), who was the original drummer in Catatonia. We’re all really close and it’s inspired me to do something that maybe I wouldn’t have done a year ago. Being in that band has had an effect on all of us.
“Mark recently released ‘Feiral’ – an album that we’ve all contributed to. We recorded it all during lockdown online, bouncing files back and forth with each other.”
It seems the catalyst for this flurry of activity was the moment a reunited Crumblowers took to the stage at the the Oval Basin at Cardiff Bay to headline the National Eisteddfod in 2018. It was such a rousing moment and one capped off by Mark Roberts appearing with Y Crumblowers for a blistering version of Y Cyrff anthem ‘Cymru Lloegr a Llanrwst’.
“That was good fun,” remembers Owen. “We had to put quite a lot of work into doing an hour-long set, especially when you get to the age we are now remembering songs you recorded 25 to 30 years ago. I think it was Dave Rizzo, Crumblowers’ bass player, who said why don’t we get Mark along to do something. Mark said he would love to. He came to rehearsal and it was just amazing. We did one Crumblowers song and ‘Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst’. We played each of them once and that was it. See you at the gig.
“Mark really enjoyed the gig and hopefully it was an inspiration for him to get back on stage as well.”
The MR live band has played a smattering of Catatonia songs in their set – the first time Mark, Paul and Owen would have performed those songs live together for 20 years. However, anyone hoping for a full reunion will sadly be disappointed. Owen said there has never been any conversation about the band reforming and that’s never likely to change.
“The thing is, if you were trying to launch a Catatonia reunion given the people in the band you wouldn’t come to me first would you?” he laughs. “But no, there haven’t been any conversations.
“I’ve probably had more contact with Cerys than anyone else in the band since Catatonia quit, but that’s usually to do with business stuff like renegotiating deals and things like that. It’s always been very amicable. We’ve always got on.”
I wondered how he looked back on that time when a slew of Welsh bands including Catatonia, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and 60ft Dolls lay siege to the charts, under the banner of Cool Cymru. Does it seem like yesterday or like another world?
“It does seem like another world,” he says. “I’m really proud of it all. Obviously it was such a fantastic moment. We had six years of amazing times. I’d known Mark and Paul for years, I’d known Cerys for years. You know that they’ve put as much work into it as you have. And that they’ve also had to make sacrifices to get to that position.
“I remember we used to sit in the back room of the City Arms [the pub in Cardiff ] on a Saturday night. Most of the people we knew had jobs, mortgages, cars, girlfriends, boyfriends, all the rest of it. We didn’t have any of that. When you’re 25 and you’re still rehearsing and touring it’s hard to have stuff like that. What you realise is that, when you do get some success, that’s what all those sacrifices were for. That’s why I spent all that time playing, learning, gigging and kipping in the back of a van and never having any money.
“But there does come a point when you think, ‘Hang on have I messed up here?’ Should I have gone and got a proper job, a mortgage and a loan for a car. And some people make that sacrifice and it doesn’t work out for them, which is dispiriting and so much of it is down to fortune. Being in the right place at the right time, having the right song, it getting on the radio in the right week. I could be looking back on spending all that time and literally got nowhere with it. But that is the case for all the arts, isn’t it. There but for the grace of god.”
When the band split in bitterness and acrimony in 2001, Owen said he was chastened by the experience, but time is a great healer.
“The period when the band split was tough and, for a time, it was upsetting because you just don’t lose your job, you lose a bit of your identity as well.
“For a while I wasn’t angry about it exactly, I was just upset by it. We could have done better, we could have handled it better.
“What was really weird was that we split and it was literally a week before 9/11. So the world had more important things to worry about. I remember for weeks thinking the split was pretty grim and then something happened that was the biggest news event in the history of the world. And it cleared the decks, put everything in perspective.
“I thought I wanted to get back on the horse and I did mull over a few offers, but things didn’t work out. My eldest son had been born in the last year of the band and I hadn’t seen a lot of him. So I thought maybe it was time to spend some time at home. I think for the sake of my health and my sanity it was a good move.
“Now I look back at it and I’ve got a 20-year-old son, Herbie, and a 14-year-old son, Sonny, and I’ve never said I was in a band and I did this and I did that. Yet they’ve gone back and found out about it themselves. I find my youngest son knows stuff about the band that I’d forgotten 20 years ago.
“It’s nice they take an interest in it and I’m really proud of what we did,” he adds. “We had some ups and downs, but the ups definitely outweighed the down times. I really enjoyed doing it because it was all I’d ever dreamed of doing since I was a kid. That is all I wanted to do and I got to do it, so you can’t say fairer than that.”
Now it appears Owen has passed the musical baton on to his son Herbie, who plays bass for fast-rising Welsh band Y Sybs.
“I really like the band but I don’t get involved at all,” he says. “They’re of an age where they’re enthusiastic, they play every gig they’re asked, well they did until lockdown. But they’re doing great. Herbie had a lend of one of my old Fender Precision basses and that’s my total involvement with it.
“It’s like in the days of the 1940s and 1950s when a son turns 16 and the dad would give him a toothbrush and show him the front door and say, off you go into the world. I did something similar. I handed him a 1970s Fender Precision bass and said, right, off you go.
“Seriously, though, they’ve turned into a great little band. They sound really good. Herbie deals with it very differently than the way I do. At his age I was just obsessed with being in a band and making music. But he likes playing. He turns up, plugs in, plays, puts his bass back in his case and gets on a bus and goes home. A lot of people say that’s probably as good a way to deal with it as you possibly can.
“They’ve had some great opportunities,” he continues. “They’ve played around the UK and they went to Italy for a couple of gigs. Even at the age of 20 he’s already had plenty of experience. Being in a band gives you opportunities you never would have thought of. That’s why I feel really sorry for them all with Covid because they had got into a roll of recording, releasing and playing gigs every weekend and now it’s been so difficult for them. It’s as if that generation has lost more than anyone else.”
Owen has achieved much in his career, but there’s one moment he will never forget – discovering a singer whose tumultuous life story is one of giddying highs and traumatising lows.
It was 17 years ago that the journey began for the musician and a young muse that he set on the road to worldwide fame. The moment their paths crossed was on S4C talent show WawFfactor.
There as musical director and judge on the show, a Welsh language version of the X Factor, the musician first encountered Duffy – the singer from Gwynedd, a performer possessing an otherworldly voice.
“I got a phonecall from a friend of mine who was working on a programme who asked if I would be interested in coming and working on this show called WawFfactor. It started off as a day’s work then ended up running for three series between 2003 to 2006.”
Presented by Radio Wales’ Eleri Sion, the judges for the first series of the show were Owen, television presenter Emma Walford, musician Peredur ap Gwynedd and Radio 1 producer Aled Haydn Jones.
Duffy competed in the first series, finishing second behind eventual winner Lisa Pedrick. Then, the 20-year-old with short cropped hair bore little resemblance to the kittenish Bardot-alike that she would become.
Despite her second place finish on WawFfactor, she had made a sizeable impression not least on Owen who introduced her to former 60ft Dolls’ singer Richard Parfitt.
The pair subsequently introduced the singer to the woman who would act as the catalyst for her huge success, Rough Trade Records’ Jeannette Lee, who took Duffy under her wing, eventually becoming her manager.
She, in turn, teamed the singer with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler who became her songwriting partner and member of her band, crafting the retro sound that would become her trademark. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within a year of the release of her debut album ‘Rockferry’ in 2008, not only had Duffy won three BRIT Awards (British Breakthrough, Best Female Solo and Best British Album) and a Grammy (Best Pop Vocal Album), but ‘Rockferry’ was racking up incredible numbers.
“Obviously we had no idea she was going to sell 12 million albums,” laughs Owen. “But she was a very driven and motivated person who was going to stop at nothing to make it.
“I’d known Richard (Parfitt) from Catatonia days playing with the Dolls at gigs. I’d always got on really well with Rich.
“I remember I was coming out of the dentists on St Mary Street in Cardiff and he was walking past. He tried to engage me in conversation and said we should try to do something, write some hits. And all I could do was mumble back because my mouth was all swollen and numb.
“I phoned him up a couple of days later. He had a flat opposite Llandaff Fields and I used to go over his place and write songs.
“We wrote a bunch of songs and we needed somebody to sing them. We spoke to a few people and tried a few people out, none of it was really working. And then I said, ‘Oh there was this girl on this TV programme I’ve been doing,’ and Richard immediately cut in with, ‘I’m not getting involved with anybody who has been on a TV talent show.’ But I said go have a listen and luckily he was blown away.
“We drove up to see Duffy in Abersoch at the end of the Llyn Peninsula where she was living at the time. We drove up there with our guitars and we played her our songs and she said she would come and record with us.
“She was definitely one of those people who when she sang people stopped and listened. Richard has got a really good AnR feel for things so he knows when things are going to work and something’s not and he’ll make his mind up really quickly. He heard her singing one of our songs and he immediately said, yep, this is happening. Rich was very good at making those calls, he’ll say immediately whether something will work or not.
“Where Jeanette Lee came in, she was the grand visualiser who we knew could take Duffy to the next level,” he adds. “As it proved. She could see the big picture of Duffy with the 1960s Northern Soul black and white image. That‘s what making successful artists and bands is all about. You take for granted that somebody can sing, that the songs are good, that they’ve been well recorded. It’s that last 10% to 15% of being able to visualise how it’s all going to work. And that was all down to Jeanette.”
However, Owen is quick to add that he didn’t think anybody could foresee what was going to happen next.
“The next thing you know she’s got a number one single (Mercy) and she’s selling millions of records.
“Our role in it was getting her to sing something that wasn’t a cover version, something that was original and for people to see what could be made of that. I just wanted to be in a studio writing and recording. I didn’t want to get involved in the rest of it.”
As quickly as Duffy’s star soared into the ascendancy with a multi-million-selling debut album, it came crashing down to earth with a second album, ‘Endlessly’ in 2010, which flopped.
“You could kind of see it coming,” says Owen. “In the respect that anybody who sells that many records it’s very easy to look at that success and think that’s all down to me.
“I’ve seen it happen with other artists. They’ll have a huge amount of success and they’ll think, I’ve accomplished this, but then you look at a record release and it’s a cast of thousands and you have to give credit to those people.
“The second you start thinking I alone am responsible for this, that’s such a big mistake to make. You’ve got to acknowledge your co-writers, the people who play on the record, engineers – for any record it’s a team effort. It may be your name and photo on the cover, but the minute you start believing the hype that it’s all down to you, it’s a really dangerous place to go.
“Every artist has got to have somebody who can say to them, look you can do better than that or you can change this. Anybody who has read any rock biography about Dylan, McCartney, Springsteen, Neil Young, you realise how much they take on board what other people say. They would always listen to what other people said and they had people who they kept close to them. The minute you lose that, that’s where the problems start. From what I can understand, that was the problem there.”
As our conversation winds to a conclusion, we end where we began – talking about football. Owen confides in me a story that has never been told publicly, a tale that almost ended in disaster.
It’s now 10 years since Welsh supergroup The Stand charted with their single ‘I’ll Be There’, a rollicking indie rock interpretation of the popular terrace chant at Cardiff City, based on the Valleys mining song “When The Coal Comes From The Rhondda”.
The group – broadcaster and film director Jonny Owen, Super Furry Animals bassist Guto Pryce and former Funeral For A Friend drummer Ryan Richards – recorded the song to raise funds towards building a statue of 1927 FA Cup winning captain Fred Keenor outside the Cardiff City Stadium.
Recorded at Monnow Valley Studios in Monmouthshire, the group was to originally feature Stereophonics’ drummer Stuart Cable, who sadly passed away in June 2010.
“We were going to record a single to raise money for the Keenor fund, but of course Stuart passed away and we thought what are we going to do?” recalls Owen. “Monnow Valley Studios had kindly offered Stuart three days of studio time for free, which was amazing.
“They agreed to honour the commitment, which was an incredible thing to do. So we went down there with Ryan Richards from Funeral For A Friend on drums. I got Guto from the Furries on bass and Jonny was the singer.
“We had three days at Monnow Valley with producer Tim Lewis, but I think we actually did it in a day and a half and drank wine for the rest of the time.”
The single was released on Acid Jazz records, thanks to label boss Eddie Piller, a good mate of Jonny’s who agreed to put it out.
To promote the single, Owen and Jonny set off on a promotional tour of some of the more livelier Cardiff City loyal pubs around south Wales. These included Barry Dockers, The Mountain Ash Inn, The Ninian in Cardiff and Burgess Green pub in Port Talbot.
“There was no real band, it was just me and Jonny DJing. We asked Cardiff City if we could have a player come around with us to sign a few autographs, although when we told them where we were appearing they said, no way,” he laughs.
“However, what they did do was pretty impressive. Every club who wins the FA Cup gets a full size replica of the cup. So, the club let us take their FA Cup around the pubs with us. Mind you, they didn’t have a case for it and we had to carry it around in a black bin bag, which was a little mad.
“Anyway, we’re doing a DJ set at the Burgess Green pub, which is the home of the PVM, the Port Talbot Pure Violence Mob, so we knew it was going to be a bit lively.
“Port Talbot is a divided town, half is Cardiff, half is Swansea, but this pub was a Cardiff City pub. The evening was going well, there’s a couple of hundred lads in there. People were having their picture taken with the FA Cup. Everyone has had a few beers and it’s getting lively. The next thing we know the FA Cup has gone missing. Somebody had taken it.
“I think Jonny was playing ‘Anarchy In The UK’ at the moment we realised it had disappeared. We were both in a panic. Jonny cut the music, took to the mic and said, right, we’ve had a great night, but somebody’s nicked the FA Cup and we need it back. Nobody comes forward and by now we’re bricking it, thinking we’re going to need to call the police.
“The next thing we know somebody has run into the pub and called us outside. He starts pointing to the Chinese restaurant across the road. We walk into the restaurant and there’s a bunch of lads who were in the pub sitting at a table with the staff having their picture taken with the cup.
“I have never been more relieved.
“Imagine being known as the lads who lost the FA Cup.”
Find out more about Don Ya Ya via www.instagram.com/donyayamusic
A version of this story originally appeared in the Western Mail magazine