The Interview: Christopher Owens

Published on 18 August 2014

[C]hristopher Owens’ life story reads like a film script. Growing up in the religious cult ‘Children Of God’, Owens toured the world as a kid but was cut off entirely from popular culture until he fled the group at 16, when he moved to Texas and fell in with a group of hardcore punks. After giving himself a crash course in recorded music and youth culture (getting a number of tattoos to fit in with other teenagers along the way), Owens met Texan millionaire Stanley Marsh who took him under his wing, introducing him to the world of art as a much-needed emotional outlet. When being an abstract painter didn’t work out, Owens moved to San Francisco, fell into the music scene there and met producer-bassist JR White with whom he formed the wildly successful indie-rock band Girls.

After Girls’ split in 2012, Owens stepped out into the industry alone, presenting us with his solo debut “Lysandre” – a concept album of songs lamenting a fleeting love affair. He also forayed into fashion – appearing in Hedi Slimane’s inaugural Saint Laurent Campaign.

This year Owens is back with his second solo album “A New Testament”, a country-infused record, which though continuing in his (heart-stopping) tradition of lyricism, seems fresher, more upbeat and brighter than we have ever experienced Owens before.

The new album seems a lot brighter than anything you’ve done before, a bit more content; do you feel this is a new phase you are going into in your life?

It could be. I think life kind of doesn’t change much really, ever. I’ve wanted to make this album for over a year now, it was recorded in October last year and for at least half a year before that I knew what songs I wanted to do and how I wanted it to sound. It’s something I would have wanted to do even three years ago… it’s not a new outlook or anything but I think maybe there is a little bit more brightness in my life and if that comes through that’s cool. I think it’s fortunate that I made this album at this time, because I have other ideas for albums and maybe if I would have done one of the other ones people would have thought this was a dark time or something. It’s always fun to do a bright album because anytime you do it people pick up on the bright energy.

You’ve talked about having a big catalogue of unreleased songs, if this record was in the works a long time ago, is your process to write songs constantly and then pull tracks together for an album?

Yes, and when I say constantly, it’s not like everyday or anything, it’s just something that happens every once in a while, sometimes more than others. But, I believe in waiting for them. I could never be commissioned to do a song or maybe I could, but I’d never want to have to think one up. I like it to just come. I guess I do write all the time in a way but I don’t feel like it’s a whole lot, just here and there. I put them all away and sometimes an album can just be all the songs you’re most excited about recording and other times you can have an idea for a direction to take it. That’s the case with this record; I wanted to do a kind of country album. Not country in a crazy way, but what I usually do with a little bit of country added. I looked over my tracks in terms of what would work well for that. This isn’t what I did with the three Girls records – with those it was always the songs I would be the most excited about doing that would come to the top. With this record they are a little bit more picked, a little more curated.

Where has the country influence come from? You grew up in the religious cult The Children Of God – were you exposed to much music growing up?

No. Well, yes I was exposed to music, but not a lot of recorded music – there was some of our recorded music and little bits of other music around, but playing music was part of our everyday life. We’d sing three or four times a day together. The country thing came, I think, from living in Texas for nine years, and it’s just generally something I like – it is simple music. In Texas country is all around you. My dad is also actually a country singer and I’ve heard him sing a lot of songs and gone and looked up the original recordings of them and that’s had quite an influence on me. It’s a genre I really like – I like a lot of different kinds of music and I think I’m lucky to get to do things like this. A big part of this record was finding people that could play the instruments for it, like the pedal steel player and asking people to play in a country way – so the other musicians had influence over the sound too.

You voiced your frustration at the end of Girls about how it was never a band in the way you wanted it to be – how you never had a set group of people recording, writing and playing together always. Is it great to have a core band around you with this record? Is this something you plan to continue?

I don’t think so. If that was the plan I probably would have presented this album as a band-album. I think the next album will be very different again and I’m going to want to use different people. The songs that exist now in my demos – there’s a lot of different ideas and I think I’ll be able to do a better job recording different records with different people. Also, these musicians have signed up to do this record knowing it’s one album and maybe a year of touring so I wouldn’t have the right to assume they’d stick around either. But if they did, and a band forms that could be great – I’d be open to that. However, in general, alongside the frustrations with Girls there was also just an actual desire to present my songs under my name and as my own. All my very first songs were on that Girls record as I was just starting as a writer – I’d never written songs before that. At that point it made a lot of sense to be writing for a band, but as things progressed in the way they alongside the frustration of the band not working out in the way I hoped, I also started to understand I was somebody who writes about his own life much more than other people. I think that the songs are best presented as a person’s own songs and that they are more powerful like that. Bands are cooler than artists – but I gave up on being in a cool band a long time ago.

“Drugs played an important role in my life but if I hadn’t been able to stop doing them things wouldn’t have been very good”

Do you feel that your autobiography is very important to your music, as your songs are so personal? You’ve always been so open about your past – with the Children Of God and addiction. Is it important for you that people understand where you are coming from?

I think autobiography definitely helps. At the same time I’d be perfectly fine not sharing it – the songs work alone also. But I think it does make it more interesting for people– like with anything – if I’m reading a book I always start snooping around on the author and try to find YouTube videos of them reading the book. It’s kind of the nature of it all these days; we all expect to know a lot about everything nowadays so it makes sense to me. I think it’s important for anybody doing anything – especially artistically -their life is very important to who they are. That’s why we like to read books on Jimi Hendrix you know? To understand why someone has formed the way they have.

Your last solo album was a collection of songs about an ex-girlfriend that you released whilst being with your current girlfriend. Is the new record more representative of songs about her?

Yes, she actually came on tour for it and recorded on that album – but I wrote it before I met her. On “A New Testament there” are a lot of songs about her. ‘It Comes Back To You’ is a pretty new song about her and I think that if I have a style to my songs that it fits in there pretty well. ‘Key To My Heart’ and ‘Nobody’s Business’ are love songs and the last track was actually written just before we got together – when she told me there was no way in hell we were ever going to get together. I wrote four great songs that weekend and the last album track ‘I Just Can’t Live Without You But I’m Still Alive’ is one of them. The others were reggae songs –it’s kind of a joke but they are also actually really good! They are the same idea as my other songs, but in reggae form. They are sad reggae songs – so they’re really cool.

You’ve spoken at length before about how taking drugs aided your creative process in a way and informed how you wrote songs. Is that still relevant now? Do you have a different creative process now that your life is different?

I’ve thought about this a lot. It definitely helped – it helped me write songs, it helped me be in front of people, to sign up to do everything we did – it really helped. But then it started to really hurt all those same things… I’d taken drugs since I was probably 17 or 18 at parties, socially and it was not a big deal, but for some reason when the person that introduced me to opiates did, something happened that was different. I just had a real connection with it. I mean, I’ve written songs about it, where I’ve put a girls name in there instead of it – it was something very special, and then it got really bad.. I think it played an important role in my life but if I hadn’t been able to stop doing it things wouldn’t have been very good.

Fortunately, it’s not like I’m not creative anymore – I’m exactly the same. It’s like I said: life doesn’t really change no matter how dramatically you change. I like to think of it as if you had a bicycle with training wheels and when you are first riding a bike you need them otherwise you fall or you’d be too scared – maybe it’s psychological. But then let’s say years and years pass and if you were to continue riding a bike with training wheels you’d never go any faster. If you can take them off you find it’s much better. I think that’s kind of what I’ve been through with drugs, they played an important role at some point, but I’m definitely glad they aren’t around anymore and nothing has really changed.

“I didn’t have any goals other than to learn about the life I’d missed”

You seem so much more at ease with this album, vocally at ease also – notably since the first Girls record you seem to have come into your own voice. Do you feel more comfortable with yourself on stage and with singing?

I think playing just on my own is never that easy, but when I have a good band it has always been easy and fun to play shows. People haven’t asked me that much about the voice thing before – if you listen to the first Girls album, then on to the second and then to my solo stuff it’s blatantly obvious that for the first album I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I literally put on fake voices. It was all because we were doing everything for the first time and we didn’t give things much thought. It’s just how things happened. I don’t regret singing like that but for me it’s funny to hear it back now. These days I sing from a more genuine place. I have my own voice for better or worse.

After you left The Children Of God when you were 16, at what point did you decide you wanted to make your own music or join a band? You were with Ariel Pink in the band Holy Shit for a bit initially – was it meeting that group of people that drew you into the music scene?

When I first got to The States I firstly had to start working right away and secondly was a teenager and wanted to meet people and just hang out all night – I didn’t have any goals other than to learn about the life I’d missed.

It’s difficult to explain but it was all very hard for the first couple of years. I didn’t get any reference people made to anything. I didn’t understand the way they acted and I didn’t understand myself. I had to pretend a lot for a long time. The reason I have all these tattoos is because I was trying to fit in with the people that I found to be cool there. It was a learning experience. That took all my time really at first and I didn’t have any creative outlets for a long time. When I got to be in my later teens I started painting and that’s all I wanted to do for a long time. I got a job working with Stanley Marsh and he encouraged me to paint more and I started to paint much better. He had a giant library of books and knew all about every period of art. He gave me a full art education – between working with him and just talking. I didn’t think about making music at that point – but I’d buy maybe three albums a week. I was trying to catch up with everybody. When I got to the states I knew about five or six artists that I’d managed to find out about… before I even made friends I’d go to the mall and just buy records. But working with Stanley my life became about art and I really wanted to be an artist. The problem was I didn’t have any original ideas for paintings – I learnt how to paint and I could paint probably anything, but I didn’t have any original ideas.

I wanted to paint abstract and it’s hard to do that – they’ve all kind of been done. Everything down to just painting white – I’m sure somebody will do something new but it has to come to you or it doesn’t. For me it just didn’t. Around that time I met the guys from Holy Shit and it was living from one day to the next in a way. I knew I wasn’t going to try and be an artist anymore and I bought a guitar and started playing with them. From being around those guys I started to write my own music and it all just came back to me again – like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to play.

It’s been two years now since Girls came to an end, are you in much contact with J R White?

We are in touch. There are things about his life that wouldn’t be right for me to talk about and there are reasons why we can’t really hang out too much right now, but also in general we went through something really big. It’s like if you see your ex around town, even if you still like each other it’s not like you talk to them every day. It’s a bit like that, but he’s doing a lot of great things and I don’t feel like he has bad feelings towards me and I don’t have them towards him so… it’s good

Do you play Girls songs ever in your live solo shows?

Yes, I didn’t during the last record’s tour because it came as a whole – you had to play it all in the right order, you couldn’t chop it up. Also having just left Girls it seemed wrong to play those songs – it needed a break. I haven’t played too many shows with the new record yet, but I will definitely be playing Girls songs. I always will be. As much as they are Girls songs, they are my songs – I counted the I’s on ‘Lust For Life’ (Girls’ 2009 album release) and there’s more than twenty five on there.

So many people were involved with Girls –  J R being the most important one, and he wouldn’t have any problem with me playing them at my shows. Also, John Anderson plays the guitar on this record and Danny Eisenberg plays the Organ – they both recorded on ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ but didn’t tour it with Girls. I’m really excited to play those songs with them for the first time – they are huge parts of that record -it’s going to be really cool finally to play it with them live.

Does it feel at all weird playing songs from a different part of your life? Songs from Girls compared to your solo music?

To me it’s all kind of the same. There haven’t been any songs that I’ve lost the connection to. I still have a really strong emotional connection to all of them. I still love them all. There will be a lot of songs that I write and a week later when it’s time to type it out and do the demo I’ll decide that the song isn’t good enough, so then it doesn’t exist. The only tracks that have been recorded are songs that I’ve decided a long time ago that I love. They all have a very strong current flowing through them. I guess that’s a really fortunate thing, I’m sure a lot of people lose connection with songs they have written years ago – but I haven’t.

Finally, how did the striking Saint Laurent campaign you were in come about? Has fashion long been a big interest of yours or did it happen more by chance?

It was a chance meet really, and it came about over some time too. It seemed sudden but that is because that’s the nature of the way the industry unveils things I think.

I of course love fashion but I’m not somebody who knows designer’s names or photographer’s names, but I find it all interesting on a more normal level. What happened was Hedi (Slimane) was between jobs after Dior and was living as a photographer in LA for a long time. I didn’t even know who he was, but he was making this online photo diary and he was taking pictures of lots of people for it. He got in touch with somebody to do portraits of me and I thought it was really cool because it wasn’t for anything in particular – the idea of someone saying they want to take your portrait for themselves is really cool. So I went over to his house and we had this great day where I just hung out there and he took pictures of me as I was doing stuff around his house. A few months later he came to San Francisco and came over to my house and we took more pictures – also just for himself. We did it another time around Golden Gate Park – I’m an expert on it as I live right by it – so we had this little photography thing going on. Then he just called me up one day and said “I’ve just been hired to be the new creative director of YSL” and I was like “Congratulations!” and he was like “I was wondering if you’d want to do some pictures for the first campaign?” and I was like “Ah! Uh! Yeah?!”

I was totally nervous about it, but because we’d done things together previously it seemed like a good idea. It didn’t turn out to be something weird, which sometimes things can… he did all the pictures just like always and it was a lot of fun.

 A New Testament will be released on 30 September