Grass roots

Christopher Owens’ New Testament: In the new issue of HERO, the San Francisco singer-songwriter talks cults, gospel and Dolly Parton’s wisecracks
By Tempe Nakiska | Music | 6 January 2015

Sweater by STONE ISLAND SS15

Taken from HERO 12: Darkness Falls, out now

Like the lyrics of a song you can’t quite work out, much has been reiterated about Christopher Owens’ life: Raised in the controversial Christian cult Children of God. Travelled the world. Moved to Amarillo, Texas, as a teen. Taken under the wing of American oil tycoon Stanley Marsh III. Moved to San Francisco. Joined Holy Shit. Started Girls with Chet ‘JR’ White. And then? Two albums and a monsoon of acclaim later Owens dived out on his own, completely throwing anyone who thought they had him pinned and cementing his own steadfast vision in the process.

Owens’ second solo album, A New Testament is as the title suggests a new chapter in his journey (yeah, the Biblical irony speaks for itself). Where the singer songwriter’s debut solo album Lysandre traced the ecstatic highs and knife-to-heart lows of a fleeting overseas love affair, this record is an organ rich, gospel-tinged ode to Owens’ optimistic headspace now. A long-term relationship and a freeing from the escapist habits that fuelled Girls songs like Substance (from 2010’s Broken Dreams Club EP) and Vomit (from the second and final album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost) have left the musician with an opportunity to approach his own simple writing style with renewed energy. With the aid of John Anderson, Danny Eisenberg and Darren Weiss, all of whom Owens worked with on Girls, he’s also brought to life some of his oldest songs, including Stephen, a soaring eulogy for Owens’ brother who passed at the age of two.

The night before our interview, we crowd in the basement of a Dalston jazz bar to hear Owens play. Slight and self-effacing, he jokes about how awkward he feels on stage by himself. He’s got this slap-in-the- face honesty, drawing laughter and (let’s be honest) a few tears. After the show, he talks ecstatically about a fantasy book (Lev Grossman’s The Magician trilogy – look it up) and hunts for an opportunity to duck out for a smoke. Christopher Owens might be one of the greatest songwriters of our generation, but he’s also one of the most likeable people you’ll ever meet.

Peacoat by VALENTINO SS15; shirt by JIL SANDER SS15; jeans by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE SS15; necklace Christopher’s own

Tempe Nakiska: You’ve often talked about wanting to do a country album. Is this it?
Christopher Owens: Yeah. I think if I was to go further it would just be weird. It’s important to show this step. Naturally, as we were putting it together, people would play things that weren’t very country. The vocals are naturally very gospel. I was aware of that even before starting, then especially as we were making it. Some of the guitar solos came out not very country; they’re very scuzzy and grungy. But I like those things.

TN: The media, who live for comparison, have been placing you next to Ryan Adams…
CO: I’ve never listened to Ryan Adams but I know he’s cool. I really like Mandy Moore.

TN: I’ve got a soft spot for Mandy.
CO: Yes. That’s kind of… well, that’s my record collection. I’m sure people think I listen to Ryan Adams, but no, I have Mandy Moore. Yeah, I worked with Danny [Eisenberg] even before the last Girls record, on Broken Dreams Club. He was introduced to me by JJ Weisler – the guy that engineered that EP. And he was amazing right away. To me, I didn’t really analyse where he was coming from. He’s just a total badass.

TN: There’s also an echo of Father, Son, Holy Ghost and you worked with a lot of the same people during Girls. Did it feel like a bit of a homecoming?
CO: Absolutely. It was a really nice vibe. A few of them had to quit just after making Father, Son, Holy Ghost and didn’t even get to tour it, it was up in the air as to whether I would get to work with them again. It was a good thing, a nice thing. And just enough of bringing it back and sound how they sound but then adding the pedal steel.

TN: If you could pick one person to work with next who would it be?
CO: One of my favourite voices at the moment is Victoria Legrand from Beach House. I think she’s completely underrated and an absolutely classic voice. And even live it’s the same. It’s not a studio trick. I’d love to work with her. I know that she and Alex have a very organic creative thing and probably wouldn’t want somebody coming in and being like, “Let’s do something!” But maybe she could come sing on one of my songs. Actually I think a lot of my songs would be great covered by other people. The best example is Love Like A River from the last Girls album would be amazing sung by a female RnB vocal lead. Beyoncé or Alicia Keys. I don’t see why not. For somebody who likes my songs and who is an amazing singer, to turn my music into something different. That song All My Love, when I wrote it I thought Taylor Swift should do it. I think she’s really fallen off so I don’t know anymore. I thought she was going to become the next Dolly Parton. It’s a shame.

TN: Have you seen Dolly Parton live?
CO: Yeah, in Golden Gate Park. She has this presence that’s amazing, like a real ‘star’. She’ll also joke about her plastic surgery, like, “I’m smilin’! It’s the only face I can make!” Or like, “I’d better not stand out in the sun too long or some of these bits that God didn’t give me might melt!” [laughs] It’s amazing that she can make fun of it. And when she makes fun of it you can’t anymore. I wish I could meet her. I Will Always Love You is one of my favourite songs of all time.

TN: What’s your earliest memory of country music?
CO: If I really thought about it, it’s probably in a film somewhere. I had a very sheltered and closed-off childhood as far as pop culture goes. And I didn’t hear much music besides ‘our’ music. Once a week we’d have movie nights, which often I’d miss from getting too many demerits… [raises eyebrows] but let’s not get into all that. It’s not just country… Those movies they let us watch, they played a big role in many ways. Even something like Oklahoma!, it’s Broadway, it’s not really country…

TN: But there’s still that grassroots American vibe…
CO: Yeah. That’s it. And as a sixteen-year-old I moved to Amarillo, Texas, where country music reigns. I saw Willie Nelson live there. I got a big knowledge of country music from there.

TN: Before you moved there you were travelling a lot, around Asia and Europe. But you’re continually drawn back to classic American strains of music.
CO: I have ideas for a showtunes album. I don’t know if you’ve heard Randy Newman’s first album, with an orchestra, and he’s just singing… That’s something I’d love to do. I love musicals.

Robe, waistcoat and trousers by HAIDER ACKERMANN SS15; tank top by BOTTEGA VENETA SS15; boots by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE SS15

TN: That influence really goes back to your first solo album.
CO: Yeah, definitely. As a songwriter, he writes things that don’t even rhyme, it’s just ‘talk’. And I was like, “Oh, you can do that?” I started to write songs that took from it. I love jazz, too. I want to do a jazz album. And I want to go to Jamaica and do a reggae album.

TN: Do you ever start with a theme like that?
CO: It’s more random than that. The only time I wrote a ‘themed’ album was for Lysandre, and it was a unique thing. Otherwise I only write songs. Because I’m kind of whimsical, for example when I got really excited last night talking about The Magician. That’s kind of how I am, you know? I’ll watch a movie and for a few hours I’m a little bit annoying and really excited. And then that will inspire a song. Then the next day it’s something else. I’ve never gone through a phase like, of just writing country songs or whatever. The last album definitely was a concept piece but with this album it was the first time I looked at all my unrecorded songs and worked out what would be good on a country-esque, American album. Whereas before with the Girls albums it was more the songs I’d been waiting the longest to do.

TN: What’s your archiving system like, then?
CO: Well when I catalogue them I mark them in different fonts and colours, so they’re actually quite organised. For example, all the reggae ones are yellow.

TN: What about the showtunes?
CO: Maybe red or blue, I think. There were ones that took on different genres or can be changed. Some of them I grabbed from what initially I had thought would be rock ‘n’ roll songs. Like Key To My Heart, it’s very Elvis, very rock ‘n’ roll.

TN: It’s refreshing. I think musicians tend to automatically shy away from the idea of genres, because a lot of the time it’s shit, having people say your music is ‘this’ or ‘that’. I understand that. But you seem to find joy in revisiting them…
CO: You can make it your own. It’d be like writing a book and being like, “I don’t want this to be called a novel.” It is a novel! It’s about making it original within the boundaries of what a piece of work is. If I say I want to make a full album, just beginning with guitar, it all comes down to the songwriting. I enjoy referencing things I like and getting to be lumped in with those people, getting to be part of it. I’m not trying to be the Blue Man Group or something completely branded! [Laughs] I mean, that’s a joke. Or something like Daft Punk, you know or Aphex Twin, I don’t have those ideas. I play traditional music, really.

TN: Where do you think your skill with lyrics in particular came from?
CO: Well, reading came in my early twenties, up until that point I’d only ever read the Bible. You know, you read the King James Bible, it’s like Shakespeare. And I remember when I first read Shakespeare eventually I was so proud that I could understand it, and my American friends couldn’t.

TN: So that simplicity came really naturally?
CO: I benefit from the fact that all I can write is very simple stuff. It makes it accessible. It makes it easy for me, because I can write a song in as long as the thought lasts. Three minutes! But yeah, I did fall in love with that simplicity pretty early on, too. The songs that exist in country. Lines like, “If drinkin’ won’t kill me your memory will” or, “Your heart turned left, but I was on the right”. Or that song, ‘Love me tender’. I love that stuff. That’s the stuff that I try to do. I think Morrissey is one of the best songwriters ever but it’s not my place, that style. It’s not who I am.

Top by MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA SS15; trousers by DIESEL BLACK GOLD R15; blanket by LOEWE SS15; necklace and boots by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE SS15

TN: This album feels much more optimistic, too.
CO: Well one great thing that happened was that I got to do two or three real love songs, not unrequited long songs. I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years now. I have all these songs laying around. Like ‘Nobody’s Business’ and ‘Key To My Heart’. And the other one… Um. [Sings] “Let’s make something beautiful together…” It’s about being in a relationship. It happens to coincide with some positive things in my personal life. But I don’t think it’s because of that. There are also some really old songs on there that I haven’t lost touch with.

TN: Stephen is older, I imagine? And what else?
CO: Stephen is three years old, maybe. Overcoming Me is a really old song. Older than the first Girls album. It’s a song I’ve wanted to do a lot of times. We intentionally didn’t try to record it on the first album because we weren’t signed, we both had jobs, we were working with found or borrowed equipment. I was playing everything. Keyboard like this, you know? [Twists around and motions behind him] And it worked!

TN: I read Stanley Marsh III once said to you “You can’t stay angry or you’ll just self destruct.” The same as songwriting may be a way of making sense of things, is honesty how you stay level?
CO: There was a thing that threw me into songwriting. I met some guys I thought were really cool. They had this band called Holy Shit. Ariel Pink was a member of that band, but the singer, Matt Fishbeck, was also very instrumental in getting me to start playing with them. I got back into music because of them. But I lived in a different city, I lived in LA. Once every couple of weeks I’d go down there and we’d play something. It was mostly jamming and talking and doing drugs, you know. But I bought a guitar and I got soul back from it.

TN: Back from what?
CO: I had been dating this girl who was in a very popular San Francisco noisy, punk band. And that had recently fallen apart. She was desperate to play in a band again. And I was getting back into guitar, so she was like, “Let’s start a band.” I wrote all these guitar pieces that ended up on the first Girls album as Summertime, Darling and Curls – our band was Curls, which then later changed to Girls. She was meant to write lyrics and be the singer. She broke up with me, which was difficult because I had moved from Amarillo to San Francisco and she was the first person I had met. She was really popular and everybody I knew was through her. So when we broke up all my friends were kind of…

TN: Dispersed?
CO: Exactly. So I was completely alone. And this new project was over. All that was very dramatic. And I was going through a lot inside. I really was at a place like, “What do I do with these guitar pieces that are sitting here?” Being around Ariel and Matt, watching them write songs made me want to give it a try. Right away, it was amazing. I remember walking into the mall after being up all night. I’d been up all night doing cocaine. You know, you get dumped, you get angry and you act out. I was sitting in the mall watching people walk by and I wrote this song about doing coke, and how disgusting it is but why you do it. And the songs just kept coming – boom, boom, boom – Lust For Life, Hellhole Ratrace and I was single again so I started to meet girls like Lauren Marie. I forget the original question. Anyway, it felt real; it felt good; it changed up the process. I wait until something really affects me, and then I write about it.

TN: Do you ever leave any parts of yourself out of your songs?
CO: Yeah. I have big secrets.

Main image: Christopher Owens shot for HERO 12: Darkness Falls by SARAH PIANTADOSI wearing sweater by STONE ISLAND SS15

Images additional credits: Hair CYNDIA HARVEY at STREETERS; make-up THOMAS DE KLUYVER at D+V MANAGEMENT using CLINIQUE; production ELIZABETH NORRIS at ARTISTRY LONDON; photo assistant LUCIE ROX; fashion assistant CHIORI TAKAMATSU

Check out our recent Christopher Owens take over here.

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