Those who know Christopher Owens’ story know it well. From his vagabond childhood in The Children of God to his street punk phase in Texas, his decisive move to San Francisco and his drug-fueled days as the chief songwriter and frontman of Girls, the details of his past are well-documented in the modern history of rock and roll. He’s come a long way, farther perhaps than most people would go in several lifetimes, and despite the thousands of physical and mental miles he’s traveled, he has maintained a consistent songwriting style: accessible, un-ironic, and colored by his audacity to remain honest.
Established with Girls’ first LP, 2009’s Album, and continued in Owens’ 2013 solo debut, the Medieval story book Lysandre, his themes of love and loneliness – the search for love and attention, love gone wrong, love gone right, the crucial difference between love and obsession – have always served as the bloodlines of his songs regardless of which sonic direction he’s taken. His music is, if nothing else, a testament to the human condition and how it never really changes, how the desire for connection never fades, as the human capacity to handle loneliness and isolation ebbs and flows each day.
On his sophomore album, A New Testament, out today on Turnstile Records, Owens takes his signature themes and harnesses them in an Americana package, one that will ring familiar for his dedicated following and any fan of classic American music. The album is less of a sonic leap for Owens, and more of a hard lean in the directions of country, gospel and soul. Recruiting several of the musicians who helped make Girls’ second and final record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, producer Doug Boehm, who produced Owens’ last three records, as well as new players such as pedal steel guitarist Ed Efira, Owens landed in a sonic sweet spot. While this current sound is undoubtedly twangier than his previous records, it’s also quite similar for those who know his music well. Thanks in large part to back-up singer Makeda — who closes out “It Comes Back To You” with powerhouse soul vocals, much like she did on Girls’ 2011 heartbreaker “Vomit” — and guitarist John Anderson — who rips a distorted solo on the closing track that’s reminiscent of “Forgiveness” — he reached the equinox of his past and present on A New Testament, a balance between two seemingly opposing forces that is mirrored in his lyrics.
Though many early reviews of the album describe it as bright and optimistic, A New Testament is, like all of Owens’ records, a fusion of both light and dark. There is pure tragedy in “Stephen,” a masochistic tone in “Overcoming Me,” desolation in “Oh My Love,” and a bleak current that runs through “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive).” But there are also sweet, innocent sentiments in “Nobody’s Business,” “Key to My Heart,” “Over and Above Myself,” and of course, “A Heart Akin the Wind,” a lazy-day, Dwight Yoakam-inspired tune in which he gives a shout-out to his adopted hometown of San Francisco.
“It’s good to hear from somebody back home,” says Owens, as we begin to dig into the details of his new album, the current state of his songwriting, his target audience, and just being yourself…
The Bay Bridged: Congratulations on A New Testament. I hope you’re not sick of hearing that yet. It’s really lovely.
Christopher Owens: It’s an exciting time getting closer to the release and hearing other people’s reactions. I have my feelings about it, but it’s always interesting to see how people react.
TBB: The album is a curated list of songs that span several years. Some go as far back as 2008. While the lyrics themselves might not be a snapshot of you today, would you say that sonically it’s something you could have only made in the last year?
Owens: With the songs I like to think… (laughs) I almost said something very cheesy. The song remains the same. But I do think that’s true! For me, the songs are good when they preserve a moment that I can always go back to. They serve as a little porthole to that very strong, real memory I had when I wrote it and I like that. I’m nostalgic, I like to revisit feelings and moments.
TBB: Almost like time traveling.
Owens: Yeah, in a little way the songs are very much that. But at the end of the day, the way they sound now, it has a lot to do with who ended up playing on this. I think it’s the album it is because of who I worked with and because of all the little details that surround that. This group wouldn’t have come together at another time. Also, this is a group of people I’ve worked with before in different ways, on different Girls records in the past. (Specifically, John Anderson, Darren Weiss and Makeda, who all worked on “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” and Danny Eisenberg, who worked on both the “Broken Dreams Club” EP as well as “Father Son Holy Ghost.”)
So you have a group that’s coming together for the second time essentially, and there’s growth there and some familiarity. I think we broke into some new ground that I couldn’t have done in the past. So it is a record that speaks very much to where I’m at creatively, now. The songs, on a personal level, aren’t that different. But I got to look at all my songs during studio time in 2013, and I got to pick which songs I wanted to do in that moment. I would only pick certain songs at certain points in my life. What ended up on the record, the picking of the songs and the sequence, was a result of that.
TBB: A lot of people are calling A New Testament brighter and happier than your previous work. I think there are some very sad moments there on “Stephen,” and “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive),” it’s a love song but it’s dark. Do you think your songwriting has gotten more optimistic when you compare your 20-something year old self to your 30-something year old self?
Owens: I don’t think so. For me, yes, this record is pretty well-rounded. And I know the stuff I’m writing, even in the last couple of months, it’s well-rounded. I’m pulling from the same things I’ve always pulled from — both difficult things and happy things. I think it’s interesting how people, of their own choice, get to pick whether this record is positive or not. I like that people are taking a positive look at it. But for me, even the Girls records had many positive moments, so it’s interesting to see how in the past people overlooked those positive ones, and now they’re overlooking the darker stuff. That’s all part of a greater public consciousness that I have really no control over.
TBB: That’s a good point! If you could go back and give your 20-something year old self some advice, what would it be?
Owens: There are specific things I would tell my myself, things I already knew but thought weren’t important enough to make a big deal out of. For example, the way the whole Girls project played out. I think I would have told myself to spend a little bit more time forming a band before just jumping in and going out. I think the band could have stayed together like that if we would have worked on finding specific members to keep and work with over and over. Also to present the band as more of a band — not do promo pictures with just two people and things like that. There are also certain personal habits that I told myself were fine at the time and I know now were not fine to have. But I would have been very happy to know that the whole songwriting thing and music in general would become such a constant and continuous thing in my life.
TBB: Basically, “It’s going to be alright.”
Owens: Yeah! (laughs).
TBB: The album cover, especially along with the title, A New Testament, reminds me of a Christian rock band. It’s funny because in the first song, “My Troubled Heart,” you sing, “I ain’t got no God to whom I pray,” in the first couple of lines. Was it intentional to put that song first and make that bold declaration up front?
Owens: I did very much want that song to be first for a few different reasons. I think it’s just a very dynamic song. Its very exciting to hear when you press play — the way it starts off very stripped back then boom! It opens up. I think it’s a slow reveal. It sets the tone. I think within that song, once the full band kicks in you get some of the country sound, some of the traditional American rock sound, some of the soul and gospel sound. So it nicely presents what the record will be. But yeah, I was very happy too that I made things clear right off the bat that this is not a religious record (laughs).
TBB: The record is obviously not a pure country album, but there are country overtones. Throughout the record, you never give into that country vocal style. You never take on the country drawl. Were you tempted to during recording?
Owens: There are a lot of times that I’d like to have a different voice. On songs like “Love Like a River” that Girls did, I would have loved to have a more soulful voice. I just couldn’t do that. With this record, it would be neat to be able to sing like one of those classic country artists, but I think its important to be yourself. That’s something I’ve learned through experience. Early on, mainly on the first Girls record, I put on some voices, took on some characters just to be able to put myself out there. I learned organically how to not do that over the span of the Girls records, so now it’s something I do without thinking about it. It’s become something that’s important to me, just being as much myself as possible in my realistic style. It also just would have sounded really silly if I were to have a country drawl (laughs). So it’s not really an option.
TBB: There’s a Youtube video of you playing the song “Oh My Love” acoustically back in 2010. In the video, you said it would sound better if Taylor Swift recorded it. After hearing your own official version, do you still believe that?
Owens: I like what I’ve done. There are songs that I write where I can clearly hear that somebody else’s voice could take them to a better place, and aesthetically, maybe bring them to a wider audience. It would be neat for me as a songwriter to hear that back. But I think the main thing that’s happened over time is not that I love the way I sing it more, because I already love singing it. It’s a sentimental song to me and I’ve loved singing it all along. I guess the main thing I’ve realized is that Taylor Swift has turned out all wrong for that song (laughs). She’s abandoned her country approach completely, so that wouldn’t have worked out anyways.
TBB: It’s one of my favorites off the new album. There’s one line in that song where you sing, “You never wore it on your finger, you never told your mother so.” Your lyrics are pretty autobiographical, so was there a girl you proposed to who didn’t want to wear the engagement ring?
Owens: There wasn’t an official proposal but I did get her a ring which she never wore. It was this little ring, I don’t know if it was bone or Ivory, that I found at an antique store. It was white with two hearts on the front. To me it represented the two of us and if she would have worn it, it would have meant something to me. And she never told her parents about me, you know, it was that kind of thing. We didn’t officially get engaged or anything. I never made much progress with her in general (laughs).
TBB: Your video for “Never Wanna See That Look Again” is so playful. The continuous shots are very precise but also natural. How choreographed and rehearsed were your moves?
Owens: That was very choreographed. I had a very clear vision of something I wanted to do. It was stuff I had to feel very comfortable doing for somebody behind the camera, so it was very important for me to work with a good friend. I worked with Aaron Brown, who did all those first Girls videos. Something like the first four were all made by him. It was important for me to have him because I act naturally with him.
But I did have very specific shots I wanted — The throwing of the knife, the way I play with the numbers theme in the lyrics, “the one time, two times, three times,” the dropping to the knees on the key change and making it more dramatic, the fact that the lighting changes there and the fan turns on and my hair blows around, the throwing of the cowboy hat, the way the shot comes close to my face and then off camera someone gives me a bouquet of roses so when the camera pulls back out, suddenly there are just roses there that were not there before. Those were all specific things I had seen in my head. Aaron really pulled it off. It was definitely a collaborative thing.
TBB: The knife throw — how many tries did that take you?
Owens: Oh, I can throw a knife very well. I think you can see though, if you look there’s not much distance between me and the target. Throwing knives, if you haven’t thrown knives before, I’ll just tell you, if you’re about six feet away from what you’re throwing the knife into, you can pretty much just throw it with an over head throw. You just have to let go of the knife and it will go in.
TBB: Do you spin it from the blade or handle?
Owens: At that distance, from the handle. If you just hold onto it from the handle and just throw it straight and hard, it’ll go in every time. When you’re trying to do like Young Guns — in the film Lou Diamond Phillips does those 20, 30 foot throws where the knife spins around — that’s a whole different ball game. I can’t do that (laughs).
TBB: Well, the video is so much fun. It has great re-watch value because it’s familiar and original. It’s really fearless in a way people don’t expect — tasteful, flirty and funny all at the same time. It’s really cool to see anyone pull that off. I’m curious, at this point or any point in your career, has there ever been a certain set of people or maybe just one person outside of yourself that you were trying to cater to or trying to please?
Owens: There’s always been one person, and that person is me. As far as the audience goes, no. I’ve had this belief from the beginning that anybody could like these songs. I came from so many different walks of life before I started playing music, and ideally for me, I would like to see all the different types of people I’ve met enjoy my music — dishwashers, construction workers, immigrants, outcasts and punk kids. I would be happy if my music was a bit more liked by just any old person, like somebody’s mother or father or somebody’s 12 year old brother or sister.
It’s nice and all to get critical acclaim from “indie” people and to have hip and smart indie fans at your shows, but to me I’ll know I’m really doing something right when just your average Joe Blow is at the front of the stage, hootin’ and howlin’. That’s my audience in my head — just people. To be honest, what I’m thinking about when I’m working and writing, it’s myself. It’s a self-pleasing act.
TBB: In the past you’ve said you wanted to do a country album, and you did it! You’ve also said you want to do a reggae album. Is that still something you want to do?
Owens: It is, but I don’t think that’ll be next. Country was a bit easy for me to get into. Reggae would be a bit harder. I think I could do it in a way that I would end up liking and that would be nice. But I think I’d have to really meet some people who play reggae well. It’ll take a little time to orchestrate that.
TBB: You couldn’t just call on the musicians who played on the Girls albums.
Owens: Yeah, I wouldn’t want those people suddenly pretending to be reggae musicians. I’d want to do it with real reggae musicians and show that my songs are compatible to just any old genre that’s genuine and simple and nice, like reggae music is. Reggae and country aren’t that different to me. But yeah, I don’t think reggae music will be next. I do have a very clear idea of what will be next. It’s hard for me to say publicly at this point because I’m still waiting on the release of this album.
TBB: It hasn’t even happened yet!
Owens: Yeah! (laughs). But I want to try some new stuff. It will be something very different from this one. I’ll try to satisfy some other side of music that I like that wasn’t satisfied on this record or the one before it.
TBB: I have to let you go, but I have one more question that I really have to ask. I saw the setlist you posted after the first show of tour and there are quite a few Girls songs on it. I was wondering if you have plans to play the song “Lauren Marie” again? I have somewhat of a history with that song. (Long story short:) During my first year in San Francisco, someone told me that your name is supposed to be the most pleasant thing to hear. So I was looking up songs with the name Lauren in the title, and my middle name is Marie —
Owens: Oh wow! (laughs).
TBB: So naturally, I freaked out when I heard your song. It’s always been really special to me. It’s how I found out about Girls. Do you think you’ll play it again? Maybe at your show Great American on October 11?
Owens: I’d love to play that song again. I’ve pretty much gotten to the place where I can play any song that I’ve written from any time. There was a couple years when I wasn’t playing Girls songs and I would love to play that one again. I think the ones I gravitated to on this tour are the ones that I’ve got some people in the band now that recorded with me on specific albums and songs.
TBB: Those songs are also theirs in a way.
Owens: Yeah, we’re doing those sort of for the first time together because those people never went on tour with me. But “Lauren Marie” is something they could learn. I played it recently by myself acoustically at a little show as an encore. It’s not too difficult of a song, so maybe we can pull that off. I’ll see what I can do. I’d love to do that, for sure. If we have the opportunity during some sound checks to learn it, I’ll go for it (laughs).