Interview: Christopher Owens
The heart-on-sleeve songwriter on learning to speak for himself away from Girls
Words Alex Denney
Photography Ryan McGinley
Listening to his first album since splitting with Girls in July, we’re struck by the thought: how does Christopher Owens get away with it? I mean, honestly. Lysandre is littered with instrumental touches — parping sax, gambolling flutes and the like — that even the Sunshine Superman himself, Donovan, would have found altogether wanting in edge.
A concept record about Owens’ early days with the band wrapped in an ode to a love-affair, it returns continually to a musical leitmotif (‘Lysandre’s Theme’) that’s less operatic than it is soap-operatic (think Bouncer the dog croaking it in Neighbours). And some of the lyrics sound cobbled together from an especially ripe packet of Love Hearts: “Kissin’ and a-huggin’ is the air that I breathe, I’ll always make time for love.”
The reason Christopher Owens gets away with — thrives, even — writing songs in this syrupy, ’70s songwriter vein isn’t rocket science: he’s a talented fellow. But for those fretting how the doe-eyed frontman would fare without the musical edge supplied by his old sparring partner, Chet ‘JR’ White, news of Lysandre’s winning charm is welcome indeed.
In short, Owens makes very fine work of channelling artists most modern-day musicians would be terrified to go near — Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Nilsson among them. And in one sense, Girls’ music has always had a mile-wide confessional streak that makes his solo break seem unsurprising. But Owens’ radio silence since announcing the split begs the question: was there more to the story than that? A fall-out, even?
Owens says not: “There was never any sense of not liking each other on a personal level, or even not enjoying working with each other. But about twenty other people came in and out over the three records. They would join for maybe a month or one album and quit, which was difficult. JR and I remain pretty close — we still are now. But we felt the strain of knowing how to proceed. Usually a band grows in a natural way, through touring and having these experiences together. But with us there wasn’t really a band behind us, we were trying to lead a very loose group of people.”
An interview appearing online just after the release of Girls’ second album Father, Son, Holy Ghost seemed to catch White in gloomy mood, with a question about the band’s future met with an uncertain response and assertion that, “I have never felt so far from knowing what things are new in [Chris’] life.” Part of that was down to the fact the pair were no longer living together (their first LP, Album, was recorded at their home in San Francisco), but White also sounded exasperated with Owens’ fanciful ideas about making “reggae” or “classical jazz” records.
Owens, however, insists Girls had an in-built shelf-life from the start.
“I told JR I was leaving when he told me he was gonna take a few months off to produce a English band called Spectrals. So it kind of happened at the same time, and we both felt like it was the right time to do it because of that. But I’d had this on my mind for about a year. Even from the beginning we didn’t know how long the band had left, because I told JR I wanted to make a lot of records, and that I would write albums that weren’t really band records but more personal, conceptual ideas. So we knew that from the beginning, but we definitely both wanted to make Girls last as long as it was a positive and productive thing.”
Though not ruling out the possibility of working with White again, Owens says it’s a thrill to finally put his own name to an album of his always-personal songs, after learning that, “I’d like to work as someone who speaks for themselves.” While stressing that the break had nothing to do with his freely admitted drug use with White, he does allow that going solo helped limit the opportunities to feed his on/off addiction to heavy opiates:
“It’s something I’d like to say I’m done with, but it’s gonna take a little more time. I’m not messing around with it as we speak, but it’s been going on for so many years I feel it would be foolhardy to say I’m done with that. I know myself and I know how easily that stuff can creep back in. It’s a lot easier for me to put some distance between the other people I was doing it with, but it’s not the reason we broke up the band at all.”
“I just think it’s difficult any time you pull the plug on something that’s as great as Girls,” he adds. “But when people do that it’s for a reason — it’s a tough reason, but no one would do that without thinking first and weighing out all the different variables. But he [JR] is gonna be a lot happier now getting back into production.”
Oddly, the music on Lysandre was written over short spell in 2009, after Girls finished touring the first record (the title takes its name from a girl he hooked up with at a Paris show). It was a tumultuous period for Owens, who found himself caught up in the lifestyle of a touring rock band after his upbringing in the Children of God cult and subsequent escape to Texas. For all of Lysandre’s sweetness, there are moments which remind the listener of Owens’ troubled past, not least on ‘New York’, a rowdy rocker that contrasts his sudden fame with memories of “begging my best friend for my life” and “looking down the barrel of a loaded gun”.
Owens is reluctant to talk specifics, but the past continues to haunt his present in peculiar ways — just days after our interview, it transpired that Stanley Marsh 3, the multi-millionaire philanthropist who took Owens under his wing after his arrival in Texas as a mixed-up teen, had been arrested in connection with 11 sex crimes against boys under the age of 17. Marsh — who Owens has described as a father figure in the past — has settled out of court on civil suits over alleged sexual offences before, in 1996 and again in 2001.
Unfortunately, we were unable to reach Owens for comment about the case. But the need to feel embraced — by people, music, drugs or whatever — remains a guiding principle in his work, and his miraculously unguarded lyrics (something of a rarity in modern pop) have left him feeling vulnerable in the past, as he relates on ‘Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener’: “What if people are sick of hearing love songs? Maybe I should sing about dying.”
Owens confesses that the irony and cynicism evident in much of today’s culture feel “foreign” to him (“All I know is it’s important for me to do something meaningful and honest and romantic”), but what of this need to be embraced? On the flipside of that, is the fear of not being understood a big driving factor in your music? (“What if nobody gets it?” he sings woundedly on the record.)
“I don’t think my songs exist out of a fear of losing attention or love,” Owens says, ever the optimist. “It’s more just having enough of spending a lifetime without it.”