With A New Testament, Christopher Owens continues his reign as indie’s heart-melting San Franciscan savant. Here we pin him down for a Wonderland live session
Christopher wears Blue Striped Angora Crewneck Sweater by Louis Vuitton
“Worst things have happened to me than bad reviews,” says former Girls frontman Christopher Owens on the phone in his home city, San Francisco, the day after playing Outside Lands Festival in the city’s Golden Gate Park. On the brink of his second solo album release, it is a sentence that brings matters back down to earth. “I’m in my thirties now and I’ve lived a lot of different lives. To do what I’m doing, you really have to believe in it, and in yourself. Of course, you get bad reviews along the way, you have tours that are stressful and all kinds of other setbacks. The only reason I’m still doing this with all my heart is that I believe in the songs. I really do love them. I’m probably my own biggest fan, as cheesy as that sounds. I love listening to all my records.”
It’s true that Owens has experienced much more than your average band member, certainly far more than your average person. Born into the Children Of God cult (later known as The Family International), Owens lived a nomadic lifestyle growing up, moving with his mother from country to country across central and northern Europe, an experience which must have suitably prepared him for a life on the road. “One of my favourite things about touring is getting to see new cities and revisit the places I lived when I was growing up,” he says.
Due to the cult’s strict beliefs, modern pop music was largely absent from Owens’s life until a very late age and perhaps this explains the singer’s more traditional songwriting approach. “I’ve never felt like I’m reinventing the wheel. I’ve never pretended to be doing anything particularly new,” Owens remarks, with a pang of humility. “Instead, I’m trying to be part of something that I really love.”
Owens’s new album A New Testament is a hybrid of country, gospel and R&B – genres and sounds hinted at but not fully explored in his previous records. But what could very easily come across as cluttered instead flows rather fluidly, as swelling organs run into sublime harmonies and pedal steel guitars. Blending the cornerstones of quintessential American music, it is perhaps Owens’s own voice and unique style that holds everything together. At once personal and universal, Owens has a clear talent for expressing the heart’s most common flutterings in a way that is deeply penetrating. But while he is more commonly known for his wistfulness, this new LP is perhaps the musician’s brightest to date.
“I didn’t exactly go into this record thinking, ‘Hey, let’s make an upbeat record!’ But it seems to have worked out that way of its own accord,” Owens explains. “It’s nice that it’s turned out like this, but I’m as surprised as anybody else. It does at least feel in sync with where I’m currently at. Maybe my subconscious chose to make a more optimistic record.”
Christopher wears Shearling lined coat by Maison Martin Margiela, brown Cord Utility Shirt and brown cord trousers, both by Lou Dalton, white Superstar II Trainers by Adidas Originals
Despite his newfound lust for life, Owens’s formative and early adult years were as turbulent as his childhood. Leaving both his family and the cult, he moved to Texas and worked in a series of dead-end jobs before meeting Stanley Marsh, an eccentric artist, mentor and benefactor, who encouraged his budding artistic talent (Owens was interested in painting at the time). Relocating once more to San Francisco where he still resides, he soon found himself immersed in the local music scene and – like many raised in a highly controlled environment – the world of drugs. Much of the Girls back catalogue makes clear allusions to Owens’s increasing drug use, with their first record in particular depicting the ups and comedowns of substance abuse.
When Girls announced their split in 2012 – less than 12 months after the release of Owens’s most loved record to date, Father, Son, Holy Ghost – many assumed it to be the result of some self- destructive tendency, be it in-fighting or addiction. Instead, the reasons were purely pragmatic. Since their inception two and a half years before, Girls had seen 22 members come and go. Now Owens seems to relish the freedom that comes with being a solo artist, with his creative whims ready to be fully explored.
“Girls was often presented as a band when there wasn’t really a band behind it,” Owens says. “We had so many members come and go, often not feeling part of the group’s core when they joined. Now I have people more inclined to dedicate a year of their lives to working with me on a record. I can assemble an album and band and then look forward to the next thing.” Despite his somewhat laid-back and aloof posturing, Owens undoubtedly exudes the air of an artist who has it all mapped out. He says that he’s already got a clear idea of his next three records, although this could all change. At home, Owens’s laptop contains a folder with lyrics to over 100 as-yet unreleased songs, from which he assembles many of his records, including A New Testament.
Christopher wears blue striped crew neck sweater by Louis Vuitton and distressed black denim jeans by Dolce & Gabbana.
“Some songs I can’t get off my mind from the first day I come up with them and others I kind of forget I’ve even written until I stumble upon them again. To be able to leave songs for a few years and for them to still be interesting to me really shows their strength, I think. The important point is that I only ever write songs in genuine moments, I never force myself to write things. So I can always relate back to what I was feeling at the time.” Last year saw Owens release his solo debut Lysandre to a tepid critical response. After three lauded records from Girls, such a stumbling block would knock the confidence out of many, but for Owens it simply reinforced the importance of self-belief. “It forced me to question where I stood on the record,” Owens adds. “But I absolutely love it and still enjoy listening to it to this day. I guess the whole situation forced me to gain a thicker skin and think, ‘Maybe my solo records won’t be as liked as my previous albums’. But at least I’m happy with what I’m doing”.
A New Testament certainly seems to be a perfect gauge of where Owens is at right now. It sees him expand upon elements from his earlier career but with much tighter, more mature songwriting. His solo venture has also solidified his singularity in modern music: there’s simply no other person offering material as heartfelt, diverse and uncompromising as he is at the moment. Having recently weaned himself off drugs, Owens now appears poised to follow whatever path his boundless creativity takes him down. If his history tells us anything, it’s unlikely to be a smooth journey. But it will certainly be one worth following.
Christopher wear red and blue zebra print shirt in technical fabric by Lanvin, white cotton jersey fisherman stitch vest by Burberry Prorsum, jeans model’s own.
For Christopher Owens news head to: christopherowensonline.com
Video: Greg Barnes @clingfilms
Photography: Liam Warwick
Fashion Editor: Gary Armstrong
Words: Luke Morgan Britton.