ABOVE: CHRISTOPHER OWENS. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANNIE THORNTON
The quintessential idea of the American cowboy is one of a denim-clad, 10-gallon-hat-wearing adventurer led by wanderlust. Following his desire to create a country record, Christopher Owens has composed a world of sound that not only reflects his country ambitions, but one that at its core, is distinctly him. Post-Girls, Owens has shifted his sound; and while his first solo album, Lysandre, explored the building and loss of a relationship, A New Testament reverberates with a soulful sense of optimism and love. Organ rolls, sharp guitar riffs, powerful backup vocals, and rich textures all elevate each other to create a sound capturing the best elements of R&B, gospel, and old-school country twang.
Owens’ own life has seen him trek across numerous terrains. He was born into the cult Children of God (renamed The Family) and left at the age of 16. He journeyed to Amarillo, Texas where he formed a meaningful friendship with the eccentric oil tycoon and artist Stanley Marsh III, who encouraged Owens to follow the artist’s path. As a result, Owens moved to California where he met Ariel Pink and joined the band Holy Shit. Owens has since continued on his sonic adventure, one that has led him to his current release and also sees him wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat.
We recently caught up with Owens, where from San Francisco he talked about songwriting, inspiration, and Beyoncé.
J.L SIRISUK: Is home still San Francisco for you?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: Yes.
SIRISUK: I know there was an earthquake recently out there, and those always freak me out.
OWENS: It was. I was awake while it went on. For this one being the worst one in 25 years, it wasn’t that bad. It was actually a little bit exciting. Maybe not if you lived in Napa, but here where nothing got broken it was like you were on an amusement ride or something for a second. [laughs]
SIRISUK: I saw a picture of you wearing a 10-gallon hat and a rock-‘n’-roll leather jacket. It was kind of a visual representation of the album because although it’s country, it’s still you. I know you keep an archive of songs, so did any songs come from a certain span of time?
OWENS: The songs that are on this album come from since I started writing songs. They span years. There are some that are newer than others, but I did want to make an album where I tried to show the fact that I like country, like a traditional country sound. I think it’s important to do those kinds of things and show the things you’re influenced by, and that you like, and to experiment and try new things but also to retain something of who you actually are, what you do naturally. So you know, we were just playing with a balance there. I feel like the songs work with a country style, but if I was to have it produced in Nashville or something, and just really make a country record, it would feel weird even for me, and I can’t imagine for the listeners. They would probably think, “What’s going on here?” So the main challenge for me, the main goal, was to do something that would show the influence, but have it still make sense for people, and have it still feel like it’s coming from me, and still feel personal.
SIRISUK: On this album you worked with Danny Eisenberg, who you worked with on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and also with David Sutton—people from your past. How did you decide who you wanted to record A New Testament with?
OWENS: They’re all people that I know from playing with Girls, except David Sutton recorded with me on my first solo album and Ed Efiro, the pedal steel player, is a new guy that I just met recently. But everybody else, the drummer, the guitarist, the backup singers, the organ player, they all recorded on Girls records as well, and toured with me for a long time. I wanted to work with them because they were the ones I felt were really talented, and also I knew what I was doing on this album, and I knew that they could go in that direction as well. Because of the instruments they played and the skills they had, they were just kind of my first picks. I was really happy when they agreed to do it, because sometimes people are really busy doing other things, but they were all happy to come back and play, and that was really fun.
SIRISUK: One of the songs, “Overcoming Me,” is very lovely, and I remember first seeing a taped performance of you singing it years ago. It’s interesting that it’s now included on this album with the gorgeous backup vocals. Why did you include it now?
OWENS: I just thought it fit in with the group of songs. I think they all work together. There was a desire to do it just because it’s been written so long, just to get it done. But there are other songs that are just as old that I didn’t put on because they’re different types of songs. They don’t fit with the sound. So there was a mix of just really wanting to finally record it but also the fact that it makes sense with the other ones. It’s the right style of song. I write a lot of different types of weird stuff, all different kinds of sounds.
SIRISUK: I do think of these songs as kind of short stories reflecting different moments. So when you were pulling these different songs, were you also writing new ones?
OWENS: I’m writing new stuff all the time, yeah, and some of the songs for this album were new ones too. But I tend to like to write a song and then think about it for a while. I record a demo of it and then put it away and wait until I’ve gotten more thoughts on it or get sure exactly how to approach it, you know. But I continue to write all the time. The fact that I have a lot of songs written doesn’t keep me from wanting to write new ones, or new ones from coming.
SIRISUK: In the past you painted, and then when you were in a band with Ariel Pink. So out of these different experiences, when you could have done various things, why did you choose to focus on music?
OWENS: It was in 2007, and that’s when we started Girls; and so we made a Myspace account, and I took some pictures of friends of mine, I used to make these collage pictures. I put them on the Myspace account and then we recorded songs and we would just upload them onto Myspace and then it was really fun. I liked how they were sounding, and I liked the people that would look at the page and leave comments. Ever since the first songs I wrote, they just felt right, so I kept doing it. With the painting, I tried for a long time, and I don’t think I ever found the same satisfaction from doing it as I did with songwriting. Songwriting didn’t ever feel like trying, it just started happening, and it felt so good from the beginning that I’ve never stopped. It was 2007ish, I was playing with Holy Shit in L.A. in 2006, so I was getting back into music and I stopped painting and was playing guitar with them. After a little bit of that, I went back to San Francisco and just started writing songs. I think just being around them was a big influence, seeing that they were doing it made me realize that I could do it too.
SIRISUK: What are some things that nourish your soul? What out there inspires you?
OWENS: Oh yeah, tons of stuff like my friends, people I know. They really influence me and inspire me and make me want to do things. TV shows—I’ve written songs after watching a Mad Men episode, for example. I read books all the time, I’m always reading. I’m not like somebody that reads really fast or a lot or anything, but I always have a book that I’m reading.
SIRISUK: What are you reading right now?
OWENS: I’m reading The Silkworm. It’s one of J.K. Rowling’s new ones she puts out under the fake name.
SIRISUK: Maybe I should check that out.
OWENS: It’s part two of a series. You should read the other one first. The Cuckoo’s Calling, that’s the first one.
SIRISUK: Did that one evoke anything in you to write a song?
OWENS: [laughs] No. This one’s not really inspiring me, but I do read stuff that does all the time, and movies. I watch movies a lot. Sometimes more than one a day, sometimes one in the morning and one at night. I don’t listen to something, or watch something, or hear somebody say something, and get an idea to write a song. I’ll watch a movie and I’ll get in a certain mood and then I’ll go outside to take a walk and then because I’m in the mood, then I’ll get an idea for a song. Like you don’t watch a movie about a certain person and then think, “Oh, I’m going to write a song about that person.” But I can watch a movie about a person that can make me feel depressed or remind me of something else, and then later on I’ll get an idea for a song.
SIRISUK: There’s a lot of soul to this album. How do you feel when you go back and listen to it?
OWENS: I just love it. I’m really happy with the group that I worked with and so I hear all of them playing and I remember I was there. The songs, of course, they all mean something for me personally, so I can go back to that memory, which is nice. But then also, just the sound to me represents the people that recorded with me and then as a whole I think it sounds great. So it makes me very happy. I feel like I got something done. I make an album every year, so you know, check that off the list, and it’s like a feeling of accomplishment. A feeling that I have a purpose in life. But generally, the songs make me very happy. I’m a big fan. [laughs] I really like them. I listen to them, not all the time, but when I just go, “Oh, I’ll put that one on,” I always love it. I know some people, they’re like, “Oh, it makes me uncomfortable to listen to my album.” Not me. I think I’m my biggest fan. [laughs]
SIRISUK: [laughs] The other day I listened to “Hunny Bunny,” and that song makes me laugh, especially the line, “They don’t like my dirty hair.” I was like, “I think Christopher Owens definitely has a sense of humor.” I know you once mentioned that you like Woody Allen. Who makes you laugh the most?
OWENS: I think Woody Allen probably makes me laugh the most. I also like Ali G—what’s his name—Sacha Baron Cohen. He does all kinds of stuff. He was in the movie Les Misérables as the Master of the House, yeah, the Borat stuff, the Bruno stuff, I think in general that guy’s pretty funny.
SIRISUK: In the video for “Nothing More than Everything to Me” you’re in that cool red country jumpsuit. All of these country outfits you wear, have you always owned them?
OWENS: Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve always had them.
SIRISUK: You collaborated with Max Minghella on the “Nothing More than Everything to Me” video, and in the past you’ve done things with Hedi Slimane. It’s great when people with different creative outlooks come together. What would be one of your dream collaborations? Who is someone you would just love to work with?
OWENS: I’d say Beyoncé.
SIRISUK: Beyoncé? I recall you did once mention her in an interview. She’s still someone you’d wanna work with?
OWENS: I think she’s still the best. Yeah.
SIRISUK: What kind of project?
OWENS: You know, I’d do like a ballad, like a love song. Something she could really sing. But something she could sing a lot better than me, you know. That would be the best part, hearing her voice on it. But yeah, I think I have some good songs she could do.
SIRISUK: I’d like to see this happen. I hope this comes to fruition
OWENS: [laughs] I hope so, too. We’ll see. Maybe at least she’ll just know I exist.
SIRISUK: Going back to A New Testament—with this new chapter and batch of songs within your creative journey, what keeps you going? What keeps you writing?
OWENS: What keeps me going is the next song. The next song, I haven’t heard yet. The fact that I know there will be one. I like the songwriting. I don’t ever listen and then go back and change stuff. For me when I wrote the song, it’s always really fun and exciting. I get the idea, but I don’t write every day. I wait until I have an idea, so when it comes I’m like, “Oh, yes,” and I go and get it down, and I record a little demo of it and put it away. So I guess that’s what keeps me going, because I know another one is going to come, and I know that I enjoy that. I guess recording albums, too. I do have this goal to record a new album every year, just like Woody Allen makes a movie every year. It’s a steady goal, it’s something for me to work on, challenges me, and I feel like I have a purpose in life. So that’s part of it. But I think the main reason to continue songwriting is something that I can’t say, because it hasn’t come yet. You know, it’s that next song that I don’t know what it is. It’s gonna be good though, it’s gonna to be exciting, I’m gonna be happy.