Monday, January 14, 2013
New York Times on Christopher Owens
Julie Glassberg/The New York Times
The album is due on Jan. 15 from Fat Possum Records.
A FEW hours before his debut show as a solo artist, the musician Christopher Owens was nervous — “good nervous,” he clarified — and so he headed to the spot that is his regular escape: “The park,” he said, “by my house.”
Mr. Owens knows Golden Gate Park intimately; he spends hours there nearly every day, walking the few blocks from his apartment in the Panhandle neighborhood here, with a pack of Marlboro menthols in his pocket.
“This is a cool little place,” he said, entering the secludedAIDS Memorial Grove, financed by survivors. “It’s one of the nicest little groves in the whole park,” he said, giving a tour, “very manicured and small. I like the gardening.”
Onward he continued in a brisk stride that, he said, helps him think through his songwriting, past a lawn bowling court. (He’s thinking of joining the players’ league.) At a bench on Nancy Pelosi Drive, in a chilly spot near an amphitheater where concerts are held, he sat, lighted up and was ready to talk. Cults, drug use, sexual experimentation, millionaire benefactors: Mr. Owens has no shortage of rock ‘n’ roll subjects.
He is best known as the frontman and songwriter of Girls, a lo-fi band of shifting pop harmonies that arrived on the indie scene around 2007 and, with two albums and one EP, quickly became a critical darling. Songs that married a vulnerable earnestness — “Oh, I wish I had a boyfriend,” Mr. Owens sings in “Lust for Life,” over playful guitar strums; “I wish I had a father, maybe then I would’ve turned out right” — with a louche house-party vibe earned the act a devoted fan base. But in July, Mr. Owens announced on his Twitter account that he was leaving the group, which he formed with the producer and bassist J R White, to pursue a solo career. “I need to do this in order to progress,” he wrote.
His debut CD as Christopher Owens, “Lysandre,” a themed album charting the course of Girls’ first tour and a love affair with a Frenchwoman named Lysandre, is due on Tuesday from Fat Possum Records. It is at once a departure from his previous work — the first track, “Lysandre’s Theme,” is 40 seconds of Renaissance-sounding melody, complete with flutes and classical guitar, that is folded into every subsequent song — and of a piece with Girls. There’s romantic longing, veiled bad behavior and naked self-doubt, set to pleasingly throwback California pop-rock (with flute and saxophone). Composing the theme not long after he returned from the tour, Mr. Owens did all the instrumentation himself — whistling the flute parts in his demos — and in a feverish rush wrote nearly all the songs in one day, a year later.
“I want to be somebody who writes about his life, at his own pace and who can decide to make an album like this when he wants to,” he said. He is 33, but dressed in an oversize cardigan and a San Francisco Giants cap, appeared far more boyish. With his tousled blond bob and occasionally androgynous style, he can also resemble a younger, (slightly) cleaner Kurt Cobain, a likeness that the designer Hedi Slimane highlighted in “rock diary” portraits of Mr. Owens. When Mr. Slimane took over as the designer for Yves Saint Laurent last year, he used Mr. Owens as the face and voice for his introductory video. Onstage in a boxy suit and white ankle socks that night at the Lodge, a medieval-looking hall near downtown, playing his guitar while seated, Mr. Owens looked less like a slick rock star than like a kid on class picture day. The sold-out performance, with his new touring band in front of an audience for the first time to play the entirety of “Lysandre,” had formal programs — a theatrical touch courtesy of Mr. Owens’s girlfriend, Hannah Hunt, who also sings backup. They live together, in a building that Ms. Hunt’s mother owns. (She lives upstairs.) Mr. Owens has been part of the creative fabric of San Francisco for nine years, about as long as he has lived anywhere.
His childhood is built for mythologizing. He was raised as a member of the Children of God cult, the 1970s sect that shunned Western medicine and education in favor of communal living and, by many accounts, abusive sexual behavior. His family shuttled around Europe and Asia. Mr. Owens had no formal schooling and little access to secular music, which left him craving American pop culture and youthful rites of passage.
“People talk about ‘Clueless’ the movie as their high school bible or something, and I just have no idea,” he said. “I wish I knew. Basically, show me any American movie about the high school experience, and I become extremely jealous and sad that I didn’t have that.”
His musical education was shaped by cult rituals, and by the tastes of members who occasionally slipped outside their world. “It was called fellowship, and we’d do it every day,” he said. “We’d sing our Christian songs for that, but then some adult would show you how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or something.” Hungry for more, he recorded pop songs off the radio and studied them. “It just sounded so good. Our music was all very acoustic guitars and tambourines.”
The encore to his set at the Lodge — and to his next show, in New York — which earned him a standing ovation, included the first song he ever learned, Cat Stevens’s “Wild World,” and covers of others that he played as a teenager, like the Simon and Garfunkel anthem “The Boxer.”
Conflating singing with religion had a profound effect. “I of course hated all that for several years, but I know now that it gave me an ability to treat music in a different way, as a meditative thing, or an escape or to sort of take you to a different place inside,” he said.
At 16, with money he earned busking, Mr. Owens left the cult and moved to Amarillo, Tex., where an older sister lived. He worked in a grocery store and fell in with the punk scene, covering himself with tattoos, which he now scrupulously hides. He experimented with drugs, first marijuana and then harder stuff.
“I think you can only be a pothead for about 10 years, and then it gets really boring,” he explained. Oxycontin pills hooked him. “I’m right now not taking it,” he said, in part because he feared being caught with it on tour. “There’s just no halfway with it for me. I like it so much that if I do take it, it becomes an everyday thing. “
Of his unconventional coming of age, he said: “People are almost envious of it, in a way, but it hasn’t been fun. If I had a chance now I would have picked to have some other type of life.”
In Amarillo, Mr. Owens also met Stanley Marsh 3, an eccentric oil millionaire with a penchant for art installations, like the buried cars of Cadillac Ranch, and for employing young men. Mr. Owens became his personal assistant and calls Mr. Marsh a best friend and a father figure.
“He was definitely the first person to ever really care about me and to give me support,” Mr. Owens said. “He single-handedly turned my life around, just by encouraging me to read books or being creative instead of being mad about the world.”
Last fall Mr. Marsh and several relatives were named in multiple civil lawsuits claiming that he is a “serial abuser” of teenage boys, providing them with money, alcohol and cars in exchange for sexual favors, an allegation that Mr. Marsh denies. In November a prosecutor charged him in the sexual assault of children, cases he also intends to fight.
Mr. Owens, who began working for Mr. Marsh at 21, said the lawsuits were “very disturbing to me to hear about,” adding, “I don’t know any of the details, I don’t know anybody involved, so it’s a big mystery to me.” Their relationship, he said, was platonic.
Mr. Marsh, who is 74 and suffered a series of strokes two years ago, was in no shape to speak with a reporter, said Kelly Utsinger, his lawyer in Amarillo. But Mr. Owens said he still talked with him regularly, visiting before releasing “Lysandre” and drawing inspiration from him.
“One time I told him I was a survivor,” Mr. Owens said, “and he told me never to say that. He told me I was an achiever.”
At 25, he packed up his Volvo station wagon and moved to San Francisco by himself. He knew no one there but planned to be a painter. Instead he again fell in with a punkish music crew, including the singer Ariel Pink. He joined several bands before Girls stuck. Its debut, “Album,” in 2009, earned a best-of mention on Pitchfork. “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” in 2011, showed he’d grown.
“There’s an exquisite melancholy to his singing now, approaching Robert Smith territory,” Jon Caramanica wrote in a review in The New York Times. “And as much as anyone in indie rock, he excels at that Cobain thing of putting anguish front and center while never truly allowing full access to it.”
But “Father, Son,” which turned out to be the last Girls album, was “not an easy record to make,” said Doug Boehm, who produced it and “Lysandre.” “Nobody knew their parts.”
The breakup of Girls drove fervent speculation in the indie world. Mr. Owens said it was simply the result of growing pains and shifting lineups. “Nobody hated each other or anything like that,” but success “happened a little too fast,” he said. “The band would have survived longer if we would have gone slower.”
(Mr. White, the co-founder of Girls, did not reply to requests for comment.)
With “Lysandre” Mr. Owens tells the story of Girls as he experienced it, from his gritty start — hustling, guns, “sleeping in the back of a pickup truck,” as he sings on “New York City” — to touring the south of France. Along the way there was a breakup with a boy and a long-distance romance with the Frenchwoman. Mr. Owens said he was “very attracted to women” and didn’t seek out relationships with men, but they happened.
In Ms. Hunt, an ethereal blonde with a wry sense of humor, who is pursuing a graduate degree in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, he has found stability, he said.
“You will love me for all the reasons everyone hates me,” he sings in “Honey Bunny,” a 2011 Girls song that features Ms. Hunt in the video. “I need a woman who loves me, me, me, me, me, me.”
Mr. Boehm, who’s recorded K. D. Lang and Elliott Smith, said, “He’s probably the most honest songwriter I’ve ever worked with.” He added, “I think he’s way more normal than most people imagine.”
Mr. Owens still thinks of himself as set apart. “If ever a discussion about the Bible comes up, my vast knowledge of it can become very reassuring to me that I’m just not normal still,” he said. But his creative drive keeps him forward focused. Despite his confessional style, he has never written about his childhood.
“If I chose not to tell people, people would never know,” he said. “It’s not that big of a deal. Sometimes I feel like a European or something.”