ThisSmallPlanet is a blog about life and culture. "New Music Today" is the indie rock music section, featuring links to new music downloads, selected music articles from our favorite sites, and original writing, photos, and videos about music by mikedx1 (Michael Donnelly)
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Christopher Owens in The Guardian, with "Lysandre" Streaming
Christopher Owens on life after Girls
How self-doubt, touring and a brush with armed robbers inspired the medieval troubadour vibe of debut solo album, Lysandre
He isn't talking about venturing out as a solo star, nor the sudden collapse of his previous band, Girls. Right now, over a cup of tea, he's reminiscing about the cheerful time in Texas when he was robbed at gunpoint. "I was living with about 10 people in this punk crashpad and these two guys came to the door and asked if we wanted to buy any weed. We let them in, rolled some joints … the next thing I knew one of them was pointing a gun at me and saying, 'Give me all your stuff!' We lay on the floor for about an hour while they emptied our house, not knowing if they would shoot us. One of them was really crazy, talking a lot of shit, but they left in the end."
Owen's early life is peppered with tales at least as crazy as this: a childhood spent in the notorious Children Of God cult; a period living in Texas under the tutelage of an eccentric millionaire benefactor; an immersion in the Texan punk scene (and its affiliated drugs); a spell in Ariel Pink's band Holy Shit. Yet unlike all those stories, the gunpoint robbery was an experience that found its way on to Owens's debut solo album, Lysandre. Clocking in at just over 28 minutes, Lysandre tells the story of Owens's first tour with Girls, from flying to New York City for a show to falling in love with a girl at a festival in France. Songs about touring with a rock'n'roll band are normally alienating, depressing affairs (from the Arctic Monkeys' Despair In The Departure Lounge to most of the Streets' third album) yet Owens makes it sound just like you imagine it should be: a beautiful, bohemian experience. Even the aforementioned gunpoint robbery is only there to contrast with Owens's joy at turning his life around and being up onstage playing songs. "I made a conscious decision to capture all the feelings and emotions when it was still fresh and exciting," he says.
Of course, this does beg the question of why life in Girls soured so quickly. The band emerged in 2009 armed with tales of chemical excess and an album (called simply Album) of hippy-dippy anthems for young, lost and narcotically frazzled kids. The follow-up – 2011's Father, Son, Holy Ghost – was a tuneful yet gloriously unfocused affair that, rather than turn people away, only seemed to cement their cult status. Unlike so many other indie rock bands of their time, Girls seemed like the real deal: unhinged fuck-ups making open-hearted music in a world stuffed with public-school bores looking for something to do with their gap year. Yet, just three years after the tour which Owens describes with such elation on Lysandre, they'd split up.
There were rumours that Owens's struggles with opiate addiction played a part, but he dismisses this. Rather, he says, the split was simply down to the fact that he and songwriting partner Chet "JR" White had repeatedly failed to keep a regular band together. In the space of around four years, Girls had gone through a staggering 21 members. "Four years later, we were still teaching new people the very first songs," he sighs, from behind his floppy blond fringe. "Our last touring band had nobody who had recorded a single song on our album!"
Owens says he'd happily work with JR again in the future, but for now he's relishing being a solo artist and the freedom it gives him to make such personal musical statements. Lysandre is tender, measured and entirely acoustic, yet that doesn't prepare you for quite what a weird album it is. Almost every song features a recurring medieval motif, played on a variety of instruments, from ska-style piano to Vince Meghrouni's flute and saxophone, to outlandish stadium-rock guitar.
'I wanted to give the impression of a troubadour or minstrel telling a tale'
Christopher Owens onstage in Auckland, New Zealand, 2012. Photograph: Hannah Johnston/Getty Images
"I wanted to give the impression of a troubadour or minstrel telling a tale," says Owens of the riff that takes up more than five of the album's 28 minutes. To add to the gentle strangeness, the album remains in the key of A throughout, with the sole exception of the final song. Owen claims it was all written in a single night.
"I don't know of any other record like that, where it just goes: day one, day two," he says, proudly, of Lysandre's linear storytelling. He was worried that people wouldn't find it "cool enough", but he needn't have bothered: for the most part, the album is a wonderfully realised vision that documents love and heartbreak, innocence and giddy excitement. Here We Go, the taster track released last November, sets the mood perfectly: "So, here we go/ With my faith and my hand's really shook up/ Airplane, take us all away to New York City"
Owens manages to imbue everything he does with an old-fashioned sense of romance, and his lyrics carry a weighty honesty. On Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener, Owens even opens proceedings with, "What if I'm just a bad songwriter/ And everything I say has been said before?"
"You don't hear a lot of songwriters being so straightforward," he admits. "But that's because a lot of singers would be scared to say, 'It's possible that what I'm doing isn't very good.'"
Does he genuinely think that about his own songs? "Yes. But I also think it's not really important. In the end it's up to the listener to decide if it's any good – what's important is that you at least sing your song."
Singing songs has helped keep Owens relatively sane through an extraordinary life. While living with the Children Of God, he learned music through their religious songs and by performing Beatles and Elvis covers, pretty much the only secular music allowed inside the cult (on account of founder David Brandt Berg being a fan). Owens also sees singing as a way of overcoming the depression he experiences. "There are moments when it's really just not nice at all. But other times you have to make a conscious effort to try and enjoy feeling sad, or at least value it, in the same way that Woody Allen has figured out a way that glorifies his neurotic state and it's kinda become cool to be like that."
'I believe in my songs a lot. Myself as a singer, or myself in everyday life? Not so much'
Chet White, Christopher Owens, John Anderson and Garett Godard of Girls. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty
Despite his fragile persona, Owens is more confident when it comes to his songwriting. He claimed Beyoncé would have had a huge hit with Girls' Love Like A River and once tweeted Justin Bieber to invite him to be the band's new singer.
"At the same time, that's also me saying, 'My voice isn't the best' … but, yeah, I believe in my songs a lot. Myself as a singer, or myself in everyday life? Not so much. But unlike me, the songs are a very magical thing."
For many Girls fans, though, Owens is a magical character. His little-boy-lost demeanour has served many a pop star well, from Syd Barrettto Pete Doherty. Indie fans have a habit of glorifying musicians with drug problems, perhaps because they can identify with someone who struggles with life's problems and is looking for escape routes. Of course, the fact that Owens has a face that Vice magazine described as being "too pretty to fail" probably doesn't hurt.
Shortly after meeting the Guardian, Owens shares his peculiar magic with a tiny crowd in central London's St Giles In The Fields church. Clad in a skinny-fit Saint Laurent suit (immediately after Girls split he modelled for Hedi Slimane's debut campaign for the label), and backed by a full band including two female backing singers, he plays Lysandre in full, followed by a series of covers to bulk up the set. When the show ends he leaves his band playing onstage while he walks down the aisle and out of the venue. It's a great rock exit, and it seems that Owens finally has the full band set-up around him that he craved – but never found – with Girls.
"Yeah," he acknowledges, "but you know, next year, I'm going to terminate it all." Really? Why on earth would he do that? "Because the next album needs to sound different. I haven't made my mind up how yet, but whatever it is, it will be exciting."
Having no idea what happens next? That's just the way Christopher Owens likes it Lysandre is out now on Fat Possum