Christopher Owens: "It Comes Back to You" (via SoundCloud)
has a folder on his computer called “Dates and Titles”, which lists the 153 songs he has written thus far, along with when, exactly, they first came to be. “These are the keepers,” he says, counting them up while on the line from his San Francisco apartment. He’s got handwritten manuscripts and audio demos of everything, too—an exacting organizational habit he picked up while frequently moving around the world as a kid in the Children of God cult.
The 30 or so songs he recorded with Girls
are in the folder, along with the ones from his 2013 solo debut, Lysandre
, and the dozen tunes that make up his forthcoming record, A New Testament
. Which means he’s got about 100 songs that have yet to be properly recorded, that are not quite ripe yet, that still need to live up to the sounds swirling in his head.
Until recently, one called “Overcoming Me” was in that pile. It was written on January 3, 2008—a solid year-and-a-half before
the release of Girls’ debut LP
—and it will finally be let out into the world on A New Testament
, the song’s dreamy vibraphone, swelling organ, stop-start drums, layered backing vocals, and pleading lyric culminating in a warm mini-epic. “Overcoming Me” isn’t the only holdover from Owens’ past, as the new album also reunites the singer with keyboardist Danny Eisenberg, drummer Darren Weiss, and guitarist John Anderson, all of whom played on Girls' final and best record, 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost
. But A New Testament
isn’t just a self-conscious throwback following the relatively minor, tepidly received Lysandre
; along with moments that harken back to some of Girls’ more soulful songs, there are recently-written tracks marked by gospel, rockabilly, and old-school country influences that Owens has only hinted at before.
“It's an American thing,” the singer says, describing the new sounds, which sometimes recall Nashville legends like George Jones
. “When radio first popped up, all those early American genres—country, R&B, gospel—were separate from one another, and people like the Everly Brothers
rolled it up into rock’n’roll. But those are the roots of Americana.”
Another change: Though Owens made a name for himself expressing the kind of dark sorrow that’s hard to stare in the face for too long, A New Testament is his brightest statement yet. The mood swing makes sense when considering the 34-year-old is currently in the midst of his longest-ever relationship—“We're one of those couples that doesn't fight,” he says—and he’s also worked hard to put his well-documented problems with drugs behind him.
“That was very, very hard,” he admits. “Maybe I'm getting too cocky, but I really feel like I've beat the goddamn thing. I know it's something that requires vigilance and diligence, and I'm lucky to have people around me that have been through this before and are on the same page as me. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that I cannot see right now, and that's been abrupt, but it's life. One has to move forward.”
Pitchfork: A New Testament bears a strong country influence, what's your personal history with that style of music?
Christopher Owens: I write in moments of emotional overpowerment, and in those situations, I go back to my fundamentals. For me, the music that we played in the Children of God was very broken-down: three chords on the guitar, simple melodies. And
those songs were so strongly influenced by country music. And after leaving the Children of God as a teenager, I spent years in Amarillo, Texas, around [eccentric businessman] Stanley Marsh
, who’s a country boy, and he’d play Willie Nelson
, and we'd listen to AM radio. Sometimes I wouldn't know who the hell it was, but I'd hear it. Most of the time, country songs are concise, to-the-point, honest, and emotional, and just about anybody can play them on the guitar. That's what appeals to me about them.
Pitchfork: This new record does seem more lighthearted than some of the music you’re best-known for. It sounds like you’re in a more contented place.
CO: I am happy. And if some of that came out on the record, that's good. I don't want to be afraid to show that. People like me for being this down-and-out character, but I’m sorry, I'm not your Jesus. Don't hand me that cross. I refuse to play along. I've got to say how I'm feeling when I'm feeling it. That said, the themes I’m writing about are the same, really. I could've called this album Looking for Love. I could've called them all Looking for Love.
The other day I played at a friend's small store with just a guitar. I sang some Girls songs, and I haven’t lost my emotional relationship with them. Now, when I sing "Ghost Mouth"
, from the first Girls album, it still describes how I feel because I've had to isolate myself from a lot of people that I used to spend time with. I do feel lonely in a big city again. Sure, I probably wouldn't have written that song if I didn't have the bad habits I did at the time, but it keeps coming back around, it seems, and I'm happy for that because I don't want to lose it.
Pitchfork: You’ve been with your current girlfriend for more than four years, does the stability of that relationship also contribute to your mindset now?
CO: Yeah, it's a relationship I can't place a value on. We're very different people: in upbringing, in habits, in the way we both cook, the books we read, the music we like. Maybe I see something in her that I think is wonderful and wish I could've been like that myself. At the same time, I don't. I'm not a person with regrets. But I can definitely see the benefit of having somebody like that in my life. I mean, I could've had somebody more like myself in my life for this period of time and been pushed along down my own paths, my own devices—if that was the case, Father, Son, Holy Ghost might not have even come out. From the beginning, she has kept me aware without judging, without ever saying, "This is an ultimatum," or, "You have by this date..." She’s never even been rude to me about it when my priorities were completely out of whack. From the beginning, we liked each other for who we were, and it's always been that way. As time goes by, we'll remain different people, but we'll remain essential to one another.
Pitchfork: The gospel-style track “Stephen” deals with your family history: how your brother passed away when he was two years old, and how your parents separated. You also sing: “We were Children of God, but all that we wanted was our father’s love.” Do you have any sort of contact with your dad now?
CO: Yeah, I've been working on my relationship with my dad. All in all, he's been a great guy and he's made himself available. He comes to shows. The fact that we didn't grow up together—that I was 23 the first time I actually spent time with him at his house—that's never going to change. He doesn't call me up and say, "Did you see the ballgame last night?" or whatever—I don't know what dads say. But we check in and we're polite and we respect one another. I don't want to write him off as a person. He is my father, and he is a country singer in Louisville, Kentucky. I have sat and watched him do shows in bars, and that has also contributed to my knowledge of country music.
My dad did call me after "Stephen" got put out on the internet, and he said, "I just want to know where you're at with me—I could listen to this and think maybe you're mad at me." I said, "It's something I had to write about, but trust me, there's no issues there. I've always accepted what happened and I don't have any regrets and I don't blame you." We worked that out. It was not an emotional phone call. He just wanted to check in.
The Children of God changed its name to The Family, and their idea of a family did not include marriage, and you called every adult "uncle" and "auntie," and they divided us into age groups. So I grew up with other kids my age and I didn’t see my sisters as much because they were older. And now, my sisters are some of the most distant people in my life, unfortunately. That's what I was trying to get at in "Stephen", too: The Family destroyed our family, even to the point of one of the kids having to die. I’ve always wondered what it'd be like to have an older brother, and I do latch onto older cool guys and follow them around. But can you imagine the regrets, the longing, and how much [my parents] would like to change that? I don't know what they're going through and I don't want to pretend like I do. They've been through a lot and they're good people. I respect them.
Pitchfork: What's your relationship with your Girls partner JR White like now?
CO: We're not at all nasty or fussy to one another; we both understand very clearly the ins and outs of our relationship. We see each other. Just the other day, when I played that little show, he showed up and did the sound for it. He tells me about the things he's working on, and they sound great. He and I are both doing what we want to do. At the end of the day, our relationship was very substantial, very deep, and when it slowly disintegrates in the way that, unfortunately, it did, there's a lot of time involved in getting back to anything.
At the same time, we text and speak to each other often. I've never had anything but respect for his skill. There are tricky things about the personal side, and it's not just between the two of us. There were a lot of people who came in-between, and the whole [Girls] experience was such a rollercoaster. The two of us had never been in a band like that before, never toured, never did interviews. There were things I had to learn on the fly. And Jesus, it's hard. And when you don't have George and Ringo there to keep it all together—can you imagine how long the Beatles would have lasted if it were just Paul and John? Like, give me a break!