Interview: Christopher Owens

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 01.15.13 in Interviews

Christopher Owens’s solo debut Lysandre is a concept album about his very first tour with Girls, the much-loved indie rock band he recently dissolved. In it, the 33-year-old San Francisco songwriter sings about his excitement over playing in New York City, encountering a former flame, experiencing stage fright, and falling in love with a girl in the French Rivera.

Musically, it’s inspired by the folk music he’s now covering as an encore to complete performances of Lysandre — songs like Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” (the first tune he mastered on guitar), Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” all of which he heard at the notorious Children of God commune to which his family belonged. It was an organization where secular pop was forbidden — unless, of course, it happened to be these oldies favored by the cult elders.

Lysandre is also influenced by Don McLean’s American Pie, which he got special permission to hear in a Danish library so that he could perform it while busking to raise money for the cult. Yes, Owens has an extraordinary backstory, but he’s an equally exceptional talent. This is what eMusic’s Barry Walters learned about him in a community garden, high in the absurdly picturesque hills of San Francisco that, for the course of the interview, were backlit by a bright pink and blue sunset.

In Lysandre, you say goodbye not only to the title character, who you met on Girls’ first tour, but also to your band. Knowing what you know now about yourself and how things would work out with Girls, what would you have changed?

If I had known that I never was going to be happy, I just would’ve presented the songs as my own and would never have tried to have a band. The hardest thing was knowing I had to pull the plug on it, and doing that. People were disappointed. It was difficult on certain friendships. [Sighs.]

Have you allowed yourself to fall in love while touring in the wake of what happened with Lysandre?

I have. You play three or four shows with another band and there’s somebody in that band who you connect with, or you just meet somebody. Do you know [starts singing the jazz standard] “I Fall in Love Too Easily”? I’ve always identified with that song [laughs] because I allow myself to behave like that. You have the hard parts where you feel the heartbreak, but ultimately it’s a rich experience. Now I’m in a relationship, and have been for a few years. But I have had a few experiences on the road that were very nice.

Have the people you sing about on this album heard it?

The ex-bandmates have and Lysandre has; I sent her the album before anyone else heard it. Girls went back to France so many times, and she was always there, even though we figured out within a couple months that it wasn’t going to be a relationship. Even if she would bring a boyfriend, we’d hang out. We just performed the album in Paris. She came and I think it was probably a mixed bag of emotions, but we had a good time.

“A Broken Heart” at first seems as though it’s about you running into a bisexual ex-girlfriend in New York. But after listening closer, it’s clear that it’s about an ex-boyfriend. How has it been to put that out there?

It’s something I like to talk about because it’s something I feel so normal about. I never expected to have those relationships because I’m just very straight. But different things happened in my life — mainly very persistent other guys who I at some point just gave in to — that have allowed me to have those relationships. For me, I feel like they’ve been very beneficial. They’ve helped me to understand a lot of things about myself and about life just by jumping in the deep end and giving it a try.

The guy that I’m singing about in that song, we had a long friendship that turned into experimenting with a physical relationship. Then he wrote an email to tell me he was getting married and that we could never talk any more, that we could never even be friends. I saw him a few years later in New York with a bunch of old friends, so he did say hello and he tried to act like everything was fine, but it just seemed so crazy. My girlfriend now is fully aware of all the different experiences I’ve had and would probably be happy to meet my ex-boyfriend.

Your music is an unusual mix of experience and innocence. Few artists with your history embrace that open-heartedness.

That’s the only time I’m motivated to start writing and the only time when I have good ideas. I don’t write under any other circumstance; it’s really all I’ve got to work with. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like if I don’t get those feelings of openness and vulnerability, like I’m giving something of myself, then probably the song isn’t very good. When I do get those feelings, that’s when the song is worth something.

Those are the same things that in other hands might be hackneyed or hokey, but your ability to pull them off distinguishes you as an artist.

There are times when I find an artist and can start to feel uncomfortable because they’re getting into something deep and heavy. I don’t feel like that’s always good. You have to do it tastefully. I think a lot of it has to do with whether the lines rhyme or if the song has a nice melody, and you’re not trying to cram too many words into a sentence.

One of this album’s themes concerns putting yourself out there as an individual and being judged as one. Having grown up in a cult, do you have more than the usual challenges of being an individual?

I don’t know. [A deep sigh] I’ve never really thought about that. [Long silence] And it could be why I want to so badly present myself as one. There was a big effort made by the people who raised me to cause all of us kids to be all the same. That was something I always rebelled against.

You traveled a lot with the Children of God. How did those experiences of being constantly uprooted prepare you for touring?

When we go to places where I spent a little time as a kid, it’s very meaningful to me now. I’ve noticed that I’m well behaved when we travel: I wanna know what the customs are; I try to fit in and learn the languages, and I collect stamps everywhere I go. I think that may have to do with growing up in all those different places. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what things are directly because of growing up the way I did and what things are just personality. It’s hard to always tell.

You were brought up to love God as part of a group. How has that helped or hindered you with loving another person one-on-one?

When I was really young, I was always with my mom and two sisters. We were Children of God members, but she was on her own teaching English in China; it was just our little family. But after that, from six to 16, when we moved to Japan and then on, it was all communes. I went from being very attached to my mom and sisters even — there was no dad — to having that taken away overnight. We went to Japan because my mom needed help, and [all of a sudden I was] sleeping in a big room with kids my age. The family was broken up, and that was difficult for me. I find myself trying to replace that with relationships sometimes [laughs], just to find Mommy’s unconditional love again — someone who’s partially taking care of you and partially needs you too. I wrote about that in “Honey Bunny.”

From a very young age I rejected the whole God thing. I was really uncomfortable with praying. I would get punished ’cause I wouldn’t pray and I didn’t believe in Jesus. I couldn’t even get myself to do it; it just felt silly, and that caused me a lot of problems. I might’ve escaped some of the effects of the ideals they were pushing because I fought ‘em very hard.

Have you ever written songs to God?

No. Once I was watching Mad Men — I really like that show — and there was this one episode where there’s a priest, and at the end of the day he goes back to his apartment, takes off his collar, picks up a guitar and starts singing this song. [Singing]. “Early in the morning about the break of day I ask my God”…to do this or that for me. It really hit me somehow. So I got my guitar and wrote the same song but reversed. Whereas he sang, “I lay my burden down on Jesus,” I wrote, “I carry my own burden because I don’t have anybody to give it to.” I wrote it as a reply, and that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to any kind of gospel song.

You’ve said that the songs you sang in the cult helped you like gospel music helped the slaves. Is music still a form of escape and salvation for you?

At the writing stage, it’s very much spiritual. And in the recording process too. There are a lot of things that can come in and turn it into work and a business. But I think by only writing in those moments where it’s very genuine and you’re truly inspired and it’s a spiritual, cathartic, pure moment, then you’re OK. Even if the day has been very much about work, and it’s the second week of the tour, and I’m over it, as soon as we get on the stage and I start playing the songs, it gets right back down to the fundamentals. I feel lucky.