“I walk around with my head down. I walk around looking at the ground,” Christopher Owens sings on “Overcoming Me”, a lovesick track saddled towards the end of the second album released under his own name, A New Testament. His vulnerable half-whisper is an instantly recognizable thing, and he uses it to paint a familiar picture. He’s “down and out, like a rag doll.” He’s wondering if a girl is “really gonna call.” He’s “such a fool.” Three years may have passed since “Vomit”, but Christopher Owens still sounds lost and looking for love.
But as with much of A New Testament, the lyric sheet can be misleading. Or, rather, it paints an incomplete picture of where Owens is in 2014. A New Testament is a polished and buoyant collection of country and soul, and while the former Girls frontman used to drown in his sorrows across blown out productions, this album’s warm organ, lap steel, and walking bass lines consistently pull him up across its 34 minutes. It’s a hopeful record. It’s also one that can’t help but be colored by some well-publicized specifics of Owens’ life, mainly that he’s drug-free and four years into a healthy relationship. The steady of presence of a gospel choir doesn’t hurt either.
Owens was in a DC hotel when we connected last Friday morning. He was fresh off a pair of New York city concerts – his first with organist Dan Eisenberg and guitarist John Anderson, musicians who recorded Girls’ swan song, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, with him and subsequently quit the band. “I can tell you from just having played these first two shows that it’s really, really fun, and very, very moving for me to play songs like ‘Forgiveness’ and ‘My Ma’ and ‘Vomit’ with the people that brought them to life in the studio,” he says of the past few nights. “We look in each other eyes and there’s a moment: We’re finally doing this together.”
When you’re back in San Francisco, what’s your day to day like?
It depends. If I’m not recording or anything, then I have a pretty leisurely day. [Laughs] I live up by Golden Gate Park. I spend a lot of time at home – I’m one of those kind of people. I like to read and watch movies. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of old stuff on my own during the day.
You’ve lived there for a while now.
It’s coming up on ten years. It’ll be ten years in a couple of months.
Is this the longest that you’ve lived somewhere?
It just barely edges out Amarillo, Texas. I lived there for nine years.
The city has been going through some growing pains lately, which isn’t unlike a lot of American cities, but there’s been a certain national attention on San Francisco. What’s your perspective on how things have changed during your time there?
I arrived in San Francisco from Amarillo, Texas, which is a real country Texas town. It’s not like Austin or Dallas or Fort Worth. It’s the high plains. It’s flat. The main industry is cattle. There’s an atomic bomb factory. They just monitor bombs that there’s no real plan to use anymore. [Laughs] They don’t even make them. They just sort of babysit the ones that were made during the Cold War.
When I arrived in San Francisco, it already was a whole new word, to quote Ariel from “The Little Mermaid”. [Laughs] And to quote her again, I did want to be a part of that world. That was what I was looking for. I didn’t plan to be quoting Ariel, but now that I’m remembering her, that was very much who I was. I wasn’t happy in Amarillo. I wanted to get to some ideal that I thought existed somewhere else. Luckily for me, I loved San Francisco. I felt very at home there.
But it was all brand new. Even when I arrived in 2005, there would be certain neighborhoods that were always in construction. There would be new companies popping up. Everything was very fast paced and interesting for me. So, I can’t really see the change as much as others. I do see it, but for me, it’s all still, “Oh look, there’s a Twitter building downtown!” I like it.
I do read things in the local papers and I do talk with people who don’t feel the same way. They feel like it’s a bad thing. I also have friends who have been forced to leave because the rents are going up. I’m lucky to have rent control. I’m paying exactly the same rent as I was in 2005. I feel like I have a bit of a unique opportunity to report to you that I’m just sort of enjoying the excitement, but I know there are people that don’t have the same experience, so I think that’s unfortunate.
I like to believe that this is normal – that these things happen in the modern world, and big changes come very quickly to various area, and that people have to learn to adapt to them. I’d hate to take an outlook of doom and gloom – that things are going badly. I like to sit on the side and watch the development of modern life. I’ve got a smart phone myself. I enjoy the things that San Francisco has been turning out: Uber and Twitter and everything else. I get into it. I have a lot of fun. I grew up with a separatist mentality, that the modern world was bad, and we don’t use telephones, and we don’t watch television, so maybe I’m the wrong person to have any critique on modern life. [Laughs]
So we shouldn’t take literally the line about not having a phone in “A Heart Akin The Wind”?
I am being honest in that line. That song is a bit more about touring. I think I wrote that particular verse when I was in Japan and didn’t have cell phone service, There are big stretches without it. Half of time on tour will be in Europe or Asia, and during those several months of the year, I go without a cell phone. It is a kind of neat feeling. You feel like a sailor or a cowboy – like, “I’m just here for a couple of days, and I’m anonymous, and I don’t have my phone on me.” I was trying to abstractly reference that, and make the connection to the cowboy spirit that I can feel every once and a while on tour.
Was “My Troubled Heart” really written for Peggy Olsen?
I write for myself, but I did write that song watching [“Mad Men”]. I did have her in mind. She sort of influenced me to think about feelings that I had. Sound wise, there was a big influence in the way that they presented the song [on the show]. It starts out with a guy playing it acoustically, and then they cut to credits and play a produced version. I ended up doing that with my version as well.
Are you often influenced by popular culture?
Pretty often. I’m one of those guys that will highlight a sentence in a novel or something, and then when I’m done with the book, I’ll flip back through those highlighted sections. It’s not like I’ll take a line and try to write from there, but I’ll the sentiments and write from that place. Or I’ll remember, “When I read that line, I related to that feeling.” I haven’t done much like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”, where I read the newspaper and go write a word-for-word retelling with names and all. I would like to do stuff like that. I think that’s real neat. But I try to take it back to what I usually do, which is just write about myself. Those things motivate me – things like watching some of these films.
Recently, I went to Paris to do some promo for the album release. I was talking with my label people over there about this French artist that I really like from the 50s and 60s named Jacque Brel. He’s kind of a national treasure of theirs. And before I left, when they were taking me to the airport, they said, “We got you something.” It was a DVD box set of all of Jacque Brel’s TV appearances and interviews and live shows. It was really sweet of them. So, I’ve been watching that. He’ll say really neat stuff in these interviews. Someone asks him, “Is singing an act of love or a battle?” And he says, “Love is a battle. Singing is both.” It got my attention. I like to make little notes of those things, so I can go back to them. They will eventually influence me.
Some of the songs from New Testament have existed for many years. When you write something and then come back to it later down the line, does its meaning change? Or is it a snapshot of a moment in time with a fixed meaning?
It’s very fixed. And I like it like that. For me, it’s a way to go back to a very real moment. I have written songs that are a bit more lighthearted and can be just about happiness in general or that feeling of being in love, which maybe you experience many times in life. But, for the most part – maybe three-fourths of my songs – it’s about grabbing a moment.
I’m happy that they don’t ever change. It’s more like something that I can go back to. Of course, on a personal level, I can say, “Yeah, I feel like that today again.” But, for me, I feel like the best songs have been the ones that have preserved some real moments and don’t change at all.
You didn’t play Girls songs on the Lysandre tour. Now you are. What changed?
The most objective reason that I can give you is that I’ve got these people on tour with me who recorded those songs with me. The back-up singers and my drummer have toured with me a lot in the past, but I’m now touring with two of the real key people from Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Broken Dreams Club: Danny Eisenberg and John Anderson were the two soloist that I had on those records – the organ player and the lead guitarist.
We had a really good time recording Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and I thought that we really accomplished something great. And after [Eisenberg and Anderson] decided not to be part of Girls after recording it, I got to tour with the new people and live those songs out. But I didn’t get to do that with them. And they never did it all. I can tell you from just having played these first two shows that it’s really, really fun, and very, very moving for me to play songs like “Forgiveness” and “My Ma” and “Vomit” with the people that brought them to life in the studio. It’s an opportunity that I would never pass up. It’s nice for them too. We look in each other eyes and there’s a moment: We’re finally doing this together.
On a more personal level, I just still really like those songs. I haven’t played them for about two years. There was a period of mourning for me. I didn’t want to play Girls songs. I wanted to leave them along. It wouldn’t have felt right to play them straight away. But I feel ready again.
Girls seemed like a band whose popularity took off and whose spotlight intensified while it was still in the process of figuring things out. Do you feel like you have control over things now?
I feel like I’ve been lucky with my first two solo albums. I don’t know that it will always be the case. I’m prepared to be scarred again and do ambitious things and throw myself into some new areas. But from what I’ve actually done – these first two solo albums – I have had a much more cohesive and organized and smooth experience. [Laughs] I’ve literally asked friends – who in both cases were part of Girls, and then other people who were new – to do a record together and then tour with me on that record for about a year’s time. And they said yes. We recorded as a band, and then we toured as a band and had a nice time, and then we went our separate ways, and I start over.
There’s also been more of an objective for each of these records from a creative stand point. I’ve gone into the studio knowing exactly what I want to do, instead of going into the studio with a list of songs and a line-up of people that I haven’t exactly worked with very much and sort of hoping for the best. It’s been a little bit more plotted out.
I do have some plans in the future to throw myself into new territory. But it’s been nice to have a little stability here. Growth and change and putting yourself out there is very important, so I’ll continue to do that too.
What sort of next territories have you been thinking about?
Something that I’ve always loved – some of the very basic references when J.R. [White] and I even started to record at all – are things like Randy Newman’s Sail Away and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I’d like to make something that has orchestration – strings and some arranger character helping me out with orchestra – something sort of grand and cinematic. I like show tunes and the American standards. I’m a big fan of all that stuff. I have some songs that I think would work well for that, so I’d like to go there.
But that’s something that J.R. and I didn’t have the money to try to do – or even the time. In the beginning, we didn’t have the money or the means, and then once the ball got rolling with Girls, we’d find ourselves saying, “OK, we’ve got two free weeks here, let’s just go record an EP.” Or it’d be like, “We have a month here, let’s go work on Father, Son, Holy Ghost.”
Girls was a bit of a roller coaster ride. I feel like now I could approach that kind of stuff. That’s something I’d like to explore soon. I don’t know if it’ll be next, but at some point, I want to do something with some more traditionally cinematic music and maybe stick some ballads in there like, you know, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.