The 405 meets Christopher Owens
Considering the extreme separatist cultural atmosphere of Christopher Owens' upbringing, the folkloric air his consequent journey now carries in some circles might appear ironic. Spending the bulk of his childhood amongst the perverse ideals of the Children of God cult, which embodied a dark alternative to any well-meaning 60s hippie vibe, Owens' progress through drug addiction and depression, via a period under the wing of Texan "artist, philanthropic and prankster" Stanley Marsh 3, now feels almost public record. Whether through the raw honesty of his musical output, through the two albums and EP released by him and close friend Chet "JR" White as Girls since 2007, or his always candid and open nature in interview, Owens' unguarded transparency makes him an icon for the genuine. His demons are accessible via the wide-eyed sincerity through which he digests and divulges his experiences, ensuring a basic universal connection that transcends the niche of his foreign personal troubles and hallmarks the strength of his heartfelt paeans.
We meet in the plush, otherworldly, and slightly incongruous surroundings of a swanky Central London hotel, complete with an eclectic foyer adorned with eight metre long baby blue chaise longues, dark wood tribal carved stools and Wonka-esque constellation inspired lifts. Although perhaps not a place many people could seem at home, it's hard not to grin at the plastic bag of essentials Owens clasps that betrays any veneer of establishment suggested by his current surroundings. Visually, Owens strikes the line between a boyish Macaulay Culkin and the hypnotic aura of Kurt Cobain. His slender frame is now decked in sleek clothing more in line with his recently modeling stint for Heidi Slimane than the now far cry of the punky scruff which coloured his first period in the limelight, and he immediately feels endearing and personable. When asking about much of Owens' life would be verging on the taboo in regular conversation, we end up starting at the beginning.
The now documented ideals and structures of the Children of God presented to Owens an initially skewed version of the world. But he is remarkably balanced when considering a belief system that led his mother to allow another of her sons to die from pneumonia rather than defy the anti-medicinal practices of the cult. "I do [understand it]. I did have a childhood, it was just different. There are things that I do wish I experienced, it was never my choice to be raised like that. To have been unhappy with it, even as a kid, was just difficult for a long time." And his relationship with his mother? "It's fine. She's always worried too much that I resent her for it. I feel like I pretty much spend my time making sure that she knows I don't." He is less forgiving of the religious drive behind the group which he left at 16, however. "I don't believe in God. I never have. In general I'm pretty against religion, really. Especially the major ones – I think they're pretty toxic things." His choice of escapist phenomena revolves more around his self-professed appreciation of Harry Potter (he has "Hermione" tattooed on his left hand) and Michael Jackson. Though his "sensitive" demeanour remains a haunting and conscious reminder of the continuing effect of this period. We veer from specifically mentioning the allegations and investigation into child abuse that plagued the Children of God cult, but the recent allegations against Stanley Marsh 3 in relation to sexual misconduct towards teens speaks volumes, bringing his grand total up to five. Whether the millionaire's case will again be settled out of court, as the last four have been, remains to be seen.
So for Owens, his experience of teenage angst came not just amplified by the intensity and potentially long-term danger of his childhood circumstances, but followed by an equally overwhelming catharsis. Having being guarded from the majority of mainstream culture and society until this point, Owens found himself in the unusual position of being able to consciously discover it, and be old enough to appreciate the liberating feeling of this adventure – a liberation that is struck through the delivery and inspiration of much of his songwriting. "Ever since moving out on my own," he elucidates, "it's been pretty exciting. You make mistakes too, 'cause you do things that maybe you're curious about doing, but you shouldn't have done. But in a way it's great because everything's so new, and more exciting than for other people." His awareness what he refers to of these "basic and common" feelings could point to the universality of the potential appeal of his writing – "that you could be in your seventies and having just lost your spouse and relate, or be a teenager trying to lose your virginity." But for all these connections with the outside world, writing for Owens remains personal and therapeutic. "I write for pretty much only me. I never really started writing with others, or letting others in, and it kept becoming more and more something that I wanted to do alone. They make me feel better."
Hence, perhaps, the Twitter announcement in July of this year, that Owens was leaving Girls to continue working under the moniker of a solo artist. Coming as a surprise to much of his fanbase, Owens spent lengthy amounts of time with journalists from Fader and Pitchfork, detailing and justifying for the wider press the lengthy and deep-seated reasons that led to the growing apart of the band that made his name. "It definitely was something on my mind for at least a year, so it's really hard to explain," he adds. "If there was just one reason I might have been able to put that aside and keep going." Seemingly bucking with trend for Owens, the primary trigger, if any, feels oddly logistical, rather than explosively personal. "It was just to continue as best as possible. It's just a defence mechanism that kicked in, in order to achieve the things that are really important to me and that I feel I have to do. I feel very behind in recording everything I've written. And that's just because of logistics." When speaking about his new found freedom alone, he speaks about simplified administration with unusual relish, and is clearly without much personal bitterness at the circumstances that led to the demise of Girls. Would you ever return to a similar format again, I ask? "I don't think I'll ever be in a band again. I think I've given up. I think part of going solo was not being unhappy with the band I was in – but letting go of an ideal that I was chasing. I feel like if I was to do that again it might just be frustrating."
Lysandre, the first definition of this post-Girls solo sound, documents Owens' first experience of the road, New York, and a fluttering relationship with the girl whose name titles the album. Mostly written on a single night and in a single key, the album perhaps reflects this vented frustration. Where before the raw honesty of his experience was reflected in the more tension of the songwriting, it here feels refracted through an altogether more delicate and intimate prism. The repeated musical theme, again named after Lysandre, that pulls together the conceptual aspect of the album and its story carries a more traditional feel, often backed up by the style of instrumentation – and a lot of flute. In Owens' words, "the most important thing [about Lysandre] is telling the story."
It does carry the feel of someone more optimistic and sure of themselves, and along with his aesthetic, does feel more of a comfortable fit than might have been expected four years ago. "I have had changing images but with each one, I have felt they were genuine. They are very different, but just like different sides of a person's personality. I do feel now a little bit more grown up and put together. I feel this album has more of a classic quality to it, so I have tried to dress in more of a classic way. I don't think I was ever being phony, I've just got into looking different ways at different times. And got caught up with singing about it too much. Maybe that's the root of all of it."
For all of the potentially destructive periods that have governed much of Owens' past decade, he remains impeccably balanced and considered when talking about more negative parts of his life. When talking about coping with such periods, he repeats his focus on the positives, and "having reasons to keep on moving forward. For example, when I was still in the Children of God, the main thing that drove me was the idea of leaving. I don't spend much time looking back, but when I do, it's always two sided and usually pretty balanced. There are elements to every one of those times that were serious, and maybe even dark or bad, but then there's also plenty of things about them that are very good and that led to some pretty positive things. I wouldn't have picked to go through certain things, but I've accepted them I guess."
And this first statement from Owens as solo artist does reflect his positive attitude, for him. "I think the album is pretty positive, and it does reflect me as a person. In general, I feel I've always been very open with talking about things that were very real like, whether it was loneliness or depression or negative things, but I feel I've always had a positive side to each song and it's on this record too. Maybe it's an effort to be like that. I think that the root of all of it is trying to see the good, or else be positive about things. And not be somebody who complains or is negative. That's something that I've been pretty conscious of ever since becoming an adult."
If his are demons that can never be dispelled, Owens seems now in a matured frame of mind and artistic position to finally find his own voice above their clamour. Lysandre feels like a tentative first step towards these musical and aesthetic freedoms, but one full of experimentation and characterised by his definable vigour and sincerity that leaves much to anticipate. The record ends with a graceful closing of not just Lysandre's chapter, but one with wider personal implications, with a refrain that might go some way to figuring Owens' current incarnation: "You were a part of me, but that part of me is gone". Onwards and upwards.
Lysandre is released on January 14th in the UK via Turnstile, and the following day through Fat Possum. Head here to view his forthcoming European tour dates.
Purchase and listen
As I stepped into the bar I could hear a fractured voice and guitar escaping from the basement stairs. Sat alone on a stage bathed in red was Christopher Owens sound checking for an invite-only performance to showcase new material from his album A New Testament. [read more]
Christopher Owens stopped by BBC 6 Music for a special live session, featuring tracks from his upcoming solo album. [read more]