As the creative whirlwind behind Girls, Christopher Owens produced two of the finest albums of the past five years in the form of Broken Dreams Club and Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Two albums that, on the face of it, would not be regarded as reinventing the wheel yet were completely irresistible thanks to Owens' impeccable songwriting which took influences from far and wide, but often from the great American songbook: Beach Boys, gospel music, Paul Simon - but also the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd.

What Owens did to those influences was to fold them up inside his own songwriting style which addressed his personal demons of addiction, being raised in a cult and, of course, having his heart broken, and to deliver them back to us in a way that didn't feel retro or pastiche. In the wake of Girls disbanding, Owens launched a solo career with the brief Lysandre and he's now returning once more with his second solo album A New Testament. It's a pure joy; the sound of gospel, R&B and a lot of country music, it's like turning on a radio in early 1960s USA and finding a mix of classic songs flowing one after the other. Once again he's taken classic influences and given them back to us fresh. How the heck has he done it again? Owens turned up in London last week to play an acoustic set - containing some of these new songs - at Servant's Jazz Quarters and we managed to grab some time on the phone with the man himself.

Owens explains that his show at SJQ wasn't really any kind of promo for A New Testament: "I kinda played a few from each of them [his albums]" he explains. "I didn't look at it as a show in any way to promote the record - I would only do that with the band that played on the record. So I thought if people want to see the songwriting process, or hear it in demo form I could do that. I started from the beginning and went up until now!"

What strikes me about A New Testament- well, there are two things actually and I'll come to the second shortly - is that it finds Owens in a seemingly happy place. If the upbeat nature of the album didn't give it away, titles like 'Nothing More Than Everything to Me' probably do. He's in love, and he's not really scared to show it: "Yeah! But to me there are a few sides to it," says Owens, "There's always been different moods on the records I've worked on...even the first solo one has its ups and downs." Does the style of music have any kind of effect? "Country music sorta keeps the songs shorter," he reveals. "I mean, they're not strictly country but there is an attempt to have a country influence and I think that turns them into shorter, simpler songs in a way. There's also quite a few love songs about the girl I've been with for four years, so I dunno! I feel like life is always a challenge, but in general things are looking up...but things have always been exciting and good too."

Photo: Mathew Parri Thomas
Taken at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London.

So there we have the second thing that struck me about A New Testament; it ventures into country music, something we never really heard on Girls records Broken Dreams Club and Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I'm interested to know if Owens has had a long-time interest or love of the genre..."I've always loved country music," he admits. "It's just very accessible...the classic stuff, the real stuff. They keep it simple and to the point and it's usually emotional or pulls at the heart strings - I just find it very appealing. And I love the sound of the pedal steel, y'know?" Owens goes on to explain that the instrument was hinted at on previous records, but never fully explored: "It was a real treat to get to explore that; it was something I've wanted to do and we played with a pedal steel player on Broken Dreams Club and it's something that's been on my mind for a long time." So it's been on his mind for some time? "Yeah; it's not really a new...I mean, I've not turned a corner to go country or anything! It's something I needed to get out of my system and it works well with what I already do."

It's hard not to talk about the Children of God cult when interviewing Owens, given that the first sixteen years of his life were spent travelling Asia and Europe with his sisters and mother and it's where he learned to play the guitar. I ask Christopher if country music was the sort of thing he'd be playing in the cult, given the simple nature of the way country songs are constructed: "Yeah; well they came out of the hippy movement," he begins, "and it was all very acoustic guitar, and you would probably be chided for showing off on the guitar! It was all meant to be very simple and stuff that everybody could sing together." That format seems to inform most, if not all, of Owens' back catalogue. There's always been an unfussy way to his songwriting; even his influences seem very classic American songbook. It's something Owens agrees on: "I've always felt - not just on this record - that there was an influence from that," he admits. "The accessibility of the song has to be there for me. You have to be able to remember the melody and want to sing along yourself. Also, the music should be a transcendental sort of thing, in a way. In the way that religious people use it, when they get into it it really does carry them away from the day to day life - and for a lot of them that's the point." Before you think Owens is getting all converted Christian on us, he clarifies that he's simply talking about the power of music, not a higher power: "I believe when music is good, it does that. So it's been something from the beginning that has been an influence, yes. Just knowing how to play the guitar came from that."

"I think [the purpose of] gospel music, fundamentally when you take away the things like whether or not there's a God or angels or a spiritual world, was for people who were really struggling to be able to lay their burdens down..."- Christopher Owens

I say, though, that it must be difficult to use the format of country music and gospel music without using those well-worn religious tropes of being "saved" or finding comfort in love - and that word "love" is often just another way for the singer or the writer to reference Jesus or whoever, but implicitly. Did Christopher find it difficult to make it clear he's singing about being in love with a woman, while also making those nods to his upbringing in the Children of God? It seems fairly clear to me from the off that there's an absence of God, mentioned directly in album opener 'My Troubled Heart'... "Well, I did acknowledge it with the last Girls record, Father Son Holy Ghost," he says. "It was meant to acknowledge this spiritual quality that exists in music. It's something that, me with my personal experiences of religion, I can't really define it. I don't believe in God or anything like that but I do believe that music has something special - that's the only way I can say that! And words like "holy ghost"; what does that even mean? It's a way to describe something that isn't there but maybe people feel, so that title represented to me that everything comes from somewhere - that's the father line, the son is maybe the identity and holy ghost is that other spiritual quality - and I like for it to be there."

Going back to that opening track, it does seem like Owens is using that classic "spiritual" structure - but to talk about temporal ideas like love, sex, drugs...whatever. Is he purposely using the genre in this way? Owens seems to agree: "On this one, there are times - and it was fun - to use the gospel format and to blatantly bring out agnostic ideas, y'know?" He explains further: "It's interesting in two ways: one, it's kind of cheeky to use that genre in your own way and then two, I think [the purpose of] gospel music, fundamentally when you take away the things like whether or not there's a God or angels or a spiritual world, was for people who were really struggling to be able to lay their burdens down...you have these phrases in gospel songs: 'taking the burden off your back', 'one day I'll be set free', that kind of thing. I think that's all really important stuff; while I don't believe in religion I can appreciate that use of music. So, yeah, there's some contradictory things going on, but I think it really worked and it was a lot of fun to do." Is it a way also to address his own demons? "Yeah; specifically it's a way to approach those heavy issues that everyone deals with in life," he agrees. "Loss and struggle...and in my case there was a big issue with the addiction thing and it's all stuff I've had to learn to overcome. I just see a relation there; I find the music has given me purpose, and something to believe in."

Photo: Mathew Parri Thomas
Taken at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London.

I have to mention both the album title and artwork, as that again plays with those traditional structures. I joke that the title might in fact get people thinking Owens has found God..."Hahaha, that would be funny! To me, the title does its job. It draws the eye in and makes a person say 'what the hell is this?' And also there's a very literal - if you take away the baggage - definition in that it's very triumphant title." What also catches the eye is the fancy outfit he's wearing on the album cover: "I've always had a funny...I like to wear certain things and maybe they're a bit odd or I don't know what," he begins to explain, "but I was pulling from a genuine place. I did live in Texas for nine years and I have a bit of a bond with the ranching cowboy and the high plains drifter, the neverending landscape, opportunistic idea of Texas and Americana and all that." But there's a deeper reason for the artwork, and that's to pay tribute to the players on A New Testament: "The real important thing was to show the group which came together to make the record..." Is it a way of saying thank you in the most public of ways? "Very much so! They all play an important role and with each one there's a history and I felt like it was a nice way to represent the album. It would have been a lot easier to take a photo by myself but it just wouldn't have been as much fun. There's also something powerful about seeing that group and hearing the music...there's a little bit of information and you can put a face to it."

It's interesting to note the history of some of the players on the album. Owens is back working with some of the guys who made the final Girls record, plus some seasoned session players - some old hands know to him, some completely new: "Most of them I had worked with before," says Owens, "but even then, I wanted to go further with them. Last time I recorded with John [Anderson], Danny [Eisenberg] and Darren [Weiss], we sort of asked for very specific things and within those strict guidelines they showed a real flair - and from that point on I'd thought it would be interesting to do something again with them, give them the songs six months in advance and see what they come up with. So there was that going on with those guys; there was a step further taken with them, and knowing what they could do in advance it helped with preparing songs. Like with 'Stephen', knowing that I had this great vocal group behind me meant I could do that song in that way."

""Even as a teenager there were older guys; even before being creative, when I first arrived in the US as a sixteen year old I immediately found eighteen, nineteen year old guys who'd teach me about pop culture and how to smoke and just be a regular person."- Christopher Owens

Owens goes on to tell me about one of the new players, Ed Efira: "There's one guy that's brand new, a pedal steel player; I met him through the French band Phoenix, he's a French guy himself but he lives in Palo Alto. We had a little chat backstage at a Phoenix show and I asked if he'd be into doing a record. So he went away and listened, and got right back to me to say he'd be really into doing something. For that being the first person who was a newcomer, we got along great right off the bat." We return again to the subject of the pedal steel, and its impact on Owens: "It's an instrument that I love the sound of," he reveals, "but I don't know anything about. Keyboards and guitar I can play a little...that one, the ball is in your court, y'know? I like that he's an older guy and he's coming from a traditional standpoint. My reference was that Byrds album that was very country, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and for him he was a kid when that came out and he loved it. So the links were there, and I was trying to do something about traditional country and that's what he played. It happened very naturally, so it was nice."

Okay, so country, gospel and the pedal steel...those are influences, but I wanted to know if there were any specific records influencing A New Testament as an album. Owens reveals it was slightly more complicated than that: "It was really a song to song basis; not a record on the whole to emulate but for individual songs there are. For 'Over and Above Myself' I wanted to copy the Carpenters 'On Top of the World': the harmonies, the drumbeat, the Wurlitzer keyboard.....the first song on the record ['My Troubled Heart'] comes from a gospel song that already exists and I've changed the lyrics and changed the format a little bit. So there were very specific things to follow." Does Christopher remember the name of the song? "I think that was a Peter, Paul and Mary song, but a lot of people have done it - it's been around a long time. The main goal was to do as much country without making it obnoxious and without covering up the things that make it my songs...to be able to see the links. So in doing that, when Danny would have a great organ part - maybe it's not country, maybe it was more bluesy - or when the girls would get a gospel sound, I thought 'okay, I'm not going to hang on to this country idea'. There's other things and they go together, and I learned that while making the record - and I think we came out with a nice blend."

Photo: Mathew Parri Thomas
Taken at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London.

Given the age of some of the players, and Owens' history with older guys like Stanley Marsh and JR in Girls, I ask if the selection of the players for the record plays into - again - the lack of an older male figure to look up to in his life? "Yeah, it's been something in my life a lot," he admits. "Even as a teenager there were older guys; even before being creative, when I first arrived in the US as a sixteen year old I immediately found eighteen, nineteen year old guys who'd teach me about pop culture and how to smoke and just be a regular person. It's something I've been aware of my whole life, and thought about my whole life. Yes, there are these key people - I'd even mention Matt Fishbeck [from Holy Shit] and Ariel Pink who really got me playing music again. They played that same role and there are still people in my life like that - but the musicians on this record? It's a bit of a different relationship." Of course, the lack of someone to look up to in Owens' life can be traced back to the death of his younger brother Stephen, an event that led to his father leaving the Children of God and subsequently being absent from Owens' life until the age of sixteen. All these issues are finally addressed on the incredibly affecting gospel ballad 'Stephen'. It must have been such a difficult song to write, mustn't it? "That song was something I'd needed to get out of my system for a while," says Owens with a hesitation. "I'd written just the chorus and I didn't know what specifically to talk about in the verse for a long time. I could just hear that chorus...and then one point the verses finally came [It goes: 'Daddy didn't stick around for the three of us / He and my mother were separated / Someone's a family with the Children of God /But all we wanted was our father's love']. It's a great release; any kind of writing when you get to air things it's quite therapeutic."

"People may not always like what you're doing, and it's a good thing to know that and decide how to go forward."- Christopher Owens

We go on to talk about Christopher's father for a while: "We have a relationship that's probably typical for somebody whose dad left before he was born," he says. "I wasn't in the US at all, and I wasn't anywhere near him. Also, he was someone who had left the Children of God very early; it was around the death of Stephen and I guess that was kind of a line in the sand for him. So, within our group, when someone left like that you weren't supposed to talk about them let alone try to have a relationship with them or like them at all. You were supposed to consider them what they called a "backslider", haha. And they were very much excommunicated. I didn't speak to him ever; I didn't know his name, I didn't know anything about him 'til I came to the US." Was it around this time that Owens actually got to finally spend some time with his father? "Yeah, he was great. He drove up from Louisville, Kentucky to Amarillo, Texas when I was sixteen to spend time with my sisters and I, and then individually when I was twenty-three I drove down to Louisville and stayed at his house - that's when I really got to know him more." It's fascinating to note that the country influence stretches even to Owens' relationship with his father, a country music musician. "I'd watch him play; he's one of those guys who play four or five gigs a week," he explains, "without any glory, gets some free drinks and a hundred bucks or something and calls it a night. He would sit there and play Willie Nelson songs, Waylon Jennings songs and George Jones songs...there were many times on these trips where I'd watch him play and write down the names of these songs, try to find the recordings and I'd end up buying albums by those artists. So he plays a big part in my love of country. In general, though, we like each other. We spent more than the first half of my life not in each others' lives...so we're working on it."

Finally, as our time winds far too quickly forward to its conclusion, I ask about the promotion of A New Testament in light of how Lysandre was received. That album got a bit of a lukewarm reception, so is he wary of how this one might be received, or is he unfussed by the critical reception? "I've been really excited," says Owens. "I mean, I do think about things like that but for me understanding the way the last record was received is not something I can relate to. For me, I just love it. The more I tried to understand why certain people didn't love it as much, I just couldn't relate to it. It would start making me question things like 'should I make trendier music?'" That's not very healthy for your creativity, surely? "Exactly; that's something somebody should never ask themselves - I very quickly realised that was not good and it was good to learn that for the first record. People may not always like what you're doing, and it's a good thing to know that and decide how to go forward. I know I will do things in the future that will be different from everything I have done...and it's really about fulfilling something that I need to do."


A New Testament is released on September 29th via Turnstile. Head here to go 'Behind the Scenes' at his recent London show.