Interview by Aidin Vaziri
“I don't feel like there's anything more I can say about it than I’ve already said,” Christopher Owens
sighs, when asked about his seemingly abrupt decision to pull the plug on his band Girls
last year. Having broken the news to his fans via Twitter in July and re-emerged as a solo artist in December, the 33-year-old San Francisco-based singer seems eager to move on. Who are we to stop him?
After making it clear that he is still on good terms with his former bandmate and collaborator Chet “JR” White
, Owens talked to us about his intensely personal new album, Lysandre
, which was inspired by his first world tour with the band in the 2008 and is named after a girl he courted while on the road. The album, which opens with a flute solo, takes a significant stylistic detour from the trio of fuzzy rock releases by Girls – its 2009 debut, Album
, the 2010 EP, Broken Dreams Club
, and last year's Father, Son, Holy Ghost
What remains is Owens willingness to sing and speak as frankly as possible, as we found out when we caught up with him at his home in San Francisco a week before Lysandre
PureVolume: You caught your fans off guard when you announced you were leaving Girls on Twitter. Was it something you decided on a whim?
Christopher Owens: It's not this thing where I have my reason and that's it. It was a long time of trying and having things happen that caused the band to be rethought over and over again. There's nobody that I have any problem with or anything like that. Everybody was great to work with. There was not one instance that caused the band to break up. It was more of a long, slow process.
PV: The album is about Girls’ first tour in 2008 and everything that came with it, including falling in love with Lysandre. Why did it take so long to process it?
CO: For us, when Girls was playing as a band, there wasn't much time to record—mainly because we didn't have a studio of our own. There's a lot of music I've written that just had to be put away. I wanted to record it for a while but there never seemed to be any time. It didn't seem like the right project to do. But I found myself leaving the band and wrapping that up and having the chance to go into the studio on my own and do something. It is a very personal story. It seemed like a good album to present as a solo album.
PV: Did you hear these songs fully formed in your head?
CO: What ended up getting recorded is exactly what I imagined when I wrote it. I'm not claiming I hear these songs fully formed in my head and write them out like some mad genius. It's not like I'm hearing things. But somehow, in an abstract way, it is a whole idea. You know what you're going to do with the rhythms and drum beats. In the best case scenario, if the song has come through clearly, there would never be any questions of what each track is supposed to be and do. I just know what it's going to sound like.
PV: There are moments when you seem to lay all your emotions bare. How self-aware are you in the studio?
CO: I only write stuff out when those ideas come. That only happens after something significant happens. I'm very consciously reflecting on something personal and meaningful. That's what feels good about it, pulling out some part of yourself.
PV: Sometimes people criticize you for your simple lyrics. But isn’t that part of the appeal?
CO: I don't know. This is the way I write. There are certain variables that have led my music to be simple and accessible. I'm not very educated. I don't have a lot of experience with this. I don't have a big vocabulary. I didn't even live in an English speaking country until I was 16. But I am happy for it. I work at such a basic level that everybody can relate to it. That's my appeal.
PV: Is listening back to the album like going through an old journal?
CO: On the whole, the album is very much about myself and this tour. At the end, there's a little love story. There's a song about being in New York and running into an old friend and an old wound opened up. There's a song about singing in front of people. I guess I thought that time period was significant.
PV: Are you sad you’re a different, maybe more jaded person now?
CO: I do still get excited about touring. I do get nervous even. I do still have a strong connection with what I'm talking about. There's no sad feeling on my album. “Bittersweet” is close but it's not exactly the right word. It's about choosing to remember things positively. It's choosing to see that time period as a beautiful time. I could look at it and write a completely different record. I could write about how lost I was and have the relationship be something dramatic. It's about choosing to have this romantic outlook. There’s a very pleasant, tender, sweet feeling.
PV: Are you going to play the album in order every night?
CO: I think the songs stand on their own, but I think it's a better show to play the album in row.
PV: You often tweet about the books you’re reading. Did you ever make it through the Mao Zedong biography you were working though?
CO: I did but realized I didn't want to tweet through the second half. It's still interesting, but it's things people already know about. The beginning part is really interesting. I was just kind of surprised how interesting he was when he was younger. I liked him all of a sudden.
PV: Were you worried about taking on [Mao Zedong’s] less savory characteristics as you got deeper into it?
CO: He really is just a bit of a hipster. He just wanted to hang around with other guys who were smart. There was a lot of revolution going on around him, so it wasn’t exactly a novel concept. He was just being edgy and smart and informed. He was pretty much an idealistic freedom fighter. Before that, he was just a student. In my mind I figured he was somebody I would want to hang around with when he was a teenager. He didn’t do anything evil until he was much older. He got a little crazy.
PV: Do you have your reading material picked out for your tour this year?
CO: I have the most giant stack of books that never gets smaller because books keep getting added. There's a lot of soccer books. There's a lot of bios on coaches and players I like. I have, over my life, been reading through Gore Vidal's books in chronological order. I have a big biography on Hirohito—but that one I might put off for a while.