Christopher Owens speaks in full sentences. Slowly, deliberately, he brings his thoughts back around on themselves, orating small compositions with artful clarity. But this comes as no surprise. A sharp intellectualism and a willingness to divulge his innermost quandaries and revelations is much of what has made Owens into a favorite of the fringe music scene over the course of the past five years.
First breaking into the California circuit in 2009 as the frontman of the indie rock band Girls, Owens garnered attention for his melodious, emotionally fraught and searching work. He left the band in 2012 after the release of their second widely lauded album and put out his first solo record the next year, a concept album called “Lysandre.” This week, Owens is returning with his second solo album: a twangy, soulful and incisive collection of songs called “A New Testament.”
The skeletal, wraith-like Owens isn’t conventionally attractive. His long blonde hair is greasy and unkempt. He doesn’t smile for pictures. His eyes are sunken and his face looks somehow excessively naked. But still, he exudes a strange magnetism, which seems to be made up of equal parts vulnerability and confidence—unaffectedness and eccentricity. A lot of attention has been given to his past and personal life, and it’s not hard to see why.
Owens lived out his boyhood traveling throughout Europe and Asia with a religious cult called The Children of God. When he finally broke from the group at age 16, he followed his sister to Amarillo, Texas, where he was swept into the punk scene before working as the personal assistant to the controversial oil tycoon and artist Stanley Marsh III. He moved out to California a few years later and formed Girls, which gained an almost worshipful following in a very short period. He struggled extensively and publicly with a heroin addiction. He modeled in high-profile campaigns for both Yves Saint Laurent and Isabel Marant for H&M. Things certainly haven’t been dull.
But at age 35, Owens is clean and in a happy relationship, and in our conversation with him, a distinct and assuring calm inhabits his conversational manner.
I thought that on this album, all the uses of quintessential American music were really interesting—the country and gospel influences. How did you decide to take it in that direction?
Well, it was something that developed during the recording process. Initially I had a very specific goal of trying to explore country in ways that I hadn’t before. And then intuitively I asked all the people I wanted to work with the most to come work on the album, and when we were working on it I started to realize that these people were bringing their own influences and ideas—which weren’t necessarily country at times. But they were so great that I didn’t want to say, oh let’s do that again, or can you not sing like that—I mean, I’d asked them to be part of it. So I started to look at the album differently. I wasn’t just doing a country record, per se.
I know you grew up traveling all over the world with the Children of God, and that you’ve been pretty verbally opposed to religion since you left the cult, so I’m wondering how you felt about incorporating gospel into your music now.
If you had talked to me as an 18 or 21-year-old about the idea of embracing spiritual and gospel sounds, I would’ve thought you were crazy. I still had a big chip on my shoulder about it. But I’ve found over time that there are things I really appreciate about that music. I’ve learned to see past the religious aspects and see the incredible qualities that religious and gospel music have that I can relate to. You know, using music to serve a higher purpose, to escape the immediate life around you, and to reach toward an ideal—something fantastic, something transcendent. It’s a very genuine thing. I still don’t believe in God, but I can listen to a church choir or gospel music and see that when you strip away this concept of asking God to set you free or take your burdens away, what you end up with is the music itself—which is doing that on its own. By surrendering and letting go and asking for these things, the music itself is really uplifting. It’s not necessarily God doing that, it’s just the desire you already have to escape your problems or the life around you that ends up serving that process.
Over the years, there has been a lot of hype about your personal life. Do you ever wish that you hadn’t revealed as much to the public as you have?
Yeah, you know the whole thing happened very quickly. I went from being someone who worked washing dishes, or making coffee, or at a hotel reception desk, to somebody who had to talk publicly about his life. And I can see a learning curve in some of the dialogue. But I wouldn’t really take back anything or change it, because I did talk about things that were very important and true. Yes, there’s part of me that wishes that I didn’t have to have a dialogue about drug addiction or something, but at the same time, I don’t feel like it’s anything that shouldn’t have come out. I think it was important to the story.
How was the whole experience of modeling for Saint Laurent?
It’s definitely something that I didn’t have any experience with before, but it was all very interesting to learn about. And I haven’t had a bad experience; it’s all been wonderfully insightful. I think I’ve been lucky to do that stuff with good people. For example, Hedi Slimane, I already knew him for a couple years before we did that shoot. It didn’t feel that weird—we’d already taken photos together and had long discussions about music and things like that. I felt comfortable working with him. I liked him as a person. That was a good thing because it wasn’t just starting something that big out of nowhere. All in all, I find it to be kind of fun. I like taking photos of people, and I like working with other people who have their own things going on.
Do you have any dream song collaborators?
Oh yeah, a lot of them. I have some impossible ones. I’ve written some songs before that I think Beyoncé or Taylor Swift would sound really great on, even if I know that’s not really realistic. On a more realistic level, there are some people working around me that are great. I think Lykki Li is fantastic.
If you could have Beyoncé do any song with you, what song would it be?
Do you remember the Girls song “Love Like a River”? When I wrote that originally, I actually heard her voice singing it.