How the ex-Girl shut down his band to record an album about the one that got away
For the past few weeks, Christopher Owens has been live-tweeting his reading of Mao: The Real Story, a book by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven Levine about the life of the Chinese Dictator. "He's a complicated character," the 33-year old singer explains. "But as it goes, I think I'm a complicated character too."
Anyone who's listened Owens' music would find it hard to disagree. When Girls emerged in 2009 with 'Hellhole Ratrace', it was Owens' ambivalent, lovelorn lyrics which were as striking as the band's sharply-focussed guitar melodies, which Owens recorded and performed in collaboration with JR White. A devoted following and landslide of critical acclaim came for Girls, which followed through 2010's 'Broken Dreams Club' and their ambitious masterpiece, 2011's 'Father, Son, Holy Ghost'. But with a revolving door of touring bandmates, Girls was not to last. In 2011 Owens told Dazed: "It's been incredibly frustrating. The people we play live with keep changing - everybody has their own project… It's just been insane."
Owens announced that he was leaving Girls in July 2012. We met in December, the week of his debut live shows in Europe. In a London hotel room, Owens made himself tea with honey and told me about creating this snapshot in time. He was here to promote his debut solo album 'Lysandre', a record which describes Owens's one-night love affair with the French girl of the album's title as well as with music, America, and his old band. With an earworm 'Theme' that recurs throughout the record, 'Lysandre' draws from chamber pop and lilts to genres as it journeys through regions. With Owens' direct and diaristic lyrics, it's a beautiful record.
Dazed Digital: Are there songs on the record about JR?
Christopher Owens: No. But it's about Girls' first tour, so it reflects on what it was like when we suddenly got a lot of attention, and when suddenly I was playing for the first time outside of San Francisco. Writing about things like stage fright, and doubting whether the songs are important or any good. Our first tour was from San Francisco to New York to Hyères, a town in the French Riviera. The A-side of the album is leaving home and going to New York. Seeing an old friend in New York, talking about how that felt. And then getting on the plane to fly to France.
DD: There's the sound of a plane taking off on 'Here We Go Again'.
Christopher Owens: Yeah. You flip over the record, and you're on the Riviera. Then there's the rest of the story and meeting Lysandre, a girl I met at the end of the tour in the Riviera and who I had a very short relationship with. We spent one night together and then I flew home the next day. I wrote an Epilogue, 'Part of Me', about a year later, about accepting that the relationship never turned into much. It was very fleeting, and that's okay. In a way I can relate it to being in the band Girls, and lots of other things.
DD: Is 'Lysandre' an indication of the direction your solo material will take?
Christopher Owens: In the way of the level of ambitiousness? Yes. But I'm not by any means going to make records that sound like this in the future. It's very much a one-off. But the amount of thought that's put into it - the fact that it's almost like one long song, and there's a refrain that keeps coming back, and there's arrangements and musicians brought in - that kind of stuff I will do.
DD: Do you think it's rare to have that approach nowadays?
Christopher Owens: Yeah, it's rare to think about a full album. It's rare to think about what happens on the end of the A-side. I think it's rare to use instruments like the classical guitar and the flute.
DD: The flute reminded me of Nico.
Christopher Owens: Yeah, the 'Chelsea Girl' album was something I had in mind. That's something I was very inspired by, and some of Donovan's music. I guess a chamber music vibe for the beginning, and then when we go to New York it's supposed to sound a little bit like New York rock and roll, and then when we go to France it's supposed to sound a little bit like we're in the Mediterranean.
DD: At your London show you gave a vase of flowers to a fan. It was very sweet.
Christopher Owens: Well, did you notice he tried to start a standing ovation? And nobody did it! [laughs] I really like fans of Girls and now the new stuff. There's a genuine desire to be sweet and nice. Maybe we're all admitting that we like these sadder songs, but the idea is to be romantic and positive and make something beautiful. Nobody's carving the band name into their arm with a knife - they wear little flowers or make presents. The element that I don't like are people that come and show off. I've had people shout things that are just really silly - "You're the new Kurt Cobain!" - I don't wanna hear that.
DD: Given the amount of choice that the internet affords us, do you think it's harder to breed those 'timeless' acts?
Christopher Owens: Yeah, but there's always been an element of that. When radio or burnable CDs came along, it was equally as changing as what's going on now. And people like Justin Bieber are a genuine phenomenon. I think that people still find a way to become that iconic person, even when the industry changes.
DD: I heard you were recently in Tokyo. What's your favourite thing to do there?
Christopher Owens: I like to go shopping, really. I found this old-fashioned jacket and pantsuit thing that's very Japanese. It's got a little jacket that is like a kimono but it's short. You tie it and there's matching pants that go with it. It's made for wearing at home and in the garden.
DD: Do you have a garden?
Christopher Owens: Yeah, I do. I live in my girlfriend's Mom's house. [laughs] I don't really grow any vegetables or herbs or anything like that, but I take care of the roses, and there's an apple tree which I prune and make apple juice from.
DD: Who do you admire that's currently working today?
Christopher Owens: I'm a big fan of Victoria Legrand from Beach House. I think she might have the best voice around right now. I think Mary J. Blige is a very unique voice. Obviously Beyoncé is just the current reigning diva.
DD: Would you like to write a song like 'Halo'?
Christopher Owens: I love that song. I think I do write some songs a little bit like that already, and could be taken to much higher places by people like that.