“People call me an ‘indie’ artist or something. Fuck off!” laughs Christopher Owens, reflecting on the way his songwriting defies genre. Over the last several years, his sound's evolved from the beloved, sun-tinged lo-fi of Girls' early releases to the more lush and polished Father, Son, Holy Ghost, before his earnest, flute-accompanied solo debut Lysandre was released in 2012. There, he embraced the country and gospel influences previously only hinted at in his music, which continues on his forthcoming A New Testament (out September 29). The record also openly discusses Owens’ well-known personal history, most notably on the heartbreaking “Stephen”, which describes the death of his infant brother when his family were entwined with a religious cult. As for the future, Owens does have one goal – "Eventually one day I’ll have one of those songs that everybody knows, that is just so good, that you can’t argue with it," he says. "It’s like Woody Allen says, ‘If I just keep making a movie every year, one of them is bound to be a classic.'"
The first video from A New Testament saw Owens clad in a red, fringed Western jumpsuit – likely the only man who could pull it off – playing at a 50s school dance with his band, whilst his tween doppelgänger experienced the wonders of first love. Now, he takes a more starring role in the video for “Never Wanna See That Look Again”, on which he worked with Aaron Brown of Focus Creeps. The pair previously joined forces on Girls' iconic “Lust for Life” – remember the NSFW version, with its "boobs, dicks, drugs, explosions, and live shots"? – but Owens had a rather more family-friendly moodboard for his latest visual, which was inspired by Singing in the Rain.
How did you start pulling together ideas for the new video?
Christopher Owens: Well, I knew I wanted do something with Aaron Brown again, because it had been a while, and I knew that while I had enjoyed the last video, I felt that I didn’t show much personality in it – it was mostly about the kids. I liked that a lot, but I thought that this time around it should sort of, show the other side, be a different type of video. I knew that working with Aaron would be the best way to do that because we’re extremely comfortable together – we’ve done a lot of videos together – so I knew I could make that type of video with him.
Do you enjoy having the focus on you and getting to play in front of the camera?
Christopher Owens: Every once in a while, you know, for the most part. But it took time to do a new video, I was kind of dreading it because I don’t have any ideas – I don’t think about videos. Every once in a while I have a specific sort of thing I'd like to try and when I do, then it is a lot of fun, yeah.
What’s the difference between the persona you have in this video and how you are on stage?
Christopher Owens: I think it’s very much the same. I think I was very genuine in this video. Remember the “Honey Bunny” video? I think I acted a bit little more happy go lucky than I might be. This one I think is pretty much how I am. The difference on stage would be that I'd have the guitar, which changes everything. It changes the way you feel, the way you look, the way you act and how you can or cannot move, so that’s the main difference. Also on stage I have the band with me so there’s a lot more to look at.
“I think the idea of men being sexy is fantastic. I think we need more of it, and not just in the ways that you currently see”
There’s more to interact with – but we had some props in the video: there’s a chair, there’s a knife-throwing incident, right?
Christopher Owens: Yeah, yeah, how’d you like that! I just was like, I can throw a knife, you know, I’ve always liked to throw knives. I like knives in general; I used to work in a knife store. For about a year I was purchasing manager so like I would look through catalogues for what we would sell in store, order them in and do all that. This was when I first moved to San Francisco.
So it was a little homage to your early San Francisco days?
Christopher Owens: Yeah, but also, I always play with the fact that I am very masculine but, I think physically I’m very feminine. There was an attempt to do that in general in this video, and I felt like the knife just plays well in to the masculine thing, as well as the Western theme.
It’s interesting the way that masculinity and sexuality are presented in the video – you’re quite flirtatious, there are some homoerotic undercurrents...
Christopher Owens: Haha! I like all that stuff. I’ve always thought it was interesting and fun and nice. I don’t understand why other people don’t. I don’t really have a big reason behind why I like it, it’s always been an element in my life. You know, I grew up with a mother and two sisters, no dad, no older brother around, so I kinda got a little feminine. But I think the idea of men being sexy is fantastic. I think we need more of it, and not just in the ways that you currently see. I think people like Mick Jagger really hit the nail on the head.
Why did you decide to use the backlot setting?
Christopher Owens: A while back I called Aaron up and pitched him my idea. I wanted it to be in a studio like that and I wanted the background to be sort of Western – those American wide-open spaces. He actually found the backdrops in an old silent film studio, which is where we filmed. They have a basement full of old silent film stuff, and those backdrops were down there. That turned out to be really cool, it was a lot more grand and beautiful than I had imagined. He did really well there, and then he put together a team, a handful of people that were just very good, you know – camera men, lighting, all that type of stuff, so there was a small little group of us. They all did really well and that made it easier for me.
I actually sent him a link to this one part of Singing in the Rain where Gene Kelly does this fantastic performance for the object of his desire – that had the look that we worked with. We didn't completely follow it, but it was a visual reference and we went from there, it worked. I think Aaron understood what I liked about that shot and captured it. I do love that film, and Gene Kelly in general.
Why did you want these Western backdrops? Is it reflexive of the music or is it more to do with the ideology?
Christopher Owens: Just the sound of this album, there’s a Western and a very country theme to it, and then the imagery and the clothing I've been putting on – I’ve been leaning towards has been that stuff.
Do you wear those clothes all the time, or are they just part of your performances?
Christopher Owens: I wear them here and there, you know, I try to mix it up – in the video I have a shirt and jeans that I would wear all the time but then I have boots and a hat, just something small to throw the outfit off. My cowboy hats I got in Amarillo, my boots also. A lot of it comes from living in Texas for nine years.
Are the elements of country music in A New Testament something you’ve always wanted to embrace, ever since Girls?
Christopher Owens: Yeah. The first Girls album is really defined by the limitations of how we made it – in our free time over like a year or more, a year and a half. JR [White] only had a certain amount of equipment, and I could only play a certain amount of instruments. I could do back up vocals, which I did on “Hellhole Ratrace” and “Headache”, but they only sounded so good, because it’s just me kind of going, ‘ooh ooh ahh’. So you know, the album sounds the way it does because I only play solos so well, and I only play keyboard so well. It was very limited. But even by the very next record, Broken Dreams Club, we made it clear that now that we could, we were gunna make fuller, bigger songs with other people that could play other instruments. So we’ve been saying that from the beginning. “Broken Dreams Club” the song has a pedal steel on it, it’s a very country song. I think “Saying I Love You” is a little country. We’ve hinted at it, it’s just the first time that I’ve really given that much focus on it for a whole album.
“In Woody Allen's movies, the first person to say that he’s a total fool – and I think I do that all the time”
The new album obviously has a very religious title, as did Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost. What is your relationship with spirituality now?
Christopher Owens: Well, I know everybody has a relationship with spirituality. But I don’t really believe in any of these comments that people make like, that people have a soul, have something that’s alive more than just a body...You know, I think it really is all very scientific, that’s what I believe in – atoms and neurons and cells. That’s why you fall in love or believe things and have your feelings. So I’m not a spiritual person. But I understand the phrase. I think spirituality is a form of daydreaming.
So why did you choose those titles?
Christopher Owens:Father, Son, Holy Ghost I thought was a good title because it’s dramatic. And I’d never seen an album titled that. To me it represented, you know...that you have where something comes from, what it is. And then there’s this other thing, something so ephemeral that you have to call it ‘holy ghost’, I mean it doesn’t even make any sense. A New Testament has a little bit of affection for the biblical term. It’s a little bit more arrogant and rebellious, you know, but the fact that people feel like those are untouchable titles only empowers their sacredness. Take the fucking thing. If you make something and it’s a new testament, call it a new testament. I think it’s a great name for a new album. I think it’s provocative, you use something like that and you change the meaning of it. It draws the eye in and you’re there. It’s a great thing. It’s like calling a song "Lust for Life". You’re engaged. So, maybe I’d be good at advertising or something...!
Your song writing is incredibly personal. Do you ever have reservations about sharing that much of yourself with people?
Christopher Owens: No, I don’t. It’s kind of the only thing that makes it any fun. Otherwise I’d just make instrumental music or something. These abstract lyrics you hear very often that come out of people...I can’t imagine where the drive is to do that. This is part of wanting to work under my own name, realising that that’s what’s important about all this. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be nervous. If I wasn’t nervous it wouldn’t be any good. It’s like Woody Allen’s movies, he’s constantly telling you so much about himself, all his flaws. He’s the first person to say that he’s a total fool – and I think I do that all the time. The same reason I like (Ingmar) Bergman, his own struggles. Salinger, the same thing. He very famously, when they wanted to do a movie or Broadway version musical of Catcher in the Rye, said, 'Only if I can play Holden.' You’ve got to be confident like that. I think it’s important to do that, to have it be something only you can say.
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