Christopher Owens

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Funny, intelligent, and sensitive, Christopher Owens’ qualities are as apparent in person as they are in his music. Over our hour-long conversation in the back of a coffee shop on Haight Street in San Francisco, Owens is often smiling and laughing as he sips a cappuccino in a grey Psychedelic Judaism T-shirt, camo jacket and well-worn SF Giants cap.

When asked about the last song he wrote, he explains, “I listen to all of Willie Nelson’s records back-to-back and I find myself walking around Golden Gate Park involuntarily regurgitating it as what I would say if I was him.” Owens proceeds to pull out his iPhone and recite his most recent idea, a song called “Singing Through My Tears.” Orchestrating with his hands, he softly sings: “I know you’re tired / I know I might have done this or that / but know you leave me fear / I’ll be here, year after year / singing through my tears.

The thirty-five year old musician, perhaps best known for his previous band, Girls, has just released his second solo effort, A New Testament. Owens says of the title: “I think it’s kind of an earnest, beautiful, grand statement to say ‘this is a new testament.’ To steal something that well-known and then to use it in a non-religious way, I think it’s just a little fun—a little rebellious or something.” The new album is heavily influenced by country and rhythm and blues, backed by lush gospel harmonies and featuring many collaborators from the second and final Girls record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Much of the new album was actually penned during that period with some songs dating as far back as 2008.

The results are a return to form, building from the experiential songwriting of last year’s Lysandre and featuring some of Owens’ strongest work to date. Testament also includes the addition of pedal steel player Ed Efira, who came at the recommendation of French alt-pop heavyweights, Phoenix. Influenced by the country classics of George Jones, Buck Owens, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton, Owens admits, “I like some newer stuff too: Dwight Yoakam and the odd Tim McGraw song, here or there. A lot of it goes over my head, but [McGraw] has this one song called, ‘Drugs or Jesus,’ which is just devastatingly great.”

Although neither religious nor currently using opiates, his writing is rife with both topics. “I’m very anti-religious when it comes down to it,” says Owens from across our wobbly high-top table. “I like Jesus as a guy. I probably would have hung out with him if I was around, but I don’t believe in God at all.” Discussing his struggle with opiates, Owens explains, “It’s the kind of addiction that requires constant up-keep.” He discloses how he was recently approached by a friend to help find drugs. “As much as I wanted to help him, it did make me think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll get a little for myself,’ but of course I had to say ‘no.’ It’s something that I’m working on just keeping out of my life.”

Born into the Children of God cult, where he would remain until the age of sixteen, Owens is critical and at the same time appreciative of his upbringing. “It’s weird living together in a house with 500 people,” he says. “It’s quite a unique experience. Getting together, all of us in the morning after breakfast to sing songs and read from the Bible. As much as I didn’t like what we were singing about and reading from, I’m starting to realize that it was a very special thing.” One song on the new album, “Stephen,” is named after his late infant brother who died as a result of a lack of medical care through the cult. Despite his disapproval of the group, Owens admits, “If I had to choose right now, I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe some of the hard things are what gives my life substance now.”

Owens’ “fundamental love” for San Francisco, where he currently resides just north of the Panhandle, is another reoccurring theme in his music. When asked about his feelings regarding the recent ‘tech boom’ and its resulting socio-economic impact, the musician explains, “I’m one of these people that is very fascinated by wealth—I don’t have it myself. When the limousine drives past and you see the guy in the tuxedo with the gloves on his hands and just this image of luxury and elegance—to me I’m drawn to that. It makes my mind wander.”

Owens has more recently been the face of campaigns for Saint Laurent and H&M, an industry he admits to knowing little about, but considers himself “lucky enough to be invited in as a guest.” He explains, “Fashion is sort of this fantastic world that’s out of reach for me. I can’t afford expensive clothing. I can’t remember everybody’s name, so I watch it from afar with a fascination—sort of like the ‘tech boom.’ I think music would benefit [from] everyone being forced to wear a Steve Jobs-type outfit. Forcing people to discard fashion, I think, heightens personality. I think maybe all musicians should be forced to be naked like John Lennon and Yoko.” Though Christopher Owens’ undisguised songwriting is rare in our fashion-dependent music culture, he’s also the first to admit, “…it’s fun to put on a country hat for an album.”

Text by Brett Leader
Photography by Annie Thornton

THE OBSESSION ISSUE

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