From the moment Christopher Owens’ new album artwork appeared online there was a collective furrowing of the brow. A no-frills group photo of the album’s personnel, with Owens himself front-and-centre, decked out in a leather waistcoat and pink cowboy hat. The title ‘A New Testament’ is stated unequivocally overhead. It’s a visual anomaly amongst a sea of abstract geometry and monochrome portraiture and, well, it’s not very fashionable. It’s brightly lit and crisp and they are all facing the camera, and umm… smiling? There are no filters, no pouting and no stylist apparent. The band stand out like a pair of knock-off market trainers at a high school sports day.
“The Guardian said we look like the Estonian cast of a reality TV show, so that was fantastic,” laughs Christopher Owens, sat in the courtyard of the Hoxton Hotel, London. “I really wanted to do something anti-cool, y’know. I was sick and tired of everybody formulating just the right cool image and then you put on the music and there is just nothing there.
“I wanted it to be everyone from the album and I didn’t want distraction. I wanted it to be about the people. Group photo, y’know? It seemed a bit boring to do another photo by myself when you get 100,000 chances to do that anyway.”
Kicking against the pricks is something Owens does instinctively. He is a natural and singular rebel: leaving the Children of God cult at 16, joining the ranks of young men under the wing of artist and billionaire Stanley Marsh III, then running off to San Francisco to play in Holy Shit with Ariel Pink. These are the actions of a man who is able to live many lives consecutively, or to using an overwrought phrase, to reinvent himself at will.
And the new record is no less contrary than the man. It is unapologetically a country record, with pedal steel, gospel singing, finger-picked guitar, low honky-tonk solos and tub-thumping drums. It’s a radical sidestep away from his contemporaries and a deliberate shunning of what he calls “too many 90s throwbacks”, which he sees as “quite nothing, quite minimal”. ‘A New Testament’ is definitely anti-minimal - songs like ‘It Comes Back to You’ have the full-throttle sentimentality of a Dolly Parton heartbreaker, something Owens has been keen to develop from the off.
“Well, the idea to focus more on the country-side was really the only idea - and it’s not really a new one,” he says. “We tried to do it on the first Girls album on the very last song ‘Darling’. We tried to do it on [Girls EP] ‘Broken Dreams Club’ on that track ‘Titular’ - there’s a pedal steel on that and, to me, it is a country song. “We always kind of leaned that way inside, but maybe it didn’t come out too much but I brought it out on this record with the instruments. Songwriting always seemed accessible to me from listening to country music. I mean if your inbred cousin can do it, you know, anybody can do it.”
“I’m not trying to do anything new, I’m trying to be part of something I love.”
— Christopher Owens
Recorded over a month last Autumn at Sunset Sound studio in LA and Decibelle Studios in San Francisco, Owens handpicked the band specifically to create what is to be his ‘country album’, the most important of which was a reunion with former Girls guitarist John Anderson. Anderson was Owens’ closest friend in Girls and his departure in 2012 precipitated Chris leaving the band to go solo, citing ‘too many line-up changes’.
“He never really had a good time in the band,” says Chris. “Probably because of other people. I didn’t know if he would ever come back. He quit last time before we had even finished recording - he just said ‘I’m outta here’ - so I’m excited that I asked him to play and he said yes.”
Owens also recruited a pedal steel player through his friends in the French band Phoenix and brought in the organ player, Dan Eisenberg, and the three backing singers he had worked with on ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’. “We met those girls by accident because I was demanding a gospel trio,” he laughs. “A lot of people were shaking their heads and saying it wouldn't work on ‘Vomit’ for example. ‘I just don’t get it’, you know? Electric guitars, your tiny voice… I just don’t see it’. And I’d be like ‘Just wait. Wait.’ And the last thing we recorded was their vocals and everybody was just floored.”
The trio - made-up of Makeda, Traci and Skylar - were more used to singing with Mariah Carey and Dr Dre, which left Owens feeling a little intimidated about his ‘weird little voice’. “I’ve never thought of myself as a vocalist, I kind of am by default and I’ve had all these fantasies about other people singing my songs but when I think about why they don’t it’s because they are a bit too me,” he says.
“The vocal group is an instrument. It’s what makes the Beach Boys, the Beach Boys or what made Simon and Garfunkel something very different from Paul Simon, but I don’t always like to use it. For example, I found that with the deepest songs on this record I don’t use it... ‘I Just Can’t Live Without You But I’m Still Alive’. I put that last because it’s the most meaningful song to me on the album. But for a big sound you can either start layering fuzz guitars or you can do something that people don’t do so much anymore and get a little vocal group in.”
Growing up within the Children of God, Owens was always part of musical groups who would perform and record songs in English and sell them as language tools when they were travelling around Asia. They were more-or-less cut off from modern culture but there was a lot of music within the movement including a folk duo called Zac & Shelley who would sing sloppy love songs. These early lessons in sentimental lyrics and romantic music are keenly present in Owens most meaningful songs from across his back catalogue: ‘Ghostmouth’, ‘Jamie Marie’, ‘Part of Me’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘I Just Can’t Live Without You But I’m Still Alive’ (hint: they are usually last on the album). He says: “I don’t have a way with words really. What I can do is say simple, honest things and that’s basically what country music is supposed to be. It’s just traditional and I like traditional things. I’ve always said from day one that I’m not trying to do anything new, I’m trying to be part of something I love.”
When you dig beneath the costume spurs and fringing of ‘A New Testament’ there lies the beating heart of Owens’ mesmerising songwriting. From the lo-fi fuzz of Girls’ to his first flute-adorned solo album ‘Lysandre’, he has experimented with form - this time it’s country but next time it could be “jazz, string music, orchestrated music - whatever I can get away with I’ll do.” It’s the privilege of someone who has over one hundred unreleased demos of songs amassed in just over a decade. He writes one song at a time, usually no more than one a month, when the mood takes him.
“All these songs, all the songs on the Girls albums, they all came on their own. Some of these songs are four or five years old on this album. Some of them are from last year. Luckily I have so many that I don’t ever need to write songs but it’s not about that, it’s about waiting for them to come so that they’re important,” he explains.
Songwriting for him is effortless, he says: “I don’t even think about it. I read books, is really what I do most. And then sometimes I take walks here and there to have a cigarette and it’s usually on one of those walks, you know? The rhythm of the walk itself. I don’t know… I think all songs just come from all the other songs you’ve already heard and then if you have anything to say you get some lyrics. So I wait for them.”
Waiting for inspiration doesn’t really slow Owens down. Like his hero Paul Simon, his albums are projects that allow him the space to experiment with all the different kinds of music that he likes, and maybe wasn’t able to realise within the confines of a group. He already knows what the next album will be, and we should expect yet another musical U-turn.
“I want to show the other side of the coin you know? This record [‘A New Testament’] is very much one side of the coin. There’s another side of what I really wanted to do with Girls that’s very important to me, like ‘Lust for Life’, ‘Big Bad Mean Motherfucker’ - kind of more whimsical songs where I take on a character that I’d like to be more often than I am.”
For Chrissy Owens, the only thing to be afraid of is to become fixed in one point: “The worst thing is just buying into something that you think will work, that you know will work. I think if it’s valid, try it, you know?”
Taken from the September issue of DIY, out now. Christopher Owens' new album ‘A New Testament’ will be released on 29th September.