I knew nothing about Christopher Owens the first time I heard “Hellhole Ratrace” by Girls. It was better that way. I immediately fell in love with the song, a seven-minute downer pop jam that would later appear on the band’s critically acclaimed debut album, Album. It was sad and slow, but celebratory. “I don’t want to cry my whole life through/I want to do some laughing too,” sang Owens, in his weary but wide-eyed voice. “So come on, come on, come on and laugh with me.” He sounded on the verge of tears. He sounded kind of loopy.
The song was hopeful, but in a way that felt more realistic than the escapist sugary scuzz-pop surfacing that summer of 2009. The vocals were crisp and clear; the painfully sincere, open-book lyrics were so up front in the mix that you couldn’t help but be confronted by them. The video for “Hellhole” felt honest. Owens and his California crew weren’t riding beach vibes and surfing in the sun. Instead, they were shot-gunning beers in a bedroom, stealing champagne from a convenience store and drinking it straight out of a bottle, shooting the shit in a late-night diner until the sun came up.
The two albums and one EP released by Girls — who announced their breakup yesterday via Twitter — contained some of the most universally raw, human emotions to surface in pop music over the past three years. But once you know Owens’ bizarre and incredible past, it’s hard to separate his lyrics from that warped, addictive story.
You know how it goes. Dude is born into the Children of God cult, his brother dies of pneumonia because of the cult’s anti-medicine rules, mother is eventually forced into a period of prostitution. Owens spends his childhood traveling around Asia and Europe, living communally with the cult, never settling anywhere for more than one year. At 16, he breaks away and moves to Amarillo, TX with a sister, gets a job at a grocery store, gets into drugs and painting and music, joins a suburban punk band called Hubris. A multi-millionaire named Stanley Marsh 3 finds him and mentors him.
At 25, he moves to San Francisco, lives in the upstairs bedroom with a Chinese family he finds on Craigslist. He meets a girl named Liza in a park, they start dating and form a band called Curls. She introduces him to Holy Shit, a band that he joins, where he meets Ariel Pink and his life is changed forever. (“He was like an older brother to me,” Owens told GQ in September 2011. “Like a glimmer of light. I never would have started writing songs without him.” He also admits to growing his hair to look like Pink.) When Liza and Owens break up, he writes “Lust for Life.” His new friend Chet “JR” White helps him record it, plays the other instruments. That’s the beginning of Girls.
This is the stuff of legend. Since his first songs and interviews, Owens has become a sort of folkloric indie rock myth of our times.
But that myth isn’t essential to appreciating the songs on their own. Album first, and then the careful song craft and developed production of the Broken Dreams Club EP, a sign of what was to come on Father, Son, Holy Ghost. On the latter, the lyrics and images expand to spiritual territory about origin, identity, soul, with an exceptional melding of sugar pop, punk, doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, guitar solos, bits of metal and Elvis Costello in ways that are simultaneously unusual and perfect; it shuffles and twangs effortlessly. Owens writes songs about living with the intensity of someone making up for 16 lost years, squeezing out every ounce of life. But you don’t need to know the details to understand he’s a narrator having breakdowns and writing beautiful songs about them.
In interviews, he constantly hates on himself as a vocalist. He badly wants other people to be singing his songs, and has dreams of collaborating with Justin Bieber, and of Beyonce covering his songs. But whether he realizes it, Owens’s distinctive voice is part of what makes his music so personal. What makes his voice great are the trembles, the sincerity, the sound of someone who maybe once was a good singer but had his heart stomped all over and somehow is still looking up; the voice of someone deeply fucked up but relentlessly upbeat.
We don’t know yet why Owens is leaving Girls. Maybe he’s aware of the extent to which he has created a character with a wild backstory and perhaps he wants to get away from that. Maybe the television show Girls forced him to reckon with the fact that he’s currently operating under a name that he has no virtually no control over.
Whatever it is, Owens is a prolific songwriter, and this is clearly just the next step — not the end of a career. The same goes for White, whose production and sonic innovation made Girls a critical success. Before Owens and White met, Owens had never recorded a pop song. White had studied studio recording, but was working as a cook, partying and taking it slow in San Francisco. “A lot of people, my friends in San Francisco were in bands and I was never envious of them but I was always like, you have no idea what I can do,” White told The Fader in September 2009. “We were like, let’s make something that really is cool, to show people that we’re not just a couple of losers.”
White and Owens needed each other, and they realized their potentials together. They’re both artists who can stand on their own, and now they are going to. And anyway, Chris Owens has never stayed in one place too long — whether or not by his own choosing. This is just another home he’s leaving behind, in search of the next one.
Photo credit: Charlotte Zoller