Credit: Charlotte Zoller

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.

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Photo credit: Charlotte Zoller

Comments (23)
  1. Great article, Liz. This embodied my thoughts with skill.

  2. I’m really curious to find out what happened here. While both members of Girls are undeniably talented, the music they made together was often so perfect, I can’t imagine future projects will have the same “spark.” I hope I’m wrong.

    • I don’t really know anything about JR White. Everyone seems to be making that point that he was a really great producer and I have no reason to doubt that, but to me Christopher Owens is a once in a generation type talent. I’m sure the two of them had great chemistry together, but talented producer/multi-instrumentalist types will be falling over themselves to work with C.O. if that is what he wants. He was the heart and soul of Girls and I just don’t see his future output suffering.

      I know I cracked a joke or two about old JR yesterday and I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m piling on. I actually feel for him because I think his career is going to suffer. I wish them both the best and knowing about Owens’ history I really hope he is ok.

  3. I never realised he was in a cult. Makes it seem so weird that he made some of the most culturally relevant music of the past couple of years, when before that he was entirely seperate from it.

    • You never realized he was in a cult? That’s surprising, being that just about every review to ever come out about Girls felt the need to mention it, as if it automatically makes the music good. The music is good on its own…not milestone-in-modern-music amazing but really good.

    • Alex Vermitsky  |   Posted on Jul 6th, 2012 -1

      Not realizing Christopher Owens was in a cult is the new knowing everything about Christopher Owens was in a cult.

      • downvoting someone for saying that not realizing Christopher Owens was in a cult is the new knowing everything about Christopher Owens was in a cult is the newest not realizing Christopher Owens was in a cult. Until…NOW

  4. I guess it sucks that GIRLS will either be over or never be the same, but I never could listen to their music without focusing solely on Owens’ contributions. It gives me hope that whatever he does next will be a success.

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  6. Of course it’s Chris Owens leaving Girls and not Lena Dunham leaving GIRLS.
    Eff this cruel world!

  7. Great article but I can’t quite figure out why this story is receiving so much attention. The core members of the band are undeniably talented and without a doubt will find success in the future.

    Owens leaving the group almost makes a good amount of sense. Each Girls album has taken a different stylistic direction, freeing himself from one sole contributor will allow him to further that exploration.

    I just hope he doesn’t suffer from Devendra Banhart syndrome: an artist’s ambitions overpowering any sense of continuity or reason.

  8. I guess it finally sunk in now….I’m so depressed that i never got to see Girls live. Never even had a tiny chance…*sigh*

  9. great article, great band. can’t wait to see what they do next.

  10. I got to see Girls live twice, and I thought they were great both times. The first time was a little weird; It was in September 2011 and they played a theater venue in Boston that was seating only which I don’t exactly consider to be the most ideal way to see a rock band, but whatever, they played well. (I’ve heard about bands like Grizzly Bear playing phenomenal sets at seating only venues, and I’ve seen Kurt Vile and Thurston Moore that way too, but realistically, it’s not exactly the norm for most bands). When Girls performed everyone was standing up anyway and I also just thought it was an awkward room to play in; utterly dead silence between songs, which allowed for some loud-mouthed bros to vocalize their stupid “that’s what she said,” jokes in attempts to communicate with the band.

    The second time was at Terminal 5 in NYC this last January, and it was a 3,000 capacity sold out show. Very different experience altogether and this time they had their backup singers in tow. It was very apparent that Girls had become a wildly popular band and I heard several people saying, “wow, I really didn’t even know that many people knew about them.” Even though I knew Girls were at that point already very popular in indie rock, I couldn’t help but agree that I was surprised by just how popular they had become. Girls still had a way of seeming like a personal and “secret” treasure of a band, despite their massive online media coverage. Chris Owens came out wearing a denim skirt, which was pretty hilarious and appropriate for him, if you know anything about his constant effeminate proclivities, and the show was basically perfect and awesome. During the song “Die,” the entire crowd was jumping up and down like it was a Rage Against the Machine show (forgive this dated reference, ha). Both of these shows I mentioned ended with an encore performance of “Jamie Marie,” with Chris performing alone on stage until being joined at the last minute by the rest of the band, and at both shows I remember thinking to myself, “well, even though this is his ‘job’ and he’s used to doing it, it still takes legit courage and confidence to stand in front of this many people with just a guitar and a microphone.”

    Ok, so this is just way too long of a comment already, but I think what I’m getting at is that this band had achieved a very high level of critical acclaim and success from “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” and I can’t help but wonder if there was/is much room for them to top that. Like, really: can most bands generally surpass this level of indie success? I’m sure on some level it’s got to be a tiny bit nerve-wracking to record a follow up album once you’ve accomplished that much, unless you’re in one of those bands that just keeps going endlessly with no regard for artistic integrity. I won’t name names. I think Owens’ decision makes very good sense, and if you haven’t had a chance to see Girls, don’t get too bummed. They will most likely come back in 3-6 years and make loads of cash playing sold-out reunion shows. From a business perspective, this was probably the most logical decision they could have made, and now we’ll get a chance to hear some material from Owens that we might not have otherwise heard had he maintained his role as the singer/songwriter of Girls.

    • That’s pretty crazy that they sold out a 3000 seat venue. Too many damn people in NYC.

    • Hobbies, you and I have been at a lot of shows together. I was at the sit-down show they played in Boston. A smaller, more intimate venue would have been great, but I thought it was kind of cool; a nice change-up from most of the shows I see. I was bummed they didn’t have the backup singers for that performance, though.

      It sounds like we both saw Thurston and Kurt at the Somerville Theater, and you’re probably referring to Grizzly Bear playing the Orpheum (everyone sat), which was amazing.

      • Jim, yes, we definitely were at the same Girls show and Thurston & Kurt Vile show too. I didn’t get to see that Grizzly Bear show unfortunately. In terms of that Thurston/Vile show, I though Kurt Vile was really great. I didn’t know to expect him as a one man show that night (not including the harp guest player which kind of blew my mind too, hah) because I just read “Kurt Vile” and assumed “Kurt Vile and the Violators,” but I was damn impressed by his solo performance. That man has a fucking real natural talent. Also, I found it somewhat amusing/odd that he didn’t perform any songs from that most recent EP “So Outta Reach.” Strange and gifted musician. HEY STEREOGUM WRITERS: FIND OUT WHAT KURT VILE IS UP TO PLEASE! hah.

  11. I hope Lena Dunham will continue to show without him.

    Wait, who are we talking about?

  12. :( This is sad, considering this was probably my favorite band of the last few years, and someone living in SF was one that absolutely perfectly encapsulated where they were from. I hope these guys keep making music, because it truly was something special. I feel very fortunate and happy I got to see them perform last year, not knowing they wouldn’t be together much longer.

    Thanks for all the incredible music Girls. Great article here too. Nailed it.

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