With A Little Help From His Friends, Christopher Owens Delivers A New Testament
On the cover of his new album A New Testament, former Girls frontman Christopher Owens is surrounded by the musicians who played on the record. They’re a lot of the same people who Owens worked with in Girls, and they make a zany looking bunch — a coalition of men and women, black and white, young and old, the lot of them forming a flying V with Owens at the fulcrum. He’s wearing mom jeans and a midriff-bearing, Western-themed leather vest, perhaps a nod to the effeminate spin on old-school Americana he presents throughout the record. Owens clutches his head and his chest, smiling sheepishly from under the cowboy hat that covers most of his blond Cobain mane. His first solo record after dissolving Girls, last year’s Lysandre, was covered by a portrait of Owens alone, flashing a serious expression from behind a curtain of his own hair. He’s front and center again this time, but now he’s flanked by his posse. His piercing stare is clearly visible now, accompanied by a playful grin. His bandmates seem to give him strength.
“They’re awesome,” Owens said during our recent interview, which began at last month’s Outside Lands festival in Owens’ adoptive hometown San Francisco and continued later on over email. “I’ve brought a community of people together for every album I’ve done. I think it’s nice to show it with the cover, going solo for me has not meant working solo. In many ways I’m doing now what I’ve always done — and with many of the same people, when they can.”
In a sense, Owens’ life story can be demarcated into his time as a part of various communities. For the past decade, he’s moved amongst the creative factions of San Francisco, where he arrived with the aim of becoming a world-famous painter but ended up a world-famous musician instead. San Francisco was where Owens began writing original songs. It’s where he met and moved in with his girlfriend of four years, Dominant Legs singer Hannah Hunt (Ezra Koenig used her name for the fantastic Vampire Weekend song after sitting next to her in a college Buddhism class). It’s where he and JR White collaborated on two and a half brilliant Girls records, and where he eventually kicked his heroin habit. So many of the people that appear on the cover of A New Testament entered his life there.
Before that he lived nine years in Amarillo, Texas, under the tutelage of the hardcore punk scene and oil tycoon-turned-eccentric artistic philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3. He worked on a ranch and slowly but surely learned how to love Texas living, in no small part because of the network of weirdos and outsiders he encountered. It was there that he learned a close-knit community could be a source of strength and perseverance, not claustrophobia. About a year after Owens arrived in Amarillo, his 19-year-old friend Brian Deneke was intentionally run over and killed by a high school football star named Dustin Camp who got off the hook with probation. Owens recently debuted a stunning song about the incident that hasn’t been recorded yet. “It was a big deal in Amarillo,” he remembered. “We fought hard for our rights and our beliefs there, and in many ways Brian’s death — and the fact that Dustin only received probation for his murder — made a point to many of the local people in town about what prejudice and hate crimes are. It’s a sad story, but also a very real part of my life experience.”
Even further back in time, Owens spent his first 16 years traveling the world with the Children Of God cult. It was a bizarre way to grow up, one that set him up for pain before he was even born. A few months before he entered the world, his two-year-old brother Stephen passed out of it, succumbing to pneumonia after the church prohibited professional medical treatment. Their father departed soon afterward, leaving Owens without a dad growing up. Around the same time, the cult changed its name to The Family and renounced the concept of marriage, instructing the kids to refer to all adults as “uncle” and “auntie” and dividing them up into groups according to age, so Owens didn’t see much of his older sisters either. “Stephen,” the most heartrending of A New Testament’s many emotional showstoppers, addresses those disturbing memories directly. In the extremely pointed context of inspirational gospel music, Owens depicts young Stephen ascending to heaven “just like an angel” amidst reverent piano and massive choral swells. The key lyric: “Someone’s a family in the Children Of God, but all that we wanted was our father’s love.”
The cult left Owens’ brother dead, damaged his relationships with the rest of his family, and taught him to devote his life to a lie. It’s no wonder the experience caused him to run for his life. It’s no wonder he ended up turning to opiates to cope with the emotional wreckage. Yet those childhood years left a deep impression on Owens, not least of which the classic gospel, country, and R&B that served as his soundtrack growing up. And as he eagerly reminded me, “I did live for nine years in Amarillo, Texas,” where he found himself situated in the cradle of so much American roots music after a lifetime spent abroad. So it also makes sense that he’s spent his musical career inching toward an album like this one, one that purposefully reclaims the language and culture of his previous lives. More than any of his previous records — even Girls’ glorious swan song Father, Son, Holy Ghost — Owens has synthesized his past and present here. Just as the array of personalities that once surrounded him have been replaced several times over by a new community, the sounds that linger from his personal history have been repurposed to stand for something new. Think of it as the gospel of Christopher Owens.
A brief history lesson: Some 3,500 years ago in the Middle East, a man named Moses went up a mountain and returned weeks later carrying tablets inscribed with what he claimed was the word of God. Eventually, he authored five books’ worth of material that came to be known as the Torah or the Pentateuch. His people, a nomadic nation known as Israel, compiled many more scriptures after Moses, and the entire collection came to be known as the Hebrew Bible. It was the text around which their society was shaped. Some 1,500 years after Moses, an Israelite named Jesus left his carpentry business to become an itinerant preacher. He said he was God incarnate, a claim that eventually got him publicly executed. His few remaining followers insisted Jesus had risen from the dead and eventually began writing scripture of their own, which they viewed as an extension of the Hebrew Bible. Christians, as the followers of Jesus came to be known, started referring to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament and their new collection of documents as the New Testament. The Christians, too, rallied their community around their scripture.
There have been many more testaments since. About 600 years after Jesus, a man named Muhammad authored a document called the Quran that he claimed was the final fulfillment of God’s message to mankind — boom, Islam. Many centuries later, a young American named Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered golden plates that contained a secret history of God’s activity in North America — voila, Mormonism. Countless others have developed their own twists on the biblical tradition, including David Berg, a former Baptist minister who renamed himself Moses and founded the Children Of God amongst the California hippies in 1968. Berg issued instructions to his followers via a series of dispatches known as “Mo Letters”; among other practices, for well over a decade he encouraged his adherents to win new converts via sex, a tactic known as “Flirty Fishing.”
This is the community Owens was born into. Thirty-five years later, he’s the kind of guy who keeps a stack of Christopher Hitchens essays by his bed. And just as Hitchens took great pleasure from naming one of his books God Is Not Great, Owens feels a certain glee about ripping his album title from the scriptures. As he expressed in his recent press bio, “Every new album is a new testament.” In our interview, he asserted that there’s nothing particularly spiritual about this LP, he just likes to grab attention and subvert tradition. By calling his latest set of heartfelt character sketches A New Testament, he’s draining the terminology of its sacred connotation by bringing every form of creative expression up to the same level as scripture. His word, he figures, is at least as good as the word of a god who isn’t there.
A New Testament’s religious parody does run a little bit deeper than just the title. The aforementioned “Stephen” cathartically turns gospel music on its head, while opener “My Troubled Heart” meddles with tradition in winking fashion. It scans as a gospel-folk hymn — and in fact it was built from a pre-existing religious song — but its lyrics are distinctly secular: “Well early in the morning, at the break of day/ I ain’t got no god to whom I pray/ No lord above to set me free/ I keep my burdens right here with me.” Eventually the ebullient choir and rhapsodic organ solos kick in, and as the rapture rolls to its conclusion, Owens intones, “I need somebody to hold me tight.” Yet another gospel-influenced track, “It Comes Back To You,” posits that same idea that people’s love is enough: “You’ve got to give your love away/ It comes back to you.” You’ll find that concept in numerous religious texts, but Owens sings it with the full assurance that people can generate enough love to keep the world going, god or no god.
Casting humanistic ideas in the context of church music is a tried-and-true musical trick; Spacemen 3 and spinoff groups Spiritualized and Spectrum have been doing it for decades, and Owens cites all those bands as titanic influences. “I think that gospel has these amazing qualities to it, he said. “It’s supposed to be music that uplifts you. It’s for people who are very downtrodden and burdened, and the idea is that you can let go of that burden with this music. But I like to say, well yes, that’s fantastic, but you don’t need the religious element in it. The music itself is what uplifts you and lets you take care of the burdens. It’s kind of this idea that people can be good people without religion… And it’s fun to take a gospel song and just say that.”
A New Testament’s spiritual commentary is there for the dissecting, but inverting religious tropes is just one of the ways the album makes something new out of something old. Owens’ songwriting has always had a classic air about it, but beginning with last year’s flute-laden Lysandre his solo work has embraced old-fashioned styles with a fearless vigor, a move that has divided his fan base. (For what it’s worth, Owens sees obvious links between Lysandre and Father, Son, Holy Ghost tracks like “Die” and “Just A Song” and doesn’t understand the hubbub over his first solo LP: “To me it’s not that crazy. And I still put it on now and think, ‘Was it that crazy?’ because of the reaction.”) A New Testament moves beyond Lysandre’s stately renaissance faire folk toward the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll, framing Owens’ soul-baring in the sounds of gospel, country, and early R&B. Since he still sings with a gentleness befitting bedtime stories, it feels like he’s playing with roughhewn roots music traditions as subtly yet assuredly as he toys with the religious stuff. Sometimes, as on the titanic classic-rocking ballad “Overcoming Me,” the effect approximates Girls. More often, though, A New Testament feels like a new phase for Owens. Many of the originals could pass for obscure covers, among them the rollicking country tune “Nothing More Than Everything To Me,” the boot-scootin’ boogie “Key To My Heart,” and the wanderlust lament “A Heart Akin To The Wind.”
The music is retro in a way that goes beyond today’s fashionable plundering of the ’80s and ’90s. Despite a modern sheen it sounds like ancient history, and never more so than when somebody’s soloing. About half of the runtime on the skippy “Nothing More Than Everything To Me” is devoted to a gleefully rambunctious guitar solo. Mid-tempo album closer “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive),” one of the songs that sounds least likely to have emerged from a time capsule, nonetheless deploys six-string theatrics in a manner you never hear anymore in pop music nor indie rock. There are organ and pedal steel solos too, and the background vocalists wail away without regard for modern pop’s trend toward unflappable poise. Every song is simply constructed, which Owens credited to his own artistic limitations: “[Simplicity is] something I like, but it’s also all I can do.” Yet there are plenty of virtuosic moments resulting from Owens turning loose guys like keyboardist Danny Eisenberg — one of several former Girls collaborators on board, a list that also includes John Anderson and Darren Weiss but notably not JR White — and pedal steel player Ed Efira, a Silicon Valley techie whom Owens met at Outside Lands last year.
“I really like guitar solos and solos in general,” Owens said. “There’s this fantastic side to indie that’s just like, ‘You don’t have to be a technically great musician, you should just go out and do what you can do.’ I think that’s great, but I think there are less musicians out there that are specifically amazing at what they do. Everybody seems to be just a little bit good at everything now.” That’s one of the most throwback elements of A New Testament, the demarcation between the role of the songwriter stringing chords together and the instrumental specialists peppering his songs with musical curlicues. The resulting record is strikingly anachronistic but also brutally honest, both in its less-is-more lyrical knockouts and its wholehearted devotion to bygone sounds.
When Owens and his band took the stage at Outside Lands, those qualities were amplified a hundred fold. Clad in light brown leather boots, light denim jeans, and a black leather biker jacket, Owens somberly emoted his way through most of A New Testament — donning a white cowboy hat when he welcomed Efira on stage to play pedal steel — as well as several Girls songs including “My Ma” and “Forgiveness.” “For me there is no difference in Girls songs or the new ones, they’re all songs I’ve written alone,” he explained. “They’re all Christopher Owens songs and I’ve always had the pleasure of recording them with good friends.” In other words, there’s a continuum between Owens’ old and new testaments, and many of the same friends played a part in living them out. Their presence was felt that Saturday in August; they encircled Owens, taking turns holding down steady rhythms and letting swaggering solos fly. The sounds they made together rolled over the grassy hills of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park like the last five decades never happened.
Owens was gratified: “It’s really special to be here,” he announced from the stage early in the set. “I’ve come here many times walking from my house, but never played.” He was also terrified. For someone who used to rely on drugs to get him through big moments like this one, facing a massive hometown show sober was almost enough to snap him in half. The nerves were evident, but so were the joy and the pain, so inextricably woven together. By the time the show ended with a tearful “Stephen” and a shit-kicking “Nothing More Than Everything To Me,” the feeling was firmly on the joyful side. Owens smiled broadly as he stepped off stage and wrapped his arm around Hunt, who proceeded to caress his hair as they disappeared backstage. It was a halcyon scene that suggested Owens has entered the most peaceful time in his life — surrounded by a tight community of loved ones, devoting his life to something he really believes in, finally learning to cope with life without turning to substance abuse. Has he written himself a storybook ending?
“I don’t know,” Owens said, “it’s hard to see it like that. I’m still fighting hard for my goals, and life is always complex.” The drug thing, in particular, remains challenging. “I think it’s a misconception to think that someone who gets clean is at peace. I’m definitely happy about it, but I think anyone who’s dealt with this would tell you that getting clean pulls a rug out from underneath you. In many ways the opiates were a crutch, and I’ve made a choice to lose that crutch and stand on my own two feet.” Now more than ever, he doesn’t have to stand alone.
[Portrait by Wilson Lee. On-stage photo by Moses Namkung.]