Ahead of the release of his new album, Nathan Ladd talks to Christopher Owens about the solo misnomer, age, creative cities and country flair
On a bright, unusually hot London morning I sit with Christopher Owens under the shade of a tree. It’s two years since his band Girls split, and two years since the beginning of his journey to produce music under his own name. At the end of September, Owens will release his second solo album, titled A New Testament. From our discussion it becomes acutely clear that Owens has an unshakable musical vision and methodology.
It is inevitable when a musician cuts ties with a band and makes music with their name on the cover that the label of ‘solo artist’ is assigned. “People are mainly saying solo because I used to be in a band, but I’ve never really wanted to work alone, I don’t do that”, says Owens fresh from a performance the night before, with his characteristic long hair under a baseball cap, flared jeans and pointed boots. “I’m excited by the opportunity to work with more people because when you’re not in a band you can just change the line up every album”.
Owens has an unwavering belief that his music is still a collaborative process and he is always on the lookout for “someone who’s really good at some specific instrument and letting them influence the record”. This is clear on the new album where Owens openly admits he owes a debt to his collaborators, notably John Anderson, Darren Weiss and Makeda.
“I’ve always felt that country existed in my songs, in their simplicity”
By modern standards this new phase of Owens’ musical career came quite late on; he’s now in his mid-thirties. With his late divergence from band member to individual, does he feel an added pressure to get all his ideas out there before it’s too late? “I feel a personal pressure, yes. But I have always had the assumption that I will. I’m always ahead with writing, I know what the next three albums are going to be and that can be hard”.
Owens has a distinctive confidence in his own musical progression. It strikes me that his songwriting is a very personal creative process; it won’t be led in any direction Owens does not want it to go. He is an individual force, not constrained or restricted by his label, band mates, anyone. I ask if there is someone who mentors and guides his creativity and writing, he tells me “I have my mentor… I had my mentor and now he’s dead”. He’s likely referring to Stanley Marsh III, an American oil baron, who died earlier this year, and was very close to Owens from his time in Amarillo in Texas.
Owens has done a lot of this writing in San Francisco, but also works and records in LA. I ask him to give me his take on the two cities. “I don’t really function [in LA] in a natural way, for me it’s difficult to be there. The difference between LA and San Francisco is San Francisco is tiny and you still have old buildings and crazy hills, and it’s also never hot there. In LA, there in the hot sun, it’s spread out and it’s ugly, it’s just different, you can feel kind of stranded”. Then we get on to the people. “The cliché, the clueless cast, which are actually fun to see, it’s like going on safari. It’s a whole type of person that we don’t have in northern California”.
With this critique of the city, I wonder if LA is somewhere he can be creative? “I think you could be because there’s something great about the isolation it provides, it can be great to not be walking around, distracted by your little beautiful city, running into people and living a life of leisure. But for me, as far as writing a song goes, it’s very helpful to have real life things going on, to walk around, it helps me be creative”.
We eventually get on to the new album and I’m intrigued to know what has changed since the release of Lysandre in 2013. “The first album was a very unique thing and it might be the only album I ever do like that”.
His first album had a polarising effect, the result being that a lot of fans rejected such a change of direction. Owens unashamedly recounts that “a lot of people just thought, ‘I don’t like this’” and with almost a glint of glee in his eye tells me “it was great, it weeded out all the people who shouldn’t have been there straight away, I’m happy to split the room and if people aren’t willing to follow then those are the exact the people I don’t want”.
“In LA, there in the hot sun, it’s spread out and it’s ugly… you can feel kind of stranded”
So was it hard to do it a second time around? “It was awesome, nothing hard about it. I just had a good time picking songs; all the people I asked to play on it and be involved said yes and I got to record in San Francisco.
“The new one is more like what I’ve always done; there are some new instruments and a general idea to explore country music. I’ve always felt that country existed in my songs, in their simplicity, so it’s enough to show the influence but it’s still clearly the same person”. Owens has shared a few tracks from his new album including ‘Nothing More Than Anything To Me’, ‘Stephen’ and ‘It Comes Back To You’, and they mark a return to the style that helped cultivate Girls’ success. Think simple, honest songwriting, catchy melodies and a very obvious country flair, with nods to R&B and Gospel.
As Owens looks back on the last two years it’s clear that all that has happened has reaffirmed his decision to leave Girls. He talks fondly of his time making music with Chet White and what a privilege it was to write songs, record them with a friend at home, put them on MySpace and have the whole world respond. He tells me “there were things that could have benefitted the longevity of the group if we’d done them differently… but to be able to leave knowing more fully what I wanted to do, to come out of it not saying I don’t want to make music anymore is the most important thing for me”.
Photography Liz Seabrook
A New Testament is out 29 September on Turnstile. For tour dates, click HERE