As the singer and guitarist in Girls, a San Francisco–based band, Owens has emerged as one of the premier songwriters of Northern California’s burgeoning psych-pop set. His sunny melodies often belie the deep melancholy in his lyrics, and his personal pain is not unfounded. Born in Miami in 1979, Owens survived a turbulent upbringing traveling around the world in the Children of God, a religious cult whose practices commonly included forced prostitution and child abuse. At the age of sixteen, while living in Slovenia, he left the cult and returned to the United States, residing first in Amarillo, Texas, and eventually in San Francisco. Owens teamed up with bassist and producer Chet “JR” White in 2007 to form Girls. They released their debut LP, Album, in 2009, followed by an EP, Broken Dreams Club, in 2010. Both records established Owens as a skilled composer of confessional pop songs and the possessor of a hauntingly original voice. Girls’ third record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, was released last month.
THE BELIEVER: After the release of your last EP, you posted a handwritten letter to your fans on the internet, which said the recording was “a snapshot of the horizon.” What does the rest of the horizon— beyond that snapshot—look like to you?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: The goal has never been to make the best or the most popular songs in the world. There are certain songs, like “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley or “Imagine” by John Lennon—they’re not complicated songs. Certainly “Bohemian Rhapsody” is more complex. But they’re more relatable, and universal, and honest, and direct. And my goal has always been to write a song like that. Like a Cole Porter song. Simple songs that you can’t argue with. That you just love. Maybe we’ll write a song like that on our next album. Maybe it will be three albums from now. But when we’ve had our fun, and all is said and done, I want to leave behind at least one of those songs. One that belongs in the group of songs that changed my life. A song that speaks to everybody.
THE BELIEVER: I’ve read that the leaders of the Children of God had a deep interest in music and set up music camps for teens and radio stations across Europe called “Music with Meaning.” Did you feel like your musical education growing up within the cult was oppressive?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: No, my musical education in Children of God was so integrated into everything we did. There was more focus on music than on learning times tables—or anything, really. It was such an everyday, normal thing that I didn’t realize how unusual it was until just recently. When I was a teenager in Texas, I didn’t go around telling people, “I’ve grown up playing guitar all my life and singing songs.” I mean, does someone who’s been playing video games their whole life go around telling everyone that they’re a game fanatic in every conversation? It was almost something that I didn’t realize was different. It was mostly religious music. I resented it in a way. I didn’t want to be playing music when I first left.
THE BELIEVER: Growing up in Europe, did you do a lot of busking in the streets to attract converts?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: Yeah, we did all that. But afterward, our parents didn’t say, “Oh, you’re showing a lot of skill and interest in this. You should pursue this.” When we were done busking, someone would just say, “All right, let’s praise God for having a nice day out. Now we’re gonna go clean the house together. Hooray!” Cleaning the house and busking were treated like the same thing, almost like a chore. It wasn’t presented to us as an art form or something special we were doing; it was just another part of everyday life. Now I’ve come to appreciate it a lot, but at the time I didn’t think twice about it.
THE BELIEVER: What’s the most valuable advice you’ve received from another musician?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: It’d probably be from a biography I’ve read. I’ve read some pretty good rock bios. I just read the Keith Richards memoir, and that was pretty great. I read a lot of those, and I do learn from them. But you know what’s a really good piece of advice that stuck with me when I first started? The first line of that song that Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian sings [singing]: “Oh, get me away from here I’m dying / play me a song to set me free / nobody writes them like they used to / so it may as well be me.” That was a big deal for me when I heard that song. The beginning part is kind of tragic and desperate, but when he sings, “Nobody writes them like they used to / so it may as well be me,” I’d listen to that and relate to it so much. It made me want to write songs.
THE BELIEVER: Do you make a conscious effort to write songs that feel timeless?
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: One fortunate thing that’s happened to me, when you talk about old-fashioned songs with a timeless quality, is something I’ve just realized. I was just talking about the Keith Richards book, and at least four or five times in that book he lists his very first idols: Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry. And then you listen to the story of John and Paul: “Hey, mate, let’s start a band, and we’ll call it the Beatles!” Or whatever. And the whole story of them sitting around figuring out how to sing in harmony and play guitar to Everly Brothers songs and Elvis Presley songs. And I just watched the Harry Nilsson documentary, and he talks about his idols: the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, the Beatles.
Now, when I left the Children of God, in 1996, I listened to every kind of mainstream music I could; I listened to punk, new wave, whatever. I’ve listened to it all in the past fourteen years. But at the very root of it, the very first people I listened to and learned how to play guitar to, and be moved by to the point where I’d cry, were the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, the very same people. The people that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had as their idols are my same idols. It happened by accident. It didn’t happen because I have great taste. That’s just the only music I was allowed to listen to in the Children of God, apart from religious music. So if you listen to our album, we have a lot of modern influences, but I’m also reaching for the same thing as people did from a really long time ago. I’m trying to write some classic songs.