This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.4, Autumn 2014.
Ex-Girls frontman Christopher Owens draws gently on a menthol cigarette and looks out from room 105 of some motel in Santa Ana, California. It’s an hour before the start of the show and he’s just been handed a winsome yellow flower by a fan. He smiles and tucks it behind his ear. Owens is about to perform songs from his second solo album A New Testament. All long blonde hair and gentle rock star vulnerability, there’s more than a little of the Cobain about the uniquely gifted signer-songwriter. Like Cobain, the story of Christopher Owens is peppered with rich, filmic tales of drug use, cults, modelling, billionaire Texan benefactors, sexual experimentation and loss.
Owens was born in Miami in 1979. His parents were members of the travelling religious community, The Children of God. Owens’ brother, Stephen had died of pneumonia shortly before his birth, allegedly down to the church’s unwillingness to seek professional medical assistance. At the age of two, Owens family left the US to travel across Europe and Asia with the church. He wouldn’t return to the country until he was sixteen, fleeing Slovenia to follow his sister to Amarillo, Texas. As unstable and unconventional as travelling the world with a mysterious Christian sect may have been, Owens’ formative years with The Children of God had one lasting legacy – music. With his musical education shaped by ‘Fellowship’ and Christian singing, the arrangements of acoustic guitars and tambourines saw the teenager take to the streets to cover the songs of Fleetwood Mac and the Everly Brothers: “Children of God taught me about the power of music,” Owens says softly, “the spiritual side of music, music as a form of connecting with others. I guess even today there’s a desperation and earnestness in my music that existed in the music I grew up with.”
Stacking supermarket shelves in Amarillo, Owens came across the oil tycoon and artist Stanley Marsh III. The eccentric billionaire hired him as a personal assistant and for nine years Texas was home and music was nowhere. Moving to San Francisco (with the intention of becoming an artist) however, changed all that and, at the age of twenty-seven, Owens became a songwriter.
The formation of Girls and the release of two critically acclaimed albums: 2009’s Album and 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost hop-scotched genres and easy categorisation; from distorted drone rock, to acoustic intimacy, the band trailblazed to cultish adoration, developing a fiercely devoted fan base around Owens’ charisma and talent. Girls was, however, enveloped in a whirling vortex of permanent instability, flipping through twenty-one band members in its short life, and chequered by heavy drug use. Owens is methodical and honest about his battle with addiction: “Drugs were a part of my life, my music is about my life. Drugs helped me to write and be happy for a while, then made it impossible to write and be happy for a while. When someone is addicted for as long as I was, we become very happy to overcome that addiction, then, in reality, we feel the absence of what we leaned on for so long – our defence mechanism is gone. Life doesn’t exactly become easier.”
In July 2012, Owens announced that he’d be embarking on a solo career and almost immediately released his first solo offering Lysandre, written on one night in 2009 about a short affair with a French woman. The album divided opinion. Inspired by the storybooks Owens read during his childhood with the Children of God, Lysandre was a beautifully unique concept piece; intimate and confessional, but a radical departure from the avant-garde of Girls’ post-modernist energy. High-profile collaborations with Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane and fêted photographer Ryan McGinley bookended his latest and altogether different offering A New Testament.
Is the new, more optimistic material reflective of a new chapter in Owens’ life? “It’s not,” replies the singer, taking one last draw on his cigarette. “I’ve always been bi-polar. Optimistic one minute and depressed the next. That hasn’t changed. I have many things to be thankful for in my life right now...but then, so did I in 2008–9. Life is an uphill climb, if you’re climbing in the right direction.”
Photos by Toby Knott
Words by James Wright