What’s more important than picking over Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens’ fantastical history—a sequestered upbringing in the Children of God and affections for drugs are the most easily Googleable bits—is how his band does the same thing with the history of 20th century pop. Along with gear whiz Chet “J.R.” White, Owens as Girls approaches everything—noise punk, Guns ‘n’ Roses, California hippies, ‘60s doo-wop, country balladeers, ’80s indie pop, girl groups, lo-fi—with the wide-eyed yearning and across-the-board respect of someone once denied.
That isn’t to write off his songwriting as mere cut-and-paste nostalgia; Girls’ debut Album proved that there’s much to be mined out of the three-minute pop song. “Laura” and “Lust for Life” may have had immediate radio appeal, but at the heart of each hook laid the vulnerable Owens and his pursuit of hope, optimism, and happiness.
The Broken Dreams Club EP brimmed with that same desire, taking heartbreak and Girls’ obsessive sonic appropriation to swooning new heights. And yet, if you believe the hype, new full-length Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is truly the band’s epic. Quite a few songs surpass the six-minute mark, and the record swells with a romantic, wounded, fucked-up spirit simply searching for redemption. Early reviews are as exalting as the album title would indicate, offering Girls a place in the same altar of pop idols Owens so lovingly embraces.
Standing outside the rehearsal space as the rest of Girls practiced (“I don’t want them thinking I’m being a diva,” Owens said as a goodbye), Owens used our phone conversation to talk about self-obsession in songwriting, and clued us in to a potential future record.
It seems the religious/spiritual themes on Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are at their most sonically overt. You hear the gospel choir on “Vomit” and it’s generally a bigger sound. Did that emerge now with more confidence or was it a natural progression?
Well, the new album is kind of as erratic as the first. The idea of “Die” or “Saying I Love You,” these are very unique songs like the first album. But if you remember a song like “Hellhole Ratrace,” I would sing a very heavy song with a lot of little parts akin to “Vomit.” At the end, where I’m singing “I don’t want to cry, my whole life” in the background you hear these backing vocals. At the time in our home recording DIY setup, that’s me doing three or four backing tracks. At the end of the day, it sounds like backing vocals, but not what I ever really wanted. So you hear with “Vomit,” now we have a budget. You can hear me singing the chorus, just like “Hellhole Ratrace,” except now it’s “Come into my heart, my love,” and the backing vocals have the luxury of being actual backing singers. So it’s important to note that it’s not a shift in wanting to sound more gospel, it’s just—
A matter of what’s available to you now.
A matter of what’s available, and we would’ve done it on the first record, you know what I mean? Like, that spiritual element has been very key from the beginning. Now it’s more pronounced, and the photograph is in focus, if you will.
This does feel like your most properly produced record. Everything is in focus, everything is fleshed out, and it’s also the first record with Darren [Weiss, drummer] and John [Anderson, guitarist], the new full band.
Also the organist, Dan Eisenberg, plays throughout. It’s the same thing. On the first album I played the organ, I did the acoustic strumming, I played the lead, you know. Which is all very fun and exciting to do, but I knew all along I was doing subpar on things like solos. So to have John was a wonderful thing.
One interesting thing is that, while the album is the most produced, simultaneously it’s the most minimal recording we’ve ever made. On the EP there’s maybe a dozen or more people playing. Very ambitious, very experimental. On Album, obviously, it’s like, “What if I put a delay pedal and a distortion pedal on my Casio keyboard?” Which we wouldn’t have done now. We’ve had that fun, and we know we wanted it to sound like a church organ.
But now you can get a proper organ.
Exactly. I’m afraid, though, when people say it’s the most produced record…
It’s not a matter of slickness.
To me, the interesting thing is that we actually played less music. And then at the end of the day, the individual qualities stand out and make it seem like the recordings are bigger. It’s almost like cooking, you know? You put cinnamon and sugar on a pear, and boil it, and it tastes good. But if you say, “Yeah, now I’ll slice cherries on top,” it could just get crazy.
You had your fun experimenting with everything but the kitchen sink, so to speak.
[Laughs] And it’s not like we didn’t experiment, you know? After around three years of playing music, we just kind of knew exactly what we wanted at this point.
Talking of knowing what you want from music…given your upbringing, you came to various genres both late and all at once. It seems like a lot of the Girls sound comes from repurposing various pop genres and chronologies, taking elements of seemingly disparate influences. With all this pop music, what do you feel is the connective thread?
I think it’s less of a connective thread and [more] a piece cut from the same cloth. I don’t have any shame in saying that I’m not trying to make anything new, [other than] being a part of something that I love. At the end of the day, as an evolutionary process…you do make something new. You slowly evolve into a completely different creature. But that desire, the initial ambition and inspiration to write songs, never was “I’m about to do something that’s already been done before.” It was, “I wanna be like so-and-so. I hope so-and-so would like this.”
I’m open about saying that we really aren’t trying to do anything new. I would hope that you could listen to any of these songs and say, “Oh yeah. ‘Jamie Marie” is clearly influenced by Randy Newman.”
You’ve earned something of a reputation for being open and vulnerable all across the board: vocals, lyrics, interviews, and of course Twitter. Exhibitionism, catharsis, or something else entirely?
It’s a little bit of both. I read an interesting article in the Paris Review about a woman who goes to interview another writer and she discusses, like, this knowledge that she has that every writer enjoys an interview so much because they love to talk about themselves. And this is something that I experience. My mood is generally lifted after interviews. And who knows why? Catharsis is definitely an element, getting something off your chest. Exhibitionism is definitely an element.
But when I only had, like, 20 friends, I still would put dozens of pictures up on MySpace. I’ve always been known in my circle of friends as being somebody who is a little bit Too Much Information. But at the end of the day, when it comes time for them to say, “Is he an idiot or do I want to see this,” people do end up wanting to see it. And the one thing for me is to not make the mistake of going on Twitter and saying, “Gee whiz, I’d love to commit suicide right now,” because that’s not the message I want to give people.
It’s more the enjoyment of sharing as opposed to fueling something negative.
Yeah. For example, I received possibly a hundred Tweets at me saying, “I’ve downloaded your album illegally because it leaked. I will buy a physical copy when it comes out though. Are you upset about this?” Some people just say, “Oh, I’m so sad your album leaked, how do you feel?” I make a conscious effort to just not talk about it because I don’t want to be the person in people’s minds, like, “Oh, you know that guy Christopher, he’s really angry right now on Twitter because his album leaked.” So there’s a choice I made. It is existential—or, I mean, exhibitionist—but it’s curated in a way. I pick and choose, and I’m not going to moon someone so much as showing them my chest. It’s not just all out; it’s not, like, Tara Reid.
You know very well what you want to say.
I could be the first person to look at my Twitter feed and say, “Okay, this is a little bit stupid. This is a bit ridiculous.” I don’t know, I think with Twitter you need to kind of chill out about it and not worry too much.
But on the other hand, it’s not just Twitter. It is something that I do—I do have a YouTube page where I post bizarre videos of myself doing things. And then I do have to acknowledge that this is something that is part of my life. And it’s existed before this band. For me, it’s just having a good time. That’s all I want to say.
Ever had any regrets then?
Yes. Because I’ve spent time, you know, a good half hour, 45 minutes, maybe even an hour talking to people about very deep, personal things. Then the next thing I know I read a soundbite: “Christopher’s mom was prostituted!” Which is just very nasty. While there’s an element of truth to that, it would have better been told in a story that explains all the reasons why this happened. At the end of the day, it did hurt my feelings a little bit to…look like I was happy to throw my mom under the rug. Which is not the case. I sent several very angry emails, because as much as my mom and I have had a very…exotic relationship, I love her more than anything. And I respect her, and she’s a role model. That’s one thing.
Another thing is people calling me a California slacker druggie. I mean, give me a break! I’m running a fucking industry here. I pay about twelve people’s salaries. The British especially love saying “California slacker.” They thought it was just this ideal character, they wanted to paint me as the new Kurt Cobain. “Make sure to go to the live show, he may die!” kind of thing. God, it was just so upsetting sometimes.
It’s very easy to coin someone “The Next XYZ,” for better or for worse.
I kind of fancy myself a little bit more like Elliott Smith than Kurt. A little less rage than Kurt.
That makes me think of vulnerability again. What a perfect medium pop music is for, to put it bluntly, pain and hurt.
When I sit back and look at my work, abstractly or from a bird’s eye view, I think the general—what’s happened naturally is that I’m somebody who wants to be very honest and say it like it is, about the pain that’s going on inside of me. But I also fiercely believe that there is hope, that there is reward in things like friendship and love. Any one of my songs, you listen to the beginning and I’m basically complaining. But at the end, I’m usually offering an alternative. I think it exists—if you’re asking why, I don’t know. Maybe because I only write about myself.
Taking something negative and then offering a way out is kind of the function of songwriting itself.
That is very true, that’s nice to hear a thing like that. I hadn’t even thought of that myself. I’m sure songwriting is different for everybody, but for me, the first lines you hear in the song are my initial ideas. So then what I’m doing is working my way out of that song. And [for me] to end up still holding on to things like hope and forgiveness, I think that shows a lot of what’s going on in the songwriting. Even a song like “Die,” it’s got, like, heavy metal riffs—which we really wrote out of fun, we don’t really ever get to do riffs, like a dude band. We’d been to a lot of festivals, we really wanted to do some dude rock riffs. [Laughs] Because we do whatever we want. So I wrote that riff, and we kind of jammed on it, and—this is the only song where the lyrics are only negative. But! If you listen to the song, there’s a cinematic breakdown in the music, which suddenly gives way to a Mellotron, more beautiful music. So abstractly, with just the music, even “Die” does the same thing.
I don’t think it’s, like, amazing how someone’s found a way to be optimistic all the time, but I definitely don’t want to be someone who just writes downright negative songs. [But] I’m not afraid to open a song saying, “I’m sick and tired of the way that I feel.”
When you’ve always been so honest, is there anything left to say, anywhere to go?
The place to go clearly becomes optimism. You listen to “Lust For Life,” it’s just talking about being downright upset and saying “I wish I had a father,” being very open in that song. But then the refrain is, “Maybe if I really try, with all my heart, I can make a new start in love with you.” If you look at any of the songs, that’s what happens. That’s the way out that always presents itself.
Do you ever tire of talking about the same things?
Yes. [Laughs] In a way, I guess that’s where the girls’ names, the [songs named after girls] come in. Like, “Laura” is not really a song where I’m talking about myself too much, instead talking about a thing that happened between her and me. I don’t know, actually, that’s inaccurate. Because “Jamie Marie” is very much about myself. Every once in a while I do take a break.
No, actually, I don’t ever take a break. I can’t think of a single song—I guess at the end of the day, they really are just all the same. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Well, it’s not exactly bad. Like you said about “Die,” there are always different ways of doing the same thing.
Yeah, that is interesting. You know, I would have never thought it, but during this conversation, when I was going to present “Die” to you as our negative song, I instantly remembered that there’s actually that beautiful musical piece which essentially represents hope. So maybe it’s just finding those other ways of keeping it interesting. Say, for example, approaching an R&B song like “Love Like a River.” In “Love Like a River,” once again, the song is about realizing that someone is unattainable, but then the character says, “I lay my burden down by the river’s edge, and then I learned to let my lover be.” You know? So if it turns out the songs are all the same, it’s not a disappointment.
There are also the obviously positive songs. There’s “Forgiveness,” there’s a song called “Magic,” which is generally about being very happy, there’s a song called “Darling,” which is pretty positive all along.
And, you know, I have written an album that hasn’t been recorded or released yet. It’s very interesting, and maybe when it comes out it’ll be a breath of fresh air for people. It’s an album that I wrote within one day of coming home from our first tour. It’s a day-by-day breakdown of the tour. You know, nervous about going to New York! Hitting New York! Getting on the plane to fly to MIDI Festival in France! Oh, wait, actually, seeing an old friend in New York! How that felt, resolving to keep going, to get on the plane. Being in the Riviera to play that festival. Playing the festival. Meeting a girl that worked at the festival who ended up essentially being my girlfriend for a year after that, and falling in love with her. And then I got on that plane, and as soon as we took off one of the wheels blew off and we had to do an emergency landing now on one wheel. The first time I had to fly around for three hours to empty the gas tank, three hours while everybody cried, and we approached a landing pad on one wheel, lined with fire trucks and they sprayed us the entire time while we were landing because the bottom of the plane was shooting sparks. And then I had to catch a new flight and go home. That was the end of the tour for me. There’s a line that says, “Even if this plane goes down, I’ll be just fine if I was thinking about falling in love with you and the first tour with my band.”
That album is very much storytelling, it’s not even me being like…I think it’s going to be a cutoff point from me writing songs like “Vomit” or “Hellhole Ratrace,” but I don’t know. I don’t want to plan it. It’s not been recorded, there are demos, but no album.
This is another important part of storytelling: is there ever any editing involved? When you go down to record this, are you going to look back and say, “Hmm, I don’t know,” or are you going to keep it as pure as it was originally written?
I’m going to keep it exactly as it was written. I don’t ever edit. We’ve never edited any song, and I think that’s where the vulnerability lies. Me saying, “You’ve been a bitch, I’ve been an ass, I don’t want to point the finger, I just know that I’m sorry and I don’t want to do this.” Maybe I should’ve changed “You’ve been a bitch.” But I don’t. And I think those little bits of character make the songs kind of unique. Maybe I’ve thought about people’s names—should I not have mentioned their real names? But I never do , the real names are there. Essentially, I don’t know how to write fiction yet. And I don’t know that I ever will or want to.
You can do the storytelling thing, you can reminisce, add commentary. There’s always a wealth of material in yourself.
Yeah, there are angles. Right now I’m pretty self-obsessed.