It’s a grey, gusty afternoon and Christopher Owens is smoking a cigarette outside a bar on San Francisco’s Haight Street. He may not be wearing a pink cowboy hat, as on the cover of his latest album, A New Testament, but with his bright, shoulder-length blonde hair and electric blue Marmot jacket, he’s pretty identifiable.
There’s also another reason Owens is easy to spot in this city: he’s one of the most prominent musicians still calling it home. San Francisco’s recent tech boom has transformed the city into a millionaire’s playground of Zuckerbergian delights, full of exorbitant rents, upscale eateries and gentrified neighborhoods. As a consequence, it has created a volatile environment for full-time musicians, with notable recent departures including garage rockers Ty Segall and John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, who both now reside in Los Angeles.
While he’s seen friends relocate, San Francisco’s cultural shift hasn’t affected Owens much. He still feels at home here, citing the city’s forward-thinking ambition and progressive values. “I still can’t imagine moving,” Owens said of San Francisco, a city he blindly relocated to on New Year’s Day 2005. Previously, Owens had been residing in Amarillo, Texas, following years spent in the religious cult, Children of God, in which he was raised.
A few years after arriving in California, Owens found quick success with his band, Girls. At the time, his free-spirited approach to sounds, drugs, style, love and the use of flowers as a visual motif made him almost feel like the perfect embodiment of the romanticized San Francisco musician—a throwback to the city’s freewheeling ‘60s, which saw beatniks, hippies and other outsiders drawn here if, for no other reason, than to walk amongst their peers.
In the interim, Girls has broken up, while Owens has entered a committed relationship and kicked an intense addiction to opiates. Still, it feels fitting our interview winds up in Golden Gate Park, the setting for the Summer of Love, and where Owens does much of his songwriting now, although probably not in the way you’d expect.
Instead of finding a tranquil space to focus, for instance, Owens says he typically writes on the move, striding through the park’s lush fields and tree-lined paths, recording himself on his phone as he goes. “I wouldn’t know how to sit down and write a song,” he says. “I wait until I’m having a moody day, and I’ve got a lot of my mind, and then just go out for a walk, and it seems like they just come.”
Using this method, which he compares with a surfer waiting for a wave, Owens has composed over 150 original songs so far, most of which reside, unreleased, on his computer. The tunes you hear on A New Testament are curated from this collection, written over a five-to-six-year time period. To this day, Owens has never written and recorded songs specifically for an upcoming album. “That seems really stressful,” he said, sitting with his legs criss-crossed on a shaded park bench.
If you know anything about Owens, it’s probably related to his work with Girls, the genre-jumping indie rock outfit he co-founded with Chet “JR” White in 2008, which received almost instant acclaim from its demos posted on MySpace. After four years, two solid albums and a wonderful EP, Girls broke up in 2012, a move that seemed to blindside anyone not in the band.
Since Girls began somewhat accidentally, as a two-piece, led by Owens’ deft, heartfelt songwriting and White’s golden-eared production, it struggled to find permanent members who could round out its sound, both live and on record. “That initial way we started out, we couldn’t escape that,” Owens says. “And the whole time we were like, ‘Eventually, we’ll find people who will always stay.’ Those people never materialized.”
The frustration coincided with Owens growing more attracted to the solo songwriting approach of Elliot Smith and Paul Simon: guys who write music that’s associated with their own perspective, rather than a band’s. “There were other things too…I wasn’t the only one in the band with a drug problem,” Owens says. “I just finally threw in the towel.”
Even with a somewhat quiet reception to his 2012 solo debut, Lysandre, with its poppy-folk amblings and linear storytelling, Owens immediately knew he made the correct decision in dissolving Girls. For the first time ever, the same musicians that helped him record Lysandre were also the same who toured in support of it, which had never been the case with Girls. “It felt awesome,” he says.
Girls still isn’t far from Owens’ mind these days. All but two of the musicians who played on A New Testament are ex-Girls members. In fact, many of them also contributed to Girls’ excellent second album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. You’ll hear that album’s soulful, gospel-inspired elements pretty quickly on A New Testament, in songs like “It Comes Back To You” and “Stephen.”
“Not everything’s been lost,” Owens says.
For the new album, Owens knew he wanted to make a country record, but, in the studio, A New Testament became something else. The songs still largely bear Owens’ confessional lyricism on familiar topics like love, loss and perseverance, but they’re set to a mixture of country, rock, soul and gospel. “The people I asked to play really ended up adding things I didn’t expect,” Owens says. “That’s why I wanted the album cover to be just all of us on it. I’m trying to present it as a group effort, even though I’m not trying to start a band again.”
And if the title, A New Testament, isn’t enough to conjure religious undertones, its opener “My Troubled Heart,” will. “Early in the morning, at the break of day, I ain’t got no God above, to whom I pray,” Owens croons over acoustic strums. The song, which soon breaks into an upbeat gospel jam, sees Owens deliberately contradicting the messaging of a traditional Christian hymn, in which a higher power is often seen as the answer to life’s strife. “I don’t believe in God,” Owens says. “I wanted to take that format, their genre, and flip it and tell the truth. I keep my burdens all fucking day long.”
As Owens finishes a cigarette down to its filter and extinguishes it, I ask what it is, then, that’s keeping him so productive right now, free from the days where he’d lay in bed all day in a warm opiate embrace.
“I have one simple goal that seems to keep things good, which is to make an album every year,” he says. “And then, of course, just not doing things that, you know…I mean, in the beginning, the drugs were helpful for creativity, but then it changed. And suddenly, it was the exact opposite.”