Christopher Owens on Girls, God, & Music Lasting Forever
"We’re driving to Texas," Christopher Owens says shortly before our phone call gets disconnected again. The musician – who used to sing and write for Girls before they went on an indefinite hiatus – is on the road again after surprise-releasing his third solo album, Chrissybaby Forever, an album that sounds more like his projects with old partner Chet "Jr" White than any of his other solo ventures. It makes sense then that he’s titled it what he has. Owens, who had a rough childhood belonging to the Children of God and then struggled with addiction years later, is happier now, or at least learning to be – something that he has no qualms sharing in the deeply personal songs which have made him a favorite in the indie-rock world. With this album Owens proves he’s here to last forever.
Milk Made’s Ana Velasco spoke to Chrissybaby on the phone (when they finally got good service) about going back to his roots, playing up his crazy, and writing songs that come from an uncomfortable place.
The new album sounds like you’ve strayed away from the Western sound of A New Testament and from the folky sound in Lysandre. What’s the driving force behind this album? It sounds more like the albums you did with Girls.
I recorded this album by myself in the studio. I played everything myself. That’s how we made the first Girls album. It was me and my friends engineering. So, of course it’s going to sound very similar because it’s me doing what I can do. On other albums I did what I think a lot of people would do once they’ve been playing awhile, invite friends that play well to play on the record. Also the last two albums had sort of conceptual goals. Those were fun things to do, but this one is closer to what I would play myself. It sounds more like me, I guess.
I think it’s interesting that you say this sounds the most like you, especially paired with the album cover, which is you in a straight jacket, and the title, which is your nickname.
You make a record and regardless of all the things that come and go in life, that record lasts forever. That’s kind of the only reason to title it like that. The straight jacket picture will make more sense once you see the full album art. I have a t shirt that I really like with Tupac wearing a straight jacket. On the back of it, I wear that t shirt. People do like to peg me as a crazy person though [laughs]. I guess I’m playing with that a bit. There was a running joke that I was crazy so Stanley Marsh bought me a straight jacket.
This is the most positive title of any of your albums and it’s also the most secular. Does this signify a different relationship you now have with religion, considering your history with religion and spirituality?
No, not really. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement with album title. My feelings about things in general have not really changed. The last album was only a year ago. There hasn’t been any major change in my outlooks. I liked the sound of the last album title. I also like the sound of the Girls albums titles. Not every album is just a reference to my deep conflict with the fact that I was raised Christian and never really believed in God. I like to do things like that every once in a while, but I don’t think you need to do it every time. Sometimes an album title could just be fun. [laughs]
Throughout your career, what are the most surprising things that you have learned about yourself?
Well, I’ve learned that I like to record a lot, I like to make albums pretty much every year. I’ve learned that songwriting is something that continues to happen easily for me. I’ve also learned that this is probably something that I’ll do for the rest of my life, in some manner. There might come a time when I don’t want to tour or something, so I can have a family or stay at home more. I’ll still probably be recording if I do that. I’ve found a bit of a purpose for my life, if you will.
Your lyrics are very raw, heart felt and personal, yet also relatable. Is it harder to put those songs out there for everyone to hear, or is it more cathartic to write honestly and have them be heard by people other than yourself?
It’s not hard at all. I feel like that has been the element that has made it interesting for me. The thing that drives me to do it in the first place is the chance to talk about things that I otherwise wouldn’t talk about and get those things out of my system. That’s where the inspiration for writing the song comes from anyway. It’s a pleasure for me. The deeper it gets, the more I say, and the more uncomfortable it is, the better. Otherwise, I might as well be just playing instrumental music or something. If you’re going to say something, say something that’s important to you, or something that only you can say. I could be in a cover band if I didn’t want to talk about myself, you know?
You’re on the road now but you’ve traveled a lot before, both touring and personally. Of all the places you’ve gone to, which one would you say has had the most impactful and enduring influence on you?
As a kid, probably Japan. I generally lived in placed for about a year at a time, but for whatever reason I lived in Japan for five years. They have a very unique culture there and it stuck with me. I think I was very influence by that, but as an adult, I think San Francisco has probably had the biggest impact on me. I’ve lived there the longest now, ten years. There are good and bad things, but it became a huge part of my life and changed my life.
I would like to do more, but it really has to be the right things and happen organically. With Saint Laurent and Hedi Slimane, we had been friends for about a year first. When he asked if I wanted to do these fashion pictures, it made it easier for me to try it because he had already taken my picture several times before that. I don’t know if I would sign up for a modeling agency or anything.
Would a Girls reunion be something to look forward to or is it completely done?
It’s not something that I’m working on, although JR and I talk a lot. When I recorded with him, I did achieve certain things that I haven’t been able to since, and I would like to be able to do that again. But he’s working on his things; I’m working on my things. It could happen, and I’m not opposed to it, but I don’t have any sign that it would happen in the near future. You have to go with the flow and see if it happens. If it does, great. If not, I’m happy with the records I’ve been making.
There’s definitely been an evident growth from all of your work. What are your biggest goals for the future, both musically and personally?
Musically, the goal is very simple. I’ve already written a great deal of songs that are sitting in waiting. The goal is to get those songs recorded in a way that I’m happy with…to just keep recording. I think even if I fumble around and screw up, if I get the album recorded, then in the future, they’ll exist forever and my job has been done. On a personal level, I don’t know. Learning how to be happy in general? Try to be healthy, learn how to do good things with your free time. When you’re in a band, you’re either recording or on tour or just doing nothing for maybe four months.
Now that you’re on tour again, what city are you the most excited to play at?
On this tour, I think San Francisco was the most exciting because it was the first show on the tour. The whole thing was a mystery. There was a huge amount of anticipation for me with that first show. Also, I got to be home. There was a cool crowd and lots of friends. It represented the beginning of everything. That was the highlight. For me, I’m always excited for the little surprise places; maybe New Orleans will be the best show, maybe Atlanta. Just arriving somewhere where you’re not anticipating any kind of hoopla, but then because of the crowd, you have a great night. I’ll let that be a surprise.
If the new album were a movie, what movie would it be?
Oh geez. Rebel Without a Cause, maybe? [laughs].
Buy Chrissybaby Forever here
Check out Chris Owens live! Tour dates here
Home slide photo by Ryan McGinley