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Interview: Christopher Owens of Girls

Photographer Jason Nocito
November 19, 2010

A month or so ago, Girls frontman Christopher Owens announced their new EP, Broken Dreams Club, with a handwritten letter. He called the record a "snapshot of the horizon" and "a taste of things to come," and he did so in large, messy penmanship on an upside down piece of stationary from Stanley Marsh III. Marsh, a rich, eccentric Texan, was once Owens' employer and mentor, and pulled him from a rugged, punk lifestyle into the slightly more mainstream one he leads today. The nod to Marsh was tongue-in-cheek, but a detail nonetheless, which, as a songwriter, Owens lives and dies by. He's a simple composer, not prone to elaborate metaphor or complex simile when specifics, directness and passion will do. Broken Dreams Club, the followup to Girls' debut Album (available Tuesday on True Panther Sounds), is steps backwards and forwards, maybe more of a parallel slide into the sun. Girls have spent the last year since their album's release touring and solidifying their lineup as a true band, not just the project of Owens and his collaborator JR White. Broken Dreams Club is the first recording they've made as a unified team, though with songs Owens wrote, in some cases, more than three years ago. A little more than a year ago, we talked to Owens as part of our cover story on Girls and we checked in again earlier this week while he was home from endless tour in his beloved San Francisco.

Have you been writing since you’ve been home?
Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot.

Do you ever stop writing?
Ummm…I will, but I don’t think about it. I just recently made this chart of all my song titles with all the dates and there are obvious spikes in creativity. Because I have all the songs in order, I also noticed several depressing songs in a row and then a couple happy songs in a row. It’s cool to watch—you can make some sort of stock market chart out of it... I reckon someone probably has, like, “Stocks are flying through the roof now—Chris is going through cold turkey or something.”

I feel like this might be better for someone who reads your tarot or a therapist.
Yeah, if I had one. I need one. I especially need one right now.

I’ve been experiencing a lot of bad vibes over the internet. I don’t even wanna talk about it, but it has been something that’s been keeping me down.

I’m sorry.
Yeah, it’s weird. Think I’m gonna get crucified pretty soon. One year I’m riding into town on a donkey and people have the palm leaves and they’re saying “Hossana to the son of David!” and then next year you’re getting crucified. It’s all right I don’t even...umm...there’s something that a lot of people aren’t doing which is looking at the big picture and um if I do that, everything’s cool.

Why are you feeling persecuted?
It’s not really that bad, it’s just...people get really excited, you know? They make a blog and they get their illegal download of Broken Dreams Club and then they get on there and start. But it’s just funny to me because they’re never informed properly. You have people that hear something like “Substance” on Broken Dreams Club and they say, “Oh it looks like they’re becoming darker and more about hopelessness and escaping into drug use.” But you know I’m sitting around going, If only I could tell that person that “Substance” is the second song I ever wrote and right after “Headache.” That was before “Lust For Life” or anything. People like to think they know what’s going on but sometimes they’re pretty off and you just kinda have to sit there and watch it. It’s not their fault. You get a new album and you think, “These are the new songs.” But in reality that record is to us songs that we felt we neglected as recordings because they were written so long ago and then we’ve been playing them live.

Album feels very true. I think that’s from your direct translation of these songs. Has recording as a band and having less control changed your songwriting?
I don’t think it has. Because at the end of the day it’s still me and JR sitting there listening to the tracks and doing the quality control. And if somebody’s playing something that we don’t like, which happened on this project, then we just didn’t use it and just went and did something else. I think there’s all different kind of ways to make music. I think there is something great about maybe just sitting at a piano and that’s it. Just singing a song. But you know, sometimes it’s also awesome to hear Judy Garland just singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with an orchestra of people she’s never even shaken hands with.

With some of these songs being a few years old and performed so many times, did the sting of the lyrics fade when you finally recorded?
No…because I’ve never been able to articulate this kind of thing. I’m not really good at explaining a lot of things. I kind of just go with my gut feeling. But I was reading a book the other day, it was written by Gore Vidal. It’s called A Search for the King and it's about Richard the Lionheart’s troubadour. And, you know, Richard gets captured in the end, it’s a classic story. And there’s Blondel the troubadour trying to find him again and trying to relay messages to get him ransom and back and all this stuff. And it’s about their love affair with each other, which is essentially a strong friendship. But there are these really, really great paragraphs which happen twice in the book about Blondel. He’s a troubadour who writes ballads to entertain the court and the king and there are these songs which are ballads which are all about love, all about a broken heart or the unattainable woman. There’s this inner dialogue that Blondel is having where he is like, "Why do I write these songs about this unattainable woman? She doesn’t even exist!" And you know the person he loves the most is Richard the Lionheart, or maybe the knights he’s fought alongside in the crusades. And all these strong relationships are with these men around him. But he sings these ballads and they make people cry, they make himself cry, but they’re not even… He doesn’t write, “Today we fought alongside each other and that’s why I love you and that’s why we’re happy around the fire right now.” He just writes, “Beautiful girl somewhere with the emerald gown that’s blowing in the wind and she cries every night because I’m at the crusade.” And at the end of the day you have a song about the longing, the passion, the loneliness, all these things that you’re experiencing. And the actual characters become fictional and everybody in the world ends up and goes and relates to it because they all have this feeling inside of them. Oh, you know, “The time I spent 3000 dollars of my bartending money to buy a Coupe De Ville and then someone just went and slashed all the tires and I couldn’t afford to buy new tires.” It’s about things that everybody feels throughout their lives and it doesn’t have to be about the specific thing that the song is talking about. My manager, Alan, loves and worships “Substance,” it’s his favorite song. And I know he’s not a junkie. The song is about being a junkie. And the guy’s a father with kids—he’s never been strung out. It’s a good song, it shouldn’t matter what its about, it shouldn’t matter when it’s written, and time will tell. Twenty years from now some pimple-faced kid who is drawing Black Flag bars on his notebook is gonna hear “Substance” and he’s gonna like it. And it doesn’t matter when it was written.

Girls songs, though, are about real people and not metaphorical characters. As Girls becomes more removed from you personally does it feel like the songs have to follow suit and become more universal?
I think on the first record you got something straight off the bat. First line of the album, I wish I had a boyfriend. I wasn’t actively going around looking for a boyfriend, but this is the line about being lonely, wanting to be loved, wanting for someone to protect you, you know it’s about a burning desire that you cant really explain without saying I wish I had a boyfriend. And I’m not even gay, really. I’ve had some gay experiences you know I was actively trying to go out with girls when I wrote that. It’s the same with the song “Lauren Marie.” I write this song Lauren Marie please let me put my arms around you, yadda yadda yadda, and um, in fact I went out with her, decided I didn’t like her, and moved on by the time we were recording that song. But the song was about when you want someone that bad. And you know, I’ve had guys come up and tell me that song reminds them of the ex-boyfriend that they lost, It’s not just about a girl. It should all be universal. I listen to Elvis Presley sing I heard you crying in the chapel and its one of my favorite songs in the world and I don’t know why. I never courted a girl in a church. I’ve never frequented churches. I think those things existed on the first album. And I think they’re gonna exist in the future.

How do they exist? How do you make it so real?
You write in a moment of desperation, in a moment of inspiration, in a moment of spontaneous combustion, sort of. And then when you perform you have to… People use different tricks. And I have my tricks. But I block out everything around me and I go back to that place and I don’t know how you do it but you just do it. And it’s the same in the studio, the same on the stage. You know if you were here right now we could say, Fuck this interview, I’m gonna play you a song that I wrote in 2006 and I guarantee you would feel it. I don’t know how people do it, but they do. The most important thing is that the song is written in that genuine moment of when something’s really happening inside you. And then if the song’s real you can always pull it back up.

So it’s easy to write because when it’s there it’s there and when it’s not you don’t write?
Yeah, exactly. I know a lot of people who, I mean I have these conversations with people and they just talk about when they go to write a song and, “Oh I sat down and boy I drank five cups of tea and threw away six scraps of paper and finally at the end of the day I got something that I think is okay, but I’m not gonna play it for you still because I’m insecure about it, but I’ll slip the demo in your mailbox sometime and I hope you’ll like it.” And that’s something that I just don’t think is right. I think it’s important to only write when you have to, when you’re literally singing the words out loud because you are literally hearing them in your head. And another thing, I have someone that I’m really close to who has watched this whole thing happen and who really wanted to be a musician way longer than I did. And she says to me, “God you know, I just wanna be famous so bad and I wanna have a popular band and go on tour and I think I’m doing everything right. I’m gonna get a record deal, I’m gonna record an album and I’m gonna go out and knock everybody dead.” But then I’m like, Do you have the songs? Its like, the songs have to come first and when they do I think everything’s okay. . I think its why you can go back and get a box set or get some like, secret recording sessions of Graham Parsons and you hear that he actually recorded “Love Hurts” three or four different ways before the regular hit came out. And they’re all cool whether one has a honkytonk piano or one has a slide guitar or one has Emmylou Harris on it. They’re all cool because when he wrote “Love Hurts,” you know love was really hurting. It’s a genuine song.

Do the songs on Broken Dreams Club feel just as genuine?
Yeah. Broken Dreams Club I’ve seen a lot of reviews are just like, “Where’s the really moving heavy stuff that was on Album?” It’s like, if you can listen to “Broken Dreams Club” and not get freaked out, then I don’t know what will. That song is, in my opinion, one of the best songs I’ve ever written and it’s a song where I’m not talking about a relationship or anything. It’s about every day. It’s about more relationships with the world and the people. But to me, I wasn’t really proud of myself when I wrote that song because it wasn’t…there’s John Lennon writing, I wanna hold your hand, and then he’s writing, Imagine there’s no heaven, and for me “Broken Dreams Club” was a step toward being able to write about something a little bigger than kissing on the cheek and going to the dance together and all that kinda crap.

I’m surprised to hear you call it crap.
Yeah, yeah. Then you get “All Right” which again for us its exciting I feel like we stepped outside of the box when recording there and did something new you know. It’s got a really cool beat its kind of psychedelic and it’s a song that I wrote. I think it may have been my third song to write ever. It was also pre-Girls. It’s a very Holy Shit kind of inspired song that I wrote while I was playing with them. And then um, after that you get “Substance” which we’ve already talked about. And then “Carolina.” The beginning is about the modern world and urban life. You get the reaction/ Get it right now/ Find the direction/ Get it right now make the connection/ Get it right now/ No satisfaction/ Get it right now. It’s about people who lack attention. It’s about all kinds of stuff. And then the chorus is about the same things that “Hellhole Ratrace” or “Headache” is about. About getting away from things, your relationships, people around you. I love “Carolina.” When the album first came out I remember people saying, “Why isn’t 'Carolin'a on the album?” Well, here it is now and unfortunately I’m seeing a lot of reviews that are saying you know, “Woop de doo, they’re trying to make another ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ or something.” Which is just not the case.

Are you ever trying to do anything?
No we’re not. We’re really not. I write these songs and I’m obsessed and I love all of them. And the only thing we’re ever really trying to do is record that song the best way we possibly can. That’s it. The funny thing about “Carolina,” there’s kind of a cool story to it. I don’t think I’ve told anybody, except for some Europeans who haven’t managed to spread the word. I’ve never been to southern Carolina, the song is about wanting to go back home to southern Carolina. Which is pretty cool. Because I’m supposed to be able to, you know, write stuff like that. I’m reading a Keith Richards biography right now and its all about these specific kind of things- writing these songs about... that sometimes are exactly what they say they are and sometimes are metaphors. And I was watching that broadcasting of Ms. Teen America and me and JR were texting back and forth about liking the Ms. Southern Carolina who was hoping to be Ms. Teen America. And of course we all know that she was fourth runner up or doing good somehow. And I was at work just texting back and forth with JR who was at home. And we were like, Yeah, we want her to win she’s really hot. Then they say, “What do you think about something to do with problems in Iraq and stuff?” And the poor thing just goes and says the worst thing you could possibly say, it didn’t even make sense. She says something about like if people knew how to read then they wouldn’t wanna be terrorists? Just crazy shit. And then we were like, Oh man, what a mess up. And then for the next week, there she was, the sacrificial lamb of every wiseass, holier-than-thou person in the world. “Look at what this idiot said!” You know, as if they never said anything dumb in their life. “Look at what this dumb girl said!” You know, saying she should get gang raped by Jihad or American soldiers or whatever. People were just going nuts. And I’m surprised the poor thing didn’t go and commit suicide because I probably would have. But it’s like, dude she’s a product of the American education system, she’s a product of parents who probably pushed her into beauty pageants her whole life. Why are you gonna go and hate this person? Where’s your compassion? Where’s your humanity? Everybody just tore her to pieces. And that song was just about me wanting to pick her up, throw her over my shoulder, and take her home to Carolina. And then I’ll never let you go. But it wasn’t literal, I didn’t have an actual crush on her, it was about wanting to save someone from the ravenous wolves of just the way the modern world is. These kids committing suicide over Facebook bullying and all this kind of stuff, its very real stuff and I’m in the thick of it right now. I honestly read stuff that makes me never wanna play in front of people again.

Can you stop reading it?
I don’t know. You get hooked on reading it, man. I told myself yesterday that I wasn’t gonna read it and there I was this morning seeing what’s new. Like, maybe people like me today. I have an addictive personality and there’s probably people who are good at not reading the stuff, but I genuinely feel for people like Britney Spears who just get worked over you know, because that’s what you’re there for. If you’re not entertaining people by being the hot new thing, then by god you’re gonna be the entertainment as someone to laugh at, someone to pick apart. And that’s the other thing—I’m not worried. We’re gonna make a second album that’s as good as any other album that’s ever been made. I know that’s true. But anyways, that’s what “Carolina” is about. And you know it's just everyday people, but those are the people you want to like you.

Interview: Christopher Owens of Girls