Christopher Owens on Quitting Drugs: “I don’t know that I’ve ever been as terrified as this.”
The former Girls frontman gets clean, finds love and releases his most clear-sighted record to date.
Most love songs are about troubled love, but the video for "Nothing More than Everything to Me," a song from Christopher Owens' second album post-Girls, feels like a celebration of love gone right. A cowboy shirt-clad Owens leads the band in soundtracking what looks like a very all-American middle school dance, as a romance between a young boy and a young girl unfolds in a series of flashbacks on screen: talking nervously by a tree, chatting on the phone, showing up at the dance and standing around awkwardly as they wait for each other to show up. It all works out swimmingly in the end—with the two protagonists boogie-ing ecstatically to Owens' music on the dance floor, and the male lowering the female into a gentlemanly dip—and the song, with its galloping tempo, country slide guitar, and use of the ultra-cute affectionate term honey bee, feels just as happy-go-lucky as the story does.
Sound-wise, biography-wise and even-title-wise, there's a temptation to view Owen's A New Testament as the opening of a new, almost jarringly positive chapter in the two-time FADER cover star's career. He's about four years into his longest romantic partnership ever, two years into a new beginning as a solo artist and completely drug-free for first time in his adult life. The new record sounds like a fresh start, too. Compared to 2012's flute-laden concept album Lysandre, it feels like return to the simple, elemental songwriting that he cut his teeth on with Girls, but also a move toward something brighter and clearer, with its country-inspired pedal steel, its almost Broadway-ready back-up vocals and a production aesthetic so clean there's almost something punk about it. Still, if some of the more unnerving lines in "Nothing More than Everything to Me" are any indication—the title, for one, along with the retrospective declaration that I'm trying to forget you now—A New Testament is a lot more subtly shaded than its somewhat chirpy patina would suggest. Indeed, the seduction of Owens' music has always hinged on the poignant co-existence of contradictory emotions, and to hear him talk about his life up to the present, you get the sense that finding love and getting sober isn't nearly as simple as living happily ever after. A New Testament is out September 30th via Turnstile.
Where’d the title A New Testament come from? Well, for me, there’s an element to it that’s kind of a no-brainer. When you make an album that you've put a lot of content into, where you've put a lot of yourself into it, that’s what it is: it’s a new testament for you. But most of all, I just think it's a fun title. It's a bit cheeky, and also a bit grand. I enjoy using things that are already are in peoples' consciousness. It was fun, for example, to have a song called "Lust For Life," or to have an album called Father, Son, Holy Ghost. I've had the idea to use this title in the past, and, for some reason, I didn’t. I guess people before have said, "Oh, if you use that title, people will strictly talk about your upbringing—your religious upbringing”—that it would become a big focus. But I didn't believe that would happen, and it hasn’t. There's nothing about this album in particular that calls for this title. I think any of my albums could have been called that.
Did you have any new direction in mind going into it? There's not much new going on, to be honest. It's a bit of a back-to-basics for me. Just grabbing songs that I have that span years of writing, and that go together as well. That’s what I did with the Girls records, too. The only thing about [this one], creatively, is the intent to show a bit of my love for traditional country music. I think it has always existed in my songwriting, but there's a bit more showcasing of that in the actual instrumental music side.
What about country music interests you from a songwriting perspective? I didn't grow up in America. When I moved to Amarillo, Texas, I didn't particularly enjoy it right away; I kind of hated it, to be honest. But I slowly started to love living in Amarillo, Texas, and I think county music kind of was the same thing for me. After spending a lot of time around it and hearing it a lot, I discovered that there is not a lot about it that is different from pop music, or folk music, or R&B music. There is something very particular about the way the instruments are played that I think is very attractive, but it’s just a very simple format when you break it down: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. I think that over years of listening to all these different genres, I started to see that, fundamentally, they're all kind of the same. It's just a very basic, American approach to a song.
From a production perspective, this record sounds a lot cleaner and starker than your previous ones, even to a slightly jarring degree. What sort of feel were you going for? Well, there was a couple things. There was introducing some traditional country sounds, like the pedal steel. From a production angle, though, I think there wasn't any blueprint for this one, other than the blueprint that existed on a whole. If you look at the first Girls album, it sounded the way it did because of the way we recorded it; we were recording in an apartment, and we did the best we could with the instruments and the equipment we had. Then on the next record, Broken Dreams Club, it just sounds cleaner; there's less fooling around going on, less stacking of fuzzy guitars. And then you get to Father, Son, Holy Ghost; it's even cleaner than Broken Dreams Club. I think when you can hear every instrument, you end up with something a little more. There wasn't a plan on this record, but there's been a plan, I think, from the beginning, to strive toward something better with each record, to do a little less stabbing in the dark. With time, you know your objectives a little clearer.
So would you say that the objective has been to strive toward simplicity? Yeah. You know, for example, if I ask John [Anderson] to do a guitar solo, he's bringing something huge in with what he plays—something that I can't do myself, something that lives inside his head. Working with a lot of these guys on this record—and on Girls, too—I have gotten a lot of respect for their skills. I guess there was a subconscious thing in my mind, like, “Okay, when somebody gives me something, a little piece of gold, put it out in front. I don't need to go and play something underneath it myself.” I guess there was a little holding back on my end.
Yeah, it's interesting because you are working with a lot of people that you've worked with for a while—John Anderson, Darren Weiss, Makeda Francisco, Danny Eisenberg and engineer Doug Boehm—and the cover of the album, to me, immediately suggests a kind of community endeavor. There is a band playing on this record. I think people will see that when we play live, and I wanted just to show that on the cover. I thought that the people all kind of made this record what it is, with me. I think practically, it would be silly for me to release an album every year under a different band name. So, it's just easier to say this is a Christopher Owens record, because I know the lineups will change with each record. In the same way that I've tried to show my love for classic country music on this record, I want to do that in different ways with other genres, too.
"For everything that's wonderful about not using drugs, there is also the reality that you used them for a reason."
The upbeat lyrics and instrumentation make this record seem like it’s coming from more of a spiritually happy place than your previous albums. Do you experience A New Testament that way? To be perfectly honest, I see a lot of different things in it. To me, it's not much different than any of the other records. For example, on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, you have "Honey Bunny,” with this very upbeat video about, as you said, love going right. And then there's “Vomit," which is sort of the other side of the coin. I don't mind the sort of general consensus that this is a happy record—that’s fine with me. But there are songs that are about frustration and perseverance and loneliness, too. "I see "It Comes Back To You" as very similar to, say, "Hellhole Ratrace,” or “Carolina," or “Vomit.” ”Hellhole Ratrace" starts out as, I'm sick and tired of the way I feel, and then at the end, it's like, But, I don't want to cry, so come on, laugh with me. This one is, When you're crying on your own and you feel so far from home, you’ve got to give your love away, and it comes back to you."
It's something I've done from the beginning: talk about the reality of how I feel, but also present something that says, “I’m not settling for that, I'm persevering.” I see that a lot in this record. There's this song where I sing, I just can't live without you, but I'm still alive….I don't want to go on. Lots of depressing lyrics, but then the chorus is, But mama didn't raise no quitter, and I wanna make my daddy proud. Father, Son, Holy Ghost had zippy songs like “Magic," and on the first record, there's songs like "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” and “Summertime," which are about very optimistic things as well. You can do everything you do, and at the end of the day, people see what they see, and some of it is out of your hands as the artist. I didn't set out with the stuff that I chose to include in the Girls albums to present a sort of dark side, but that's what people took away from it.
What kind of place would you say you're in now, personally, compared to when you put out your earlier albums? Well, like where I was with the Girls records, I have a lot to be very grateful for. A lot that's very exciting. I have things in my personal life that are very wonderful that I didn't have before. At the same time, I have just as many worries, just as many fears, just as much misery. I was talking with somebody the other day about the record, and I was the one sitting there saying that I had changed, and the person said to me, "It doesn't really sound to me like you've changed that much; it sounds to me that maybe there's just growth." That really. really hit me. I think our experiences stay with us, you know? But, there is growth. There are new things in my life.
Such as? I'm not a drug addict anymore, which is one thing. Lots of people would say, "Isn't that great. He must be so happy.” If you talk to any recovering addict, when you're not sort of sedating yourself all the time, it’s like, “Yes, my world has opened up like a flower. Yes, I can be much happier. Yes I feel like I have a new lease on life. Yes, my relationships are more substantial.” At the same time, the things that I used opiates as a crutch for—I have more anxiety now. When I do get depressed, I can't just instantly get high and swat it away. I have to work through it. Many people have called me up to say "I'm proud of you,” but, at the same time, I know inside that it's terrifying. I don't know that I've ever been as terrified as this.
Because now you can’t put a barrier between yourself and your emotions? For everything that's wonderful about not using drugs, there is also the reality that you used them for a reason. You fall in love with a certain drug because it's working in some ways. I used it for a long time for essentially positive reasons—to do things I couldn't on my own. But now I want to do those things on my own. For example, we played the other day at Outside Lands Festival here in San Francisco. I've played so many festivals over the past five, six years, but I found myself absolutely terrified, and my hands were shaking. I had stage fright like never before. It was shocking and hard to deal with, but then I went up and played the show, and it was good. It was also that much better. It's just a double-edged sword: all this happiness and sobriety.
Do you see that experience reflected in the new material you’ve been writing? The stuff I've written in the past year or two is not even recorded yet, but I do see some changes. I can see some new themes popping up. I have songs, for example, about learning to love myself more, instead of loving or becoming so obsessed with other people. But the reality is that there was no fresh perspective when A New Testament was written or plotted out.
In the interview you did with Pitchfork, you were saying that you could have called this album—along with all your albums prior—Looking For Love. That was funny to me, because looking for love is a line from “Vomit." What did you mean by that? I forget what [Ryan Dombal] was asking me about when I said that, but I think I was kind of trying to say that the material on this album is essentially the same, to me, as what I've always been doing. Some intelligent person will probably pick this apart and make fun of me, but I think you can be somebody who is reaching toward a positive or an optimistic view, when there's a negative and pessimistic view as well. I think I've always reached for the positive and optimistic, even with the most honest and miserable songs I've written. There's always been an antidote toward the end, or in the chorus—that I am somebody who is looking for love, not just wallowing in the misery, not accepting the misery. This is an effort to reach for something better than myself. That's what I mean by “looking for love.” The music should uplift somebody even by saying "Man, I feel awful today." The music should still say that there are ways out, that there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel. That's essentially what I've always written about.