On the cover of his new record, A New Testament, Christopher Owens smiles cheekily at the viewer, holding a pink cowboy hat firmly in place on his head. It’s a playful introduction to an album that contains some of his most positive music yet. After the sax-inflected heartbreak of his previous solo release, Lysandre, Owens has returned to the bluesy guitar pop that characterised his output with Girls, this time with a country twist. Honky tonk melodies underscore Owens’ particular brand of romantic confessional, while tracks like the heartwrenching “Stephen” explore his relationship with his once-estranged father through a gospel filter. We chatted with Owens about country living, religious music, and reuniting with his dad.
The title of the album gave me the idea of religious transition, or just a new place in your life. Where did it come from?
For me it’s not really about a new place in my life but at the same time I think it’s wonderful that the title lends itself to that. Ideally all of us are going to new places in our life and not just stuck in a rut, so I think it’s nice that people have attached that meaning to the title on their own. I take it as a sort of a compliment. But for me, I wanted to use that title to say that this album is valid and a major contribution. It’s a New Testament, up there with the big boys. It’s something of worth to me, something I’m excited to put out, and for me it’s also fun to steal these household phrases and place a fresh meaning on them.
The album draws on many stylistic tropes from country and honky tonk music. What’s your relationship with those genres?
I lived in Amarillo, Texas. It’s not Dallas or Houston or Austin; it’s real country Texas. I remember going to see Willie Nelson at a rodeo there. It was my first place to live in the United States so it was all taken for granted: this is what’s on the radio, this is what people listen to, this is American culture. I think after moving to California I was able to view it as a unique experience. I missed the AM radio playing country classics. I’ve also learned a lot about country from my dad. My dad has been playing country music for 20, 30 years. He’s one of those who can sit down with a guitar and play you 20 songs from each one of the great country songwriters. I’ve sat and done that with him. It just slowly unfolded for me.
You talk about your dad leaving your family on the album. What’s your relationship like?
My relationship is good with him, all things considered. Neither of us want to spend our time crying about the past. We’re happy to be in each other’s lives again so there’s not a lot of explaining away the past or me being like “gee, I grew up without a dad”. What’s the point? We connect over music. We talk about touring. He’s been driving around playing shows and we bond over that. In “Stephen” I touch on some deep topics and talk about the reality of him leaving but it doesn’t come from a nasty place. For me it’s just stating the facts, telling the story.
On the album’s closing track you talk about making your dad proud. How does he feel about your music?
He’s always been very supportive and genuinely happy for me. I think when I first landed in the US I was a bit lost, having experiences I was never allowed to have growing up in that very sheltered and strict religious upbringing. I can imagine as a dad he was probably wondering how I’d end up and what would happen when I suddenly discovered this outlet. They’re happy for me and very supportive. All my dad’s done since his twenties was play live music but he doesn’t really write songs, so he’s been very vocal about how great it is that I’m writing my own stuff. He’s happy for me.
Speaking of writing your own songs, this album has a very different vibe to Lysandre, particularly because of the gospel influences.
I remember when I was younger I was very into punk, and I was working for this guy Stanley Marsh, who’s been a big influence. One of our conversations was about some religious music, and I was like “I grew up in a religious environment, I hate that. I listen to punk. I like my music to be rebellious and have anger”. He gave me a record by Mahalia Jackson, where she’s singing gospel hymns, belting it out. It’s awesome music. I made a few discoveries through that. I realised I was being a bit immature and angsty and what I learned from listening to that record was that it was just like the blues or country- people singing about their feelings and trying to reach for something. I don’t believe in God so if I can strip away that aspect, what you see is somebody using music to express their feelings, and you do have a release. There is a very powerful thing that happens in gospel music where you can use it to escape the troubles of your daily life. Even though there’s a focus on country music on this record but when the girls start to get going on backups I let that come up even though it’s not strictly country.
You show all the band members on the cover of the album. Who’s who?
I’ve worked with all of them for a long time. John Anderson, who’s playing the guitar, joined Girls way back in 2009. There’s Andy Eisenberg, who played the organ on Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Broken Dreams Club. He’s playing again and also touring. There’s the backup singers, who I’ve had a great experience with for years now. I worked with the drummer from Father, Son, Holy Ghost and the bass player for Lysandre, so everyone is someone I’ve worked with before and enjoyed working with. I’ve maintained my relationships with all these people. A lot of them have their own projects so they come and go but when I get the chance and they wanna work together again, it’s something I’m very happy about.
The record feels very positive. Would you say that’s because of the group collaboration?
People have been talking about this a lot and I’m happy that there’s a positivity about it, but I can’t put my finger on where that comes from. When I selected the songs I wanted to do, there were songs that I thought would work well with this group on a record that leaned towards country music. I didn’t have an objective of positivity or negativity at all. I know there are a lot of positive songs but I think there always have been positive songs, even on the Girls records. Maybe there’s some happiness to being back in the studio with these specific people.