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Escape Velocity

Time Capsule: An Interview With Christopher Owens
John Freeman , May 23rd, 2013 05:37

As the ex-Girls frontman embarks on his solo career, Christopher Owens tells John Freeman about debut album Lysandre and life after the demise of his former band

It's been 18 months since I last met Christopher Owens, in the somewhat incongruous surrounds of a spa hotel in Shepherd's Bush. In the intervening time he has lost a band - Owens announced the demise of Girls last July via Twitter - and acquired a huge, gleaming tour bus, which serves as the venue for our chat ahead of his first solo show in Manchester.

After an immaculate soundcheck with his six-piece backing band - the solo entourage now includes two backing singers and a saxophonist-cum-flautist - Owens marches off stage and plants a welcoming bear-hug on me. We retire to the bus (any tour profits seemingly blown in an attempt to save on hotel bills) and, after some chit-chat about his beloved Barcelona football team and his fledgling career as a model, begin to discuss the last tumultuous year in the extraordinary life of Christopher Owens.

His back story is the stuff of Hollywood – Owens was raised in the Children Of God cult, escaped to Texas via Slovenia as a teenager, moved to California and formed Girls with Chet 'JR' White. The official line on the Girls split was that Owens became frustrated with the continual line-up changes (he stopped counting at 21 different members) that prevented the San Franciscan indie rockers ever truly becoming, as he puts to me, "a band in the classic sense." And while Owens speaks happily about the new project, I sense he still harbours a deep sadness at the loss of his band.

So, it's not surprising that Lysandre, his debut solo album, seeks solace in happier times. It's a concept album built around a brief relationship Owens had with a French woman – Lysandre – during Girls' first European tour. The songs, bar the final epilogue, are all over three years old and showcase Owens' unashamed love of Donovan, Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel, while confirming his hell-bent desire to explore what he calls "more esoteric" styles.

Tonight's show is gently ecstatic – Owens strumming his way through tales of love, lust and artistic self-doubt, amid rousing '70s folk and classic pop. And if there is any doubt about the romance that fuels Lysandre, the 24 white roses Chris requested on his tour rider are handed out to a small gaggle of swooning fans. There is, it seems, life after Girls.

You have talked at length about the reasons behind your departure from Girls. How are you adjusting to a musical career outside the band environment?

Christopher Owens: It's good. At one point, I came to peace with the fact that the band was never going to come together. Now, it is a different idea, but it is something I like very much. I now get to decide on what an album would be and pick a group that would be great for that album, work together with them on the recording and touring for that time. If I then need different people for a new sound on the next album – for instance if it was a different genre – then I can choose some new people. If I want to do the next album as a jazz record, I can find some jazz musicians.

What was the weirdest internet rumour you heard about the split?

CO: I heard that I had some sort of dehabilitating drug scenario which was definitely not the case. People wanted to hear about some fight between me and JR. There were things that I was unhappy about at being in Girls, but nothing that was so strong as to cause a fight. Some Girls fans are a little disappointed and the only place they can put that is on me. Nobody else [in Girls] has had to deal with that, and it's not something that is fun to deal with. Over time it will be fine. But it sucks, because every once in a while I will read something online where I feel people truly don't think it is difficult for me as well. It's more difficult for me than it is for them – I can guarantee them that.

Much of Lysandre is more than three years old. What was it about the songs that made you want them to be the first people heard after Girls' demise?

CO: There were a couple of reasons. One was that it was written three years ago and I was dying to get it out. Also, I thought it was a great album to do as a solo artist, because it really is one person's story. And I wanted to show something that didn't come across in Girls. We made a lot of attempts to not come across as an indie rock band, but we were pretty much a rock & roll band. I wanted to do something so different, so people would understand that I like some more esoteric kinds of music.

What esoteric types of music inspired the songs?

CO: One very specific album was Nico's Chelsea Girl which had flute and classical guitar, and also some Donovan songs. The 'New York City' track was very much influenced by Lou Reed. The last song, the epilogue, was written a year later and is almost a 70s folk rock song, like Glen Campbell's 'Gentle On My Mind' or Harry Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin''.

As Lysandre is a short album, your live set also includes a number of covers. How did you choose which songs to perform?

CO: Well, we play songs by Cat Stevens, Donovan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers and Bob Dylan, and it's very much about setting the context for the album. Also, those were literally the first songs I learned to play, so they are the roots of what I fell in love with in music and songwriting.

Refreshingly, a number of those artists are not especially cool. I've come to realise that you have zero interest in being a 'cool' indie artist. Am I right?

CO: I'm just not indie cool. I haven't spent the time being interested in the indie scene and I don't have the background or the desire. I think there are people that are into that kind of stuff that can get into what I am doing – if it fits and makes sense for them – but it's doesn't at all feel like what I am about. I felt lucky when I got a bad Pitchfork score this year. Suddenly Urban Outfitters didn't want me to put a song on their website, which was awesome.

Your current set doesn't contain any Girls songs. Will you play them in the future?

CO: Yes. I want to put a little time between playing them, and it's really cool to do this album as a show. I will play my old songs. As much as it was a band and they were worked on as a group, they are very much my songs – lyrically, emotionally and even with the music. They are 100 per cent my songs, so I will play them again.

We last met 18 months ago. You seem happier - are you now in a better place?

CO: I'm in a lot better place. Creatively I am more excited about getting to do things that are more different. I am a lot happier. At the beginning, Girls had a really great thing but by the last album there was an element of people wanting certain songs to be kept off the album. There were certain things I had to dig in for. I got my way in the end, but I didn't want it to be like that. I wanted it to be how it was in the beginning. Then, I would want to do something and people would say 'how can we help?' Over time, that went away. Now, if I work at every project as a one-off, pretty much everyone will be excited.

Where might you head next? Any ideas about how the next record might sound?

CO: I'm pretty sure about what I want to do next. It's not going to be another album like Lysandre. The songs will be from a span of time – some older, some newer. I do want to do something that is generically consistent – an album that has an idea. Whether it be a country or a jazz-sounding album, it will have a theme.

If you keep releasing albums that jump between genres, is there a danger you will lose the connections that run between your work?

CO: There will be a connection. I only write one type of song, at the end of the day. Lysandre is very conceptual, so it has gone the farthest away from just a casual rag-bag of songs that would be snapshots of myself. But, I like a lot of different kinds of music and I like writing songs – that's important to me.

Finally, what does Lysandre think of 'her' album?

CO: All throughout the making of the album I was sending her messages. Although we only tried to keep our relationship going for a few months, over the years we stayed friends. I saw her in December and she likes the album, but I don't dig for more answers. I get her to say she likes the record and then I change the subject. It's like a time-capsule and for both of us in 20 years it will be even cooler. If you have good memories of something, it just becomes more and more valuable over time.

Lysandre is out now via Fat Possum/Turnstile.