Christopher Owens, one half of Girls, the San Francisco band he formed with bass-player-producer Chet “JR” White in 2007, is inspired by a wide range of pop: nineties alternative, R&B, classic country, fifties sock-hop rock. But he’s got a totally un-pop vibe: Raised in the counterculture Christian community Children of God (a.k.a. the Family), he has a reputation as an “outsider” with an uninhibited sense of fashion, an intimate Twitter account, and an open, honest attitude toward his relationship with recreational drugs (listen to the delicate nostalgia of “Substance” from the Broken Hearts Club EP). We phoned the singer-songwriter ahead of this week’s release of Father, Son, Holy Ghost (his band’s second album), and talked about Cole Porter’s appeal, the likelihood of a Taylor Swift collaboration, and his Beyoncé “obsession.”
Do you write songs thinking about how they might take on a life outside of you, or how they might be interpreted over time?
I think it’s an exciting concept. As of yet, I’ve only seen YouTube videos of fans covering songs, which is very nice in a touching kind of way. But, for me, there’s a song on our new record, “Love, Like a River,” and as I was writing it, it was literally as if Beyoncé were singing it to me. That’s how I heard it coming to me. And I have this obsession with wanting her to sing that song. I know it’ll never happen, but I want to write songs that, twenty years down the line, will be covered by people with a better voice than me. Maybe a real bona fide country singer could cover “Darling” [off Girls’ first record, Album] and just knock it dead. I can present the song, but I’m limited as a performer and singer.
It’s interesting that you think the song can be divorced from the performer.
Absolutely. I think that’s the great thing about Cole Porter’s songs. You have a dandy, happy-go-lucky homosexual writing songs on his grand piano in Beverly Hills, and then you have Liza Minnelli singing the songs many years later. The feelings are universal. And there’s always interpretation.
Would you be interested in writing songs for a pop star like Taylor Swift?
I’m very into that idea. I kinda don’t see it happening, mainly because of the Internet. We live in an instant culture. I was delivered with the band as a package deal. These songs go with this character I’ve developed. At least, right now. I’ve been labeled as an outsider with a crazy backstory who uses drugs. Taylor Swift, for example, would probably be advised by her manager not to work with me.
Songwriting today seems to be sampling; people don’t create completely new work. What do you think of that?
The documents from the past are more available to be seen. So you can see these steps. But in the past, they were just as clear. Elvis Presley was literally trying to be a black Everly Brother, but information wasn’t just free on a handheld device, or from someone smart on a blog telling you about it. I think it’s the same thing as always. You read any famous rock-and-roll biography and it’s always about copying so-and-so. I don’t think it’s happening more — well, I do think everything is happening more and faster — but really, I think it’s just more obvious now. You can just go and watch the footage. All the documentation is there. A map has been produced.
How was it working on your new songs with an outside producer, someone other than JR?
My first record took a year and a half. This record took three weeks, because we had an engineer and a guy who cleaned heads. I’ve learned the value of having professionals. I would like to be more productive. I’m about three years behind on songwriting material right now. I have three years’ worth of albums written as whole albums that are waiting. The longer you wait, the more danger there is of forgetting the identity of those songs. But I’m not too worried about that.
You write a song all in one sitting, right?
Yeah. I think it’s offensive to reevaluate. If anything, maybe remove some things, but never add more.
There are a lot of guitar solos on this record. I guess you are a fan of the guitar solo?
I am. I think Jimi Henrdix and Miles Davis were doing exactly the same thing. I think it all comes from jazz music, which I love.
Miles always said he wanted his horn to sound like a guitar.
Those guys were the first people to say, let’s cover “I Fall in Love Too Easily” by whatever white homosexual wrote it, and then they’d stay in the square of the structure of the song, but they’d be completely individual and run all around it. And that’s what a guitar solo is supposed to be. Here are the chords. Here is the amount of time you have. Here is the style I want. Jon Andersen is somebody that I’ve been wanting to record with for three years. So it’s great to have all his playing down on this record.
Is he in the live band?
He quit again already. He’s a delicate flower.
So is the whole touring band new on this tour?
Yeah, except for JR, of course. The drummer is the same as the record, and basically, when Jon left, he said, “Well, my brother is a wonderful guitar player.” And he really is. And he’d already learned all the parts and can literally reproduce the recorded sounds.
Are you happy with the way the songs translate in a live setting?
A lot of it is the audience. Being willing to accept the slow song when maybe you want a fast song. There have definitely been times where, as a band, we played well and I was at 100 percent and then I read a paper the next day and they said, “I don’t know that he was really that committed.” I’ve never done a show without being committed. But there are also technical problems or bad venues. If you play a place like Los Angeles, everyone has that “impress me” attitude and stands there with their arms folded. But the teenagers who would’ve been excited, they see this and so they just stand there with their arms folded and then the whole thing becomes boring.
What’s your attitude toward live performances?
You know, I’m not James Brown. I don’t have the audience in my hand. I block them out, with my eyes closed, and I just try and perform the music in the most sincere way I can. I understand when people say, “I wish the show had more energy” or something. But you have to know what band you’re going to see before you see them. I don’t think we’re a bad live show, but I know I don’t run out onto the stage and yell what city we’re in and say, “Is everyone having a good fucking time?” I just want the songs to be presented in the best way they can. I’ll be the first to say it, “My voice is not the best.”
Here’s where our shows go wrong: At big festivals, people have just seen a rap artist go off, with backup dancers. And then out comes us. And I start to sing very soft songs, very slow songs. And there’s a guy standing there out in the sun with a bandana and his beer and he thinks, Maybe it just would’ve been better if the Strokes came out.
But as a pop-music writer, isn’t the goal to appeal to that bandana guy?
I moved to the U.S. in 1996 and I became a big part of a suburban punk scene. I saw a lot of hardcore bands and that led to indie rock. I saw psychedelic bands and garage bands and concept noise bands, but never once did I say, “I want to do this too.” I just wanted to be a part of the scene. Growing up the way I did, I was trying to follow that up with a hip scene. It took me until about being 27 years old to be able to sit back and ask myself, “Which of these things have been really moving to me?” Michael Jackson records. Cranberries records. Essentially, just universal pop music. Elvis Presley. Classic country songs. Those were the things I wanted to be a part of. This is an attempt at classic songwriting. And I know it’s going to take some time. I may be in my forties until I can do it. The goal is to write songs like “Love Me Tender.” It’s a song that will live forever. I don’t think anybody’s first songs are those songs, but I think, for me, there is conscious effort made toward making something that the whole world can understand. The best sentiments in the world, the whole world can understand. You can just sit with a Serbian man who just lost his child and, without speaking, you can know what feelings are being felt.