The video for Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” was released in June of 2009, throwing the band’s frontman, Christopher Owens, into the indie-rock spotlight. Owens was perhaps too willing to talk about everything in his early days, detailing his time spent in the Children of God cult, his since-kicked opiate habit, and his years spent with the late Amarillo art pioneer Stanley Marsh III. Girls had three excellent, critically acclaimed releases — two full-lengths, one EP — with influences that ranged far and wide: surf music, old-school country, King Crimson, Randy Newman, Felt, the Everly Brothers, and somehow others. And then, citing “heartbreak” from the band’s constant turnover of members, Owens called it quits in 2012.
But he didn’t stop making music. In 2013 he released Lysandre, an odd, under-appreciated ode to the ’70s that features recurring refrains and instrumentation that brought to mind Donovan rather than the shoegaze fuzz of his early Girls work. Now, with his latest release, A New Testament, Owens has put on his boots and his ten-gallon hat to produce one of the year’s best country and gospel albums, and it’s from a guy who, in his own words, can’t make a country album. Flavorwire spoke to Owens as he was prepping for his current ongoing tour in support of the new album, out September 30 via Turnstile.
Flavorwire: Did you set out to do anything particular with A New Testament, or did it just kind of veer toward the gospel and country side of things?
Christopher Owens: Definitely. The idea was to make an album that explored the influence country music had had on me. I love country music — classic, traditional country music — and it’s something I’ve liked for a long, long time. And it’s something I felt was already in my songs already, it wasn’t too far of a stretch. If I just changed a couple of instruments, I can kind of sound like that. I wanted to show the things I love while giving a modern take, you know?
Yeah, even with Girls, the country was always underneath everything else.
I’m glad you said that, because I’ve had a lot of people calling me up and telling me it took them by surprise. And I thought, we’ve always done it. We just didn’t do it so explicitly. This is just the first time that I’ve decided, “OK, this is what we’re going to do.” And with the Girls stuff, the first album had to be what it was.
And the second one, the EP, Broken Dreams Club, was songs that we had been playing live but hadn’t recorded, so we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to do with them, sonically.
And then, for a band’s second full album — or third record, whatever you want to call it — it’s time for them to make a big statement. So we went big on there. So, for Girls, there wasn’t really time to do a country record. It would’ve been too soon to do it as a second album.
I feel like now I can kind of get away with.
Something about this album — the country influence is there, plus the soul stuff, but it’s definitely a pop album. If this were 30 or 40 years ago, it would be all over the radio.
Yeah. It’s like when the Beatles covered that Buck Owens song, you know? It’s not country, but it’s got that influence. They weren’t even intending to make a country song. They can’t. And in that same way, I can’t. It’s my own take on pop. I really believe that pop is just country, R&B, and Broadway hits all mashed up and made very short and accessible for everybody.
You listened to that kind of stuff in the Children of God, right? Did that have a direct influence on the sound of this album?
Well, the country influence you’re hearing on this record — the actual stuff you hear — is all stuff I’ve gotten into later in life. To be honest, the stuff I listened to in the Children of God — when I heard the Everly Brothers and stuff — it was really only about once a month, or once every six months. Typically we didn’t get much of that music at all. We only had our own music, which was very religious music that the adults wrote.
But every once in a while they’d have a dance night where they would put on a group of cassettes called “My Old Favorites,” which was our leader’s. And it was a bunch of oldies. And I mean from before 1950 in most cases. Those were deemed OK to listen to on special occasions. And those oldies were very close to country.
Do you remember any of the songs on there?
Oh, gosh. Stuff like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” or “Love Me Tender,” a couple mop-top Beatles stuff — definitely not the psychedelic Beatles stuff. Patsy Cline. It couldn’t be too negative. It had to be just right. I’ll always remember those songs from “My Old Favorites,” and I think they did give me a taste for the oldies sound. A very simple sort of a pop song, which I still have a strong place for.
You tweeted that Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” is a “touchstone of perfection.” Do you ever worry about proclaiming your love for pop music in such a public way?
That song to me is just a classic. I don’t think American Idol has really produced another knockout like that. It was just a really special thing. And I was feeling a little nostalgic.
On the last album you said that if Beyoncé or another huge pop singer had covered “Love Like a River,” it would’ve been a huge hit. Do you feel that way about any of the songs on A New Testament?
I feel like “Oh My Love” should be a classic. To me it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. Somebody should cover that in a couple years and let it be on Top 40 radio, and I would be over the moon.
I feel really strongly about a lot of our songs. They have a kind of classic quality that I feel like, if they could just enter the sort of general public’s subconscious, it would be part of pop culture — whatever that means, if it were in a movie or if somebody covered it — I think that would happen. They could be hits. Back in the day there would be one radio station or one Ed Sullivan show, and you could play a great song like that and the world would start to sing it. Now, it seems kind of impossible. I would need a little help with that, I think.
I heard in an interview recently that Randy Newman is one of your lyrical heroes. When did you first get into him?
Well, like a lot of people my first real exposure to Randy Newman was I think in that movie Antz—
Oh, sorry! Toy Story, that song (singing), “You got a friend in me, you got a friend in me,” and I came away sort of unimpressed. But in 2007, when I really started to write lyrics for my own songs, I heard “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do,” and I thought, “This guy is just a fucking genius.” And he helped me realize that when you’re writing a song it doesn’t have to be “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It can be like, “I think it’s gonna rain today,” over and over. It’s just the right balance of being a smart-ass and also being very genuine.
He sort of opened a door for me, and made me feel like I could do it. You know, that song I wrote, “Jamie Marie,” on the last Girls record was a direct sort of homage to Randy Newman.
What was your inspiration was for the aesthetic of all the promo materials for this album. It’s a very, uh, distinct look — I don’t even know how to nail it down.
I don’t work with a stylist or anything like that. I just kind of have a photographer come in and I know exactly what I want. I tell them what to do, I trust myself. I kind of just wanted everything to be warm and have a certain romantic aspect to it. I try to have more specific visions for these albums.
A lot of people will go through their whole career and do the same thing. You know, James Taylor has been James Taylor for 25 years. I guess that says something about me, I do little looks. I wore a suit for the last album, now I’ve got cowboy hats and boots. There is a side of me that it’s certainly a playful guy. And why not have a good time while you have this opportunity?
Right. Not everybody gets to come out with an album people pay attention to.
Exactly. And, as they say, we only live once.