Wherever he is, it’s 9am. Christopher Owens has just woken up to a phone call from across the Atlantic — his voice betraying his newfound wakefulness through the occasional yawns that litter his deep, drawn, and yet happily dozy speech. At this point, the release of A New Testament is imminent. It’s Owens’ second solo album since the 2012 disbanding of Girls, and as he puts it, a return to his characteristic musical self following his “odd ball” first solo release Lysandre.
In part, A New Testament sounds like an ode to Americana of many years’ past; with country hooks, slide guitar and the odd religious reference here and there flavouring the album throughout. Whether it’s done entirely seriously though is another question. Sprawled across the cover amongst his long-time collaborators who perform on the album, Owens grins contently from beneath a pink cowboy hat and mid-drift cowboy vest — signifying what he refers to as a “tongue-in-cheek” take on old American musical imagery. Even so, his apparent allusion to a new genre does little to cloak the characteristic simplicity, the lyrical honesty and the pop sophistication that weave their way through the release; maintaining the very qualities that brought Girls to prominence some years ago.
Sidelining the fatigue that accompanies being woken by a phone call at 9am, Owens describes the creation of A New Testament and where its roots lie. Between the valued performers he’s maintained since Girls’ final album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and his upbringing in the Children of God religious sect; A New Testament has seen several past and present aspects of Owens’ life seep into its twelve tracks.
Were all of the songs on A New Testament initially written in a country style?
Not all of them, no. A few of them don’t even really go there now — just a couple. And then a few of them were blank slate type of songs that you could do just about anything to, so yeah, not all of them.
Are the religious song subjects on the album a homage to old American lyricism, or are they more of a personal venture?
Well yeah. I mean – it would be really interesting to get the lyrics out and go through. A couple of times I’ve talked about the fact that I’ve come to the decision that I don’t believe in God, but other than that I don’t really remember too many other religious lyrics. Of course the title is very religious — it’s a religious reference — but it’s kind of done in a tongue-in-cheek way. I think it happens naturally. When it does happen for me, it happens very naturally because my upbringing was very religious and it was something I was born and raised into — from birth to age 16.
“I think a lot of people can be like “oh yeah, I was raised Catholic”, but whatever. For me it wasn’t like that.”
I think that’s not uncommon, you know. A lot of people are born and raised Catholic or a number of things — but for me it was like, we were separatists: I couldn’t be part of the world at all. So it was a big decision to leave and it feels like a substantial thing that I had to decide about it one way or another. I think a lot of people can be like “oh yeah, I was raised Catholic”, but whatever. For me it wasn’t like that — I really had to think about these things. I think it does come out, you know. Whether I like it or not it’s a part of what I draw from.
Well you know, I don’t want to talk about various religious groups, but they all have their various degrees of how much they accept others. Ours was a group that really believed we were the only people in the world that had the proper insights to what was written in the Bible and what God had to say; what God thought about on a daily basis. They were very, uh, very sure of that for one thing! But then, for another thing we lived in communes together — I wouldn’t be walking around town. It’s hard to explain. We were living separate from the world. I didn’t use a telephone, for example. I don’t know if you really know much about communes, but it was pretty typical.
Imagine, you know, you’re on a sheep farm somewhere with no phone, no television, no radio; and it’s only adults with their views speaking to on a daily basis about those views. That’s how I was raised.
Was there much music around you as a child?
Yeah, there was a lot of music. It was all music from our group — a very unique brand of music. It wasn’t all that bad, you know. To be honest, it was actually okay. They were kind of 60s hippie drop outs, so they had some fair taste in music. Some of it was a little.. awful, but I remember some songs were not that bad.
And the album cover is quite a strange one. What’s the story behind that?
To me it’s the most straight-forward album cover I could think to make. There was a decision to just have the whole group on there that recorded the album and I wanted to do that after we’d made it. When I was listening back to it during the mix being processed, I thought it was very clear to me that the people that I asked to play on it and that made it with me really make it sound the way it does. The lyrics are very much mine and the ideas are mine, and it’s a very personal piece of work; but it was in the sound — these very clear styles that come out because of the way these other people sounded and the way they play, and their musical backgrounds. So just listening back to it through the mixing process, I thought it’d be great to just show the group and show a little bit of visual information about who it is making this sound. And then, within the photography I didn’t want any tricks going on: it’s a clear and focussed, straight-forward shot with a white background. So to me it’s pretty plain and simple – minimal, I guess.
“Within the photography I didn’t want any tricks going on: it’s a clear and focussed, straight-forward shot”
Are the gospel vocalists on the album people who you’ve worked with before?
Yeah. They’re not really gospel vocalists, per se; I think they would probably call themselves RnB singers or soul singers — I didn’t find them in a church. I mean, these are people who’ve sung backing vocals for the likes of Mariah Carey and Barry White and Ziggy Marley — but yeah, I guess the real background of that music often is gospel, or those people often grow up singing in churches so there is a sound there to that. There’s three of them, and I recorded with them on the last Girls album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and I toured with them for about a year. So this is our second time around recording and I’ve known them for a few years now.
Do they tour with you as well?
Yeah – as much as they can. In the past it would be a little bit more often; we’d have them on all the biggest dates, but I’m going to try to have them more this time. I’d like to pretty much have the whole group there. I think it’s important for the show to sound good. So yeah, we’ll have to see. But so far they’re doing everything that’s been booked, so maybe if they can’t do some things I’ll find some other girls or something — I’d like to have that sound for the shows as well.
Finally, A New Testament does serve as quite a departure from your first solo album Lysandre, even if not from Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Is this a natural departure?
It was very natural. For me really, the last one is the departure one. That was something I knew even making it — I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything like that again! I mean, it’s hard to say because I don’t know; but even making it I knew it was something very special, and even structure wise it’s really not the way I usually work. It was a very unique kind of idea and project. I see that one as kind of the odd ball. [A New Testament] seems a little bit more back to normal. But yeah. I don’t know — I think from the very beginning; the very first Girls album, all the way to now, there’s plenty of times where a random music style pops up and it can be very like, ‘oh wow, they’re doing that?!’. But I think with all of them the lyrics are pretty… [chuckles]… you could almost change them around from song to song and they would work in the other song. They’re pretty normal for me. I don’t have much departure there, and they’re always very simple and I think that’s where the main thread lies for me.
I think it’s fun to change the musical sound.
A New Testament comes out today via Spunk Records.