Christopher Owens’ Family Reunion, On A New Testament

chrisowens_embed1Photo: Turnstile / Fat Possum.
A few truths about itinerant indie troubadour Christopher Owens that get to the heart of his second solo album A New Testament: (a) He’s in love with love; (b) he’s long wanted to make a country record; and (c) while he may now technically be a solo artist, he prefers the idea of a band.
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A New Testament is the former Girls front man’s follow-up to his unassuming storybook of a solo debut, 2013’s Lysandre. It’s a collection of songs mostly about romance — lost, imagined, realized, and questioned — rendered, if not as full-on country, with considerably more twang than anything we’ve heard from Owens to date. You can hear pedal steel on about half the tracks. And, maybe most significantly, the album represents a near-complete reunion of the team that made Girls’ final album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, including guitarist John Anderson, Danny Eisenberg on the Hammond B3, producer Doug Boehm, and the glorious, soulful Makeda on backing vocals. (The notable absence is of course, Owens’ partner in Girls, Chet “JR” White.)
They’re all assembled on the new album’s cover — a testament to Testament being the work of many, and it feels like something of a family photo. Christopher has known a few “families” in his life. There was The Family, a.k.a. the Children of God, the religious community from which he famously extricated himself when he was a teen; the family of creative friends he formed in his adopted home of San Francisco in the mid-2000s; and in between, the Amarillo family that took him in, led by legendary West Texas art patron Stanley Marsh 3, who passed away in June — a tough loss for Owens in what seems to otherwise be a happy time. Few 21st-century singer-songwriters do heartache quite as well as Christopher, and this time he’s doing it — and some contented moments as well — in a cowboy hat.
Christopher, we last talked before the release of Lysandre. How different does the anticipation compare? Is there less pressure since it’s not the solo debut?
“It’s exciting. It’s always exciting to get peoples’ feedback! And, this time, you know, we’ve already put four songs out there, and we didn’t do any singles with Lysandre. They’re just two very different approaches, and this does feel a little more easygoing.”
I guess I assumed these would all be very new songs. But, in fact, the oldest one, “Overcoming Me,” which is beautiful, dates all the way back to 2008. Is there any reason that you wanted to go back to older songs?
“There’s lots of reasons. One reason is just really liking those songs, and making this record, just taking advantage of the opportunity to put out songs that feel like they have been waiting for a while. Also, I kind of looked over the old demos for songs that would work well for this particular record, for the overall sound of it, with a sort of country approach, but also not necessarily country. The first thing I did was call up all the people that I wanted to work with. And, once I got the confirmation from all of them that they were gonna be part of it, then I started to say, ‘Okay well what could I do really well with these people?’ Because you know, I may not have the opportunity again. People come and go and do their own thing.”
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You’ve conveniently put in the album notes the date that each song was written. And, just because I am a huge nerd, I went through and arranged them all chronologically to kind of trace your emotional journey over the four or five years that they span. It starts out really dark with “I Just Can’t Live Without You,” and then there’s this shift around spring of 2010, when you’ve got these in the throes of love songs like “Over and Above Myself.” Is that fair, or just weird?
“That is fair, and that’s cool man. I appreciate stuff like that, rather than just general questions. Yeah, I think you’re right, though I don’t think that it’s extremely black and white. I know that I’ve written songs very recently that are also dark. But, I think maybe that little bright patch you’re talking about, with songs like ‘Nobodies Business,’ ‘Key to My Heart,’ ‘Over and Above Myself,’ they were written around the same time ‘Magic’ was written, from Father, Son, Holy Ghost, which is also a very happy love song.”
So, is that around the time you and your girlfriend [of four years] Hannah met?
“We met probably spring of 2009. And, we were friends for about six months and did not have any kind of physical relationship. I did talk her ear off all the time, and she knew everything about me. I was attracted to her, but there was a conscious effort being made to have it not turn into a relationship. But then, by the winter of 2009, we went on a little tour together. And, you know, small quarters, hotel rooms…”
[Laughs] Right…
“Back of the van, and lots of time to talk and bond and being far away from home, it just took that next step. So, yeah, by that following spring, a couple of months later, I was writing a lot of songs about just being very happy about that. And, these were new experiences, because I only started writing songs around 2007, and I hadn’t been in a very happy relationship since then, so.”
Wouldn’t you say the vast majority of songs you’ve written since 2007 have been about one-on-one love?
“Yeah, or sometimes not romantic love, sometimes just a very good friend. Like, ‘Laura’ for example, we were never involved in that way. But, she was somebody whose friendship I really cared about, and when we had a falling out, you know, all I could think to do was write a song about it. And, I have written about, you know, that song ‘Oh Boy’ was about a very close friend of mine that I had a falling out with. And, there’s a very small percentage that are fun to write, but it doesn’t happen very often — where I’m sort of role-playing. Like there’s a song on this record, ‘A Heart Akin the Wind,’ I’m pretending to be Marty Robbins, you know, sort of a dude ranch cowboy. Every once in a while I like to do that.”
That’s the song where you talk about wanting a baby on your knee in your “house in San Francisco that’s sitting there for free.” So, that’s not necessarily true?
“Well, realistically I don’t have a house for free, I do pay rent. [Laughs]”
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[Laughs] Oh okay. Well, the question was really more about the baby aspiration than the house.
“Well, if we’re gonna get into that…”
We don’t have to! But, let me ask you about this country direction. For a long time now you’ve been threatening to — well, not threatening, but…
"[Laughs] Haha, no, I like ‘threatening…’”
chrisowens_embed2Photo: Turnstile / Fat Possum.
You’ve been saying you wanted to a country record for a long time. Did you know going into this that you wanted to head in that direction?
“Yeah, that was the goal. Even from the time that I was recording Lysandre, I was like, ‘The next one’s gonna be the country one.’ You know I thought, ‘This one they’re gonna have a hard time with, but the next one, I’m really gonna punch ‘em in the face.’ I think I said that to Alan, to my manager. He was like, ‘Okay.’
[Laughs]
“So yeah, picking the songs, it was like, what could have a country lean? I wanted it to remain true to stuff that I have done before but have a new color thrown in there. But then, realistically, when you actually start cutting the tracks, these musicians bring their own thing to it. You know, John, for example, on ‘I Just Can’t Live Without You,’ when it gets to his solo, he doesn’t Buck Owens out there, he just starts playing something very reminiscent of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and when I hear that, I love it. I’m not gonna tell him let’s do something else more country, I just keep it. And, the same with the girls, you know, when they started to do their tracks I was thinking, ‘Oh this is still very gospel,’ very R&B, very soul, maybe I should have them do it, try to get it a little more country. But, it was like, no, I like what they’re doing. It’s a bit of a mix, a motley crew, but I decided that was great. It gave it the individuality that this record will now have, and that’s why I wanted them all on the cover. Because they came in, and they made it what it is, along with me. And, that’s why the cover is what it is.”
You’ve said that some of your love of country came from the years you lived in Amarillo and spending time with Stanley Marsh 3. Stanley passed away in June.
“Yeah.”
I know he was like a father figure to you and a lot of people. How in touch had you been with him up until the end?
“I was very in touch with him. My last tour, when it was over, I went and spent a week out on the ranch, you know?”
How was he at the time?
“He had had a stroke. You know, when I met him, he was 65, and he had already managed to get prostate cancer into remission. He’d had health problems. His whole early adult life he was kind of a wild and crazy guy, you know? And, maybe a couple of years after I left, he had his first bad stroke. But, he actually came back pretty good from that first stroke, and then he had a couple more. The last time I was out there staying with him he was on an oxygen tank and that was difficult even for me just to see. And, I last spoke to him about two weeks before he died. We were discussing how to purify lake water, because he has a little lake that I used to swim in on his ranch. And, my girlfriend’s dad has a little lake on his ranch, and it’s got nasty chemicals in it from the winery that’s uphill from him. So, Stanley was telling me how to get the lake clean. We had a nice little chat about that. There was no air of like, this could be our last call. But, I’m glad we got to have that chat. And, then one day my phone just starts blowing up, you know, and it’s literally every other person that I worked with in the office there with him, all my old friends from Amarillo. Everybody’s just — you know, I thought I was done crying, but then the next person would call, and there came the tears again. All of us were just trying to find somebody who understood what we’d been through.”
Did you go down there? Was there a memorial, or funeral?
“The funeral was actually the following day. So, it wasn’t possible for me to do that.”
I have to let you go. But, we can go back to that question about having kids if you want?
“Oh, well all I will say about that is that working with Stanley for as long as I did — four years of working every day with him and then another eight years of just being very close — he adopted six children, and that made a big impression on me. That’s something I am interested in, and it isn’t anything I’ve given much thought to, but I would be happy to adopt a child at some point. If I could get through the screening process. [Laughs] And, prove that I am responsible! I’d probably have to make some more money first too, stop spending it on tours and videos. But, it’s something I think about.”
Christopher Owens’ A New Testament is out September 30.