you do, don’t call nü-indie rock icon Christopher Owens a cult hero…
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
As a child, most of the music Girls’ lead singer Christopher
Owens heard was written by people he knew. Owens grew up in the Children of God
cult, where he would attend sing-alongs of religious songs created by other
“I resented being in the cult, but I later came to
appreciate the way music was presented, which was as something that anyone
could do,” he says. “It was seen as something inspirational that was ours. It
was a way to express how you’re feeling inside.”
There were a few other songs that were allowed inside the
cult. The Children of God’s leader had a few mix tapes of songs from the ‘50s
and ‘60s called “My Old Favorites” that he circulated. It had show tunes and
songs by artists like Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and The Beatles. What was outlawed was any current music,
although older kids would sometimes sneak in contraband like Michael Jackson and
Guns ‘N’ Roses.
After leaving the cult at 16, Owens moved to Amarillo, TX, and later San Francisco, where he
became part of the punk scene. Two years ago, in his late 20s, he began writing
his own songs, which would somehow merge all of his musical passions: the urgency
of punk, the melodies of Elvis’ classic pop and the heart-on-sleeve openness of
religious folk music. Those songs became the bulk of Girls’ 2009 full-length debut,
entitled Album (True
We talked with Owens about his unusual youth and how
songwriting helped him come to terms with his past.
was it like growing up as part of the Children of God?
OWENS: I resented the whole thing. I resented my entire
life. I didn’t want anything to do with religion. I wanted to be able to make
my own decisions and do my own thing. I didn’t have any freedom.
still resent the cult?
Not anymore. I just went on with my life and figured out
what happened and why. Being able to understand what happened helped me get over
it. It’s not that crazy to me anymore, how something started out as a good idea
might get out of hand.
you mean? Which part of it was a good idea?
The Children of God were teenagers in the ‘60s who wanted to
live together and have fun. They believed in God and thought they were saving
people’s souls. They weren’t bad people, just idealists in a way. I think it
all got out of hand when they had kids – when they forced a whole generation of
kids to believe what they believed, when they restricted their freedom and took
away their right to make up their own minds. They didn’t pay attention to the
fact that these children may not want to stay in the cult their whole lives and
should have gotten a better education. By the time you left as a teenager, you
were different from other people, whether you liked it or not.
eventually wound up in San Francisco
and started writing your own songs. How did that happen?
I became friends with the guys in a band called Holy Shit.
They were my favorite band. I noticed how rewarding music was to them, and I
casually started to write my own songs. When I found that music was a tool to
talk about my feelings and vent things inside of me, I felt like a huge weight
was lifted off my shoulders. I would play songs and feel something I never felt
before. It was so great.
said the music you listened to in Children of God was meant to be uplifting.
Are you trying to do the same thing with your music?
When I started, I wasn’t trying to do anything for anybody
else. I was trying to uplift myself. I wanted to write songs that would help me
feel better about my life and myself. But now that other people are listening
to it, I hope it affects them the same way.
a funny thing to say about an album that was inspired by a bad breakup.
I was definitely going through a rough time when I wrote
these songs. But I feel like even the songs about loneliness and feeling
frustrated with life have a positive message in there somewhere. A lot are
realistic and address the fact that at some point everyone feels alone in life,
but each one comes around to the idea that it’s up to you whether you stay in
that place. Any song that talks about depression also offers an alternative,
which is to keep going, not accept that depression and not dwell on your
addition to Owens, the other members of the band are Chet “JR” White, Ryan Lynch and Garet Godard. Girls’ tour starts next week. Go to their MySpace
page for dates. On April 17 they are also scheduled to play Coachella.]
[Photo Credit: Sandy Kim/ courtesy Matador]