ARTICLE T. COLE RACHEL
PHOTOGRAPHY RYAN MCGINLEY
FORMER GIRLS FRONT MAN CHRISTOPHER OWENS IS OUT ON HIS OWN AND OWNING THE FUTURE OF ROCK
When it comes to dealing with up-and-coming rock stars, it isn’t humanly possible to find someone as resolutely low-key as Christopher Owens. Despite being one of the most talked-about (and photographed) musicians to creep into popular consciousness over the past couple of years, in person Owens is soft-spoken to the point of seeming nearly invisible. When I turn up to chat with him at NYC’s Bowery Hotel, he begins the interview by apologizing and then slipping outside for a cigarette. A few minutes later, when I ask him if the business of rock stardom has gotten easier for him, he can only shrug and laugh a little. “Less weird, but still pretty weird,” he says.
Owens first made a name for himself as a member of the beloved indie-pop duo Girls. After releasing its first proper album in 2009, the band quickly ascended the rungs of the indie-rock ladder with an irresistible combination of bizarre backstory (Owens was raised as a member of the Children of God cult), unabashed romanticism, and an aesthetic that embodies a druggy, lovey utopia—messy yet harmonic, a somewhat lovelorn vision of the band’s hometown of San Francisco. In early Girls videos, an omnisexual Owens lounges around various funky San Francisco bedrooms, watches the sunrise with a bunch of his bros, and whizzes through California in a convertible while rocking a blond mop top and skimpy cutoff T-shirt. Then, after the 2011 release of a superb sophomore album—the universally beloved Father, Son, Holy Ghost—Owens shocked everyone by abruptly calling it quits with Girls.
“It has mostly been liberating,” he says of the split. “The decision to leave wasn’t really out of anger or some kind of breakup or a fight, it was just something that I felt was happening naturally over time,” he says. “So, to go with that feeling felt really good. The easier thing would have been to put out another Girls record. I’m sure it would have been well received and we’d probably be on our first bus tour right now and have a song in a movie. [But] I needed to do what I wanted to do.” The breakup of Girls still looms large over Owens’s professional life, but he has only good things to say about his previous band, even though going it alone still sometimes seems like a scary proposition. “I hope for the best,” he says. “I definitely didn’t want to take a huge step backward by becoming a solo artist.”
At the time of our interview, Owens is in New York to play one in a series of shows serving to introduce the world to Lysandre, his debut solo album. As he is quick to point out, the solo shows are both nerve-racking and incredibly freeing. Having already made waves in the fashion world earlier this year when he was chosen as the new face of Saint Laurent Paris (“There was no hair or makeup, I just showed up and Hedi took my photo,” he says), Owens feels the Lysandre shows are the capstone of what has been a fairly busy albeit tumultuous year. “I just hope people like the record,” he says, shrugging off any mention of the buzz that seems to surround him.
Not that he should worry. Lysandre’s abjectness is what makes it so beautiful. It’s the most romantic collection of songs that Owens has ever written. Conceived as a continuous narrative, the record recounts Owens’s experience of touring the world with Girls for the first time and falling in love with a girl somewhere along the way. Tracks like “New York City” and “Riviera Rock” tread the line between the kind of jangly indie-pop that would have been right at home on a previous Girls record and something more akin to old-fashioned British folk music (flutes are involved). The most striking thing about Lysandre, however, is the album’s lyrics. While so many of his peers are happy to hide behind a wall of aloof ambiguity, Owens is unabashedly straightforward, hopelessly sentimental, and not even a little bit ironic. At a time when earnest sentimentality is at a peak of uncoolness, Owens’s ability to wear his heart on his sleeve is not merely disarming but incredibly charming.
“Romance is the space that I can’t seem to get out of,” he admits. “It’s a very natural place that I come from. I don’t know why, really. People are so jaded and so sophisticated and have seen it all, so I’m sure it can come across as very naïve, but it’s always been the driving thing behind my music. I don’t want to let the fear of being made fun of overtake my desire to say these things. I’ve always been shocked by how well it’s been received. From the beginning I expected people to say something like, ‘You’re an idiot.’”