Back in 1988, a man named David Berg rounded up hippies in Huntington Beach with his children and gave them an outlet to get back in touch with Jesus while still being a rebel. He, surrounded by his children, sprouted a return to the Christian upbringing in the form of Children of God, a traveling religious community. Hundreds of followers bloomed into thousands, and soon they moved to take over the world, making communes in countries worldwide. It wasn’t about your family. It was about living as one giant family.
Turns out some people break free. Indie rock singer-songwriter and ex-Girls frontman Christopher Owens happened to be one of these religious members, but he’s run off to California to make the country music that’s always been in the back of his mind. With three Girls albums and two solo albums, the 35-year-old musician is making the most of his life – exactly how he wants to.
“There’s things we can’t escape when we look inside ourselves for lyrics,” he says when talking about the bible. “Calling the album The New Testament is a beautiful, romantic, grand thing. When you do attach the baggage and acknowledge this is an established phrase from a taboo and religious source, there’s a bit of fun. It’s sincere earnestness turned with a humorous spin.”
Born in Miami, Owens quickly took off to travel the world with his parents, moving to Slovenia, Asia, and Western Europe. At the time, it was frustrating. “The things I covet from others is having childhood friends, having a school I went to, having a relationship with my parents since mine are divorced. I was very isolated. I’m slowly making sense of the whole bizarre thing as time goes on,” he says. The continuity of the church was its continual changes. Owens never went to school a day in his life. Although the group would claim he was home-schooled to cover their bases, what he really grew up studying was the bible and the writings of their leader. “It was sheer lunacy,” he says. “Having a good view into the mind of a manipulative madman is always a good thing, even if it’s a little traumatizing.”
“I’m slowly making sense of the whole bizarre thing as time goes on.”
Then, at age 16, he was riding horses on a ranch in Amarillo, TX, a decision he made with his sister to up and leave the group. Even then, things were difficult. “I was at war there,” he says of Amarillo. “Everything from the general ideals people had, the police department, the jobs available were bad. I only stayed because a man gave me a great job and became my best friend. He changed my life. I arrived at 16 and left at 25, but it feels like where I grew up. The rest of the time with my family felt like a blur. I pretend it didn’t happen.”
There’s no anger within the family, though. They don’t call each other up — those basic building blocks of the family structure removed by the communes they lived in — but the fact that he and his three sisters never felt resentment towards their parents, and that they made and effort to stay in touch speaks volumes.
He’s had some time to rest into the position of a solo artist now that his second solo album is out. Two thirds of the material he’s released as a solo artist is stuff he wrote during the time he was still with Girls. Turns out going solo wasn’t about changing his writing; it was about changing his presentation. Now he’s tipping his chin upwards on The New Testament in the form of country. There’s still a strong current from past work, like the sadness present in “It Comes Back to You” and “All My Love”, but he’s not afraid to have a little fun.
In his newest video for “Nothing More Than Everything To Me”, Owens plays in a school band during a dance, a glimpse into the childhood he never had. “For whatever reason, I find children to be nice creatures — not yet malicious or evil. They’re just sweet things.” With the country twang and the smile on his face, it feels like he’s piecing together the life he only experienced in his dreams.
Many of his bandmates have recorded with him on the record, but never actually step out onstage, like his constantly joking backup singers or the lead guitarist and organ player from Father, Son, Holy Ghost. “Knowing I can do those shows with these people is a very exciting thing,” he says. “We can play those older songs and it will be the first time I can watch John play his guitar solo or Danny play the organ. They’re sounds I really love from the recording that I’ve never gotten to enjoy from the stage.” If you’re curious about who they are, take a look at the album cover. They’re the eight others gathered around Owens.
He’s determined to play older songs live, too, like “Hellhole Ratrace.” According to Owens, the song never got the full, intense backing vocals he had hoped far at the time it was recorded. Now, with this band, he can make it happen.
For a musician who spurts quote-able lyrics with every breath, Owens fights for the melody more than it would seem. “No matter how much a line means to you, if you fall short with the music, it won’t have the desired effect. Melody really works with lyrics and, at the end of the day, makes it not just poetry or prose. It gives it emotion.” The interplay between music and lyrics gets him talking about New England author Lev Grossman for a while and his views on ruminative thought. Turns out Owens, like Grossman, finds writing therapeutic, even if he isn’t necessarily going anywhere with it. “I’m just dwelling. But then again, maybe there are some baby steps as time passes,” he laughs. “I guess I appreciate an Ivy League guy who writes book reviews for Time Magazine because I feel like we’re having the same experience even though I come from a very different background.”
As for the show, he can’t stop buzzing with excitement to see the reactions to the album. “It’s not that I do this for a response — I do it for myself and am probably my biggest fan — but to hear it in person and see it in people’s eyes when they want to get a record signed? It helps you feel like you’ve made a connection,” he says. “It helps a lot.” Considering the emotional out-pour Owens gives to each of his records, it’s safe to say those at the show will be lining up until The Sinclair has to close its doors.
CHRISTOPHER OWENS. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. SUN 9.28. 9PM/18+/$18.