Christopher Owens: The Devil Is in the Demo

Photo by Annie Thornton

I spoke with former Girls front man Christopher Owens a few days ago about his latest album, A New Testament (Turnstile Music, 2014) and what it was like to write it. We also touched upon his general writing process. He’ll be playing at the Biltmore Cabaret with a collection of close friends this coming Wednesday, October 8th.

Vancouver Weekly: I’m interested in how you come up with a song. Do you have a process or a routine that you usually go through?

Christopher Owens: There’s a few different sort of stages for me…. There’s something that happens like pretty much on its own. I kind of will just suddenly be hearing the idea in my head. It’s very whole in a way. There’s melody and words and the rhythms and the idea of the song in general. It’s very much, “Oh, I found a song. Oh, yeah, that’s an idea for a song.” And often times you don’t get those versions, or you don’t get the whole thing, but you’ll get enough to start. So what I do [when I come up with a song] is immediately then sing that into my phone and save it because… well, it’s pretty easy come, easy go [laughs].

So I guess there’s a second part of the writing process where later on at some point you feel you’re ready. You get that devil on the phone back out and try and write that second verse… get an instrument out and play with it, figure it out what kind of chords to use…. I record an actual demo with guitar and vocals on the computer. And then I think the final thing that happens is [getting] into the studio with the other musicians. I can then tell them, “Okay here’s where the guitar solo goes,” and it’s up to them to play that solo. So there is a whole other bit that really has to come to life through them.

VW: So you allow them their own creative bent in terms of the song? You set things up and see what happens? Or do you have a very clear idea with them? Or is it more a conversation?

CO: I have a very, very clear idea. I mean, it’s like, “This is the guitar tone I want, and this is what I want you to play, and here’s where your solo goes, and this is the kind of energy I want from the solo.” But I think with somebody talented, that still leaves a lot of room open,… They bring a lot to the table, but I do want very specific things from them in very specific places.

VW: The people that you are working with now, do you think you’ve built a pretty good relationship so far with them musically?

CO: Ya,… the biggest difference for me recording this record is the fact that I’ve already recorded with all these people once or twice before, so we’re not just starting from square one. We know each other pretty well.

VW: There are all these steps that go along to make the song. How do you know when you are done? Is there a moment when you go, “This is it”?

CO: So… that moment comes with the first step… I mean, maybe in the second step you’ve done some extra things, like written a second verse, but that original idea, it’s done from there. The other twos steps – finishing or adding more lyrics or working in the studio – I think what you are trying to do is not violate that original idea. I think that’s the biggest goal.

VW: Could you elaborate on that quote that you have on your website, “three chords and the truth”?

CO: Well, it’s a quote from traditional country song-writers that you hear. It would be interesting to look that up because I don’t know myself, but somebody coined that phrase, and it’s passed around in that classic country scene. People like Dolly Parton or Willy Nelson or Waylon Jennings would say it as a sort of motto. I think music has so many opportunities for distraction, especially when you get a little success or little bit of ego… I think it’s about reminding yourself to keep it simple and honest because you can get so caught up. I know that I’ve gotten caught up before by just playing around with synthesizers and guitars. And that’s all very fun and good, but I think there’s something about what’s fundamentally important to the song itself that should be remembered in that statement.

VW: These traditional American styles – R&B, country, and blues – seem to be your interests at the moment. Are you looking to try out other genres in the future?

CO: Yeah, there are a lot of things that I want to try. There are some things that I want to go back to even. I’m pretty sure I would like to continue to do country songs here and there. I don’t think I would do another whole album like [A New Testament]. I feel like I’ve “done it.”

VW: Who were you listening to while you were writing A New Testament?

CO: I didn’t actually sit down and “write” an album [A New Testament]. I had been writing songs for years and years and years. And when I knew that I could make this album – when I had the people lined up to do it – and when I was sure this was the album that I wanted to make…. I went in and picked out songs from over a six year period. So it would be very hard to say what I was listening to because I was kind of all over the place.

VW: Do you ever deviate from the set list at all? Do you try different versions of the songs in your set?

CO: I’m very into just playing just the song … playing what was recorded. I think there is a big opportunity to bring it to a live audience differently. Amongst the soloists, whether it’s the guitars, the organ, or vocals, I think there will always be sight variations. But we are sticking to the general plan. I’m a big fan of Jazz, for example, and I think that’s the place to do that. I’m a fan of the fact that Jimi Hendrix never played the same solo twice. I love all that stuff, but that’s not really what I’m trying to do. I want to create songs very badly in my life, and when I get to do it with these people and make a record, that’s when I feel like I’ve really achieved something. So for me, the show is about presenting work. I just have a lot of respect for the songs. To me they are finished works, and the show is about showing them to others. I don’t take much liberties with the songs because they’re great, I think [laughs].ANTfbVW: I really like how direct and concise your lyrics are. Do you go through drafts upon drafts to get to the core ideas, or…

CO: No, I like one draft. The ideas have to come to me. I don’t… um, I’m no good at writing a song.

VW: Oh, come on.

CO: No, I’m being honest here. You know I would love to sit and tell you that I’m Morrissey or Oscar Wilde, and the words just flow from my pen, but it’s not true at all. I really have to “find the song.” In the quiet moments though, in between life experiences, I’ll just start to hear [the  songs]. So say for example I just start to hear a chorus, and I can manage to then keep thinking about it and do a first verse pretty effortlessly. Then I’ll save that [song] like I was telling you before. But then when I get that demo out again, and go to write that second verse or maybe add a bridge if the idea is not coming, then that’s the time to stop – put that demo back away and leave it alone and try again at another time. The time where it will be written is the time when it is coming out.

VW: You take a lot from your personal life when you write. Especially with the track “Stephen”, I felt like you were sharing a lot of yourself. What was that like, revisiting that part of your life? You’re talking about your parents, talking about your brother. I understand there was a lot that happened there. What’s it like to perform that track, and what was it like writing it?

CO: Your life experiences are things that you live with all the time. So to me, it wasn’t like digging up something old. It was about addressing something that I’ve been carrying around forever. And to do that feels good. It’s like getting something off your chest. There is a release. There is something funny that happens, just thinking about singing the song about these things. And not only this one. A lot of them. Songs where I’m talking about specific friendships that came and went or whatever. It’s like you don’t have to carry them around inside anymore. You’ve shared them with the world, and somehow because of that they’re not secrets. It’s no longer baggage,… You’ve shone a little light on a dark place. So I enjoyed writing it very much. But it feels good to sing it,… You know when people say they enjoy crying in a movie? It’s the same kind of feeling.

VW: You talk about how if it’s not working [writing a song], you kind of stop. Did “Stephen” flow fairly well in the beginning?

CO: That song I wrote the chorus for years ago. I just started to hear that chorus in my head, “Just like an angel,” and I was like. “Oh, this is great!” I could hear the vocals, how they would sound like a church choir, like an Elvis Presley gospel song. I’m happy when I start writing about these very real experiences. But then I didn’t know what to do with the verse forever. And I approached it several times, and it felt like I was putting a square peg in a round hole, and it just wasn’t working. Because with the verse to that chorus, I could then continue to talk about the specifics on how my brother died, or I could talk about being angry about the way I was raised (in the Children of God community). But then what happened, at the end of the day, what worked was just to talk about not what happened to my brother but what happened to me when he died.

My dad left because of this experience. I was then left with my mother and two sisters. And a… actually, people have been getting the lyrics wrong in some interviews and articles. I say that “my mother and father were separated.” Then I say, “And so was our family / We were Children of God.” People have been quoting it as, “Some big family / We were Children of God.” I dunno how they came up with that. When my dad left, my sisters and I followed my mother around. All we really wanted was to have an actual family instead of being a part of the Children of God and this other communal group that we lived in.

So yeah, that’s when it worked when I brought it back to myself. Rather than talk more about my brother’s story, I dunno. I guess also in a matter of fact way, in an accepting way, because I did approach that verse in a more angry tone or angsty tone or a regretful tone. I didn’t think any of those worked at the end of the day.

VW: Is there anything you want to say to those who will be coming out to see your show October 8th at the Biltmore?

CO: Just that it’s gunna be a great show. Everybody from the recording has agreed to come on tour, and we are all very happy to not only to have recorded another album together but also be able to play these shows. It’s a positive feeling, and it’s a big show: there’s seven of us. It’s a lot of fun. There’s no need to worry that you’re going to see a bad show. It’ll be a good one.

Tickets for Christopher Owens at the Biltmore are available at Zulu Records, Red Cat Records, Highlife Records, and online at Ticketweb.