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Girls Frontman Christopher Owens Shapes His Music With His Past

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The debut album from San Franciscan indie-pop band Girls begins by throwing some pretty heavy stuff at the listener. As frontman Christopher Owens manically strums out bright, rapid-fire chords on his twangy Rickenbacker, he bemoans, "I wish I had a boyfriend / I wish I had a loving man in my life / I wish I had a father / Maybe then I would've turned out right." Ouch. He goes on to insist he's "just crazy and fucked in the head." Pretty bleak, right? But, then, about 30 seconds in, the song entirely shifts gears with this lyric, delivered with startling sincerity: "But maybe if I really try with all of my heart / Then I could make a brand new start in love with you."

This little snippet from opening track "Lust for Life" goes right to the heart of Girls' music. Perfect moments of emotional clarity are taken with hefty doses of confusion, pain and heartache throughout their stunning debut, simply titled Album, which saw wide release this week. After performing a set at San Francisco's Amoeba Music to celebrate the release of Album, Owens muses about his songwriting. "To be frank, I was pretty miserable when I started writing these songs," he says. "A lot of people even think they're break-up songs or bummer songs, but I think they all have turnarounds."

As bassist Chet "JR" White, the other half of Girls, finishes loading equipment in the alley behind Amoeba, Owens continues. "They're all very hopeful and positive songs. It's the idea of music being something that gets rid of an empty feeling." Girls' music doesn't shy away from harsh reality, depression or extreme emotional lows. But the fact that their music wrestles with these realities makes it that much more credibly uplifting.

Their Amoeba set was surprisingly assured for a band so new to the game. When they expertly transitioned from the languid, death-pondering "Hellhole Ratrace" to the My Bloody Valentine-like jam "Morning Light," they exuded a confidence rare in bands just putting out their first full length. The performance was intriguing-nearly as much as their backstory.

To find out where Girls' music is really coming from, you have to go back to Owens' turbulent, almost unreal childhood. He grew up moving all over Europe and Asia in a fatherless family embedded in the controversial religious cult Children of God. His career in music was born out of this dreadful milieu. To raise money, the cult would send children out on the streets of whatever city they were in to busk for money. "About a dozen kids would get into these singing groups and go Christmas caroling, on like a main street in Paris or somewhere," Owens recalls. Though he admits "it was something I really enjoyed," he also reflects on the bitter reality of busking for a cult. "We'd be out all day, playing long hours. It'd be cold. We were playing just so we could eat."

No matter how horrendous the experience was, it sparked Owens' love for music. He sees a direct line between his musical upbringing in Children of God and the kind of music he makes now with Girls.

"I feel a lot of influence from the music that I was raised with and grew up singing. The idea of music being inspirational and something that uplifts you has stayed with me. I'm not religious anymore, but I still believe that music can be a very spiritual thing. It's used as a tool to uplift you."

Children of God wouldn't let music from the outside world seep into their hermetically sealed-off sphere. Owens' thirst for freedom to, among other things, listen to music beyond cult hymns drove him to flee when he was 16. He moved from Slovenia to Amarillo, Texas, and immersed himself in the local punk scene. By 2006, he found himself in San Francisco, where he met Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck from the L.A. band Holy Shit. They invited him to tour with them and encouraged him to write his own songs. The disarmingly brilliant tunes he came up with during this time are what ended up on Album.

Though Owens' life story is punctuated by lows most people can only begin to fathom, silver linings always figure prominently in Girls' ragtag, gritty music. But thematic considerations wouldn't mean anything if their music didn't sound as fresh and alive as the lyrics. Thankfully, bassist JR White's meticulously produced arrangements perfectly match Owens' songwriting. Girls sound like how a warmly aged, sun-bleached photograph of people having fun in a park looks. A hazy, druggy sheen overlays the jangly guitars, immaculate basslines, sticky-sweet melodies and jaunty percussion that dominate their sound. Ragged '60s pop along the lines of the Beatles or the Beach Boys collides with the fuzzy ambience of My Bloody Valentine.

Girls insist that they make pop music, and it's not too hard to see what they mean. It's not pop in the Top-40 radio sense. Their sound is way too scruffy and unscrubbed. But essentially, this is music anybody can get behind. "From day one, I knew I wanted to make pop music," Owens asserts. "I wanted to make something that could be played on the radio, something that any age demographic could like, something that's universal."

The band unabashedly wears its influences on its sleeves. Owens freely admits that when recording Album standout "Morning Light," he told White, "I want to make this song sound like My Bloody Valentine."

"I think it's cool to show the influences and evolution; everything comes from somewhere," Owens explains. "There's nothing new under the sun," he says, conjuring the Biblical language that's stuck with him since his Children of God days.

Crammed into a compact sedan with all their equipment, Owens, White and drummer Garret Godard are en route to their rehearsal space when the inescapable topic of drugs came up. To many listeners, the band's distinctive, slightly askew sound is inextricably linked to narcotics. The association isn't entirely unfounded; the band very openly discusses their drug use.

"We don't care that people know we do drugs," Owens says casually. "We thought it'd be cool to be honest about it. But we've been bummed out that people seem to think drugs are our main focus, when they really aren't. The music is the focus." From the front seat, White elaborates: "The reality is that we were doing what a lot of kids might be doing; we were just fucking around, recording and getting high. But we're definitely not one of those bands that's like, 'all right rehearsal's today, let's go smoke some drugs!' We're not a drug band, even though the press might be trying to label us that." Drugs are just one aspect of the vast, dark underbelly found in Girls' sound. Rather than self-cesoring themselves or filtering their music through rose-colored lenses, they opt for brutal honesty. This honesty-be it about cult upbringings, failed relationships or drugs-is exactly why Girls' music has the capacity to actually, truly uplift.

Girls will soon be taking their live performances to the places Owens grew up in during his Children of God days. They'll be stopping in all the cities Owens busked in as a child. While ashing a cigarette between his nail-polished fingers, he talks about the upcoming European tour: "I kind of grew up in Europe, so I'm excited to go back in a different context." Girls are invigorating precisely because their music come to terms with the darker side of life and turns the blackness of the past into the hopeful, washed-out brightness of the future.


David Wagner is the lead music critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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