the insider: christopher owens
on cowboy hats, rhinestone shirts + his new album.
photo by hedi slimane via hedislimane.com
It's 9:30am on a Friday, but Christopher Owens has already been awake for hours, answering phone calls and endless interview questions. "I really need some coffee, would you mind if I called you back in two seconds?" he says, pausing our chat for some much-needed caffeine. But despite his fatigue, he's as bright and friendly as many of his songs would have you imagine: He is as earnest as "Here We Go", as whimsical as "Lysandre's Theme", and as youthfully romantic as Girls' "Honey Bunny". And with his new album, A New Testament, Owens adds "country" to the roster. Overall, Testament feels like a playful mashup of genres: there are twanging guitars accompanied by gospel choirs and organs, dark undertones of his cult upbringing matched with buoyant indie lyricism. But just as importantly, there are cowboy boots and rhinestones. Lots and lots of rhinestones.
I just saw the video for your new song "Never Wanna See That Look Again", and I loved the cowboy hat and rhinestoned shirt. Did you choose the look or did you have a stylist?
I chose it! We wanted it to have a western look for the video, but to keep it feeling like me. I brought all of these western shirts, but they made me feel like a rodeo clown all dressed up. So I put on that red shirt and thought Oh, this is still me. I can do this. It's something I feel really comfortable in.
You're wearing something similar on the album cover, too.
Yeah, it's all just fun, and it was a golden opportunity to play up the 'western' thing. I got to wear a little hat and chaps. The crop top is a recurring thing for sure.
On the topic of fashion, how was modeling for Saint Laurent a few years back?
Really great. I'd never really done anything like that, and I would've been pretty intimidated normally. But I was friends with Hedi [Slimane] beforehand, and he'd been doing some portraits of me here and there. So when he went to Saint Laurent, he called me up to do the campaign, and I was like, Oh, it's okay, I know this guy. He said that it would be a very natural shoot, that he'd walk me through it and that they wouldn't do hair and makeup. I had a great time.
I thought the pictures looked amazing! I feel like you and Slimane are very similar, since you both have a hand in all the parts of your 'brands'. You write, record, perform...
Yeah! [Slimane and I] are two peas in a pod. I actually produced A New Testament too. It's the first time I've claimed first producer credits, and I feel confident enough to do so now. It's made the album even more personal.
You sound more confident on the album too—your voice sounds prouder, almost.
That's good! I think I've improved a lot since the first Girls album. I've learned how to sing better, how to make better records. I'm a more confident songwriter. My goals are still the same, but I've definitely improved. And I want to keep on changing.
How do you think you'll change?
There are things I'd like to do, to try out. I'd love to work with jazz musicians. I'd love to do an album like Randy Newman's Sail Away, something more cinematic with arrangements. Or I could just strip things down and do something unbridled, more punk. Kind of like in Girls, how things were unhinged and a little DIY.
It's cool that you never subscribe yourself to a certain thing, that you're willing to change and experiment.
It's really liberating. I do genuinely love all of these different types of music, and it'd be a lost opportunity if I ever got locked into any one thing.
I know you even offered Justin Bieber a spot in Girls back in the day. That would've been pretty different…
[Laughs] I think the band would've turned into some strange Kid Rock thing. Bawitdaba da bang a dang diddy. But I did genuinely think that, when Justin had stopped doing the "Baby"-type music and was ready to transition, it was like a golden opportunity for him. Imagine tween Justin Bieber going to an indie band, becoming sophisticated musically, and then becoming the next Mick Jagger.
That would be amazing. By the way, I just watched the video for your new song "Nothing More than Everything"— how did you guys find a kid that looks exactly like you?
Ah, I can't take credit for that! But the guy that made the video gave me a few kids to pick from, and I chose him. His name is Luke so I kept saying "Luke, I am your father!"on set. Then I realized that he was too young, that he'd never even seen Star Wars. He just thought I was really weird.
Did you give him life advice, too?
[Laughs] No. I think he's doing fine. He's less than half my age and already making music videos and like, starring in Tommy Hilfiger ads. He's way ahead of me.
Speaking of life stuff, I saw you tweeted about doing a shower scene for a movie as part of your bucket list. Have you ticked this one off yet?
Nah. But it looks like good fun!
Anything else you would add to your bucket list?
In general I have a philosophy about the bucket list, to just throw the bucket out the window. What if you make a bucket list and then in your last moments were saying Ahh, I failed, I didn't check everything off of the list? It's better to live randomly.
Okay, then lets do some random questions. What is the weirdest thing you've ever gotten from a fan?
There really hasn't been much weird stuff! Just nice stuff. I get mixed CD's, flowers… I have very earnest, genuine fans.
Your most recent late-night purchase?
I just bought a misprinted Dutch stamp. The misprinted ones are really rare! I collect stamps, and I have about a dozen albums full. My mom got me started on it back in the 80s, and since I travel a lot, I get to buy stamps from all over the place.
Where would be your dream location for a show?
I'd love to play at the Grand Ole Opry. Or on the show A Prairie Home Companion. I'm such a huge fan of that show.
Favorite place to eat in your hometown [San Francisco]?
Sam Woo's in Chinatown. It's in a super old building and the same woman works there every day, she's hard as nails. She brings the food up on the Lazy Susan and says Alright! Who wants a Coke? Who wants water? I love her attitude. It's like having dinner at Grandma's, and you better be on your best behavior cause she's not gonna put up with your crap. You better eat all of your food.
Haha. Whats the weirdest thing you've ever eaten on tour?
Maybe fried honey-glazed crickets in Singapore.
That sounds kind of awesome… they're probably really crunchy.
Yeah! They really were.
Speaking of honey, I noticed you have a lot of "honey" pet names in your songs. "Honey bunny", "honey bee"…
Yeah! I guess it's like a Pooh Bear thing. I do like honey a lot— I drink it in my tea, I eat it on toast with butter. I even used to eat it on tofu when I lived in Japan, like a dessert. And I guess I reach for pet names when I'm feeling the tenderness and sentimentality that exists in music writing. I usually put them in the cuter songs.
Is "honey" your pet name of choice?
That and "bunny". But my girlfriend is named Hannah, and when I met her five years ago I put her in my phone as "Hannah Montana". It's still in my phone as such! So people are like, Oh my God, Hannah Montana just called Christopher. It's not even Miley, it's her alternate persona.
Now I'm imagining a collaboration between you and Miley Cyrus.
I would do it! She has such a great, unique voice. She can really do country. If she wanted to, she could be the next Dolly Parton.
So you'd turn both J. Biebs and Miley Cyrus country, if you could.
[Laughs] They're all goin' country.
A New Testament comes out tomorrow.