Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
It’s a testament to Christopher Owens’s music that the person you imagine he might be from listening to it is more or less the person you find yourself in conversation with when you meet him. Incredibly soft- and plain-spoken, he provides a welcome break from florid language and from airs and graces and from sound bytes; he’s great at nailing his thoughts on the head in a few concise sentences, much like the taut emotional structure of his heart-on-sleeve songwriting style.
It’s a testament to him, but it presents a whole world of difficulty in attempting to interview him – because, in his own opinion (an opinion that really nullifies the entire practice of interviewing musicians), listening to the album is really the best way to get to know him, and to get the answers to my questions. “I can’t really do any better than what the album does,” he says at one point, and I have to reluctantly agree.
After all, ‘Lysandre’, Owens’ first solo record since the split of the San Fransisco-based duo Girls, has a completeness to it that makes extraneous discussion of it seem, well, extraneous. It tells a story, complete with the transporting effect of found sounds and the bare-all lyricism that makes Owens so incredibly engaging, centred on both Girls’ early success and on a doomed love story. It’s crowded with the competing voices of flutes and saxes, making it seem like this could scarcely be called a “solo record” at all; as he says, “going solo wasn’t a choice to play by myself.” The live shows are still elaborate and theatrical, with an eight-piece band and a flurry of showmanship.
Christopher Owens – Here We Go
“I think it builds on tradition,” Owens says, making me think that if anything, the record is far from carving out its own, defiantly new personal space – it’s much less lonely than that. It’s more like an embracing of everything that’s gone before, as Owens writes himself into history. “I don’t really view it as doing something new, except the songs are new, and my point of view is new, so everything is unique to myself as an individual…but the idea is just to sort of do what other people do, to be part of something that already exists that I really like. The history of music, you know. Pop music, rock and roll, whatever you want to call it.”
“Yeah, sometimes [I feel vulnerable]. But I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a sign of doing something worth doing.” – Christopher Owens
This feeling is captured with so much more nuance in the delicate footsteps of ‘Lysandre’ than it is even in our conversation. On Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener, Owens sings, “What if I’m just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before?”, and “What if everybody just thinks I’m a phoney, and nobody ever gets it?”. Nearly everybody who has written about the LP has picked up on these lines; it seems unquestionable that Owens thrust them into the sonic spotlight, with an unusually quiet backdrop and up-close delivery, to make you hear them. In this moment, the anxiety of influence bristles through, and just as Owens grapples with the eternal bummer of his profession – that he’ll be always compared to everyone else that has ever done it – the album also reveals its own awareness of its place in a canon, and, most disconcertingly, of the listener. When you listen to those lyrics, you have a finger pointed at you, and your thoughts become a part of the listening process.
Christopher Owens – Love Is In The Ear of the Listener
It’s a moment that’s surreal in its frankness and its deconstruction of itself, and I’m keen to get some insight into how it feels to sing those lines now, years after they were written and after they were relevant to the nervous young musician who was about to play his first festival set. Is it cathartic? “I don’t know how cathartic it is, or if it’s exorcising, because it’s not like you sing the song and then it’s done,” Owens says. “It’s a valid and an interesting thing to talk about, and to share with your audience, that you have those moments.” Does it make him feel vulnerable, exposed? “Yeah, sometimes. But I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a sign of doing something worth doing. I mean, if you feel vulnerable, it just means you’re showing something of yourself.”
“I have pretty clear ideas about how I want things to sound. And it’s been a lot easier just to feel like I’m in charge, like ‘this is how it’s gonna be’.” – Christopher Owens
To add yet another layer of self-awareness, it seems relevant to consider the fact that these songs were written several years ago, and that revisiting them now is a process of self-re-discovery for Owens. “I think if a song’s good then it kind of captures a moment, so when you sing it and revisit it, it can take you there itself. So that definitely happened, during the recording and even during performing live. It’s very easy to go back into the moment,” he says. This doesn’t mean that the songwriting of ‘Lysandre’ is any more personal than any of his work with Girls, he stresses, but just that it’s more controlled, perhaps – it’s been easier for him to bring it to life because he hasn’t had to filter his ideas through other people. “It’s just nice to be able to call the songs my own, because they are mine,” Owens says. “I’ve always written alone, it just feels a little better, and it’s easier, too, to work like this for me, because I have pretty clear ideas about how I want things to sound. And it’s been a lot easier just to feel like I’m in charge, like ‘this is how it’s gonna be’.”
For that reason, according to Owens, the new record is perhaps the most “focussed” that he’s put out, with the most continuity. “But in general,” he says, “I write songs and they kind of seem to have obvious ways they should be played, a style, an influence or a genre that comes with them, and I follow that. I don’t feel like I’m tied down, or like I have to play in certain kinds of ways, so that’s really nice.” It’s continuity without stagnation – on ‘Lysandre’, we hear an artist confident enough to explore, but self-knowing enough to stay rooted to the spot.
He’s lost some of the scatter-brained elements that made Girls’ albums so disjointed and yet so unpredictably compelling, but crucially, ‘Lysandre’ is the most truthful record I’ve heard in a long time. It’s the most “this is just how I feel”, the most “this is how it’s gonna be”. Everything about the album, sonically and emotionally, is as literal as it gets; it feels classic to an almost cheesy degree, because its heart is in plain sight. Owens sums it up with a shrug. “It’s a story about the first tour I ever went on, and the beginning of playing in front of people for the first time, and having my songs looked at by an audience, you know. It’s just about the beginning. And then, there’s a love story in there, there’s like a road trip story. But I can’t do any better than what the album does.”