It’s rare to find something as true and beautiful as the band GIRLS. Christopher Owens and JR White were meant to find each other, sincere rock and roll soul mates in the age of irony. And while that might sound like fancy, it’s closer to the truth than you think.
“If you’re going to San Francisco…”
Just as the Velvets crackled with New York City electricity and Smiths songs came soaked in Manchester drizzle, so the music of Girls captures the mind-bent and sun-brushed outlook of life in San Francisco. Taking the classic California pop template perfected by Brian Wilson and applying a woozy, narcotic makeover, Girls makes music that glorifies adolescence – a time of hopeful confusion and love strong enough to hurt you. You’ll detect ’50s surf-pop, ’60s psychedelia, and ’80s shoegaze at play here – the West Coast-by-way-of-somewhere-else – but ultimately San Francisco washes over this music.
“We’re all looking for love and meaning in our lives”
Desire and heartbreak are themes that blanket Album (released September 2009), from fruitless longing (“I might never get my arms around you/But that doesn’t mean that I won’t try” – “Lauren Marie”) to painful reflection (“Maybe if I really try with all of my heart/Then I could make a brand new start in love with you” – “Lust for Life”). Christopher’s lyrics go straight for your heart, as they come directly from his. As he notes, “Sometimes the best way is to have simple lyrics. There’s this country song by Tim McGraw where he sings: ‘We’re all looking for love and meaning in our lives.’ To me, that speaks volumes, even though it’s so simple.”
“All I have to do is dream”
It’s difficult to talk about the music of Girls without addressing Christopher’s unique background. Born into the Children Of God cult, he spent his childhood travelling the globe, attending prayer sessions and busking in the street, shielded from the outside world. He says, “They thought they could hide us from a lot of stuff and teach us to be happy, perfect children of god. But you can’t control people like that.”
The full story of Christopher’s time in the cult, which includes tales of suicide, prostitution, and an eventual escape to Texas, is one for another time. What is clear is that this is far more than just a neat back-story – life in the Children Of God had a massive impact on Christopher’s songwriting, and cult member and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer gave him his first guitar.
It was in the cult that he learned to perform, and was exposed to a surprisingly diverse array of sound – much of it original music composed within the community, but also a variety of “sanctioned” popular music, most notably the Everly Brothers and the Fleetwoods. Later, rebellious older teens exposed him to Guns ‘n Roses and Michael Jackson as well.
“The whole cult was really based around music,” notes Christopher, admitting that he saw beauty in a lot of the songs they would sing together. “In fact, a lot of Girls’ music has a sound that’s very much like the Children Of God music. There’s a spiritual quality. Even though I’m not at all religious and very much against the whole experience, it’s there. Brian Wilson talks about the spiritual thing that music is. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I know if I just close my eyes, music takes me somewhere else.”
At 16 Christopher left Children of God and wound a circuitous route through the Amarillo, TX punk scene before eventually finding a home in San Francisco. There he fell into the local music community, playing gigs with Ariel Pink and his Holy Shit project: “I wouldn’t have got into writing music at all if I hadn’t played with Holy Shit – watching them play was like a lightbulb going off.” In San Francisco, Christopher also met JR, a chef and amateur music producer, with whom he started Girls.
“Nothing compares to u”
Quickly after meeting, Christopher and JR began to spend all their time together, eventually sharing an apartment and even knocking down a wall that divided their rooms. As Christopher’s openhearted songs began to take shape, JR was on hand to arrange the perfect musical backdrop. “I have these visions of grandeur, where I want to hire string sections and timpani, and really go for it like in the ’60s,” grins JR. “But we were doing it in our bedrooms. We mainly recorded onto reel-to-reel tape, and also on an old computer that shut down on us in the middle of the session. All sorts of variables made the recordings sound like they do.”
Album is a song cycle about the various characters and desires that color Christopher and JR’s lives. Each song tells a story, some heartbreaking and some hopeful, some mischievous and others plaintive, but always, always honest. A surprisingly assured debut, Album pays tribute to the majesty of great pop music and the redemptive powers of rock and roll.