Music Interviews
3:59 pm
Sat January 12, 2013

Out Of A Cult, Into The World: Owens' Transformation

Originally published on Sat January 12, 2013 5:37 pm

As a boy, Christopher Owens was raised by a single mother, a follower of the nomadic religious cult Children of God. They skipped across continents — no telephones, no TV, no outside books — just their tight-knit community of hippie expatriates.

The Children of God taught Owens and the other kids in the cult to sing and play guitar on the street for spare change. That's partially how they supported themselves. It's also how Owens found a way out.

He turned his busking into a one-way ticket to Texas when he was 16.

Eventually, he was playing before packed arenas with his band, Girls. Once Girls' first album came out in 2009, its momentum was hard to stop. Rapturous reviews and arena tours followed.

Owens left Girls recently, and he's using his first solo album, Lysandre, as a way to look back at that experience. The album is named after a woman he fell in love with in France at the end of the tour.


Interview Highlights

On growing up in a cult

"I kind of grew up being very indoctrinated by these beliefs that were very important to the people in my mother's generation that joined this group, and it wasn't necessarily the case for the second generation. We kids kind of had a hard time just accepting blindly that we were supposed to live in the same way they had [chosen] to live in."

On his musical education

"We weren't really schooled in a regular way, but we all learned to sing, and so I had a lot of musical experience in my life, but I didn't view it as some kind of career or as trying to be a rock star. It was more of a religious background for me. But many years later, by the time I moved here to San Francisco, I met some young guys who were playing rock 'n' roll music, and I became friends with them. ... They let me kind of travel with them a little bit, and that's what really got music back in my life."

On the album's love story

"To be honest, it's really more about the time period that I wanted to talk about, and then the fact that at the end of the whole thing there's a beautiful, romantic story is just the best way that I could think of presenting the album. But it's a record about the way I was feeling in a time that was very new."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for a musician with an amazing story of transformation from a childhood spent trapped in a cult to becoming the toast of the indie rock world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRISTOPHER OWENS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: As a boy, Christopher Owens was raised by a single mother, a follower of the nomadic religious cult called Children of God. They skipped across continents - no telephones, no TV, no outside books, just their tight-knit community of hippie expatriates. Restricted, yet the Children of God taught Owens and the other kids in the cult to sing and play guitar on the street for spare change. That's even partially how they supported themselves. It's also how Christopher Owens found a way out. He turned his busking into a one-way ticket back to the States. And before he knew it, he was playing before packed houses with his band called Girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OWENS: (Singing) I'm gonna get you, honey...

LYDEN: Christopher Owens joined me from member station KQED in San Francisco, and I asked about growing up in this globetrotting and medically sealed community.

OWENS: Sometimes I'd be in a house with 500 other people, sometimes just a couple other families. But always, it was the same group and the same beliefs. So I kind of grew up being very indoctrinated by these beliefs that were very important to the people in my mother's generation that joined this group. And it wasn't necessarily the case for the second generation. The kids kind of had a hard time just accepting blindly that we were supposed to live in the same way that they had chose to live in. And we really wanted to experience the world for ourselves and make our own decisions. And, you know, by the time they had their first crop of teenagers, they really ran into a lot of problems because we all wanted to watch television and listen to the radio and just do regular things.

LYDEN: You wanted to be part of a wider world.

OWENS: Yes.

LYDEN: So, what did you do? I know you left when you were in your mid-teens - pretty early.

OWENS: Yeah, I was 16. I wanted to leave probably by the time I was 14 really badly. But my oldest sister left first, and that helped me to be able to leave. And I - that's when I moved to the United States for the first time.

LYDEN: Where had you been living?

OWENS: I moved from Slovenia. But I was in Asia - all over Asia until 1990 when I was 10 and then spent the next six years all over Europe.

LYDEN: But when did music kind of thread it all through and thread it together for you?

OWENS: Well, music was always a big part of my life. I mean, that was part of my education. We weren't really schooled in a regular way, but we all learned to sing. And so I had a lot of musical experience in my life, but I didn't view it as some kind of career or as trying to be a rock star. It was more of a religious background for me.

But many years later, by the time I moved here to San Francisco, I met some young guys who were playing rock and roll music, and I became friends with them. I wanted to be around them. I really liked their band. They let me kind of travel with them a little bit, and that's really what got music back in my life. That really brought out the background that I had, you know? But by 27, it was back in full force for me, and that's when I started to write songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUST FOR LIFE")

OWENS: (Singing) Oh, I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish that loving man in my life. I wish I had a father maybe then I would've turned out right. But now I'm just crazy...

LYDEN: Christopher Owens then formed his own band called Girls. You're listening to some of their music now. And once their first album came out in 2009, their momentum was hard to stop. Rapturous reviews and world tours followed. Owens left Girls not long ago, and he's using his first solo album as a way to look back at that experience.

OWENS: Oh, it's really just a day-by-day account of the first tour that I went on with a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

OWENS: (Singing) So here we go with my faith and my hands really shook up. Airplane, take us all away to New York City.

LYDEN: The album is named after a woman he fell in love with in France at the end of that tour. And she had a name befitting an album title, Lysandre.

OWENS: She was a girl that I met working at the festival that we played at in the South of France (unintelligible).

LYDEN: Great name.

OWENS: Yes, very classic name. The name has a lot of appeal, for me, anyway. It's kind of a romantic, special name.

LYDEN: And I love the way that you commemorate your story with this young woman, Lysandre - who seems, you know, both like a real person - and with that fantastic, classical name, some kind of iconic young woman and almost sort of Hellenic. Just tell us just a little bit about, you know, even if the romance is long over and you remember it this way, what it was like.

OWENS: Yeah. Well, I mean, really, she was very normal. It wasn't that she was super dynamic. I mean, her name is great. But realistically, she was a teenage girl from this beach town, you know, and just very normal. And I think that's why I was able to have a very meaningful experience with her.

LYDEN: Because she wasn't overwhelmed.

OWENS: Yeah. I mean, of course, it's very exciting to be an American guy in a band from California and travel that far to the Riviera and meet a young girl and have a romantic experience. It's very nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYWHERE YOU KNEW")

OWENS: (Singing) Just when I thought it was over I said come sit on my lap...

LYDEN: This is the song "Everywhere You Knew." It's a great story about this courtship in the music festival where you met.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYWHERE YOU KNEW")

OWENS: (Singing) You said let's get up and go somewhere no one would be around. I said okay and we got up and ran right out through the crowd. And when I took your hands in mine and I kissed you I don't think there was anybody else in the world. When you said I should kiss you forever, I said that I would.

LYDEN: Christopher, presumably, you've had a few romances through the years. Why did this one stick with you?

OWENS: To be honest, it's really more about the time period that I wanted to talk about. And then the fact that at the end of the whole thing there's a beautiful, romantic story is just the best way that I could think of presenting the album. But it's a record about the way I was feeling in a time that was very new.

LYDEN: And the last song on the record is called "Part of Me," and it's where you say goodbye to this Lysandre.

OWENS: Yeah.

LYDEN: And, you know, one hears it as a wishful ending. And perhaps you are saying goodbye to that first debut into the world that you had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART OF ME")

OWENS: (Singing) Attention, just thinking about you, (unintelligible). Every time I think about you (unintelligible). You were a part of me, such a great big part of me.

It's not meant to be at all sad or heavy. And, you know, it's not like a breakup song. It's more of a song about being OK with the fact that people move on, that you don't always stay with every single person you meet and like. And sometimes you have a nice experience with somebody, but then that's it.

LYDEN: Has this woman heard the album or heard even of the album?

OWENS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. We've always stayed friends. I went back to France maybe a dozen times. And she was always around, and she always stayed a friend.

LYDEN: Pretty great. I wish, you know, I love that kind of homage.

OWENS: Yeah.

LYDEN: That's Christopher Owens. He's formerly of the band Girls, and his first solo album is called "Lysandre." It comes out Tuesday. And you can sample a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Christopher Owens, thank you very much for your time. And congratulations.

OWENS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PART OF ME")

OWENS: (Singing) You were part of me, such a great big part of me. Oh, you were a part of me, but that part of me is gone.

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs, scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.