It’s hard to believe Christopher Owens wasn’t born in San Francisco. Despite personifying sun-drenched, West Coast cool, the 35-year-old singer-guitarist -- whose tour begins Wednesday at the Chapel -- arrived here by way of a long, strange trip. Raised throughout Asia and Europe in a Christian cult, a 16-year-old Owens followed his sister to Texas, where he met artistic mentor and oil tycoon Stanley Marsh 3. He later came out west, but for more conventional reasons.
“I heard about the weather and the hills, and it was my New Year’s resolution for 2005 to move here,” says the former Girls frontman, via phone from his NoPa home. “Literally January 1st, I got in my Volvo and just started driving. I arrived here January 3rd as a 25-year-old, wanting to become a man.”
For Owens, growing up involved more than just making a living at a San Mateo knife store.
“I was in a committed relationship with a very nice girl named Jamie Marie, who I later wrote a song about, but I was also in a long-term relationship with an older man,” he remembers. “Part of me moved to San Francisco to learn something more about myself, if you know what I mean.”
Despite the broadminded community of Marsh’s Dynamite Museum, Texas was still Texas.
“It was very hush-hush, because Amarillo is the kind of place where you can get dragged by the neck from a pickup truck for being caught,” says Owens, whose Dynamite colleague Brian Deneke was notoriously run over and killed -- and the perpetrator only received probation.
Owens’ eloquent candor is part of what’s made his music so stunning since Girls became darlings of the SF indie-rock scene last decade. Thankfully, his new surprise-released solo album Chrissybaby Forever contains his famously confessional lyrics and the stylistic expansion heard on 2014’s A New Testament. That album’s ebullient, country-western feel was ill-received by those preferring the gloomy, punky edge of Girls, who disbanded in 2012.
Owens' eight-piece touring band -- replete with gospel-style backup singers -- was also an issue.
“My management told me, ‘We’re not making any money on this tour because we’re shipping this B3 organ with a Leslie speaker around,’” he recalls. “But for me, it was about the legacy, and people saying ‘Every time I saw that guy, he had a great band.’”
While Owens is planning an eventual orchestral album, Chrissybaby Forever is a stripped-down affair.
“I was playing most of the instruments myself, sort of jumping from genre to genre, and working with only one other producer-engineer,” he says of the sessions, which produced reggae, doo-wop, and arena-rock flourishes. “It was just me and [JJ Weisler], head-to-head, very much like Girls’ Album, so it felt like going back to that space.”
Thankfully for longtime fans, the fabled space in question may not be finished. Since reconnecting earlier this year, Owens and Girls co-founder Chet “JR” White have been texting almost daily.
“There’s something I’ve done with JR that I’ve never been able to do with anybody else, and I’d like to do it again,” says Owens, who was disillusioned with the group’s revolving door of members. “I still see the great benefit of people who play together, year after year, and record and write with one another. That was the goal of Girls, and part of the disappointment for me.”
Owens’ persistent desire for familial closeness admittedly may stem from his insulated Children of God upbringing, during which his mother endured forced prostitution and his toddler brother died of pneumonia due to anti-medicine beliefs. Owens lived in households with 300 “aunts, uncles, and sisters,” completely isolated from society.
“I’ve met military brats, and there are things we see eye to eye on, especially resenting the parent for making the choice for you,” he says. “But at least they can speak a language and went to school somewhere, and often have great health benefits. I’ve never been to a doctor in my life.”
Owens’ current life is more stable, thanks to a decade in San Francisco and a long-term relationship with Dominant Legs singer (and Vampire Weekend chum) Hannah Hunt. Kicking heroin also helped.
“It’s a fast slide down to go back on that road,” he says. “I also have a wonderful relationship, and I’m holding on to both of those things very closely.”
Marriage and children are in the cards, Owens says, but not religion.
“I still can’t get myself to believe in God, which first happened at around age two, but I find people like Jesus very lovely and look at them as men with ideas,” he says. “There’s a beautiful scripture that says ‘And I now abide us faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ That’s the kind of thing I can get down with.”
Christopher Owens kicks off his tour Wednesday, June 3, at the Chapel. Info and tickets are available here.