One night in early 2009, Christopher Owens constructed a musical account of the chaos surrounding his life. Thanks to the sudden success of Girls, his indie-rock duo with friend and collaborator Chet “JR” White, the vulnerable and introverted Owens now found himself bombarded with uncomfortable pressure and attention foreign to his upbringing in the religious fundamentalist cult Children of God. The San Francisco-based musician was still sorting things out, but he always assumed that these autobiographical songs would be somehow released in the context of Girls.
“At the time, I had no other concept,” Owens, 33, tells Rolling Stone. “I just thought everything I was writing would come out as Girls material.” This summer, however, that all changed: over a series of tweets in July, the singer laid bare his unexpected decision to discontinue Girls, citing “personal” reasons. However, Owens’ three-year-old material remained and now, bearing the name Lysandre, the highly personal collection of songs is set to be released on January 15th.
Lysandre – named after a girl whom Owens met in France and briefly dated – centers on Owens’ experiences touring with Girls in 2008, and is melodically built around “Lysandre’s Theme,” a 40-second, flute-aided instrumental opener that wouldn’t sound out of place at Medieval Times. Variations on the theme, written entirely in the key of A, appear throughout the album, alternating from jovial to melancholy, depending on any song’s given context. On “Here We Go,” the ever-present flute gives way to a lilting harmonica solo, then suddenly explodes into a feedback-addled guitar dirge; on “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener,” as Owens asks, “What if people are sick of hearing the songs?/ Maybe I should sing about dying,” traces of the album’s theme appear via peppy acoustic guitar.
The album’s despondency remains, to some degree, in Owens. When he talks about Girls’ dissolution, he speaks slowly and methodically, contemplating each of his words. “When [JR and I] started the band, we both really wanted to form a very classic idea of a band,” he says. “We thought that if we started playing with people, eventually we’d find a group – a group that became like family and toured together and recorded. It never happened. It just felt a little bit like the goal was never achieved.”
Rather, Owens says he and White struggled to find a concrete group of musicians with whom they felt comfortable performing their critically-praised material, including their 2009 debut, Album, the 2010 EP Broken Dreams Club, and last year’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Backing musicians – typically friends Owens knew from the Bay Area – would shuttle in and out of rotation. “We kept starting back at square one,” he explains. “And all these people that came in and out, they were all great; they all had different reasons for leaving. They never really promised in the beginning that they’d join forever, either. I just realized if you’re gonna have a band, you should go about it a different way. You should take the time in the beginning to form the band and everybody starts from square one together and stays together and matures together.”
With Lysandre, produced earlier this year in Los Angeles by Father, Son, Holy Ghost‘s Doug Boehm, Owens feels he has that opportunity. Despite not having a concrete band behind him – Owens recruited a slew of proficient musicians to realize the album’s expansive arrangements, which includes saxophones and other orchestral instruments – the singer says he relishes the flexibility his new situation affords him. “It’s a little bit more manageable to approach things now,” he notes. “[I can] think about who’s good for this album and who works for another. It’s a very big advantage for me.”
“That’s the whole musical concept,” he adds. “I wanted the album to be almost like one long song. I wanted to use the theme, to come back to it between songs. To give you a little bit of time to listen and register the last song and also carry into the next one.”
He stops, at last sounding genuinely excited about his future as a solo artist. “It’s a whole new challenge,” he admits. “But it’s something interesting.”