Christopher Owens, 30, the lanky, shaggy-haired front man of San Francisco lo-fi pop band Girls, is used to incredulity. Before his bizarre, winding life story found its way onto blogs and into music magazines everywhere, journalists greeted stories of his childhood with astonishment and thinly disguised disbelief.
Owens read newspaper stories that openly questioned the legitimacy of his tale. The Village Voice even dispatched a reporter to verify the details (which all checked out). From various corners across various forms of media, a consistent response emerged: 'Surely a story that crazy can't be true.' Owens, as is his nature, took that in stride.
'It's like, come on, if I was going to make up a story, it's not that crazy,' says Owens. 'I know crazier stories. It's just kind of normal to me. And then, I don't know, I think everybody's story is a little bit weird in its own way.'
Maybe so, but as personal trajectories go, it doesn't get much stranger than that of Owens. Born into the Children of God, a free-love cult founded in the 1960s that faced charges ranging from prostitution to child sexual abuse, he was whisked away from the United States when he was a year old. He spent the first 16 years of his life living in communes across Asia and Europe, his only exposure to the outside world bouts of busking — like most children in the group, he learned singing and guitar early — and illicitly traded pop music albums. Michael Jackson's 'Dangerous,' in particular, was a hot commodity on the Children of God black market; music from outside the cult was strictly forbidden.
Owens fled the group after turning 16, moving to Amarillo to stay with an older sister who'd likewise departed years before. He eked out a quiet life as a gutter punk before eccentric multimillionaire Stanley Marsh 3 took Owens under his wing (Marsh considered roman numerals pretentious, Owens says). At 25, Owens trekked cross-country and settled in San Francisco, where, after a nasty breakup and on a steady diet of controlled substances, he met Chet 'JR' White.
The two formed musical duo Girls, who recorded debut 'Album,' 12 tracks of invigorating pop pairing Owens' Costello-styled croon with earnest lyricism and a sunny sound descended from early Beach Boys. The New York Times, Spin, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, among others, gave the band glowing reviews.
For Owens, the twisty story is so convoluted, personal, and, it must be said, biopic-ready that he didn't bother telling anyone about it until he moved to California. By the time he got around to it, he found the experience of opening up strangely self-affirming.
'One of the cool things that I figured out was that I didn't feel so weird about it anymore. Before I would talk about it, I had this thing behind everything I did that no one knew about,' Owens says. 'I'd have these breakdowns and I thought no one would ever understand. But later I talked about it and realized everybody breaks down and feels weird and everybody has some particular story that's different from anybody else's.'
It's to Owens' credit that you don't need to know one iota of that backstory — nor anything about the band's drug use, the other centerpiece of their public image — to appreciate 'Album,' which is loaded with simple, relatable stories of heartbreak, summertime antics and the redemptive power of music. For all of Owens' cachet in the world of indie music, he views his work as simple, accessible pop music.
'I feel like my contemporaries are like Taylor Swift or something,' Owens says with a laugh. 'Just very straightforward musicians.'
That style of songwriting makes sense for a musician who writes his tunes in, essentially, real time — Owens says his lyrics tend to assemble themselves in his mind as he strolls the streets of San Francisco, before he rushes back home to record them to a computer or tape recorder. That means a song like the bouncy, beautiful 'Darling' was conceived, roughly, in the very same three minutes it takes to unravel off 'Album.'
'I was feeling so sad and alone/Then I found a friend in the song I was singing,' Owens croons wistfully on the track. 'I was feeling like a nothing inside/Then I found it all in a song.'
It's an upbeat note on which to end the record, and one that suggests Owens has put everything that might trouble one in life behind him. That's not entirely true, Owens says, but on the eve of embarking on a three-week North American tour, he's feeling optimistic.
'Somehow every time you think you have everything figured out you realize you don't have it figured out. I think there's a reason why the saying is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," as opposed to just "life, liberty and happiness," ' Owens says. 'The pursuit is very spelled out. They knew that it's not possible to have happiness all the time. But at best, if you keep the best attitude possible, you should be free to have the pursuit.'
Girls - with Magic Kids and the Smith Westerns - perform at 9 p.m. Friday at the Parish (214 E. Sixth St.; theparishaustin.com ). The show is technically sold out.