Christopher Owens, the songwriter who fronts jangling indie rockers Girls, insists he doesn't have an ax to grind. Sure, the revivalist cult Children of God effectively destroyed his life before it had even begun, indoctrinating a young Owens to live like a monk in the name of "apostolicism." Sure, they dragged his mother kicking and screaming into a prostitution ring (so much for that literal interpretation of the Bible). And, yeah, the cult's powers that be left his brother to die of pneumonia because they thought hospitals were icky, secular places. In spite of all this, Owens claims to feel no hatred toward his childhood tormentors.
"There have been plenty of times when I hated Christianity, but, in general, it's not a big issue for me," he tells New Times. "I just think religion is silly and ridiculous."
Owens' formative years unraveled like a scene from Marjoe. All the prescriptions for a fucked-up religious upbringing — including a fifth-century values system that extolled blind mistrust of outsiders and sweeping indictments against "homosexual activity" — were there. At one point, the cult's missionary crusade brought them to Japan. Owens keeps the details of that period close to the chest, but it's clear that the experience was scarring.
"Like, I lived in Japan for four years, yeah — but I didn't gain much from the culture," he says. "I didn't go to their schools, I didn't learn their language, and I was just kind of sheltered indoors a lot."
He left the Children of God for the ostensibly warmer embrace of San Francisco, where, at 16, he fell into a tailspin of opiate abuse. Today, Owens writes woolly, candy-coated pop songs (with periodic spells of punk and doo-wop), but clearly still wrestles with his time in that ill-reputed Protestant sect of Christianity and the subsequent fallout.
For added perspective, one needn't look further than the title of Girls' 2011 album, Father Son, Holy Ghost. Says Owens: "I've never really gotten into religious dialect. The spiritual quality the title alludes to is more a feeling, a vibe, a mood." Yet this batch of cloudy-eyed songs speaks to a suffocating sadness.
Take what you want from Owens' public image: the slummy, heroin-freak look; the punk rock 'tude; the blond locks; the piercing gaze. Nearly 17 years after he fled the cult, Father Son, Holy Ghost suggests a kid who still feels misplaced and shunned to the furthest, loneliest reaches of a culture — Christian evangelism — falsely predicated on the idea of togetherness.
An interesting case in point is "Honey Bunny." Although Ariel Pink could have written the haunted, implacably catchy melody, it's hard to imagine anyone but Owens singing it, and his verses are so dark that they read like the prologue to one of those lonely-man flicks from the '70s. But as was the case with Pink's "Round and Round," "Honey Bunny" is such a multilayered, perfectly engineered piece of songcraft that it takes repeat listens to even notice the raw despair tearing violently at its seams.
"You'd be surprised how many people take a song at face value," Owens says. "I'd have to guess that a lot of them missed [the melancholy of] 'Honey Bunny.' If it sounds upbeat, they think it's upbeat."
So often, Owens speaks of his Christian upbringing with a dispassionate air. He says he's made his peace with it, and maybe he has. But given that Father Son, Holy Ghost is a work of tricky subtext, it'd be a mistake to believe him too quickly. The record doesn't settle for easy answers, instead laying bare a torrent of guilt and contradictions and empty, lovely yearning.