In the era of Google as a standard research tool, naming your band Girls and your album Album seems almost like a protest against the specificity required by metacrawlers: You can't type "Girls" into Google, hit "I'm feeling lucky," and expect to get to the San Francisco-based band. But in actuality, the name is not so much a protest as a representation of everything that Christopher Owens and JR White's music stands for: Simplicity, universality and sweetness.
Girls began in San Francisco after Owens met White while playing shows with Ariel Pink's band Holy Shit. White's skills as a producer and recording engineer and Owens' ability to write earnest pop songs resulted in a musical project that is utterly devoid of irony, completely removed from modern rock anxieties and full of a youthful innocence. The songs on Album (True Panther Sounds, 2009), their first full-length release, sound like echoes from some other band in some other era (everything from the Beach Boys to My Bloody Valentine to Spiritualized makes an appearance)—but translated into a lexicon entirely Owens' own. Part of this is because Owens' own background is unique: Until the age of 16, he was a member of the Children of God cult, and was only exposed to music and pop culture sanctioned by the cult. Everything you can read about Girls talks about this dark aspect of Owens' life in depth, and, said Owens, that's not just because it's fascinating.
"I think people talk about it as much as they do because it's interesting, but yeah, I think it influences my music, too," Owens explained over the phone after recently returning from a brief tour in Japan. "My influences are much different than other people's. I listen to the same music that everybody else does now, but I listened to music growing up that I can't really describe to other people. It's kind of religious music but also a very specific kind—it comes directly from hippie culture, and it's very special and no one else is ever going to know it but me, except for the few maybe 5,000 other kids who grew up with it."
Owens explained that this exposure to that intimate, specific kind of religious music directly informs his relationship to songwriting. "I think all the best—maybe not all, but most of the best—singer-songwriters have a strong religious music background," he said. "It gives you a certain amount respect for music as being more than a mathematical thing—it's giving you a spiritual quality that is very difficult to explain."
Even though Owens' childhood and adolescence were marked by experiences and trauma few can relate to, as a result of his musical influences, Owens' songs are simplistic in a way reminiscent of '60s folk and early rock and roll, and at their core are all optimistic revelations: "Lust for Life," written after a breakup, asks for all the things the ex-girlfriend now has without Owens, and the chorus of "Hellhole Ratrace" declares, "I don't want to cry / my whole life through / I want to do some laughing, too." On "Goddamn," Owens switches back and forth between rock chords and folk arpeggios as he exclaims, "I want ya, and I'll be goddamned if I give up from the start!" And then there's the spacey "Lauren Marie," where Owens muses, "What is life without a dream and even I know dreams can still come true."
Lyrics like this only really work if they're delivered with honesty—and perhaps the real beauty of Girls lies in this ability to create truly sweet songs with lyrics like "I was feeling like a nothing inside then I found it all in a song / Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's coming straight from my heart" and really mean it. Part of this lies in Owens' vocal delivery—his voice sounds like a younger, stoned Elvis Costello, with a perfect balance of polish and emotional quaver—and part of it is in Girls' ability to match lyrical sense with musical sensibility. "Each song has a pretty direct influence, and then the next song will have a completely different direct influence," explained Owens. "They all sound exactly like the song they're influenced by, or the band they're influenced by." So, for example, a song like "Morning Light," with its lyrical sentiment of carpe diem ("Meet me in the sky tonight / We can fly away together") works perfectly against a backdrop of My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze.
Owens doesn't shy away from admitting this: "When we're going to record the song, then that's usually how I explain it to JR, how I want the song to sound, by talking about a different band; it's the best way to describe what I'm going for." As a result, the songs balance that line between homage and originality without tipping too far in either direction, without a sense of pastiche or irony.
Ultimately, all Owens really wants to do is a write a song everyone will want to sing along with—just like any good religious song or pop song.
"I want to write songs that are as popular as early Beatles songs, or as popular as Elvis Presley songs are," he said. "I want to write something that's perfect, that everybody in the whole world will sing. I don't think it's any more difficult than anything I've already done. I think it'll just happen one day. I think I just gotta keep writing songs the way I do, and one of them will be simple and sweet enough for everyone to go out, download it, sing it, and play it at their birthday parties."