MTV Music Meter Monday: Girls’ Chris Owens on Songwriting, Crop Tops & Selena Gomez

Posted October 24

For this edition of MTV Music Meter Monday — in which we highlight a band that’s climbing the digital charts — we talked with Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens about the band’s new album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, songwriting and his affinity for Disney pop princesses.

Check out the Q&A below, as well as the band’s jams above.

First of all, I’ve been listening to ‘Honey Bunny’ on repeat. I think that’s kind of an interesting song, because it’s both positive and negative in terms of outlook — which seems to be the theme of the album. Can you tell me a little bit about that dichotomy?

I think ‘Honey Bunny’ is a little bit different than the typical structure of my songs, because most of the start out less positive — like maybe negative even — and then get positive later. ‘Honey Bunny’ is pretty upbeat all the way around as far as what’s being talked about.

It seems kind of like a pump-up song for guys. Like a song you’d listen to when you’re getting ready for a date.

I don’t know if it’s specifically for going out, but it is a pump-up song for guys, that’s for sure. There’s usually only a couple, maybe one or two on each album. The rest are usually the other way around — very negative and then find a way to be positive.

What was the impetus behind this one that made it so positive all the way through?

I don’t know. None of these songs — none of them get written with an agenda. They just kind of write themselves. Or get written when they really need to be — without having sat around and thought about it like, ‘Oh, I should write a song to pump myself up.’ It’s kind of just like because I needed that song that I ended up writing it. I think that’s how they all are; they just present themselves to you when you need them, or maybe when you’re finally able to have that outlook, then you can find them.

Do you think your songwriting process was different with this album than with Album? It seems like the subject matter is rather similar.

With writing, it’s really the exact same thing. I just write all the time, and then when it came time to make the first album and the second album — all the records– when it comes time to make them, we just pick the songs that we really want to do out of a database of songs that I have. And they’re all written at random times — they’re not even written for a record or for an album.

The thing that was really different with this record from the first album was that we worked in a studio and that we had actual band members playing different instruments on the whole thing. Where the first one wasn’t like that — it was just me and JR [White] and I played almost everything on it. And that’s why it’s not as good.

You don’t think it’s as good?

Well, I think the ideas are great on it, the songs are great. I think it’s fine. It is what it is and that’s why you should like it, or whatever. Why I should like it or whoever should like it. But on the new album, I like it better I guess. There’s five different people playing instruments on it and they’re all very good and the studio’s a better atmosphere for me. We made the record in like three weeks, with the first album taking about a year. So that’s better for me.

I’ve read a ton of interviews with you where you talk about being unsure of your voice. Is this a huge concern for you, really? Have you been training your voice as well as upping your production quality?

Well, I’ve not been training in a traditional sense. But we have been playing a lot, so maybe that’s training your voice. On the first record I would never sing — I would never have sung anywhere for anybody. And then by the time we were making this album, it’s been a couple of years being in this band and singing, so that might be some kind of training.

But really the main thing that’s changed is that in the beginning I was so uncomfortable with my voice that I used to sort of make funny voices to sort of take some of the weight off of the things I was saying. Like if I was saying something really uncomfortable I would almost make fun of it a little bit with my own voice — that would make it easier for me to say. But the main difference is that I don’t do that anymore. I don’t know if it’s a quality of a technique or anything, but I’m just more comfortable with singing across the board. And I think that shows.

Somewhere along the line I got it into my head that I wouldn’t be able to sing any better than this. So I don’t like try to be a better singer or anything like that. I pretty much just accept my voice for what it is.

I was also interested in how many specific names you use in song titles. I’ve talked to some artists who say that the names in their songs are fictional — that they just like the way they sound. Do you ascribe to this idea, too?

No. That would be weird. I know exactly what you’re talking about. People saying, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t even know why I said that name. It just sounded good.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me. But people do that with lyrics, too. ‘Why did you say this line?’ Oh, it just sort of came out and I liked the way it sounded. I think that’s crazy, too.

They’re all real people [in my songs]. All the songs that have names to them are written about friends of mine with that name. And that’s just how all the songs are. Even the songs without names, if there’s some specific storyline to it or I say something in it it’s because that’s really what’s going on; that’s really how I feel. The songs with the names of people — I usually just write a song about somebody or some experience with somebody.

One thing that I hate doing is giving things titles — so the easiest thing to do is name it after the person it was written about. I think titles in general are just weird. That’s why all of our records such bad titles.

I really liked ‘Alex.’ It seems like it’s about larger issues juxtaposed with smaller issues.

I ended up becoming friends with Alex and knowing Alex later on. I saw her in Vancouver when we were playing there. At the time when I wrote that song, I didn’t know her at all. So it’s a song about somebody, but a person you know nothing about except a few details, and you can hear them detailed out pretty well in the song. ‘Alex had blue eyes. Alex has black hair. Alex has a band.’ I’m basically just listing off the things that I know about her.

But then I use those things to make some perspective about other things. Things that I think about people my age or younger, I guess, because I hang out with younger people. Things that I think about young, hip people. Because that’s what she was. She was a very young, cool art student who I would see at art galleries. And she was too cool to talk to and eventually I asked somebody else what her name was.

That’s why it’s weird. There’s some things that I know about her — which are listed — but there are other things that are just my feelings that are going on at the same time about people like her or people my age or people our age. And then I throw those in with the song because I don’t have too many feelings about her yet.

And now you’re friends?

Yes, now we’re friends.

What does she think about the song?

She likes it.

I always wonder about musicians and their muses. It seems like songwriters romanticize them a lot.

There’s different levels of it. I have some muses who are people who have been in my life for years where there’s very intense feelings. That can be one thing — there might be a love/hate sort of thing there. For example, I’ve written about ex-girlfriends. They might be like, ‘Yes, Chris is a very interesting and very amazing guy to get to know, but he was also very crazy or very difficult’ or something. But people like Alex who I don’t really know too well always think it’s fun to be in a song.

Do the ex-girlfriends get name songs as well?

Yeah. Some of them have. Like ‘Jamie Marie’ is about my ex-girlfriend.

Seems like you’re pretty open to being, well, open in your music.

That’s just my way. I don’t know any other way than to write about very simple, real-life things. I think it’s cool when other people do that fictional kind of stuff, but I just have no idea how to do that.

Moving away from more serious questions, I wanted to know: How did you choose that rad crop top as your ensemble for the ‘Honey Bunny’ video?

You know you’re going to go make a music video and there’s two things you can do the week before or whatever. One type of person would maybe get some friends together or just on their own go look at their wardrobe and say, ‘OK, yes, this is the best thing that I should wear. This will go good with the background.’ Or they have a stylist. Either way, it’s planned out. Then you go and do the video and everybody pats themselves on the back and says, ‘We planned so perfectly. Everybody loves this outfit. We did such a good job.’

But I can’t really brag in that way at all, because basically I woke up the morning of the shoot and I was like, ‘OK, it’s time go down to where we’re shooting the video.’ And there had been much discussion from lots of people, ‘What are you going to wear?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll wear something cool.’ And then it was time to go and I still had not even thought about it. So I basically picked the outfit right then and luckily it worked. That’s really all there was to it. I got lucky. I just grabbed something that I thought looked kind of cool.

Like we were talking about, the song is kind of a pump-yourself-up kind of song about being confident and kind of sassy and having swagger in a way. I thought, ‘What do I wear when I feel like that? What does that kind of guy dress like?’ So I ended up making myself look like some kind of street hustler, but whatever. Normally I don’t act like that, but that’s the point of the song.

You have so many interesting pop culture sounds going on in your music — in addition to cutting-edge style — and I know a lot of artists who have interesting, secluded childhoods try to preserve their naivete in a sense when it comes to pop culture. It doesn’t seem that way with you — even though you grew up in the Children of God cult.

I ran away from home when I was 16. That was 1996. I’ve spent the whole end part of the ’90s and early part of the 2000s just meeting people my age, listening to all kinds of music and that’s really been the thing that I love about what’s happened. It was really exciting. Those people who told you they left some kind of secluded background and wanted to preserve their secluded background weren’t truly secluded in the way I was. I can tell you that much. Because anybody that’s secluded in the way that I was — where you’re literally not allowed to do anything — the second you get freedom, you’re going to try those things. Even if it’s just to see if you like it or not.

Obviously those people were able as a child to hear a few other things and say, ‘Oh, no, that’s not for me.’ But when I left when I was 16 I came to America for the first time — and I’m not going to lie at all — all I wanted to do was watch television, eat junk food, try drugs, try to meet young people my age. MTV was a huge part of my life for about five years.

My first concert was a Smashing Pumpkins concert. I didn’t find that out on my own. I found that out from watching MTV and going to the mall and seeing what T-shirts were for sale. There wasn’t anything sophisticated or intellectual going on — I was like a dry sponge that got thrown out into a puddle in the street and I soaked it all up. I’m still that way.

The last albums I bought were Selena Gomez albums and I’m not embarrassed to say it. I’m not embarrassed. I don’t care. People who only subscribe to sophisticated, intellectual music — those people don’t have anything that other people don’t have. They don’t have some kind of answer or happiness that other people don’t have.

The key to happiness is just being OK with finding it wherever you truly feel it. If I feel like buying a Selena Gomez album, then I’m going to buy it. I don’t care what kind of highbrow critic would make fun of that.

What is it about Selena Gomez that you like?

I kind of saw Selena as the next young Disney star that might make pop music — because I love those Disney girls that make pop music. Hilary Duff was maybe the first one that I got into. I don’t know what it is about it. I like the production quality. It’s like boy bands; I like that music, too.

For a long time, I just thought, ‘She might not really have it,’ or something. And then the first song that I really liked was ‘Naturally.’ ‘Everything comes naturally when you’re with me, baby’ [sings]. But I didn’t run out and buy an album because I liked one song. But then the new album came out and I was curious.

I was watching Jimmy Fallon on tour one night — we had gotten to the hotel after the show late, turn on the TV, Jimmy Fallon was on and I was lying in bed, kind of dozing off. And Selena Gomez comes on doing a live version of ‘I Love You Like a Love Song, Baby’ and it was amazing.

I watch a lot and I come to expect certain things from tween girls — a lot of hair flipping, a lot of legs spread apart with a short skirt on, a very confident stance. Choreography, lots of hamming it up for the camera. But I was amazed, because for this performance for ‘Love Song,’ she literally stood up against the mic stand, holding the mic stand, and didn’t move at all and had her eyes closed for a lot of performance. It was a very genuine, pure performance. There was no bullsh*t going on. No selling her body. No flinging the hair around — which I think is all fine and good, too, I like all that. But I was just very impressed that she was able to do a performance like that. It was just as genuine as if you were watching Debbie Harry in the ’70s.

Would you ever want to do a song like that? Like a professionally written pop song?

No, I would never want to do that. I don’t want to have a number-one hit as a entertainer — I want to have a number-one hit as a writer. The only thing I care about is writing the songs. It’s my number-one, but there’s not even a close number-two.

By Brenna Ehrlich