2012 was a momentous year for San Francisco band Girls. Still riding the high from their critically fawned-over and publicly adored sophomore full-length Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the duo was at the height of its career, playing sold-out shows and reveling in buzz-band glory. And then in July, frontperson Christopher Owens announced via Twitter that he was leaving the band, leaving press and fans alike slack-jawed with surprise.
Owens wasted no time moving into his new career as a solo artist and putting to bed any hopes that Girls’ disbandment was a temporary misstep. This January he released Lysandre, a tight-knight album of autobiographical material from his first tour with a band. It’s a story full of first loves: girls, boys, fellow musicians, and far-off places.
Lyrically, the material is very similar to Girls’ music—it’s hyper personal, extremely relatable, and endearingly vulnerable. The band’s retro-pop vibe is also still intact, but with a twist. Lysandre is a mixed bag of genres, jumping from lounge jazz to ‘60s folk to renaissance-style flute, but the album sounds like one unified piece, with each song blending into the next, all in the same key.
I caught up with Owens to ask him a few questions about life, love, and San Francisco.
San Francisco Bay Guardian You’ve said that the autobiographical story on this album benefitted from a retrospective viewpoint. Has the experience of writing and touring with this story made you spend a lot of time rehashing old memories? Has it helped you gain closure?
Christopher Owens It’s not really something I needed closure on, closure was something I had already found. It’s just a story that I enjoy telling because it was a very meaningful time for me. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about life during [that first] tour. I think maybe just listening to [Lysandre] would give all the insight one would need.
SFBG As you’ve gained more experience as a musician and as a performer, have the feelings of excitement and fear—which you articulate beautifully in Lysandre—faded at all?
CO Those are feelings that don’t really ever go away, at least for me. Of course I’ve gained a little more confidence…But with each new thing I release I try to give a little more of myself, so I continue to put myself in a open place and that keeps it fresh and interesting for both me and the listener. I don’t really want to find myself in a place where the music is boring or old news. I like the fact that I’m talking about things in my songs that make me feel a little exposed. I think it just means I’m giving something of value.
SFBG Are you still in contact with Lysandre? Has she heard the album?
CO Yes, and yes. We’ve always been friends and she heard the album before anyone else… besides those of us that recorded it. I believe it’s something special to her.
SFBG Not only is Lysandre one interconnected narrative, in a way it’s also one big song that never deviates from the key of A. Did you find this freeing or limiting? Do you think that in your future work you’ll do more concept albums?
CO It was just a structure for me musically; it certainly wasn’t limiting. There is a lot of variety within the music… It just ties the songs together a bit. I haven’t written anything else like this so I think it’s a pretty unique project for me. I obviously don’t know what the future holds. I enjoyed making this album a lot, so it’s possible I could do other conceptual albums, but as of now I don’t have any plans for any others.
SFBG Lysandre is a love story about many things. Obviously it’s about a girl, but it’s also about places. How much does your relationship with San Francisco influence your music and your style as an artist?
CO I don’t know, people have been asking me that for years. It’s no secret that I love San Francisco and feel very at home here, but, music is inspired by other music, and by very personal feelings and things that happen in my life. I don’t know if it would sound any different if I lived some place else. I just know that I’m happy here, so, I’m sure that helps.
SFBG What does it feel like to be a part of such a vibrant music scene? Is there a sense of camaraderie with other San Francisco musicians?
CO My work is something I do alone. I do have a lot of friends here who are in great bands, but we all play very different types of music. There’s not much getting together to play songs or record or talk about music…I would like that, but it’s just not something that’s happened much lately. I think we all love and support each other, but it feels like music is something that we work on very separately, and even privately. Hanging out is more of a time to just have fun and talk to each other about other things. That could also be different for others…I’m a bit of a loner, to be honest.
SFBG What are some of your favorite SF hangouts? Where do you take visitors to give them a sense of the city?
CO I honestly never have visitors, ha! My family doesn’t come here and my friends are mostly from here. I love the parks though—Golden Gate is my favorite. I spend a lot of time walking around aimlessly. I love North beach and the Castro, I love to just walk around alone, to think, look at this beautiful city and enjoy it. I lived in Glen Park for a year when I first moved here and I love to go back there. I love it all. This is my favorite place in the world, and it’s just my home, that’s all. I feel at home here, at peace.
Originally Published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian: http://48hills.org/sfbgarchive/2013/03/19/ex-girls-singer-christopher-owens-real-lysandre-and-being-bit-loner/?_sft_writer=haley-zaremba
“It’s about writing. We should start the interview with that.” Todd Tholke leans forward across the greasy café table. “The whole reason I came all the way over here today to meet with you is to tell you about this thing that we do that has to do with free speech.”
Tholke emcees open mics, which is something he’s been doing in San Francisco for over 15 years to showcase the works of local artists in a free venue. At present, Tholke is hosting acoustic nights every Thursday at Sacred Grounds Café, which lies just north of the Panhandle. One of the city’s oldest coffee shops, Sacred Grounds has been hosting musicians almost every week since 1967. This pioneering open mic has a legacy that boasts artists such as Joan Baez and Tracey Chapman.
Tholke has been emceeing this event, which he refers to as the Songwriters’ Guild, for eight years, but he has no interest in discussing the event’s venerable past. He lays his ring-laden hands on the table. “I’m a person that’s into the present and the future,” he says with a smile.
In addition to his extensive history in the SF open mic scene, Todd works as a street musician on Haight. “I work on the docks and I’ve been living aboard my sailboat for fifteen years” says Tholke. “That’s how I supplement my lifestyle as a songwriter and musician in San Francisco. I live on a boat.”
As a known musician and vibrant personality in Upper Haight, Tholke was asked to emcee his first open mic at the now-defunct Coffee Zone. “The way that you become the host is by being asked to do it. I’ve been asked to do it at many different venues in Haight-Ashbury that I’ve been haunting for 25 years.” Tholke’s devotion to the district is emblazoned on his necklace, a metal disc that bears the image of the Haight and Ashbury street signs.
Though he doesn’t get paid to host the Songwriters’ Guild at Sacred Grounds, Tholke has been here once a week for nearly a decade because he believes that what happens there on Thursday night is important. “There’s an element of magic,” he says, “an element of the unknown and of possibility.”
He runs a tight ship in which no acts are favored, no one is barred, and politeness is key. “Sometimes people will come up and they’ll be vulgar or rude,” Tholke explains. “We have something called clapping someone offstage. We’ll politely clap you right off the stage, and if you don’t get it we’ll give you a standing ovation.”
Unlike most open mics in the city, Sacred Grounds has no PA system. The unplugged aspect of the event forces people be to be quiet and listen, otherwise their chatter would drown out the musician in the small café. “Everyone here is listening. At the end of the night there’s a camaraderie of people that don’t know each other. They shared two things: they shared their music and they shared the respect,” Tholke says. “At other open mics, everyone is like, ‘blah blah blah I don’t care who else plays and by the time I leave I’m going to be drunk.’” Tholke, makes sure that the experience at Sacred Grounds is different.
“People come from all walks of life and it doesn’t matter how old you are, what your gender is, none of those things matter. All that matters is that you have your name on the list.”
When I slip in to Sacred Grounds one a Thursday night mid-June, a man named Rainbow is just finishing his set. I count only 12 other people in the room, but it doesn’t feel like a small crowd with the dark paneling and low ceiling in the café.
Like the first time I met him, Todd is dressed in all black. This time his long hair is tied up under a beret. In between performers, he whispers to me, “You came on a really good night.”
After Rainbow, the next performer opens his set by asking the audience, “Anybody think they’re on Obama’s kill list?” Despite the eccentricities and extreme left slant of most of the performers, the music is simple, never offensive, and some is extremely beautiful. Featured musicians Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud play Nickel Creek-inspired folk lullabies that leave the Songwriters’ Guild literally begging for more. The audience is incredibly involved and tight-knit, addressing one another by name, borrowing instruments, and asking each other how they can buy their music and when their next gigs are.
As Quiles and Cloud leave the stage (more like a designated corner), Quiles calls out, “we met at an open mic! It could happen to you!” She smiles, “Maybe it already has.”
Reservations & Revelations
After eight years at Sacred Grounds, Tholke isn’t sure he can keep it up. “Every single week I think it’s gonna be the last one and every single week I’m glad that I didn’t quit that week,” he says. Tholke was paid to host open mics in San Francisco for many years, but the gig at Sacred Grounds is an act of charity. “My win is them winning, but I feel like a loser because I am poor,” says Tholke. “I’m the most poor person I know. I don’t know anyone that has less than me because I’m not on any programs.”
Despite his reservations, Tholke keeps coming back every Thursday. The open mic got shut down in 2007 because of the musicians’ use of copyrighted materials, but Tholke brought it back. He struggles with the time commitment, but ultimately he loves the Songwriters’ Guild. Tholke values very little above free speech, and the fact that the open mic is available to everyone for free is something that he thinks is immensely important for San Francisco’s culture.
“Free speech and freedom and liberty. You can actually have it,” says Tholke, sipping his coffee. “That’s the thing that keeps me coming back.”
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian: http://48hills.org/sfbgarchive/2012/06/22/mic-check-everyone-listening-sacred-grounds/?_sft_writer=haley-zaremba&sf_paged=2
Kaya Olmsted looks calm as she says, “To tell you the truth, most of my cousins are probably dead.” The sun is streaming through the dorm room window on an abnormally hot afternoon at University of San Francisco as Olmsted addresses a much darker topic—this month’s disastrous earthquake in her native country, Japan.
Despite international pop-up resources such as Google Person Finder, many of Olmsted’s relatives, who lived in the part of Japan most heavily affected by the disaster, are still missing. Olmsted adds that those relatives who have been located, such as her grandparents, are now homeless.
Almost two weeks ago, Olmsted, 21, was on spring break and sitting at home skimming through SF Gate’s website when she read about an earthquake in Japan, her birth country and home to her entire extended family except for her parents. She hurried to call her mom, who lives in Hawaii, to learn more about the disastrous quake and subsequent tsunami, only to discover that her parents had no idea that the tragedy had occurred.
Olmsted says that she was trying to explain to her mother that this was more serious the standard earthquakes that Japan receives on a semi-weekly basis when she heard the tsunami sirens go off on the other end. “I flipped a shit,” Olmsted said. “I was literally having a panic attack.”
With her extended family completely cut off from all communication in a devastated country and her parents reeling from the aftershock—both mental and environmental—Olmsted had no way of determining whether any of her loved ones were safe, and no way to help.
Now, weeks later, reliable information is still hard to come by. Olmsted says that she is relying on infrequent Facebook status updates and Skype chats with her friends and relatives in Japan for any updates. Though there are plenty of articles and internet dialogues that are slowly answering some of her questions, Olmsted declares that too much of what she finds online is “bullshit,” citing ludicrous claims that the earthquake was a form of divine retribution in response to the Pearl Harbor bombings.
When asked if her own fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs affect her perspective on the situation, Olmsted replies, “I don’t have religious, not even philosophical, tendencies to my being. I’m just concerned about my family and friends.”
Olmsted says that the incident has renewed her patriotism for Japan, though she left when she was only six years old. She contrasts the reactions of Japanese victims to the American victim’s of 2005’s hurricane Katrina. In Japan, Olmsted says, there is no looting, no widespread violence. Instead, people calmly wait in lines to use telephones and live peacefully within shelters despite horrible conditions. This makes her both proud of her Japanese heritage, and sad about the American society where she has grown up.
When explaining this comparison, “I thought about my mom,” Olmsted says with renewed vigor. “She would definitely stand in the fucking line for three hours and only buy two bottles of water. Definitely.”
Father Privett was smiling as he said, “the community doesn’t own KUSF. We do.” He seemed to be in good spirits in his office on Thursday morning as he reflected upon the community’s backlash to the sale of 90.3 FM, the former home of university radio station KUSF. Privett, the president of University of San Francisco, stressed that he ultimately does not care whether the San Francisco community is outraged by KUSF’s transition to online broadcasting. “This is not a community resource. This is a university resource. My responsibility is to ensure that our resources directly support the teaching and learning of our students. This is very hard for [the community] to hear. We have no obligation to provide a radio station to the community any more than the law school entails our being a law firm or the nursing school requires we run a hospital.”
While it may seem that removing a university station from the radio would not be in the students’ best interest, KUSF doesn’t seem to be in any sort of interest at all. When interviewed, most students said they had never listened to the station and weren’t aware of the sale. When asked about the sale of the KUSF frequency, Jacquie Hull, a freshman at USF said, “I don’t know anything about it. I had no idea there was a controversy. KUSF…so I’m guessing that’s the radio station?” Of the ten students I interviewed, no one had read or seen anything about the community’s outrage.
Father Privett is keenly aware of the student body’s distance from KUSF. “There fundamental disagreement here is that there are 20 USF students directly involved with KUSF. That’s .002% of our student body.” According to Privett, the sale of KUSF allows the “opportunity for us to rethink how we want to engage our students and what kind of programming we want to offer to the community.” With more student jobs offered at KUSF.org in addition to student internship opportunities that will be offered at 90.3 KDFM, the sale is ultimately going to provide more broadcasting experience for students of Media Studies at USF. In response to the community members who are incensed by the loss of KUSF broadcasting, Privett says “we’re reclaiming and refocusing this resource, which I think is entirely appropriate.”