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Garrett Owen Wants To Make Music a Little More Complicated

Outlaw folk artist Garrett Owen throws it all into his new record.EXPAND
Outlaw folk artist Garrett Owen throws it all into his new record.
Marissa Laree Cunningham

You might not be able to tell by looking at him, but the rail-thin, mustached, cowboy-esque Garrett Owen loves to work out. The folk singer-songwriter can frequently be found nose-deep in fitness literature, yearning to bend, stretch, crouch and contort the way that the pros do. He does pistol squats, push-up squats, handstand push-ups and, to top it all off, some jump rope.

“I recently got to a point where I can do 20 double-unders in a row,” Owen says, referring to a jump rope routine popular with the CrossFit crowd. Yet more often that not, his workout routine is not inspired by the latest craze, but rather by pure simplicity.

“Even when I was in the middle of nowhere in East Africa last summer, I could still do some pretty cool calisthenics,” he says. “All I need is a chair and the floor.”

In general, simplicity has been a recurring theme for the 35-year-old artist. The son of missionary parents, Owen grew up with the bare necessities, four church walls and little else. He spent much of his youth in Africa and Ecuador, content to mess around on the guitar he picked up as a teenager. So when he and his family moved back to the United States, 19-year-old Owen was overwhelmed. Suddenly he was supposed to go about his days as a regular American kid, and he had no idea what that looked like.

“The first couple days back were not bad,” he says. “It was the next seven years that were really rough.”

Owen bounced from job to job while struggling with depression. He tried to study jazz at South Plains College near Lubbock, but jazz was, well, not simple.

“That was kind of a heartbreaking experience,” he says. “I found that if you don’t pick up jazz under the age of 15, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the point where you can improvise.”

He dropped out and went back to working jobs he hated. And when the depression got worse, Owen attempted suicide. A stint in the psych ward helped, but songwriting helped more.

“I wrote a song called ‘Razor Blade Family,’ and I felt real feelings about something for the first time in a long time,” he says. “I was so used to taking antidepressants, walking around not feeling anything. But that song gave me this wellspring of emotion, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I want to hang onto this.’”

At the same time, he wanted to keep it simple.

“‘Screw all of this complicated jazz stuff,’” he told himself. “‘I want to write songs with four chords.’”

Owen stayed true to his word: His eponymous 2016 album contained 11 folk songs and roughly four chords. The album also exhibited an undeniable knack for finger-pickin’ and storytellin’. Each track made Owen sound like a lonesome bard traveling from town to town sharing shards of his heart with anyone who would listen. In reality, that wasn’t far from the truth.

“Garrett has always been kind of a quiet guy,” says Taylor Tatsch, Owen’s friend and producer. “He’s not much of a partier, and he can be a bit of an introvert. But once you get a guitar on him, he doesn’t have any problem expressing himself. The timidness evaporates.”

Owen admits he’s never felt comfortable in crowds, a fact that makes him a pretty lousy audience member at shows. Still, after dropping his 2016 album, he tried. He embedded himself in the Fort Worth music scene. He gigged around town, became friends with Tatsch and musician Matt Tedder and tried to get out of his comfort zone a bit. Most days, he still felt like an outsider.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve ever fully adjusted to what it’s like to be an American,” he says. “I’m behind, you know? There are social things I won’t pick up until everyone else has already mastered them.”

One example: social media. At first, Owen didn’t know what to say or publish on Instagram. But he felt like he had to be on it, because that’s what artists do. So he took an algorithmic approach.

“Someone might look at my Instagram and think, ‘Man, this guy’s really obsessed with his face,’” Owen says. “That’s actually not the case; I was responding to a response. The first time I posted a photo of my face, I got a better response than anything, so I thought people wanted to see that. Really, I’m pretty disappointed with my face most of the time.”

When you hear Owen talk like that, you might suppose he doesn’t think very highly of himself. Most days, you’d be wrong. Owen has a self-deprecating sense of humor and punctuates many of his sentences with a soft, endearing chuckle. Nevertheless, the artist admits that depression is still a part of his life. And since he doesn’t take any medication, he has to will the darkness away.

“When those thoughts cross my mind, I can try to turn them off, or trick myself into doing something, anything,” he says. Sometimes that means picking up a jump rope. More often, it means picking up a guitar, something he found himself doing a little less than usual in the last couple of years. He played fewer gigs, went to fewer shows and kept to himself even more than usual. But he kept writing, even when he and his father traveled back to Africa to dig some wells. Over time, he had enough songs to lay down another full-length album. He was done with those four chords, too. Owen wanted some rock, à la Stone Temple Pilots. He wanted some slide guitar, courtesy of Tedder. And he wanted Tatsch to help him throw everything possible into this new record.

“I realized I should’ve let Taylor do more on my first record,” he says. “This time, I wanted to make up for some of that.”

The duo retreated to Tatsch’s studio in Dripping Springs, and everything was fair game. Piano? Throw it in. A full rock drum kit? Add it. The toy organ Tatsch has had since he was 4? Add that, too.

“Garrett was really open to experimenting,” the producer says. “And if you do what I do, that’s all you can ask for.”

The album, Quiet Lives, still contains the somber folk fans will remember from Owen’s first output. Yet this record, which came out in mid-September, is undeniably more complex. The chord progressions are intricate, and Owen is clearly taking more risks. Some songs, like “Souvenir,” show off his love for jazz and its myriad of chord changes. Others, like “Hour in the Forest,” contain shades of classic rock. The message is clear: Owen is done keeping it simple.

“When I put something together that stretches me musically, I’m happy,” he says. “It’s like you’re building something, but you don’t know what the next piece is.”

Owen doesn’t know what the next piece of his career will be, but he likes the trajectory he’s on. He wants to keep stretching himself, and he hints that his next record, whenever it comes, will be his most complex work yet. For now, he’s waiting out the pandemic, and even though he’s never been one for crowds, he’s yearning to be back in public again. When reached him by phone in late September, Owen was at his parents’ home in East Dallas. He reflected on the release of Quiet Lives, talked about his love of Elliot Smith and reflected on that trip to East Africa. He’s always admired the people there, he says.

Over a year later, one image from the trip sticks out in his mind. He and his father arrived in a remote town with a bunch of supplies for digging wells, including bags and bags of a type of clay called bentonite. Each bag weighed roughly 100 pounds, and as father and son started unloading, a girl approached their car. She was 5-foot-1 and she, too, weighed roughly 100 pounds.

“She walks up, takes one of these big bags, and hoists it on her head,” Owen says. “Then, she just walks up a hill, like it’s nothing. She just made it look so dang easy.”

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