Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
The way that Sam Owens came into our lives is pretty far-fetched and that makes the retelling of it great. As it is, he remains a young man from the Pacific Northwest trying to get his first album out there and into the world. He writes all the time - just writes and writes - records things as they come to him and lets his friends hear them when they ask - and some of those friends talk about him in other quarters, when he's not around. They cannot hide their amazement in terms of what he's got cooking, what he could eventually cook, given the right kitchen. All it took was Matt Maust of the Cold War Kids mentioning that he was borrowing Sam's sleeping bag, amidst frigid January temperatures, listening to his new songs as he huddled and bundled in Seattle.
He added that Sam's sleeping bag was warmer than his own and hence extremely valuable and appreciated. This sounds about right. Owens, appearance-wise and musically, comes across as a guy who would have warmer things to his name and in his possession, who would seek them out - perfecting his flint, kindling and fire-starting methods and making sure that he layers smartly, wicking sweat away from the skin and securing the natural body heat where it matters. He would recite old wives tales and portions of literature from the Farmer's Almanac that 80-percent of your heat is lost by way of your head and ears and he would forcibly, strongly encourage the use of a stocking hat at all times, just to be safe. He could give lectures on down and feather jackets, furs and flannels - the best brand of insulated boots, shoes and socks. He would understand the importance of preserving one's body temperature after the winter sun set - when all that you had was you and a Labrador or collie. So we got in touch with Owens via a phone number by Maust, while at a National and Blonde Redhead show during the Austin City Limits Festival. He called and said that he was interested in recording some songs, but didn't know when he'd be in the Midwest.
We stayed in touch for the next month or two and then out of the blue he sent an e-mail saying that he could be here in three days if we'd have him. He had put an inquiry up on Craig's List about rides east. He found one -- a car ride with two girls, complete strangers - that was making its way to New York, by way of Chicago and they were leaving in two hours. We told him that it would work and he found us three days later, after some long hauls, riding with a couple of pot-smoking students, who patiently waited as he recorded - having never heard him sing before that day. The scenario that probably didn't happen, but could have, would have involved at least some swooning and a return to the automobile with the driver of the car secretly remarking to herself that she never would have thought that Owens could have sounded quite so dreamy and romantic. This would have been done in a way that Ben Gibbard is familiar with, but even more so in a way that Eef Barzelay and the cleverer romantics would be familiar with. There's a glint of wry irony and matter-of-fact purpose to the songs that Owens writes that gives them more emphasis and depth. A lot of the subjects deal with discovery and the tedious idea that without finding out the nasty truths about love and people for ourselves, there's something missing, a void in the connection. A manual doesn't work so well. Owens sings, "So, this is love," and it's a bolt of lightning striking with a powerful, hair-tingling clap of thunder, not a flimsy lesson learned. It's gonna stick like peanut butter and gum, that lesson. It seems like he finds a lot of things the same way we found him - through time and through chance. OWENS is the new group that Sam and his wife Ashley formed.
*Essay originally published May, 2008