How Can You Be Relevant When You Grew Up in a Religious Cult?
Girls' Christopher Owens
Credit: Ryan McGinley
With the recent release of his solo album Lysandre, much is being made (again) of former Girls singer Christopher Owens' uncommon upbringing in the Children of God cult, which disallows exposure to mainstream culture. Owens still seems a little bitter about it. "Show me any American movie about the high school experience," he told the New York Times, "and I become extremely jealous and sad that I didn't have that."
He isn't alone. Several stylistically distinct artists have vast stores of scripture in the part of the brain where most of us have the lyrics to 36 Chambers or at least Oops!...I Did It Again. Grimes, for one, has spoken out about her exposure to medieval-style Christian mysticism. Jonathan Pierce of the Drums and singer-songwriter Diane Birch grew up, like Kings of Leon's Followill brothers, under the influence of evangelical types. Rookie rapper Angel Haze, too, was forbidden to listen to secular tunes for fear of hell's fire.
See also: Quit Hating on Kings of Leon
Haze is a bit of a potty mouth for a lady who grew up a church-goer. But indeed, she was cut off from ungodly music until age 16. She's 21 now, which leaves only half a decade of catch-up time. Her spitfire flow is largely self-taught. "I'm still really unexposed to the music of my generation," she told me last summer. "I only really got into Lauryn Hill recently. I've never heard any Biggie song completely in my life."
One artist she did lose her mind to, once the floodgates busted open, was Eminem. She recently released a reworked version of his 2002 hit "Cleanin' Out My Closet" with intense verses about her own childhood sexual abuse. It's unclear from the song whether or not the abuser was associated with the Greater Apostolic Faith, the church her mother belonged to, but eventually rejected.
In general though, Haze, like Owens, seems to feel left out because of her musically sheltered youth. "It is really hard for me to be in this culture with the limited knowledge that I have about it," she says. "It's like I'm growing into something that isn't a part of it." Which, by the way, she considers a plus. "I can't steal from anyone if I don't know what they're about."
Pierce, of the Drums, doesn't give much credence to the suggestion that his Pentecostal past shaped him as an artist. "I don't think my upbringing, the religious side of it influenced me, except that it turned me towards other things that did influence me," he told me upon the release of his band's 2011 release, Portamento.
Still, the album addresses spiritual questions right up front, opening with "Book of Revelation," a song that straight-up denies any sort of afterlife. "I've seen the world and there's no heaven and there's no hell," Pierce coos on the chorus. "And I believe that when we die, we die." He confirms the belief the song sets forth: "I have a hard time empathizing with anyone who believes in any sort of God. Atheism seems to give you a sense of urgency. If this is all there is, I better do something with it." Like run away from a cult-like situation, maybe.
Grimes embraces the dramatic side of it all. Her orthodox Catholic childhood provided inspiration for some of the sweeping, gothy soundscapes and themes on her 2012 album Visions. At least one of the record's standout tracks, "Genesis," was inspired by her extremist education. "I went to this terrible school where we didn't learn anything because we were always in church," she explained in an interview for Foam Magazine just before the album's release. "I just remember sitting there in this reverb chamber, with the choir singing in Latin and this violent image of a man nailed to a cross. I wrote that song to replace that feeling, because when it wasn't scary, it was nice."
Birch seems to relate to that same idea. Her album Bible Belt has no internal church references, but she explains the title on more general terms. "The bible was the center of the household for me and it represented strength," she says. But she too has grown up to reject the Seventh Day Adventist beliefs she was born to.
It's worth noting that Haze, Pierce and Owens identify as gay, bisexual or pan-sexual, lifestyles that probably wouldn't be tolerated in their parents' faiths, which only reinforces the alternative music pantheon's identity as a salon for rebels and outcasts who take issue with societal conditions thrust upon them. It's a safe place for those who had no hope of fitting in.
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