PawnShop Kings

by Dan MacIntosh

The PawnShop Kings mix and match musical influences with style and panache, creating a unique sound that manages to stand out wherever they're playing. Songfacts caught up with Joel and Scott Owen – the brothers behind the sonically adventurous two-piece act – at Fish Fest, a Southern California Christian music festival featuring mostly pop-leaning artists like TobyMac.

This didn't stop the brothers from bringing their romp-stomping mix of old gospel, country and blues. The band mixes together the best of the old and the new seamlessly, creating dynamic, original compositions that feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Christian leanings aside, the Owen brothers tend to fall on the more independent side of the musical spectrum. They play in bars, clubs, churches, festivals - anything that lets them share their sound and connect with fans. They take their act wherever they think it will work, rather than limiting themselves to overtly Christian events.

The band's history is unique and complex, an artistic evolution that began with a musical discovery that shook the brothers to their souls. The journey has taken them from California clubs to Nashville songwriting sessions, with a broad range of stops in between.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I noticed that you guys didn't grow up listening to typical contemporary Christian music. Why don't you tell me a little bit about the music that first got you excited to write your own?

Scott: I was 12 when I realized I wanted to write music. It felt like a musical awakening at the time because I was starting to feel mature. And it was the '80s, so we were getting fed a lot of new directions. A lot of what was on the radio was interesting but not really resonating. But I was always singing, so I would just sing along to everything.

Joel: That sounds like a band. Is that a band? New Directions?

Songfacts: One Direction is a band. You guys don't sound anything like them, don't worry.

Joel: Everything changed when we heard One Direction.

Songfacts: Yeah. You decided you wanted to be a roots boy band or something.

Joel: What are roots boy bands all about? That would be great.

Songfacts: That would be weird.

Scott: My buddy and I stumbled on to Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens - a few others like that. They really penetrated everything. Even Guns N' Roses at that time. So everything just kind of exploded creatively.

Songfacts: What were you listening to up until that point?

Scott: My first record was Scritti Politti, I think Joel's was Wham!

Songfacts: Scritti Politti's not bad.
Best known in American for their hit "Perfect Way," Scritti Politti was a left-wing, post-punk British rock group helmed by the singer-songwriter Green Gartside. The band broke into mainstream awareness with the release of their 1982 single, "Sweetest Girl," which peaked at #64 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the the course of the '80s, they gradually shifted a more pop-friendly sound over the course of their existence. As of 2012, the band is still actively touring, their most recent release being 2006's White Bread Black Beer.
Joel: Wham! Make it Big, that was the first album I ever bought.

Songfacts: I heard that Wham! might be reuniting.

Scott: Where's George Michaels?

Songfacts: He's talented, but Andrew Ridgeley is my personal favorite.

Joel: I was going to say, that'll be the first time that he's done anything since Wham!

Scott: Anyway, I'm just kidding. Once that creative explosion happened, I started getting really inspired to just invest my time in music.

Songfacts: You realized that there was something deeper going on musically than just what was on the radio – not everything was glossy and superficial.

Scott: Yeah. So we started tracking down further into the art, digging deeper into catalogs for music that really resonated. At the time, most music was very loud. And hair bands, late '80s bands, then grunge - it was all very loud. Even in the middle of that, we realized there was more to the essence of art and creativity. Plus, we were California raised, but our whole family is back in the Mississippi Delta. So we'd go home - that's what we'd call it, you know; my mom would say, "We're going home for Thanksgiving." And so for us we always felt like we were on the island a little bit. And then we'd go back and settle into this slower, more roots, more rich, more family oriented, spiritual, cultural place. I don't mean spiritual in a Christian sense.

Songfacts: Were you Christians at the time?

Scott: We grew up in a Christian home, yeah.

Songfacts: Did you ever make attempts to do anything that was along the lines of contemporary Christian music?

Joel: No. Our mom listened to a lot of contemporary Christian at the time. She listened to Sandi Patty and music like that. Not that there's anything wrong with that. And for one thing, Amy Grant's Christmas albums, like Tennessee Christmas, that was great.

Scott: We love that stuff.

Joel: We still love all of those records. It was just something about that music that never really resonated with us on a deeper level. When we heard Marley, we realized that this was a singer with passion. And Johnny Cash. And we got on to Stevie Wonder. All that music really hit us on a different level. And it was hitting deeper parts of us that we hadn't really realized we had. We didn't know why we weren't responding to the earlier music, but then when we heard that deeper music, it was like a different well that got tapped.

I mean, I still loved grunge music and so on. I loved Pearl Jam when they came out. They came out, and he was writing vulnerable lyrics over a new kind of music. Almost a reaction to hair bands, and I loved it. I saw those guys play here; I saw Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. It makes it fun to be playing here.

When it comes down to it, I think the best music for us has been from people who have more to say.

Scott: Or maybe people who are just being honest.

Joel: Yeah. People who are being honest. That's what I think I mean, like people who are willing to say more than just superficial predictable rhymes.

Songfacts: Do you collaborate together on writing songs?

Scott: We basically learned to identify one another's strengths and to try and capitalize on using those to get a unified kind of collective voice. Our initial instincts are, more often than not, opposite. Musically, our influences are the same. But how we get to our own kind of creative sound, we come from different sides of the coin.

Songfacts: But you write songs together?

Scott: Yeah. We do.

Joel: We do. We write some songs together, and we write some songs independently. Scott is more prolific as a verse writer. He'll come with more ideas. I was a literature major, so I have more of a prose background. We'll link ideas like that and then maybe work with other people. We love that. For the longest time, we didn't collaborate with anybody outside of us, really. But in the last year or two, we've really started working with other people. It's been surprisingly inspiring.

Songfacts: It's interesting you mentioned that because one of the guys I talked to recently is Desmond Child. Unless you're an obsessive credit reader on albums, you wouldn't know who he is, but he wrote a lot of those big hits for Bon Jovi. And when he started writing with bands like KISS and Bon Jovi, bringing in an outside writer was unheard of. It was okay if you were a diva singer to have somebody write your songs, but the band had to create their own songs.

So what he did was open the door for it being okay to have somebody come in and maybe refine the band's ideas. So I think it's interesting that you mention that. But I think without people like Desmond Child, maybe that wouldn't happen, that you wouldn't be open to working with outside people.

Joel: Maybe so. I remember growing up and feeling like I didn't want to work with anybody else. Almost like we shouldn't be writing with anybody else.

Songfacts: It's so personal. You don't want somebody touching your art. It's like they're going to put their fingerprints on it, and it's not going to be me anymore.

Joel: Uh-huh. But we've been able to move and go places, writing songs and ideas that we wouldn't have been able to had it just been the two of us, you know?

Songfacts: I was noticing when I was watching you guys play that you write a lot about your family and just your personal life. I don't notice a lot of songs that are really evangelical. It's almost as if your faith comes through in how you address your life as opposed to trying to write songs about your faith. Is that accurate?

Joel: No, it's not too accurate.

Scott: No. Honestly, it's more that I don't know any other way to do it. I've tried to do it the other way. I just don't know how to do it. And I think it goes back to what I grew up listening to. My dad helped me be really lyric first. He would be like, "Hey, listen to this and turn it up." He'd rewind it, and he'd make us do it again. And it would just sink in. So I learned to listen to lyrics.

And I heard God in country music, I heard God in pop music, and then my antenna started going up, and I started listening to things with a different filter. And so when I started creating, I wasn't listening to Christian contemp. I never listened to Christian music until the last few years just so I could get my head around it. But I've always found that to be the most honest way that I can communicate my sense of spirituality through my experiences. That's where I understand God.

Songfacts: I remember when I first started listening to reggae music. And I didn't know a lot about Rastafarianism. I've since learned a little bit. Theologically, I have some real big issues. However, a lot of the great reggae songs, they take the idea, and they turn them into songs, and that spoke to me. A lot of the country music, the roots are right there. And it just seems a lot more natural than the way some mainstream Christian music is almost like propaganda, like you have to present this clean picture of everything fitting together nicely. We know life is not like that, so why should music be that way?

Scott: Well, I'll just say this: I am actually glad there is Christian music because I know that God moves through that medium. But I'm also glad that I feel called to have a different voice in the context and hopefully challenge different components of people's 'processive' journey. I used to have an aversion to things that I didn't resonate with, but now I feel like they're good. They're just good. It all works somehow. But I hold sacred the way that we express it, more than anything else.

Songfacts: I just went to see Lincoln Brewster, and he does a lot of the songs that we sing in our church. I love that. There's something pure about worship music because he just simply wants to praise God, and he wants to do it in a way that's appealing and melodic and memorable. And that's a great thing. So I almost like that better than when somebody that's trying to do Christian pop music, trying to sound like what's going on in the pop music realm. Because it's all about sincerity. It's all about being yourself.

So my next question is, how comfortable do you feel at an event like this? Do you maybe feel like you're a little out of your element, or do you feel like you're bringing in different kinds of fans to appreciate your music?

Joel: Yeah, we're comfortable. I think one of our favorite things about the type of music that we play is in some ways we're always out of element. In a place like this, or playing a bar or a club, the gospel centric stuff that we sing about, it's different there.

Scott: Why? Different how?

Joel: Well, because I think not that many people, if we're playing in bars, are seeing the same things that we're seeing.

Scott: Yeah, we're out of our element, I think.

Joel: Yeah. And then when we come here, I think that most people are exposed to a different music than we're playing. We've always loved that. I think in terms of meeting people and interacting with people, we don't feel out of our element. And I would say the same in the bars and clubs. We're just trying to connect with people. And we love people. And we're trying to love people as much as we can.

Songfacts: You talked about that today, loving people, loving strangers.

Joel: Yeah.

Songfacts: I think sometimes we put all kinds of expectations on what love is. Sometimes love is just simply being kind and friendly. It means life. We could be really rude and think we're very spiritual. It's like, well, wait a minute.

Scott: I think those disconnects are what characterize a lot of our expression or even our creative impetus. Because we come from that, growing up in the church, and compared against some of the experiences we had really drove that disconnect home. And so I have an aversion to not being honest. My fibers won't let me sing something I don't believe or say something in a way that I feel is contrived. And it ends up making writing a straightforward song very complicated sometimes.

We're beginning to learn how to work with the formula of songs so it's palatable and still remain true to what we're trying to say. And even in the songwriting process, co-writing with people, as long as the true idea at the heart of the song stays, it works. You can allow for different ways to say something as long as it says it in a way that stays true to the original vision. So Joel and I will usually come into co-writes either with blank slates or with a purposeful sense of what we want to achieve with our collaborators. I want your fingerprints on my songs, but try to keep it about this idea.

Joel: And it's really fascinating, too, if you think about the history of songwriters, and you think about all these people who have written by themselves - like Bob Dylan doesn't have to co-write with anybody, doesn't have to collaborate with anybody. He does what he wants. But he's also written a lot of stuff that just does not relate to me at all. I don't understand it. Ryan Adams, he's like a more contemporary songwriter, right? He put out his Gold record, and I thought it was phenomenal. But there are a lot of songs on that record. If he cut like six songs off that, he probably would have been like triple platinum. He wrote too much, but he's writing by himself. Which is amazing. But there's nobody there to say, "I don't think that works," or "Let's make that better." For us, that's just an awesome refining process. If someone can say it better, it doesn't matter who comes up with the line. If the three of us are sitting in a room and you come up with a great line that's a better line than I can write, we're going to have a better song. We're going to have a better product. We're going to have a better thing to say. So it works both ways.

Scott: It's been an idiot's crash course in songwriting and co-writing. You always want to write with people who aren't afraid to express their opinions and then who can hold it with an open hand.

Joel: Or loosely.

Scott: My favorite story is co-writing with this guy in Nashville. We get out there like three times a year. I'm writing with this guy, and I thought I had this really good idea. I was sure that it needed to make its way into a song. I said it about four different times, four different ways.

Joel: Four different times the same way, maybe?

Scott: Or the same way. And by the fourth time I was like, "You guys don't like that idea?" Because no one had said anything. They hadn't said no or yes. I'm like, "You guys, don't, what do you think of that?" And the guy said, "That's what we call in this town a silent pass." [Laughing].

Songfacts: That's a Nashville-ian thing right there.

Scott: It was awesome. We were sitting on Music Row, and the guy that they hooked us up with to work with was classic.

Joel: It was so brilliant. He was a straight-up dude. The best of services.

Songfacts: I want to wind things up by talking about some specific songs. Can each of you pick your favorite song in your repertoire and talk about why it means so much to you? So Joel, why don't you go first.

Joel: Well, I'll just pick a new one because it's consistent with what we've been talking about. It really has a story behind it. It's called, "Love Like Jesus." There's a lot of reasons why I like this song right now. I love the way it feels, I love the sentiment we're expressing. But when we wrote it, that was also a co-write we did with a friend in Nashville. We were leaving town on Friday, and it was around 9 pm. And we had to leave soon. I think our plane was at 1. So usually that left us two or three hours to write.

And he was late. We waited an hour for him. He texted us saying he'd be there. We found out his wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. He came in very emotional. My brother and I were like, "Dude, we've got to get to a plane. We've got a plane to catch, it's totally cool. You didn't have to come." And he's like, "No, no, no. I want to be here." And we ended up writing this powerful, poignant song about just being honest. I just want to love Jesus. And I think we wrote it in about an hour.

Songfacts: Don't you love it when that happens?

Joel: Oh, it's so great. But there was so much emotion in the room, and there was so much weight in the room.

Songfacts: Do you feel that when you sing it? Does that experience come back to you?

Joel: Oh, yeah. For sure. I think when you write a song that's called "Love Like Jesus," I mean, that's a big statement, you know.

Songfacts: If you had to work on it too long, it might be too hard. Because there's so much you'd feel like you needed to include, but because it came so fast you were able to get that out.

Joel: Absolutely. And you sit there and think: "Does it need another section? Does it need a bridge? Does it need anything?" Finally, you just step back and say, "That's what it is."

Songfacts: That was meant to be.

Joel: That's what it is right there. Those moments that you love to have. Those are exciting. And it translates. We have so much fun playing it. The groove is the kind of groove we play; the sentiment really comes from our hearts. And then that experience at that poignant moment that he touched our emotions. Very exciting.

Songfacts: Well, that's a great example. All right, now you're on the spot, Scott. Can you top Joel with an example?

Scott: Let's see. I guess because all the songs that we've written so recently are so fresh, those are the first ones that come to mind. But I can't get into any of those yet. So we'll have to give you some stuff. Let's see, I think "God in You," that was an interesting one. "Don't Say That" and "Make Me Whole" all came, like spilling out.

Songfacts: Quick ones as well?

Scott: Oh yeah, man. They were written naturally. I was thinking about how people misuse God to justify their actions. You know, people saying, "Well, I feel called to do this," or "God is on my side," or whatever quip they had that was their reason. But a lot of the times, it seems to contradict itself. I don't know if I could do that. It's just something that a lot of the time, I thought – I don't like that.

Joel: Some people say one thing and doing something totally opposite.

Scott: Like what he said before. You know, we can be inconsiderate and difficult people and still be spiritual. God should be working in our hearts to breed humility in a way that is palatable and evident. You're really following who Jesus was and who God is and what his overarching plan is. Some of the ways faith is misused were just hard for me to reconcile. But I mean, not even pointing any fingers. It was just the concept of I don't want to do that personally. I don't want to use God for my agenda. So then what? And I just sat on my floor and it was two chords, the whole song, the whole song was two chords, and it's like four minutes long, which sounds very boring.

Songfacts: Hank Williams only knew three chords, right?

Scott: Half the bands we love all use two chords and metaphor.

Songfacts: I have this saying with my son because we talk about music a lot. And I always say, "There's beauty in simplicity."

Scott: That's so hard. But that one, I like that one. I think that sums us up pretty well.

November 6, 2012. Get more at pawnshopkings.com
More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • Randy Glick from Elkhart IndianaDoes anybody come to Jesus at your concerts?How are fans blessed at your concerts?
  • Anne S from CaliforniaLove their songs because of the simplicity. Reminds me of Leonard Cohen.
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