Anders Osborne: A direct language, a beautiful mystery

Written by Tim Newby / photos courtesy andersosborne.com

September 8, 2010

anders2.jpgAnders Osborne has written a #1 song (Tim McGraw’s “Watch the Wind Blow By”), contributed two songs  to Keb’ Mo’s 1999 Grammy Award-winning Slow Down, released eight studio albums and two live albums, and toured for the last 20 years.

Therefore, it’s a bit surprising to hear him say, “I still haven’t decided if this [music] is what I want to do, it has always just been what I do, you know what I mean?”

For Osborne it is exactly what he has done since he first started coming up with melodies on his family’s pump organ when he was nine in his native Sweden. He left home shortly after when he was 16, hitting the road, busking his way around the world before eventually settling in New Orleans.

Osborne’s wanderlust got the best of him again, and at 19 he quit his job because he had decided, “In order to make a good living making music, I had to stop my day gig, I was too tired to perform, or get the show, make the phone calls, run around, whatever.”

It was a step Osborne felt was him quitting society as he knew it, and figuring out how to make it relying solely on his music to get him through. This commitment makes the 44-year-old songwriter’s statement about what he does do all the more surprising.

He elaborates, “The feeling of wanting to quit sometimes? I still have that. {Laughs} But I just don’t know what I would do.”

Much of this doubt was influenced in no part by a lifestyle he calls “grueling,” and that threatened to derail much more than just his musical career. Osborne long battled drug and alcohol addiction. There was rehab, relapse, and eventually recovery. It was a long road and a long time coming, but the last year and a half has seen a rebirth of the uncommonly gifted musician.

anders3.jpg “I have never really thought about it, but lately in the last year I think I have gotten it more than I ever have before. There has been a recommitment to my craft, to the art of music. I feel a much higher respect to the art form itself and what that means. I treat it with respect, and I feel like maybe I am supposed to do this.”

This recommitment has taken physical form in the shape of American Patchwork, Osborne’s new album and a clear representation of what he has gone through.  Recorded with long-time friends, drummer Stanton Moore and keyboardist Robert Walter, it sonically more closely resembles the unbridled energy and balls-to-the-wall thrash of his live shows than anything he has released previously.  It is also a collection of painfully open songs that he refers to as, “the patching back together of man scattered to the wind.”

The opening track, “On the Road to Charlie Parker,” is Osborne’s brutally honest realization of where his life was taking him, and the parallels between himself and the jazz great who died at 34 from his own addiction demons that left him so ravaged the coroner performing the autopsy mistook his body for that of a 50-year-old.

In the sweet lament of “Standing with Angels”, Osborne reflects on a friend who died too young.  His simple introduction of the song at a recent show in Annapolis, Maryland summed up how far Osborne has come and where he almost ended, “I got out a year ago, this song is for a friend who didn’t.”

American Patchwork is straightforward and unabashedly frank with its lyrics.  It is written using what the heavily-bearded guitarist calls a “direct language”.

anders4.jpg“I have been in a trend to simplify, to get to the point, not so much fluff, not so much talking around what needs to be said,” explains Osborne.

“I used to write these long pot-infused stories, 13 verses and everything mattered – what they were holding, and they were using their left-hand, and they did this – all of that. I was really into that for awhile, now I am into the opposite. Say it and that’s the end of it.”

This economy of words with which he has approached the new album seems perfectly suited to the highly personal nature of the songs and is also an extension of his recovery as he is distancing himself from the past.

“It’s a new sense of wanting to learn again, of not wanting to go on with business as usual,” states Osborne. “The way I used to write I can never write that way again. It has passed.”

With his demons at bay, Osborne’s recommitment to music has not only come through in his new album, but in his live show as well. Always known for his passionate live shows that howled with primal ferocity, his sets now have reached epic levels of intensity.  On stage he is a blur of constant motion, his long gold-beard peppered with gray bouncing in time as his takes each song and stretches them to their breaking point.  It is within those moments of pure improvisation that Osborne finds pure joy.

“Each night there is moment or two where it is beyond belief how euphoric it gets,” he says.

anders1.jpgIt helps to have an album with songs as strong as American Patchwork to play each night to help reach those euphoric moments.  Osborne admits he is still really into the new album, and he recognizes how well crafted it is.

He states “a good record for me is when it inspires me to write the next one. This one does and I am thinking about the next record all the time.”

When asked about the next record, that same hesitation that Osborne spoke with earlier seems to rear its head again, but after a pause he speaks with conviction and clarity.

“When it’s time to do it, whenever that it is, then those decisions get made at that point. I can’t say what is going to change if anything, but most of the time things change. I just hope people want to buy it and I hope they can use any of those songs.”

Then, spoken as only a man who has gone through what Osborne has – having to relearn to love his craft and his music and having seen how close he came to losing what he first discovered on that pump organ – finishes his thought with a sense of contented fulfillment.

“I don’t know where it is going to end up, but that is kind of the beautiful mystery of it.”