Anders Osborne does not fit the stereotype of the signature New Orleans musician. But if you use the analogy of the Mississippi River to describe the city’s cultural history, Osborne’s presence in New Orleans has helped divert the course of its music. His accomplishments as a producer, performer and songwriter place him in the rarefied company of such New Orleans icons as Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
History provides the raw, irrefutable proof—a number one single recorded by Tim McGraw, “Watch the Wind Blow By;” production jobs for local musicians including Andy J. Forest, Tab Benoit and Johnny Sansone, Ingrid Lucia and Monk Boudreaux’s outstanding Bury the Hatchet; and a chameleon-like performance history as a singer/songwriter and guitarist that has repeatedly hit paydirt. During his early years in the city, Osborne helped create the music scene at Checkpoint Charlie and mentored another young Swede, Theresa Andersson, who went on to become a star in her own right. Osborne put together the groundbreaking, hybrid New Orleans band that includes drummer Doug Belote, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and saxophonist Tim Green, then collaborated with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux on a live band and two album projects that yielded new compositions from both Boudreaux and Osborne. Of his own albums, two stand out as classic New Orleans recordings: Living Room and Ash Wednesday Blues. Then there’s his ongoing participation in one of the great American bands of the 21st Century, the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars.
Most recently, Osborne has been playing a very popular Tuesday night session at Chickie Wah Wah with John Fohl and Johnny Sansone. The acoustic performances showcase original songwriting from all three musicians, but Osborne’s new material—powerful, soul-wrenching confessionals like “On the Road to Charlie Parker” and “Echoes of My Sin”— indicate that his songwriting has evolved to a new level in the wake of the 2005 federal flood. This is the material that populates his latest record, American Patchwork, which will be release during Jazz Fest. “This is the healing,” he says explaining the title, “the patching back together of a man scattered to the wind, broken in pieces.”
Osborne used the mistakes he’s made in his own life as a metaphor for the trials that his adopted city went through after Katrina. “It’s also about the city and what happened to it,” he says. “A lot of songs are about patching your life back together. The source for the emotion behind those songs is reaching a certain age in my life and also about Katrina. It’sabout my choice of lifestyles over the years, my lack of focus many times. I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve made a decision to straighten out a lot of things, to become the best dad I can be, to become a husband who’s basically living up to that name. Also in the last year or so I’ve been trying my very best to get on a strong spiritual path, to be connected with the big picture. When you do that, you start to heal. You realize a lot of things you’ve said and done are simply out of ignorance, inexperience.”
Like many brilliant New Orleans musicians, Osborne has struggled with substance abuse problems. American Patchwork is not the first of his albums to deal with the subject. Both Living Room and Ash Wednesday Blues include songs about the consequences of Osborne’s young and wild days. The difference, he says, is the intent of the man inside the songwriter.
“I wasn’t ready to deal with actual improvement back then,” he says. “I stopped doing certain things but I didn’t improve my character.” Eventually he slid back into bad habits, especially in the hectic years after the flood.
“Katrina accelerated everything and every aspect of my reality,” he admits. “In order to address the stuff in front of you, it means you have to put a lot of other stuff on the back burner. Your neighborhood is absolutely wrecked. Four years later, that’s still no time, it all goes by so fast. I’ve just finally finished fixing my house.
“People haven’t dealt with the actual mourning—your relationships with your family, your spouse, your children. Theemotional vendetta hasn’t really been touched yet. Nobody has stopped to let that catch up to them. The magnitude of that disaster is so mind-boggling, I feel blessed that I’m part of it. I can’t believe that I get to experience something of this depth in my lifetime and live to tell about it.”
Osborne made the decision to clean up early last year and the change in his demeanor is dramatic. His natural friendliness and easy-going, self-deprecating humor has been tempered by a sober visage protected by the imposing fortification of a thick auburn beard. His once rapid fire conversational style has changed even more dramatically. He pauses frequently, weighing the impact of his words, and often professes not to be able to explain his thoughts. But he also appears to be a man at peace with himself for the first time in his life.
Osborne’s enduring vice is tobacco, and when he lights up and thoughtfully lets the smoke filter through his beard, he looks like an old sailor sizing up the weather. The image makes you think of his grandfather, a seaman who inspired young Anders to dream of traveling to exotic cities like New Orleans.
Osborne acknowledges his grandfather’s influence. Anders left home as a teenager to find his way in the world as an itinerant musician, traveling through Europe and Africa, but his arrival in New Orleans was more of a stroke of chance than a long-cherished goal.
“I had met this guy that was from here, I think it was in Dubrovnik,” he says. “We traveled together for about a year and then we parted ways and later I just came to visit him in New Orleans. There was no thought at all behind it. He said, ‘You’ve got to come see me in New Orleans; you’d love it.’
“When I got here, it was like the same thing that everybody that lives here says about it. There’s this complete ability that you get to feel free and be yourself. It’s designed that way. It’s a port town so people come here and find themselves and stay. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what it was. I just know that when I got here I felt comfortable. The people were awesome. Not just the music and food, the stuff they always talk about. I’m talking about everything, like the neighborhood where I moved in or the neighbors I met. They all approached me in a different way. There was no trial period to be accepted, or for me to accept them. It was an instant sense of community; that’s what I felt. The more of it you saw, the more that it works.”
Most importantly, Osborne found a musical home in New Orleans. Though he was well schooled in American music from the records he heard growing up with his father, a jazz drummer, and from his experiences on the road, Osborne assimilated the indigenous sounds of New Orleans and made them part of his own voice. His reputation as an outstanding guitarist and vocalist grew quickly, but after a few years it started to become apparent that he was a great songwriter as well. In 1994, he began a long relationship with Universal Music’s publishing arm in Nashville. He would fly to Nashville and pen country hits, then return to New Orleans and create new music with Monk Boudreaux.
“I love Monk in a way I can’t express in words,” says Osborne. “I don’t have any questions about who I am as a musician when I play with him. Monk brought me into the old cultural experience that the Indians play, which is really trance-like. The whole point is to elevate as you’re playing. It’s a school of consciousness like a lot of jazz and improvisational music is. That has influenced how I play things. I may repeat things differently in my solos, maybe playing a certain line over and over. It’s influenced me to not be afraid of grinding it out until it elevates by itself.”
When Osborne was displaced after Katrina, Nashville became the logical place to reunite with his wife and children. “We had lots of friends in Nashville after the storm, people helping us out. It didn’t last long, though. It’s one thing to go somewhere when you know you can go home, but it started to rub us painfully. We were very uncomfortable being displaced, like I’m guessing everybody was.
“I started to come back after six weeks. As much as possible, I started playing at Le Bon Temps and the Maple Leaf. It was extremely heartbreaking to see all that devastation and death. No birds. No worms. No life at all. It was really very, very strange. No electricity. It was so quiet and dark. But on the flip side of watching New Orleans almost be completely dead, it was this resurgence of willpower and love, camaraderie amongst the people that were here. It was pretty fantastic. People that you had always seen but never spoken with were all of a sudden your best friends. The only thing that mattered was that we were there and that we were there together. We were human beings coming together in an area that we love and we were determined to get it back.”
Though he stopped traveling, he didn’t stop songwriting. “I wrote consistently through this period,” he says. “Some things were really magical writing, some things were just getting rid of a lot of grief and stuff. Some of the material o
n this album was influenced by that time. ‘Darkness at the Bottom,’ both lyrically and musically, was directly connected to a feeling that I had that first six months or so after Katrina. It was a hook, a lick without actual lyrics that I improvised on depending on how I felt. Each show I would play it. I had played it with the band from time to time over the past 10 years, but it never had any real substance. After Katrina, it became pretty clear that I could use that to express my feelings.”
The intense self-examination Osborne has undergone in the past year is reflected in the powerful strains of “On the Road to Charlie Parker,” the opening song on American Patchwork. “There was a sort of frustration about where I was at the time and the choices I was making, the lack of discipline,” Osborne explains. “I was railing at myself, at the place where I was, kind of like, ‘You stupid motherfucker, come on man, get your shit together. You create an isolation and you become more and more delusional. You’re burying the things that matter.’ To write a song like that, you have to be pretty upset. That lyric came quickly while I was hammering out an idea in D minor on the piano trying to get some kind of atmosphere going, just bleeding it out. Out of that a lot of words start coming and you want to write it out and reflect on all the things you just said, and then you go back in and lift it up before you send this last message off. You go to a different key and open it up, and then you go back to hammering out your words.”
The songs for American Patchwork took on additional contours when Osborne began playing them with Fohl and Sansone at Chickie Wah Wah. “I felt it was a great opportunity to bring stuff that was almost done. I don’t know why it felt like that, maybe it was because of the trust we had between the three of us. Everybody can follow each other real easy. We all help each other make it sound right. We all know that, so we’re unafraid to throw in brand new stuff, some of it cowritten, some of it things we’ve written ourselves. Sometimes I’ll bring in a song that I wrote that day and give it a shot. That’s been enormously stimulating because I’ve had a chance to develop some songs in front of an audience. I don’t think I’ve done that to this degree before.”
When it came time to make the album, Osborne chose an old friend, drummer Stanton Moore, to co-produce. “I’ve learned to have a co-producer,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be somebody with a big resume; it’s just somebody you have a connection with. When you do that, you have to have complete trust in the person. If there’s any doubt, the process is going to be very confusing. I go through the hundreds of songs I wrote and say, ‘Check these out.’ The guy that you’re working with points out which ones he likes and I have to listen to why those songs are picked by him. He’s the one that’s telling me how it sounds, how it feels, even if it’s just a really rough guitar and vocal on a crappy little recording. We try to hone it to not too many songs. I try to stay close to the number of songs I want, usually about 10. Forty-five minutes of music is all I want.”
Corrosion of Conformity/Down guitarist Pepper Keenan came in later and the three musicians, along with keyboardist Robert Walter, finished the album.
“Pepper was working mainly with my vocals,” says Osborne. “For the most part it was me and Stanton doing some really heavy playing. I wanted Pepper to help me get specific guitar lines, specific tones I was looking for. There are over 30 tracks of guitar on some of the songs here.”
American Patchwork represents a fresh start for Osborne, and he intends to make the most of it. “Singing and playing these songs seems really straight up. I’m standing real solid and taking it on. It’s time to rock ’n’ roll and spread your legs a little bit, move and rock and come together like people always do.”