Anders Osborne’s status as a musician in recovery is well known. In many of his songs he’s dealt with the spiritual and emotional issues related to the journey back. But there’s another, nitty-gritty side to the process: He’s a musician, and musicians have to work. Which of course means going straight back to the clubs where the old temptations flow. That’s the idea behind his newly founded Send Me a Friend Foundation, named for one of his most-loved songs and co-sponsored by CAN’d Aid Foundation, the non-profit arm of, ironically enough, the Oskar Blues Brewery. The simple goal is to provide real-time support for newly clean people in the music world, so they can get back to their art and their livelihood. The program launches December 15 at John Bukaty’s Studio and Gallery at 841 Carondelet Street (the night before his two-night Holiday Spectacular at Tipitina’s). The benefit will include an intimate performance along with a talk and Q&A session.
Osborne has managed to do his best work since cleaning up, and to work at a faster pace than ever. His cause nowadays is making sure that others get the same chance.
So tell me how this foundation came about.
We are still very much at the birth of this, and trying to listen to as many people as possible, with a lot more experience than me, to get it just right. The idea is that when you get out of rehab and start the process of sobriety in any way, shape or form—you’re trying not to get loaded anymore, but you’re struggling with being able to go back to work. So you’re a musician, sound engineer, a roadie, a dancer, whatever. We’re trying to provide a databank or a source, with lots of people we’re calling the friends, so someone can be with you during the performance part. We’re having a hotline they can call, and they can use it when they set up tours. If you’re playing a gig on Bourbon Street, or you’re a lighting guy in Columbus, Ohio, you can call this number.
So it’s not affiliated with a particular recovery process?
I used AA and NA when I got sober, but it doesn’t have to be about that. We just want to get music industry people back to work. What they tell you is that you should take a year off as you get deeper into recovery. And I remember thinking, what does that mean? Do you tell doctors this? You’re telling someone to just change their job. There is still a little bit of preconceived idea that this is almost like a hobby, that you’re doing this because you’re playing around and having fun. I was in foreclosure, facing bankruptcy—so I’m about to lose my house, and you want me to find a new profession? I was really floored by that.
To me it meant that I could go to a seven dollar an hour dishwashing gig, or I could continue to make decent money and take care of my family. To do that I have to go back to music, which I’ve dedicated 30 years of my life to. So we are not taking people to meetings, not exchanging phone numbers, not doing any of that. The idea is more like ‘just got clean, it’s me and my trumpet, and now I have to go back to the 504 Club.’ You may need someone to take the alcohol out of your rider, for example. It’s not just for famous people, because they can get all the help they want.
You began working the clubs again soon after your recovery. How much of a challenge was that?
A lot of the things I’d done, I did so much they were habitual. It wasn’t just the addiction part, it was the habits. Right before the gig I’d have a drink. When I talk to people, I’d have the drink between me and the people I talk to, so we’d have the distance. So many things come with the drink. The biggest struggle I had was that everybody was not aware of the fact I was trying to be clean. So old friends may set up a tray with shots and send it to the bandstand—that would happen. And in my case I had to start from scratch. I had killed my career to the point where I was playing for the tip jar at Chickie Wah Wah on Tuesdays. And in the beginning you don’t have a lot of leverage, so people are in your face—I had a girl drop drugs in my hand when I was onstage; there’s a lot of that stuff. So I enjoyed it when people from AA would just come and sit at the shows, it felt good that they were there with me.
Were you able to avoid slipping back?
Yeah, I’ve stayed clean this entire time, so I was lucky. I did pick up some bad food habits. I gained some weight, ate a lot of sugar. So I found a mild substitute, which I’ve now gotten off of. Plus I was pretty public about my stuff. Not everybody has my attitude or my approach to recovery—I was spreading the word, basically putting up the radar. That gave me strength and it made people start helping me out.
You were pretty public even before cleaning up. A song like “Soul Livin’” [from Ash Wednesday Blues] where you talk about going on a bender, seeing a prostitute and going to a clinic afterwards—if a song was going to make me want to clean up, that would be the one.
Yeah, those songs started coming out when I realized I was not doing too well. I was still using a lot, but somewhere in that period I realized I needed to be very honest in my songwriting, I couldn’t just write them in a general way. Maybe not always confessional, but telling somebody about yourself, whether it’s a love song or one like that. That was really when I started finding my voice. At that time I would try to stay clean and I would last a few months or a year. That went hand in hand with my personality and character flaws and my shortcomings.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you tried to clean up a couple times before you were successful. What was it that finally went right?
I’m trying not to sound trite or whatever, but it was definitely some kind of divine intervention. Something different happens, this time the coin dropped in the machine and the candy came out. I got it, it fell through, I could see this whole thing dropping in my soul. The whole tape started to play out where I could see all the shit I had done, I couldn’t stop it from playing in my head. It was devastating, appalling. A cathartic and a huge experience. It was clearly time for me to see who I was, and I was not well. I was not a pleasant man, I was very selfish. Probably still am, but I’m working on it.
What about your band and your crew—do you allow them to be indulgers?
Yeah, of course, but it depends on how they drink. If they drink or get high on the gig, which means before they go up—I’m past that and I’m really not interested in having it happen. If someone I work with smokes a lot of weed, that doesn’t bother me, but they need to be there if we’re catching a flight. And I know how that works because I‘d miss flights seven times out of ten.
Do you think there’s a particular need to form something like Send Me a Friend in New Orleans?
I don’t think the need is higher here than anywhere else. There is a good drinking culture here. I’ve been here 34 years and these are the best partiers I know. They know how to handle themselves, know how to do it for extended times and still make it home. It’s sort of the Mediterranean way of drinking, a slower, longer process. But the addiction process is the same anywhere in the world. This is one of the more open-minded environments I’ve ever been in. I haven’t experienced too much prejudice here on any topic. I think this is just part of what we do: We drink, we get addicted, and then we figure out how to stop being hooked. We love all the things that New Orleans gives us, and this [the foundation] is one of those. I think it helps us in a music town to set an example.
I know how destructive it became, but was there ever a time when the drugs and alcohol helped you play?
It helped my insecurities. But that had nothing to do with music, that was a different entity. Music was there at ten in the morning, and I wasn’t getting fucked up then. But then there’s insecurity and peer pressure, especially when you’re getting up onstage—how many people can really do that? So you’re creating a very self-conscious situation, and I needed help with that. But you need to separate that from the music. Take the fact that Louis Armstrong was doing weed—that was recreational, but the music itself required endless amounts of work and dedication. I think of a guy like Stanton Moore—I’ve never seen a guy work more at his craft than him, it’s all he ever does. He spends countless hours perfecting the best thing in his life. So musicians really have more experience than most people do.
Once you didn’t have alcohol to take care of those insecurities, what did?
I think repetition, I just had to keep doing it. There were small victories early on, like it took 10 or 12 gigs before I figured out how to be centered. I honestly couldn’t remember which leg I used to stand on. Was it the left or the right? Did I used to look at the audience? Am I too loud here? All those things were going on when I got back to playing. And then there was a moment when I realized, okay, I can stand on both feet—that was really the beginning.
I assume your sobriety has something to do with the pace you’ve been working at lately, with three albums in the past year and a half.
Yeah, I think so—and I’m making two more in December, if that answers your question. The idea is that I want to make two records in two days. It sprung from the necessity of today, because it’s harder to sell actual hard copies. We used to sell anywhere from 10 to 40,000, you’d move some records, stay alive. That has been eradicated by the new streaming phenomenon. So me and the engineer Mark Howard said, what if we approach it like documentation, but still with the idea that they are going to be world-class recordings. You do all the prep work and you are very concise about the execution, go see if you can get a masterpiece in a day. That is the idea. Musically I think it will have a more driving rhythm section. Bass, drums and my guitar are going to try and lock into something that is more pulsating and has a driving tempo—not a loop, but hypnotically driving forward. Instead of keyboards, I am going to have two background singers do the shaping with just vocal parts. The lyrics are based on my family, where a lot of the women have passed away. So it is about the strength of the women—my mother, grandmother and my aunts, seeing if I can tell their story. So that’s one of the albums. The second is going to be a completely different thing, but I want to keep that one a surprise.