Buddha and the Blues is not just an album title. It’s a road map that charts the difficult path Anders Osborne has negotiated since his arrival in New Orleans more than 30 years ago. When he got here, the Swedish-born guitarist was a young adventurer whose imagination was inspired by his seafaring grandfather’s tales of New Orleans. Like so many artists before and since, his move to this city was a kind of Grail quest designed to turn him into a new person, but he had no idea of the trials he would have to endure after experiencing the first flush of ecstasy that greets the unwary traveler. Because New Orleans is and always has been too much of a good thing for those who seek adventure when they come here, it is almost invariably at some point too much for them. Some of them don’t make it out alive. Some have to leave. But some, like the tough-minded, full-hearted and astonishingly gifted Osborne, survive the initiation that brought them here as a seeker and transformed them into a whole person. Remarkably, he has managed to write songs about all the stages he has gone through while he’s been here, from the early days when he sought acceptance into an occult world, through the harrowing moments when he was sucked into a vortex that appeared to have no escape, to the moments of redemption where he’s found his peace, along with his place in the world.
His latest album is an exploration of that peace, recorded in southern California with an all-star band featuring guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Bob Glaub, keyboardist Benmont Tench, backing vocalist Windy Wagner and drummer Chad Cromwell. I sat down with Anders at the OffBeat offices just after the conclusion of Jazz Fest 50.
I was sitting in the lunchroom staring out the window and there’s an old piece of stained glass from somebody’s ruined house hanging in the window. I’ve looked at it a million times without thinking about it. It’s a seascape with the sun rising behind blue ocean waves and as I was looking at it I thought this is the perfect metaphor for “Alone,” the first and last track on the album.
It was a poem. It was just a very quiet poem and I loved it, I had this feeling about it. I was sitting in the back yard and I had a little waterfall in the pool. It was hot. So it was very water based.
Yes. The lyrics are like that. You’re on the boat of your soul—a ship of your mind. Your grandfather was a seaman.
Yeah. It was six generations of merchant marine sailors. I was the one who stopped it. Something’s in there. It comes out in a lot of my lyrics. My grandfather would say things like New Orleans was his favorite place on the planet. Caracas and New Orleans were his two favorite ports. He told me about a bar at the foot of Canal Street. He gave me a little business card. There used to be a dock right there in the quarter in the ’40s. He would stay here for months.
Why did you choose to make two versions of “Alone” on the record?
That was a producer’s decision. My demo version was the anchor song of the whole record. That was the thing I held onto to shape all the other stuff. I needed some intimacy in the vocal. I needed some rocking sound with determination but the vocals needed to be one-on-one. Chad said the song brought that out. We tried that song probably four or five different ways. The original was even more hypnotic and had like a drone-y feel to it when I played it on acoustic. He wanted that, so he said, “Why don’t we close with that as well?”
Did Chad just take control of things or did you consult with him?
It was more singing and writing this time. I’ve been doing a ton of writing the last four or five years. If I didn’t like something, like a couple of songs came out a little too clean, or maybe I would move the keys, but the majority of the production was all Chad. It was a matter of what is it you do best? I had a lot of success with songwriting but not with recording it myself. The recordings hit a ceiling every time. So I thought “What if I hand over the production, instead of it being 60-40 me, it would be 20-80?” And I loved it. It was the first time I would do just a couple of things, that’s my job, and I let him do all the rest.
You’re a producer yourself.
Yeah. I love producing. But when you produce yourself, you get clouded by the idea of who you think you are—because you actually don’t really know who you are. It’s like the old Buddhist saying, “The eye can never see itself.” It basically means you never know who you are but other people show the reflection of who you are. I took that a little more to heart this time. I can produce other people because I see who they are, but I can’t see myself so someone else has to bring out what they think is me.
I lean pretty heavily on my right brain so I use my emotional side much more. It creates a little bit of an off balance, too long maybe, not cleaned up enough to be pleasant for people. I would dirty stuff up on purpose, I would do stuff to create some sort of friction, which I think is partially from my own impatience, and I think there’s a self-deprecating quality I have where I don’t want to look too good, so I would chip myself a little bit.
Did you cut backing tracks?
There was a very short period of tracking. Background vocals all happened there. Windy, she’s an expert at stacking vocals. She and Chad are married and they worked together. I did some piano at my house. Everything moved pretty fast. The guys created an actual sound, which is that guitar sound and that bass approach and that particular drumming. I can hear Chad’s drumming on hit songs and recognize it right away. Everything is so precise. There’s no searching. They just do what they do. Waddy has no pedals, just one custom amp and his old Les Paul, which he’s always had. It’s all in the fingers. That’s all he does. If you need a crazy fuzz you just come into the studio and he has that layered. That helped me not think about production as much. It was pretty smooth. We’re doing the next record in June and they’re all coming here to New Orleans, so we’ll do it one more time, but this time in New Orleans.
I love the chorus on “Fields of Honey.” It’s like reflecting on your sobriety, right?
Yeah. I’ve been married almost 20 years and my wife Sarah keeps bees in our backyard. You don’t set out to be an addict or alcoholic. You don’t think, “Oh, it’s in my family.” I got to a place where I thought, ‘Wow, most of my memories are I did this and that and then we drank. Then I did this and I got drunk. Then I did that and I was high.’ Then you start looking at, ‘Now I have this.’ I started from scratch in my mid-40s, started to learn different social skills, different vocabulary, I had to learn very basic stuff. When you start drinking at 14 or 15 hard, you’re not making any progress. Emotionally, you’re just sitting in place. Every time you feel too much, you do something. The song is a reflection of how I feel like I’ve lost so much and I’m not really sure of what I’ve gained. So I started playing and asking “What do I have?” And the answer is, “I have everything I need and would ever want.” Sobriety is a lot of work because you have to deal with your emotions every friggin’ day. You can’t just say “All right I’m shutting it off.” There’s no “off.” You have to constantly look for the new off switch and from time to time it pisses me off that there’s no off switch.
I’ve been sober 10 years. It’s hard work to be alive. I don’t care about my career at all. It’s a play, acting out that part of your life. What you’re looking for is the right people, inspiration, creativity, beauty, sensitivity in others and yourself. You’re not looking for a career, you’re looking for an experience that fills you with completeness.
The record is very spiritual. Looking back on American Patchwork, and certainly Ash Wednesday Blues and Living Room before that, you were writing a lot about the pain and suffering you were experiencing as you tried to work your way through all this. And now this is more philosophical, an acceptance of your life.
I’m interested in trying to not worry any more. I watch some of my mentors and they have a lightness to them, even if they’re ill. I want to attain some of that feeling.
It’s 30 years since your first record, on Rabadash. How does that record seem to you now?
Very young. Surprisingly, I can hear my style, even though it’s covered up in all my influences. Then on the other hand you can hear my influences on the new one, too. But I think the key thing is the topics: life is strange; love songs, romantic ideas; wondering about my existence. Nothing’s really changed. Looking back, I think I made music based on a much smaller universe, but now I write much more intimately. Now when I write and make music, my thought process is ‘What kind of stuff do people need to hear?’ For my fans and my crowd, who are all now 35 to 75-plus, you’ve got cancer, divorce, addictions, children dying, parents who have died, as opposed to younger concerns like living hard, not making enough money, struggling with what’s going on.
Now my passion is to be the philosopher and poet that spent enough quality time by the window thinking about this and try to voice that for people that don’t have the time to do this, so they can say, “I know I’m not alone in this.” It’s not something I take pride in; it’s more a matter of giving something back, because the gift of music, you think it’s for yourself. As a young man I thought it was an entitlement, I’m good at this. Now I know it’s a gift for me to give to others.
Also I think the boundaries should be moved by the artist, otherwise you’re just an entertainer. An artist will lose his job, his listeners, fans, gonna lose money, relationships, because of the art. If you commit to art you lose a lot of stuff from time to time. It’s part of your job. An entertainer is supposed to provide a little lightness to everyday toil. Each time I made a change in my lineup for the music there was a drop-off in the audience—every time. When I started with Kirk Joseph and Tim Green everybody ragged on me, saying, “What the hell are you doing? You’re a brass band now?” Then when I left Kirk Joseph and Tim Green everyone wanted them to stay in the band.
Taking a different tack, we just finished the 50th Jazz Fest. Do you remember your first Fest?
I got here in ’85 just after the World’s Fair, so the first one was ’86. It was four bucks to get in. The masters of several of the lineages, they were still present. The people I met in the first three years, like Johnny Vidacovich, George Porter, Tommy Ridgley, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King, I truly met and played with them and they were completely embracing. They never asked me where I was from. It never came up.
I started playing Jazz Fest in ’92. I played the Ray Ban stage. They opened the trunk, it was still so small that they literally had a car back stage, and you picked out what sunglasses you wanted. There were no tour buses.
There was one year where we lost power on the Fox/Polaroid stage, it’s called Gentilly now. I It was probably ’96, we performed 40 minutes with no PA, just jumped out to the front of the stage. We were screaming and playing, I grabbed an acoustic, we had an accordion, it was amazing. And everybody stayed. There was one at the Fais Do Do with Johnny Sansone and John Fohl in the pouring rain, it was pretty great. We played “Louisiana Rain.” There was a West African band a year after me and my wife got together. She was pregnant. We kicked off our Birkenstocks and it was dusty as it can get on Congo Square, just clouds of light brown dust, and we danced the whole afternoon.
I played Economy Hall with Kirk in a tribute to his father. I played banjo, and Dave Torkanowsky kept playing my parts on the piano, saying “You’re doing it wrong.” Dirty Dozen in ’88 at the Jazz Tent blew my mind. I could hardly grasp what I was hearing. The notes were balancing in a way I’d never heard before. Many times at Fais Do Do. That’s my favorite stage, just wander there and hang the whole time.
You played a bunch of different gigs during the festival in a lot of different contexts. When you played on the biggest stage, the Acura stage, I was watching you and thinking, ’You came here longing to be part of this thing, this magical Grail that you were seeking to change yourself and become part of, and now you represent it.’ You’re able to tell the crowd, “It’s all Louisiana music today! Isn’t that great?” The voice of authority. And at the other extreme, your show at the Louisiana Music Factory, solo acoustic, was so intimate. At one point in that show you referred to yourself as an old man. And I thought, ‘That’s like your grandfather when he told you about New Orleans.’ Do you feel like a grandfather, sort of, in that now you have the experiences to tell other people about?
I’m not sure I’m a grandfather. What I feel like is there’s room for someone to be something in the music community, from New Orleans. Right now. I think I’m applying for the job.