When Anders Osborne and Theresa Andersson traded their small Decatur Street apartment for a roomier place near the City Park end of Esplanade, they were pleased to discover that they had moved, quite literally, into a community of local musicians.
Rod Hodges from the Iguanas lives just up the street. Rockabilly artist Johnny J is around the corner, and Beth McKee, from Evangeline, is nearby.
But they are much more satisfied with their figurative, more subtle move over the past year into the music community as a whole.
When they set out to play music in New Orleans after arriving from Sweden four years ago, they were treated politely enough, but had trouble overcoming the perception of them as interlopers from elsewhere. Having no local references, they had to start from scratch, proving themselves and trying to build an audience even as they matured as musicians. Anders wrote songs, played slide guitar and sang; Theresa sang and played fiddle, both in Anders’ band and, later, in front of her own jazz combo, Theresa Andersson’s Jazz Bag.
In the past year, they agree, they have finally felt the embrace of the music community. “It’s a really nice feeling,” says Anders, “to actually hear locals who grew up here and know this city say, ‘Yes, we accept you. You’ve got your own thing, and we like you for what you are.'”
Even as their music moves further away from New Orleans stylistically, they seem to be more and more in sync with the rhythm of life as a Big Easy musician. Throughout May and June, they kept a low profile locally, playing in Texas, Florida and Tennessee on the weekends. (“After the Jazz Fest, you want to get out of town for a few weeks,” Osborne reasons. “No one wants to see you after playing so much.”) One particularly festive night, Theresa, Anders and some friends from Stockholm closed out The Dungeon, in the French Quarter—which doesn’t even open until midnight (later that morning, Anders would forget both his guitar and Theresa at Checkpoint Charlie’s). And, in early June, some of the band’s equipment was stolen from Anders’ van while it was parked in front of his house—an unfortunate rite of passage for local musicians in the City That Crime Has Not Forgot.
The simultaneous release, just before Jazz Fest, of Anders’ second album, Break the Chain, and Theresa’s first, Vibes (both on the local Rabadash Records label), should secure their place in the local music pantheon. Anders’ Little Feat-by-way-of-the-bayou roots rock and slide-guitar playing have developed noticeably—and his songwriting has improved dramatically—since his Osborne Orchestra debut four years ago. And Theresa’s seductive vocal jazz should solidify her status as an artist in her own right.
Creating and releasing two records at once strained the Anders/Theresa camp to the limit, financially and physically. Especially Anders, who produced Theresa’s disc and co-produced his own, and John Autin, who both owns Rabadash and plays keyboards in Osborne’s band (“He’s my boss when it comes to sales and record promotion,” says Anders, “but on the road, I’m his boss. It gets kind of funny sometimes”). Says Autin, “We were in the studio 18 hours a day for two months. My whole life and Anders’ whole life just stopped.”
But the strategy has worked, aesthetically and commercially.
Break the Chain and Vibes are natural complements of one another. It is Andersson’s fiddle melody that gives his “Time” its singular hook, and her vocals accent his material. And it was Anders’ attentive production that allowed Theresa’s voice to shine throughout Vibes.
Jazz Fest gave them both a big boost. Consequently, more than half of Vibes‘ initial pressing of 1,000 is gone; all 1,000 copies of Break the Chain were gone in less than a month. “Normally,” says Autin, “a thousand records lasts me a year.”
Most of those sales were local. But other markets are starting to open up. Osborne logs some 150 dates on the road annually. According to Rabadash’s Director of Promotions, Ruth Carlton, a handful of adult alternative album stations around the country have put Break the Chain in rotation. And, she says, Anders and Theresa have great word-of-mouth in the industry. “Anders has a lot of fans that seem to be influential—not necessarily the decision-makers, but a lot of people are rooting for him.”
The couple at the center of all this activity has managed to pull off the tricky task of maintaining a personal, as well as professional, relationship. “Normally it’s a disaster when you have people that are socially involved in the same band,” says Autin. “Anders and Theresa just groove. They work well together, they play well together, they fight well together. It’s a pleasure to work with them in that situation, which is really unusual.”
A delicate balance of egos has been essential. “There was a time when Anders was concerned about Theresa taking over the show with the Anders Osborne band,” says Autin. “But I think he’s grown past that. He lets her shine in that band too—he lets her highlight his music instead of being concerned about her taking over the show.”
Their familiarity with one another gives them an inside track onstage. “I’ve been playing with him for almost five years, so I can pretty much read what he wants to do,” says Theresa of working with her fiancée. A new player, it might take him a while to get into the same head as what Anders is doing.
“I don’t know if there are any big disadvantages for me. Sometimes I wish I could be a little more by myself.
“But then again,” she says to Anders one afternoon in their apartment, “I couldn’t imagine having a relationship if I would have my own band, and you would have your band, and we would be traveling—we would never see each other.”
Anders Osborne was born in a small town on the western coast of Sweden, to parents of French gypsy and Nordic extraction (his gypsy blood is evident, says Theresa, in his quick temper, and his passion; his stoic Nordic side, in his poker-faced dealings with the snake during the OffBeat cover shoot). His family moved to the Swedish isle of Gotland, where Theresa was born and raised, when he was seven. His father had worked as a professional drummer before moving to the island; one of his old kits became Anders’ first musical toy.
Coming of age in the late ’70s, little Anders and his friends were tuned in to the same bands as their American counterparts: Kiss, early ZZ Top, British glam rockers Sweet. He survived a punk phase, during which he pierced his cheek with a safety pin and wore his hair close-cropped; he and his mates bashed along with the Sex Pistols blaring in the background.
His tastes eventually mellowed to Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the Eagles. While in his early teens, he put together a trio, the Barefoot Band, that wrote its own folk-pop and rock. They gained a certain degree of local notoriety, with a serious-minded teenage Anders on drums. “This is really ridiculous.” Osborne says, laughing at the memory. “We had an interview, and the most profound thing we could say was, ‘Well, we don’t want to be like these stars overnight. We want to work hard and go the long way, pay our dues.’ And here I am 13 years later—not that long.”
The Barefoot Band did eventually release a handful of pop singles, and attracted a bit of a following (a young Theresa Andersson caught one of the band’s shows at an evening music festival on Gotland, but wouldn’t meet her future fiancée until years later).
Just out of high school, the 18-year-old Anders was broadsided by a powerful wanderlust. He awoke one Tuesday to the realization that his low-paying job on the island was not his life’s destiny. Thus, on Wednesday night, he told his mates in the Barefoot Band goodbye. On Thursday, he withdrew his modest savings and caught a ferry to the mainland, kicking off several years of international roaming.
He and his acoustic guitar took a train into Germany, and then hitchhiked to a winter in France. Over the next four years, he lived in Thailand, Israel and California, but would always make it home to Sweden for a couple of months in the summer. Back on Gotland in the summer of ’89, he met Theresa Andersson.
Theresa’s mother played piano and accordion, so there was music around the house, as at the Osborne residence. But unlike Anders, who taught himself drums and guitar (the guitar instructor at his school told Anders to forget about ever playing guitar, because his hands were too small), Theresa received an early musical education. She was disappointed that she was made to take violin lessons in school, instead of flute or guitar like her friends.
She made the most of her skills. She and two other girls formed a trio that entertained at parties and private functions. After winning an annual Gotland island talent contest—for this, her first experience with amplified singing, she chose a classical guitar piece adapted from The Deerhunter—the 12-year-old was hooked on the roar of the crowd.
She never went through a rebellious stage of her own—the closest she came was dying her bangs blue at one point—but at 16, with her required nine years of regular Swedish schooling completed, she enrolled in a music school for two years. Taking voice lessons introduced her to vocal jazz. A stint with a jazz big band followed, and then she started a pop show band. The 17-year-old sang and danced and co-wrote much of the group’s material with drummer Jorgen Ringqvist (who would one day play on Anders’ first album). The group played in Belgium, France and Canada before it fell apart, leaving her with no immediate musical options. And that is when she met Anders.
When Anders returned to Sweden each summer for his sabbatical from globetrotting, he would piece together a local band to make a bit of money while in town. Early in the summer of ’89, an old friend of Anders introduced him to his girlfriend, a striking blonde who sang and played violin. As Anders recalls, “I said, ‘Well, I don’t really need a back-up vocalist, but a violin would be cool.'” And so Theresa joined his band, and by the end of the summer, they were a couple, her old boyfriend a thing of the past.
When the summer was over, Osborne was eager to return to his most recent home in America, New Orleans. He invited Theresa to join him. “He was basically telling me that that was where he wanted to be,” says Theresa. “He did not like it back in Sweden—it was getting toward fall and winter, and it was getting cold. I had just quit school that year, and there were no jobs around, not enough musical jobs—it was pretty boring.”
“Our relationship was so young,” says Anders of the way he persuaded her to move across the ocean with him, “that it was like, ‘Why don’t you go with me and give it a try? If you don’t like it, you can go back.’ We never talked about what we wanted to do in the future. Just one day, and then the next day.”
Theresa, naturally, was a bit nervous that she wouldn’t like her new, tropical hometown. Cultivating an awareness of urban crime was an adjustment for the Swedish country girl, “But after being here, I really liked it. This was like a new world opening up, a new adventure, and being with Anders is what I wanted to do.”
Anders had first come to New Orleans to visit a friend he met in Yugoslavia. During that stay, he was not active in the music business, preferring to work odd jobs, hang out and socialize in a city that does leisure so well. After a few months, he moved to California for a year of introspection and songwriting, then returned to Sweden and hooked up with Theresa.
When he came back to New Orleans with Theresa, it was time to get serious about music. He had bought a pair of electric guitars from John Autin’s Rock ‘N Roll Music. A few weeks later, he returned to the store with a demo, hoping Autin could get it to uber-producer Daniel Lanois. A Swedish record company wanted Anders to do a record, and he thought the man who produces U2 might be right for the job. Lanois passed on the project, but Autin was suitably impressed with Anders’ songwriting, suggested himself as a producer, and was accepted.
The Osborne Orchestra’s self-titled first album was recorded in New Orleans and Sweden. It contains some memorable melodies, but most of the lyrics were plainly autobiographical. Three cuts—”Doin’ Fine,” “Louisiana Rain” and “I Will Surely Do the Same Again”—specifically discuss how happy Osborne was about having traded the Nordic cold for the New Orleans heat.
While working on the record in Sweden, Autin sat in with Anders on a few gigs, and decided, upon arriving back in the States, to quit George Porter Jr.’s band to play with Anders. Autin also released Osborne Orchestra locally through his small Rabadash label.
With a record out and Autin’s connections, Osborne and company scored some good gigs—Theresa’s first show with the band after arriving in town was opening for Earl King at Tipitina’s—but they endured many lonely nights, and Anders found it difficult to keep a band—and momentum—going.
“It was like when we won the [Audubon Zoo’s] Jazz Search in 1992,” says Anders. “We thought, ‘Oh great, we’re doing well. This is looking great.’ Couple of months after that, it was over. We couldn’t get people to come out. People got really excited for a little bit, curious, and then, ‘Well, you’re still this newcomer,’ or they didn’t like my style, or whatever it was—they checked it out, and then backed off.”
With Autin’s urging, Anders and Theresa began performing as a duo, first on Bourbon Street, then at Checkpoint Charlie’s. They earned a regular Tuesday night slot there, and began to attract attention. Eventually, they phased in their full band, which now includes Autin, bassist Marvin Williams and drummer Michael Messer.
“It’s taken us another two years to build our following, to find our people, and have the people find us. If you’re John Thomas Griffith, and you’ve spent many years here, you’ve got your friends. If you’re an outsider, you have no one—you don’t get one person to show up unless you’ve proven you are alright. So it takes a little longer.”
Theresa Andersson had proven herself as a key member of Anders’ band. But she was still just a member of his band.
“I felt like I needed to strengthen my own identity. Regardless of what happens with me, he’s still going to have his songwriting and his band, and he can always get another back-up singer. I really like the unit, and I think people want to see us…”
“You complement me tremendously,” interrupts Anders. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.”
“I think that people see us as a strong band,” continues Theresa. “But I felt that I needed to front a band too. I can’t do it in [Anders] band. So I started doing a jazz duo thing with John [Autin] at the Mid-City Bowling Alley, and that evolved.”
Two years ago, when the solo gigs started, Autin had wanted Theresa to do a record, but she didn’t feel she was ready. “And I wasn’t sure about putting standards on an album, because they had been done so much…it’s a tough thing to approach. But I liked the way I had been performing them, and I wanted to somehow document what I’d been doing.”
What started early this year as a demo project evolved into a full-blown recording. For Vibes, she selected a cohesive batch of standards from her repertoire, and personalized them—tacking a Swedish vocal melody that she had carried in her head for years to the beginning and end of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” adding an accordion to
“Bluesette” because “that’s a real summer song in Sweden, a waltz, dancing-by-the-lake thing.” She didn’t do just jazz standards, since her own tastes are more varied. “Missin’ You,” an Anders original (Andersson’s angelic voice is accompanied only by Marvin Williams’ big-belly tuba, the soft, sweet call of Tom Fisher’s clarinet and Osborne’s dirge-like rhythm on bass drum and tambourine), and “Brian’s Ballad,” written by Osborne and guitarist Brian Seeger, found their way onto the record, too. And Joni Mitchell, one of Theresa’s main inspirations, is represented with “Carey,” one of the first songs Theresa learned on guitar.
Her voice and phrasing draw comparisons to the jazz-pop of Rickie Lee Jones. “That’s what I think she should do—lean toward that whole field,” says Anders.
“It would probably be more commercial,” says Theresa. “I mean, I think that [Vibes] is something that’s really nice, [but] I don’t think you can make a career out of doing jazz standards.”
“You can,” counters her producer. “You can do anything you want to.”
John Autin had also been after Anders for a year or two to do a follow-up album for Rabadash. Anders was reluctant to commit—he had turned down other independent label offers, holding out for a major-label deal. Autin says he told Anders, “‘That’s going to happen someday, but it’s time to make another record.’ When Anders decided to do it, I wanted to jump on it, because I didn’t want him to change his mind.”
Osborne went into this project with a different song selection philosophy than the first time around. “The first CD was a lot calmer than our live performances,” he says. “It was really mellow—it takes six songs before it even starts.
“[This time] we wanted to have something that people could pick up after the show and say, ‘Yeah, this is what I saw.'”
“If you’ve seen us live,” continues Theresa, “you can put Break the Chain on and it is the same band. But there’s also a couple of bonus tracks on here that I like that we don’t really do live because they might be a little slow. ‘Break the Chain’ is a gorgeous song, but live, it doesn’t do the same, because people are in a party mood.”
Besides the title cut, “Heaven By Seven” and the Van Morrison cover, “Stoned Me,” are the sole representatives of this side of Anders.
“We wanted to put something together that represents what we do live,” says Anders. “It’s not too artsy, because that’s where I would go—I would go more toward working with the ambiance and atmosphere and try to be more studio creative.”
“What you have is you are a songwriter,” says Theresa to Anders. “People mention you, they talk about you as a guitar player, but what you are is a songwriter, right?”
“I would hope so, but people might not think they are good.
“I get a lot of this ‘slide guitar ace.’ I don’t see myself as a guitar player. I play guitar but I do it to accompany [my songs].”
Likewise, Theresa only plays violin on a few songs, but is often pegged as a violinist instead of a singer. “I was trying to get work singing, and people kept hiring me for violin. It felt real odd to me that I got all that attention for violin.”
“You have a young, good-looking girl, blonde…it sticks out,” says Anders. “Like the slide playing—it’s different. Like our background, being from Sweden—you can’t really get away from these things. And it’s OK. You just accept it.
“I left Sweden 10 years ago, and I’m still ‘this guy from Sweden,'” laughs Osborne. “It’s going to be with me forever.”
“That’s what people need sometimes to remember somebody,” says Theresa. “They need that little different thing.”
The Anders and Theresa story is, indeed, a little different.
With the majors sniffing around, Anders and Theresa may soon move to the next level. “We just have to be persistent, and confident, and believe in ourselves. As long we keep getting a crowd and keep working…”
“If somebody says, ‘I caught you two years ago.’ ‘You’ve got to come see me now.'”