A Conversation With Anders Osborne July 13, 2016 19:58

Anders Osborne at Lockn' 2015 :: Photo by Brady Cooling Photography

Since we launched Live & Listen in August of 2014, there have been a handful of truly special moments.  We have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of amazing artists, both through interviews and our various benefit shows.  Today was one of those special days, as we had a chance to sit down with Anders Osborne, one of the premier songwriters/guitarists of our time.  Anders spoke with us about his latest studio work, his inspiration from the Grateful Dead, the future of North Mississippi Osborne, Friday night's "Rock The River" in Gadsden, AL, and much more.  

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen 

While you've been recording since the late 80's, it seems like American Patchwork (2009) really propelled you to the next level.  There's so much emotion and explosive guitar playing on that album.  It seems like you've been on the road ever since then.  What all went into this album and how have things evolved since then?

Anders:  I think that was the beginning of my sober life.  That was a huge catalyst, you know what I mean?  It really swung me into a whole different way of approaching everything.  First of all, there is more time to be creative when you're not drinking and using all of the time (laughs).  I think I got a lot more prolific and a lot more focused.  So I think since American Patchwork, I've just felt a lot more inspired to do better and write more honest music; to try to respect the writing process and the music as a whole more.  I'm really, really excited about making music, which for a long time, it was more of a byproduct of my other lifestyle, if you know what I'm saying.  I think that's the main reason and the difference.  Does that make sense? 

Definitely.  I didn't realize that, but it makes a lot of sense now. That record was co-produced by Stanton Moore (Galactic) and your first with Alligator Records, right?

Anders: Yes.  Stanton has been a huge pillar in my new life, so to speak.  He just has a great work ethic, and he's a really dear friend.  I've known him since he was 17-years-old.  We've become very close friends.  We also brought in Pepper Keenan, from Corrosion of Conformity and Down.  He's a good friend of ours, and he helped co-produce a nice portion of that record as well.  

Gotcha.  Stanton has been involved in some of the albums since then, right?

Anders: Yes.  Stanton has, but Pepper hasn't.  Pepper and I have played some live shows, but as far as making records, Stanton has been involved with one album since then.  I've mixed things up a bit on the others.

Watch Anders Osborne perform at Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in February 2016 here:

So while we're on the topic of recording, you obviously released Spacedust & Ocean Views in March of this year.  What was your approach with this album, and was there anything you did differently this time around?

Anders: Oh yeah.  First of all, I had a lot of songs.  So I had been writing for quite some time, and I think at the time I probably had over 80 songs.  When we recorded it, we decided to start at the beginning of the new moon, which back then was October 22nd.  The energy was really nice.  I hadn't done that before.  It's a very strong, positive energy with the New Moon.  We did that, and I had a lot of songs.  We just kept pounding as much as we could over about three weeks.  That new moon period though, the first five or six days, that's the record.  Anything that came after that is something that became like skeletons for the next record, which will be coming pretty soon.  Basically, that first week, that new moon recording, that's what you're hearing.  Out of 35 tracks, twelve seemed to fit together pretty well, so we kept those. It's also a little bit more ambience-oriented.  It has more of a sunset, mellow vibe.  

Wow.  Was the approach with the new moon something you had set out to do?

Anders: It wasn't on purpose, to be honest with you.  It was a very meditative and contemplated move for that week.  That first night we came in, we cut three tracks and those are the tracks that start the album.  "Pontchartrain" is the first song we recorded.  The second one was "Don't Last That Long," and I think the third one was...what song was it?  It's another really mellow one...maybe "Cape Cod"?  It was all in one night.  It's a very mellow, peaceful time during the new moon.  You should check it out.  Start reading a book on the new moon and see what happens.  

That's not a bad idea.  I need to make more time for reading, so I'll definitely keep that in mind.

Anders: (laughs) Yeah man.  Let me know.

Photo by ShowLove Media

I know you began playing guitar at an early age.  When you think back on being a kid and learning to play, who were you listening to?  Who do you feel had the biggest influence on helping you develop your sound?

Anders: I listen to a lot of music.  I think that the main influence for me really was the variety of music that I listen to.  I listened to Cannonball Adderley, Ry Cooder, and Bob Marley.  I listened to Led Zeppelin and Kiss.  Then there was Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  Van Morrison came a little bit later.  My mom was into Van Morrison, so she and I would have fun with that.  My dad introduced me to Art Blakey.  A lot of classical music.  I love sentimental music in general; very atmospherey stuff.  

I think when it comes to guitar, the very original shaping of how I got started with the guitar, I think it was Ry Cooder.  In terms of songwriting, believe it or not, it was probably Joni Mitchell.  Those two things created something that I can't quite explain.  I think some of her odd tunings and Ry Cooder's depressive style...I think those two factors together were a big thing for me.  I think John Coltrane played a major role too.  Eventually, that led to kind of the rawness of Neil Young; that electric factor.  The songwriting of Bob Dylan was probably my biggest influence.  

So, you've been known to cover the Grateful Dead in recent years. I know you have a nice history with Phil Lesh; most recently as a member of the Terrapin Allstars last month.  I remember you and Luther (Dickinson) playing "Black Muddy River" for the JamBase feature last summer.  At what point in your life were you introduced to the Dead, and what type of impact has their music had on you? 

Anders: The first introduction I had to the Grateful Dead was probably 1986.  I lived in California for a minute.  I guess I lived out there for about 8 or 10 months.  "Black Muddy River" was the first Dead song I ever heard.  It came on the radio, and I was driving North of Santa Barbara in a place called Santa Ynez Valley, where I was working at the time.  That was the first time, and I think that was the release of...what's the "Touch of Grey" record called?

I think "Touch of Grey" was from In The Dark, right?

Anders: In The Dark!  That's it.  The one with all of the eyes on the cover.  After that, I never really heard anymore. There was about a month where they were playing "Touch of Grey" and "Black Muddy River" on the radio.  Then about five or six years ago, a friend of mine from New Orleans named Billy Iuso started playing with me and jamming it out.  He's a huge Grateful Dead fan.  He would cover a couple of tunes when he was playing with me, so I started to scratch at the catalog a bit and realized how cool and different they were.  It's hard to explain.  They have such a unique, beautiful sound.  

I think the real introduction was honestly when Phil (Lesh) invited me to come play with him for a week.  I think that was the early part of 2013.  So that was only a little over three years ago.  Once I dove into that, we did a full tour, and he gave me 196 songs to learn.  Once I got that going, I honestly have to say that I think it has changed me pretty drastically.  I wouldn't say that I'm trying to make Grateful Dead music, but I think I've opened my horizons quite a bit, as far as how to compose songs.  Just like Dylan did when I was young, I think that the Grateful Dead showed me that you can change and transpose keys within the keys.  The minor / major progressions...odd times...odd meters...all of that stuff.  Not a lot of people do that unless they're doing prog rock.  Grateful Dead doesn't really do it with these simple themes. They change it from one verse to the next.  It's very, very unique, and it was liberating to learn that.  It's been a huge influence ever since.


Watch Anders Osborne & Luther Dickinson perform "Black Muddy River" here:

That's amazing.  I was fortunate enough to discover the Grateful Dead as a really young kid by accident.  I picked up Skeletons From The Closet at the CD store by pure luck.  I really got hooked as a young kid, and the next thing I knew I was listening to that album in the shower before school everyday.  It's one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I can only imagine the effect it has as a musician.  

Anders: (laughs) That's so awesome!  It's really, really unique.  Some of the beauty of what they do is they come with this bearing approach to every show. They have lots of big mistakes.  Actually, I wouldn't even call them mistakes.  They're just searching.  It's very similar to the jazz approach.  Coltrane will search and search and search, so I understood the idea of trying new things while you're standing on stage.  It doesn't have to be pre-worked out.  Now, they're more arranged than you think.  It's not like New Orleans.  In New Orleans, we have a great groove, and we stick to a format, so to speak, of a core progression or something; whether it's trad jazz, R&B, funk, or something like that.  The Grateful Dead have this extended progression of chord changes.  It opens up things differently.  It's a different way of improvising that is really beautiful.  I love it.  

Me too.  There is nothing like it.  I was lucky enough to get to go to Soldier Field last summer.  I'm 29-years-old, so Jerry died when I was eight.  I was too young to experience the real Grateful Dead.  It was really special to experience the magic that The Dead can bring to a city for a full weekend. 

Anders: That's so wonderful.  I love it man.

Anders Osborne and Phil Lesh at The Capitol Theatre in 2013 :: Photo by Dino Perucci

In addition to the experience with Phil Lesh, you've had the opportunity to collaborate and share the stage with some amazing guitarists such as Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Tab Benoit, Luther Dickinson, and so on.  Do you have any specific memories from playing with these guys that really stand out?

Anders: Well, I think think they're all special.  The people you just mentioned.  They're really on top of their game; all of these guys.  Tab is an incredible singer and not just a guitar player, but the way he trajects and demands attention in his songs, which is a rare quality to be that strong.  Derek has really taken his guitar playing to a phenomenal level.  He is so devoted to expressing himself on that guitar.  It's very rare.  Warren Haynes is one of the most well-rounded, complete guitar players out there.  It's just fantastic.  Luther is just this really unique, in the moment expert.  He is very, very fluid at responding to what's happening.  He's almost like a fluttering butterfly; musically on guitar.  He's just constantly searching, moving, looking, finding, responding. 

So I think in terms of specific memory, playing with all of them stands out.  One in particular must be the first time Luther and I played together at Tipitina's.  I'd never played with him before, and he came straight from one of those riverboat gigs.  He ran up and jumped on stage, and we just had the most magical gig.  It was fantastic.  There was great energy, and we booked a tour right after that just so we could play some more.  I think that stands out as a phenomenal moment.  

I think that Maddog & the Englishmen with Warren and Derek last summer was a really fantastic experience.  There's a lot of them.  Me and Tab have played together for so many years. There's more than I can mention here.  Being a guitar tech for Albert King was pretty fun too (laughs).

North Mississippi Osborne seemed to be a huge hit.  Everyone is obviously busy with multiple projects.  What do you see the future holding for NMO?

Anders: I think me and Luther are going to try to get together and co-write.  The last record was all of my songs.  So, I think what we're hoping to do is get together, co-write a little bit, and mix it up and see if we can continue the evolution of the band. So yeah, probably sometime in the next year, depending on scheduling.  Both of us are pretty booked up.  I'm booked up almost through next JazzFest.  This will probably have to be next summer or next fall.  We're been talking about it.  We're in contact and trying to figure out how we can start writing and all of that.  

Listen to North Mississippi Osborne's full length EP "Freedom & Dreams" here:


A lot of people will be looking forward to that.  So you've obviously been able to watch and experience the evolution of modern music first hand.  In my lifetime alone, I can remember the progression from tapes, CDs, mp3s, and ultimately the world of iTunes & Spotify.  How has the new world of digital music affected you, and what would your advice be to a young, aspiring musician of this era?

Anders: I think that the streaming, especially some of the big companies doing the streaming, I think it has changed the landscape so much that honestly...I have to think about it for a minute.  It's hard to come up with one specific bit of advice, because so much of our income and business model has been taken away.  We're not selling records anymore.  We used to sell thousands of records.  Now, you have to scramble.  You can't get any budget for records.  You have to do it yourself.  

I think my advice to a young musician would be to make sure to surround yourself with a few people that are doing better at what you're aspiring to do.  Make sure you have a peer group where some people are teaching you something, so that you have a nice mixture.  That will bring you forward.  On a practical level, I think it's really important that you find a basic way to do some of your recording at home, because there is less money in the music industry, specifically in sales.   

If you go into the studio and make a record today, I think the model is to maybe not spend all of the time in studio.  You're actually going to track some stuff, get some great sounds, and then maybe do some of the extra spice and sauce and overdubs at your house.  That way you can save money.  I would also say that the thing that has worked for me the most over the years has been to take up residency in one place, even if it's just for a year or so.  If you play regularly in one club, you work up your chops.  You get sort of a venue that fits what you're doing. You make sure that you pick the right venue for yourself.  If you work really hard to develop your identity, your feel, and your songs, it will teach you what the audience responds to.  So that's on the live side.  Otherwise, just have fun as much as possible. Make sure that you enjoy it, because it's supposed to give people joy.

Absolutely.  That's what it's all about, first and foremost.  If you don't love what you do, you'll never live up to your full potential. 

Anders: Yeah.  I've found myself in a situation many times where I'm not having fun, and it reflects not only the music, but you can't do a good job and perform right if you're not really happy doing it.  So, figure out what bothers you, and see if you can correct it.

Amen.  That's great advice man.  So, just one more thing.  This Friday, you're coming to Gadsden, Alabama for the annual "Rock the River" event.  You've obviously played all types of gigs: clubs, theaters, major festivals, as well as these community events.  What makes an event like this so unique,  and how does it's appeal differ from that of the big theater shows and festival spots? 

Anders: I think that these types of gigs are more about the event themselves, and not necessarily just about me and my band.  It becomes about getting together.  We're going to be on the banks of the river.  It's going to be a beautiful setting.  People are going to come out and bring their kids.  They're going to have a beautiful gathering with friends and family, and then I'm going to be performing my stuff.  The band is going to rock out and give you guys a beautiful sunset.  I think that these things are kind of the bread and butter of a grassroots work environment.  You've gotta do a lot of this stuff, I think.  You can't just play the high profile theaters and major tours all of the time. We have something in New Orleans called "Wednesdays at The Square," which is at Lafayette Square downtown.  It's a free event and thousands of people come out after work.  It's one of my all-time favorite gigs.  It's just such a beautiful event.  This feels kind of similar.  

Very true.  This type of event brings out a different audience than that of one of your standard shows.  It gives a lot of new people the opportunity to experience your music, which is a beautiful thing. 

Anders: Exactly.  Some people may not like it, but they're going to stick around anyway, get some drinks, and have a good time (laughs).  We'll see what happens.  You'll be there, so bring your dancing shoes man.