Breaking the Fence with Anders Osborne


Prior to the release of his 17th studio album, Picasso’s Villa, I talked with Anders Osborne, the Swedish-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist who has received wide acclaim and become a household name during his 40 years of making music in New Orleans. We met in City Park, where Osborne takes a meditative walk every morning, and discussed his new songs, his mentorship and friendship with Dr. John, and (ever so briefly) quantum physics.


I started listening to the album first with the previously-released single, “Bewildered,” and one of the main lines is “bewildered by love and fear.” And that particular lyric struck me. I really just wanted to see if you could expand on that because it feels to me like such an anchor for the rest of the music.
Love and fear, bewildered by love and fear… well, with the song itself, the first line came out when I was just kinda playing on the guitar and the lick came out in the verse part, and the first line was, “I remember in the early ‘80s…” So I started that process of going, OK, what do I remember? And then once I ran out of memory I started Googling, and then it led me to the ‘90s, and then 2000 and up until 2020 when I wrote it. And to me, the common theme of all songs and all movies, all art is: I’m loving something, I’m in love with something, I love myself, I wanna love myself, I love you, I love love love love love love. Or: This scares me to death, this is terrifying, I’m depressed, I have anxiety, on and on and on. So I’m going, OK, what’s the other stuff that happens in between all this? And I felt like… not anything. It’s just [fear and love] are basically the polarities and the duality of life. Those two go hand in hand.

And then the floating between the two.
Exactly. That exchange is what life is all about, but why—which is the whole thing—does it bewilder us when it’s an actual fact? It’s the law of nature, it’s not gonna stop. Man/woman, night/day, the opposites will never stop being the same together. It’s like quantum physics. Two different points, but only when you see ’em and visualize it do they come together. It’s two things, death and life, happening at the same time. Now, obviously I don’t sit and cerebrally go through all of this to get to the line. The line, fortunately, just comes out and I go, I love it! But as I think about it, I want the theme to be that it’s interesting how we’re bewildered by the one thing we can’t change.

You chose this as the lead single ahead of the album’s full release. Why an epic like this? Why start with that as the tone setter?
Great question. The record label was pointing at slightly more mid-tempo, normal, uplifting songs: “Reckless Heart,” “To Live.” I’ve made like 18, 19 studio albums in my career and that’s what the labels always want to do. But I thought, every time I do that it never represents the totality of the record. If I keep posting [the uplifting songs] because it may gain me popularity or a small hit because it’s catchy, I feel like, at this point, at almost 60 years old, I’m misleading the audience. Why don’t we just say, here’s where I am now? That song is what brought me to the whole record. I thought, let’s be brave and just do that. Bewildered was actually the working title for the record.

Really?
That was the [original] concept, and then we thought that Picasso’s Villa was a more unique title.

I’m glad you brought up Picasso’s Villa. Obviously, the title is pulled from the song title of the same name but there’s a lot of symbolism and metaphor used. Can you break that song down for me? What are you willing to tell me about it?
There’s a bit of cynicism in it, but in a good way. For me to process resentments, outside of being in the 12-step program, my everyday method is to write songs. I can process things that I’m working through that are maybe not so healthy for me to hold on to. One of those could be the resentments I have over the fact that what I love doing more than anything is painting, but I ended up being in the music industry.

I would’ve had no idea.
The idea of [“Picasso’s Villa”] is that the painting part of me is isolated, an introvert and being left alone and not having to deal with the world. The music side of me is very extroverted. I have to practice meditation so I can be with people, talk to people, do interviews. It’s a very different animal but they’re both necessary for my growth and for me doing some good here on the planet, so to speak. If I only painted and spent my life doing what I wanted, I’m not sure I’d be as useful. The music side is where I create a lot of resentments: I get upset, either for people not understanding me or not getting what I want out of it, or people annoying me, or all of it. It’s a healthy thing to process that, to get through it and then move forward because it’s part of every job. Everything you do is gonna have aspects of it that rubs with your personality, I think. So this song itself is me playing with the idea that we’re sort of clowning around in the music business and I wanted to go back to Picasso’s villa… I wanted to meet with people that do it for the real reasons, [the reasons] I started music in the first place. It’s me being an artist and the relationship I have with the gods of music and the universe. It has nothing to do with entertainment and playing for other people, it’s just playing these pieces of musical notes with poetry in it. “Picasso’s Villa” is the analogy to just say: Fuck the world and do your thing.


Pink Dream, Acrylic on Canvas


You kind of touched on this a little bit but in your bio there is mention of “finding healing” and “rediscovering your purpose.” As much as you’re comfortable with sharing, can you tell me about the journey that you’ve been on in the past few years and how it brought you to be able to bring this piece of work into the world?
I would say the latest change has been intense and extended meditation every day. Really getting into that. I changed and shifted my healing. Part of the healing process is also to stop trying to heal and to actually just be. I practice more being—not thinking, not analyzing, not fixing, no therapy, nothing. I just go for walks. [It’s] very lighthearted living. I don’t have to do anything except being, right?

Like finding a stasis?
Yes, that’s exactly it. And I think it did [set the stage for the album]. The pandemic grounded me into knowing there’s nothing I have to do. It sounds contrived and cliche a little bit, but truly, there’s nothing I have to do.

I honestly get it and resonate with that a little bit in that, like, just getting out of bed is enough on any given day.
It’s all you gotta do. I was talking to a friend yesterday and, career-wise, he was stressing and spinning and I go, if you never play another note, no one will ever care. You’ve gotta understand that. This is your journey so don’t make it more important than it is. Just, do you want to play today or not? If you want to be successful, figure out what that looks like for you, but don’t think that it’s more important than it is. And that’s a very, very sobering thought for most artists. During the pandemic, everything was just about existing for about a year and it was a huge realization. I was making no money, nothing was coming in, so we did tie-dye, the kids moved back home, we stayed all in the house, we talked, we cooked, and I was like, wow, it’s the happiest I think I’ve ever been because we’re just together. There was nothing I had to do.

I’m going to jump to “Le Grande Zombie.” Am I correct in intimating that this is a tribute to Dr. John?
Correct.

Why was it important to you to include this, and why use it as the closer?
The original idea was to close with that and then have a follow-up record that was all New Orleans music. That didn’t happen. But Mac was a friend of mine and he was a huge mentor and great help to get me sober. There were a lot of connections personally, and I thought the best way to honor him was probably to use a lot of his lyrical lines and incorporate them into a song, rather than try to write something. Then it became more epic with the strings and stuff, the Romanian symphony was on there, and we just thought well, let’s end with that.

It’s beautiful. Can you talk about what it’s like to experience the loss of a mentor like that?
I think sometimes your mentors are friends on a personal level, you know them, and it takes a little different significance because there’s a presence that’s gone. Sometimes my mentors have been people I don’t know, but it has the same effect which is, you start to contemplate what they taught you, what their inspiration was and how you make sure to carry that on. How do you continue what they taught you? For me, it was more like, I’m gonna make sure that you don’t become a person that we don’t talk about in 10 years. This is what you taught me. Spy boy, Mardi Gras Indians, all these things that I was turned on to and worked so in depth with came through your influences. I learned about them through you. That’s what I think the biggest thing is: Pay some attention to what they taught you.


Osborne performing at Tipitina’s, December 2022, alongside Dave Malone of the Radiators | Photo by Steven Hatley


After finishing the album, the stand-outs for me personally were “Real Good Dirt” and “Dark Decatur Love” but I’m wondering what your favorites are?
Probably the same two.

Really? Why is that?
I like “Picasso’s Villa” too but “Dark Decatur Love” is just very sentimental to me. I didn’t go to college so I spent my early 20s on lower Decatur Street. Checkpoint Charlie’s, Dragon’s Den, it was kind of where I went to college so it means a lot to me. I got my friend Irene, who was in a band called Irene & the Mikes who were also part of that scene, to sing on it too. And then, I like the lyrics of “Real Good Dirt.” It’s concise and it’s heavy.

Are those also your favorites to play live, or is that a different answer?
Mmm, slightly different. I like “Dark Decatur” but usually more solo so that I can shape it differently each time. With a band, you have to stay a little more rigid because everyone has to play together. “Real Good Dirt” is amazing live. It’s like a tank, it just wants to keep rolling. My drummer’s great at that stuff. But I like to play “To Live” as well, and “Bewildered.”

This is, remarkably, your 17th studio album. Can you keep them all straight?
[laughs] No.

What makes this one stand out from its predecessors, to you?
The first thing would have to be the slow birth. It took a long time. From inception to starting the writing to it coming out now, it’s been over four years and that’s unusual. It usually moves pretty fast for me, within a year, year and a half. But because of the pandemic there were a lot of stops and remixes. Musically, I think it combines the folky and the heavy rock part of me in an interesting way and it leaves out the New Orleans/R&B thing that I sometimes incorporate. This record specifically feels like I can be folky inside the heavy rock track, and I don’t think I’ve accomplished that before, where every song feels like they belong together.

How old were you when you left your native Sweden?
I was 16, I believe.

And did you move straight here?
Not first. The first time I came here, I was 17, almost 18. Then I moved to California, went to Thailand, and then came back.

And you’ve seen a ton of the world, I presume. Why New Orleans? Why stay here?
Some of it I think is family but I think the main reason, in my heart, is probably because there are not many places I’ve been to where they live in the moment as much as we do here. It’s a presence [in the moment]. You eat for three hours, hang out, and forget that you have another meeting. Or if you do remember, you call and cancel it and you sit. Grocery store: your ice cream’s melting, you’re talking to your friend for 40 minutes, it’s great. Music: there’s no bigger show, you’re not preparing for something, you just play. It’s in the moment. I think the heart of New Orleans music has never really changed, it’s just about the moment. You just play.

What was your musical upbringing like in Sweden?
A lot of classical, lotta jazz, Miles Davis. My dad was a jazz lover and I started playing guitar when I was 8. I started writing small compositions, melodies. I wrote poetry, then I switched to drums for a minute. I got into the blues, got into Bob Marley, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and stuff like that.

And within your creative process, how do you integrate all the different things that influence you? All of the music that you’ve experienced?
I think there comes a time where you have to incorporate everything you’ve listened to or all you’ve experienced. You basically are climbing up this person’s body to get on their shoulders so you can stand on their shoulders, figuratively speaking. So you take in everything and imitate a little bit of that guitar sound, and that lyrical, and the poetry of that. Let’s write, let’s smoke weed, write 16 verses and be just like the old folk singers and blah blah blah, all that. But there’s a limit to that if you want to create real art. Real art is to break the fence of where you’re all walking around grazing. Your job as an artist is to go break it somewhere, open it up and go to the little area where no one’s been. And, first, no one will go with you. You’ll play for no one. You’re by yourself here but before you know it, it’s filled with new people. So it’s your job to break the fence and lose your audience, and create new. That’s the whole point, I think. There’s a point where I stopped having direct influences and incorporating those influences. Every once in a while I’ll use a trick, like out of a tool box—let’s get that Neil sound on the guitar, or let’s do like a Radiohead groove/loop thing, but they’re just little tools, they’re not really the influence itself. It’s just things that other people created, where they broke the boundaries. I use those tools.

By the time this interview gets released at the beginning of May, your album will be out. What do you hope for in terms of the release and the future of this body of work?
I would love for one of the songs to find a home in a super cool movie. I could get that lucky, that would be a huge break. Sometimes, because of the visual nature of my writing, that’s where I want it to land. The other things would be to help me sustain my career, that it reaches enough people that they’ll hire me to come play the songs, and I can feed my family. The usual stuff.


Top and bottom photos by Katie Sikora


Anders Osborne will co-headline a summer tour with Tab Benoit beginning July 11 in North Carolina. Picasso’s Villa is out now and available via the artist’s website at andersosborne.com.


Transcription by Michelle Pierce

 

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