30 Years In, Anders Osborne Strips Down to His Truest Form for ‘Orpheus and the Mermaids’

“I don’t put songs on records anymore that I don’t like,” Anders Osborne tells American Songwriter over the phone. The singer/songwriter left his home in Sweden at 16 and traveled the world until he finally landed in Louisiana. Still a resident of Crescent City, Osborne has adopted the muddy, backwater blues that defined his contribution to roots music. 

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Osborne stopped counting, but his new pandemic-inspired project, Orpheus and the Mermaids marks his seventeenth album in just over three decades, following his 2019 album, Buddha and the Blues. Since his 1989 debut, the vetted act penned two tracks on Keb Mo’s Grammy-winning 1999 release Slow Down. Tim McGraw cut Osborne’s “Watch The Wind Blow By,” a hit song that reached no.1 in 2002. His compositions have been covered by artists as diverse as Brad Paisley, Tab Benoit, Jonny Lang, Edwin McCain, Sam Bush, Trombone Shorty, Aaron Neville, and Kim Carnes, and appeared in multiple feature films. 

“I discovered my passion for writing a long time ago, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer or musician—it’s just what I did,” says the artist. “As your career moves along and you commit to something, you try different outfits on—play louder, softer, angrier, more loving. Once I reached the pinnacle of the competition part of the business, about three years ago, a lot of things opened up for me.”

From there on out, Osborne claims he stopped being ambitious. Making the music he wants to make now, the enduring artist had a gritty rock record ready to go when the pandemic struck last spring. Without touring, and given the global context, that collection no longer made sense. 

When creating an album, Osborne first decides when and where he will record it. From there, the influencing factors—the season, the moon cycle, the landscape—serve as fertile ground for the songs that then follow. He recorded Orpheus and the Mermaids over just a few days at the famed The Dockside studios on the Vermilion Bayou with guitarist Jonathan Sloane. The artist says Sloane “found the perfect spot.” He adds, “I feel proud hearing that and how he responded as we played these songs with no actual practice—it was a wonderful dynamic.”

Engineer Justin Tocket’s simplistic approach to this acoustic record feels natural. Osborne praises Tocket’s instinctual talent to mix in “a little juju here and there.” Adding, “He layered in a couple small things that made a difference.”

The title, Orpheus and the Mermaids, fits the waterfront motif from which the collection bloomed. “A lot of my heritage includes seafarers and merchant marines,” says Osborne. “So, there’s some connection there. I love being by the ocean, on the water, but I’ve never expanded on that.”

The Greek origins of Orpheus illustrate the mythic character as the son of the King of Thrace, Oeagrus, and the muse Calliope, who performed music and poetry with prodigious talent. Legend has it, Apollo taught Orpheus to play lyre as a child. He then perfected the instrument delivering music “so beautiful that it opened up even bitter hearts and softened people.” Osborne continued his contribution to mythology, adding, “I decided that he too needed protection. There are Mermaids that look like part of an audience in the artwork, but they are his guardians, making sure he’s safe. It was a fleeting idea, but with that title, it was easier to keep in mind how to write.”

At home in New Orleans, the road warrior surrendered to pen and paper. He says, “I started writing these tunes all about the stifling realization that it’s all really fragile. I can’t take anything for granted. Each day I need to wake up with more gratitude than I’ve practiced before and extend my meditation much further. What does it sound like if I’m speaking directly to the people who’ve been with me for so many years?”

Thematically, he points to a “domestication” we all experience from birth. According to our group consciousness, it’s a subconscious response—the idea of “I belong to this or that.” He continues, “But if people wake up a bit, they think, well, who am I? So my question was, how can I get them there through song and music?”

Self-discovery cultivates through Osborne’s careful observations as a recovering addict and from “staring at social media.” On Christmas Day, Osborne released “Pass on By” as an introduction to the album. The reminiscent track covers loss with a Jackson Browne-Esque delivery of mismatched triumph. Humble chord progressions leave ample space for clear-cut storytelling. Album opener, “Jacksonville to Wichita,” followed in late January, ringing in the project with a harmonica-driven traveler’s tune. 

“Last Day in the Keys” is an especially poignant culmination of the daunting presence of suicide within many communities. Osborne inventoried stories about friends and other folks he didn’t know to create a combined character to act out an all-encompassing story.

He started penning this song just days after his most recent suicide loss, but it’s not his immediate reaction. It encompasses a couple of months’ worth of emotional unfolding. The songwriting process followed the stages of grief in what Osborne describes as an “interesting exercise.” 

“That feeling went from sad to angry,” the artist says. “And then angry with them, then angry with other people celebrating them only after the fact. I didn’t feel like celebrating that person yet, but thought long and hard about how to write this song when I’m angry.”

From a self-inquiry point of view, the artist feels proud of how he dug through the constant turning of emotional perspective to capture the complications of someone killing themselves.

The album is not a direct response to the global happenings of 2020, but fragments of a fractured year meld into the record as souvenirs. “Welcome to Earth” began as a poem Osborne penned during quarantine, not initially intended to be a song. Developing stanzas into lyrics lines was a first for the artist who recalls the experiment as “fun,” adding, “I connect with what I wrote here.”

Even after 30 years of artistry, Osborne understands there is always room for improvement. He feels proud of his execution recording Orpheus and the Mermaids, knowing he was not “caught up in all the minor details.” Exhibiting confidence, he says, “It comes with age; I didn’t overthink it. Often there’s a struggle with a few songs, trying to nail the perfect take, but here I took one or two shots and was okay with that.”

Gratitude underpins the unadorned record project. In the refuge of his loneliness, Osborne found inspiration on the forward path from the folks who absorbed his stories and ideas over the last several decades.

“This is my last attempt to cater to the people that have been with me for 30 years,” says Osborne. “The lyrics say, ‘Here’s where I am in my mid-50s, where are you guys?’ I’m not trying to find a new audience. It’s easy to overlook when you’re working on a ‘career,’ but I finally realized we’ve spent our lives together, the people who buy my stuff come to my shows. Losing parents, having kids, fighting cancer, dealing with addiction, we’ve been through it all and are part of each other’s lives.”

Photo by Darren Manzari

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