Free Amigo: A Q&A with Anders Osborne

Anders Osborne

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The songwriter and guitarist Anders Osborne has released two blues-heavy rock albums for the Chicago-based record label, Alligator Records. But the New Orleans-based artist’s new EP, Three Free Amigos, is a return to classic albums like Break the Chain (1993) and Living Room (1999), which deftly mixed Nola funk and R&B with Delta blues and Americana.

Osborne recorded Three Free Amigos with the producer and engineer Warren Riker at his shotgun house-cum-recording studio, which used to be a corner store on Oak Street near the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. “Most of the stuff in there is antique, collectible stuff,” says Osborne. “Everything is old and weird and awesome. We went to a thrift store and bought some lighting to add to the funkiness of the whole thing.”

Osborne was born in Uddevalla, Sweden, but settled in New Orleans in the mid-‘80s. So how did a Swedish kid wind up singing the blues in New Orleans? It’s all part of Osborne’s long and complicated career, which now finds him on the road most of the year. Before this phase, though, Osborne did a long stint as a Nashville songwriter, scoring a number one country hit with Tim McGraw’s “Watch the Wind Blow By” in 2003. The song may be pop country fare, but it has a decidedly Anders strain. “I like it best just like this / Doing nothing all the way,” McGraw sings about enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

We spoke with Osborne about his earliest musical influences, why Three Free Amigos is his most “homegrown” album, and what it was like touring with Toots and the Maytals.

What sound were you going for on this record?

It was supposed to be all acoustic with a couple covers. Then that seemed awfully boring so we shifted gears. The co-producer and engineer, Warren Riker, said, “Let’s make it a happy fall record.” So I wanted to give the listener something more like how my demos are. I start playing a song with vocals and guitar and stack a bass and drum groove afterward. It was a homegrown scenario.

Is there something you feel like you’re always coming back to in terms of your songwriting? What were you feeling when you wrote these songs?

Most of my struggle—most of my pondering—is about uncovering some kind of knowledge. Almost like meditating when you’re writing—talking to myself, “You gotta straighten out. How come you’re always repeating this pattern?” It’s sort of self-therapy. The topic may change but the general search for some truth is pretty common.

Do you remember your early musical influences growing up in Sweden and when you started writing?

I think the first thing I did was more instrumental compositions. We had a pump organ and I was listening to a lot of Vivaldi and Mozart. Especially the melancholy, slow-moving pieces. That really moved me. The change into songwriting, I’m pretty sure that was Bob Dylan. That’s when I saw a huge sense of freedom. You could rhyme in any kind of form. It was so much more fun to write.

Did you approach songwriting differently when you were working in Nashville?

The songs that resonated with people were usually more true to myself. I wrote hundreds of songs where I was listening to the co-writer and making changes. But I gotta say, it doesn’t really work. The people who do a lot of pop-country stuff, they’re really good at it. They really mean it. The things that I got cut, anyway, were very authentic to myself. They were usually solo writes. So that’s why I kind of pulled back from that. I spent like 15 years up there. I did my time.

Your career seems to be about being on the road a lot these days. Is that what you want to be doing at this point in your career?

Part of the year that is what I want to do. I usually like to pull back in wintertime and make and produce records. After Katrina and after I got clean, I was figuring out the best thing for me to do, which was to hit the road again and reestablish my career as artist. Most of my song cuts have come through that avenue. From my own records I get placements or people covering songs. At the live shows I meet lots of wonderful artists and musicians. I think strictly songwriting is really insulating and not really for me.

You toured with Toots and the Maytals last year. “Marmalade” on the new EP has a very strong reggae influence. Who are some of your favorite reggae artists?

It was truly inspirational and such an honor to be part of that. I grew up listening to [Toots]. Toots may be bigger [for me] than Bob [Marley]. He was who I really listened to. Jimmy Cliff… It’s the classics. I’m not really that educated in that style. “Marmalade” and “Got Your Heart” and “New Mexico” [both from 2010’s American Patchwork] are written how I would envision Toots.

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