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Interview: Anders Osborne - Feedback, Overtones, & Jagged Electricity

Furious slide-wielding Swede Anders Osborne talks about conquering his demons, taking time with solos, and reconciling his electric live persona with his considerable singer-songwriter skills.

Photo by Jayne Tansey-Patron

Given the fact that he was born in Uddevalla, a city on the southeastern coast of Sweden, you’d hardly expect Anders Osborne’s voice to be flecked with a Cajun twinge. Things are not always what they seem with the 45-year-old singer-songwriter/guitarist—but that’s probably to be expected, considering he and his acoustic guitar spent his late teens traveling everywhere from the former Yugoslavia to France and Israel before coming to the United States and settling in New Orleans almost 30 years ago.

“When people ask why I sound like I’m from New Orleans, I tell them it’s because that’s where I learned to speak English,” he explains. It’s also where he began his music career in earnest, first by busking in the French Quarter, and then building up a following in local clubs. “I had no dreams or visions of where my music would go at first,” he says. “I was just playing on the streets. But then things slowly happened.”

Osborne eventually signed to a small New Orleans label, Rabadash, and made his recorded debut in 1989 with Doin’ Fine. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he released a series of critically well-received albums that combined his love for rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, and roots music, and also made a name for himself as a professional songwriter—most notably as cowriter of Tim McGraw’s 2003 country hit “Watch the Wind Blow By.”

But the last few years have seen a distinct shift in Osborne’s sound. His most recent records—2010’s American Patchwork and the new and excellent Black Eye Galaxy—continue to feature his characteristic mix of hummable acoustic and electric numbers, but the electric-guitar based songs are now decidedly brawnier and infused with layers of squalling 6-string work, much of it on slide. Osborne credits this stylistic shift to several factors, including a change in attitude and perspective following a drawn-out and hard-won battle with substance abuse. But it’s also because his records are now a truer reflection of his live shows, which have always been heavily focused on his guitar playing.

On a broader level, it can perhaps be said that Osborne’s sonic progressions are the consequence of a lifelong restless spirit. When he made the decision as a teenager to leave his home in Sweden, he recalls, “I remember waking up on a Tuesday and saying, ‘I have to get the [expletive] out of here. I can’t stay another minute.’ And on Thursday I hitchhiked out.” Likewise, when it comes to music, he says, “I’m still searching all the time for things to inspire me. For most people, the stuff you listen to when you’re 10 to 14 years old, that tends to be the only music you really ever purely love. After that, you just analyze and criticize. You’re constantly comparing to your first musical impressions. I’m trying to step out of that as much as I can. I’m still trying to find that next thing.”

Photo by Jerry Moran

You pull from numerous American music styles. As a native Swede who’s lived all over the world, do you feel that approaching these genres from the perspective of an outsider has had an effect on how you interpret them?
That’s an interesting thing and I’ve thought about it before. As far as considering my own origins in terms of the type of music I play, the truth is I don’t really know how it fits together. If I were to speculate, I’d simply say that if the language of music is something that comes naturally to you, then you don’t separate things very much. You know your geography, you know where you’re from, but stylistically you don’t consider that at all as you’re taking in influences. Me being a musician—as opposed to, say, an author or a carpenter or something like that—what I do is I interpret the language of music. That’s the world I’ve always been in. When I heard Robert Johnson at a certain age, it did something to me. When I heard ZZ Top or Kiss or Sweet, it did something else to me. Then later on it was John Coltrane, Neil Young, Dylan. You bring them all in and then you start to eliminate the ones that don’t stick. What remains becomes your language.

Black Eye Galaxy is your most assertive and guitar-centric record to date. You employ a lot of distorted tones, and several of the songs feature extended solos. What led you in that direction?
I think partly it was coming to an understanding of what I do well. As I’ve changed my spiritual path and stopped abusing myself mentally and physically with the other stuff, everything cleared up a little bit. You recognize what you’re good at and what feels good. It’s become more and more evident to me over the last few years. I think it started with American Patchwork, where Stanton [Moore, drums] brought out a lot of small details in my playing. One of those was to really distort and crank the guitars in the way he perceives I do it onstage. He said, “Let’s work on your tone so that you don’t get too sweet and too cutesy on the record.” We just kind of developed a sound. I hadn’t done that since the mid ’90s, which was the last time I had a big guitar rig. From doing that and gaining a better understanding of what I liked—and also what people responded to in the live show—when it came time to make this record, I made sure I had material that would work well onstage.

Photo by Paul Natkin

To what extent are the new solos improvised—especially on the 11-minute title track?
The whole middle section of the title track is all improv. We just worked out what would serve as home base—where we’d come together on a riff or a line—and then go on to the next part. We were all playing together in the studio, and we’d get to a certain point in the song and just look at each other, nod, and start the count off for everyone to go into a lick together. Then we’d go on to the next improvisation. I think there are three home bases in that song, and having those frees you up. You know that, whenever you’re through saying what you need to say, everyone will come together.

This record is very Neil Young-like in the sense that your acoustic work is often quite clean and exacting, while your electric playing is more ragged and unorthodox.
I can see that. Neil is definitely an influence in terms of that wandering approach on electric. I like to have that element of searching and taking your time. You start with something melodic and then keep building and taking the improvisation further out, gathering feedback and overtones and the jagged things going on in the electricity. You explore. I like that in Neil and I love that in Coltrane.

A lot of the new lyrics are pretty direct rather than flowery or metaphorical. On “Mind of a Junkie,” in particular, you paint a stark self-portrait. Is it difficult to be so self-critical?
When I first started working out the lyrics, it was a completely different thing: I was sketching ideas around the melody, and I liked the chorus I had—I felt it gave the song a real lift, and I thought it could be really beautiful and powerful. But then my wife heard it and she said, “That’s not how you feel. Why don’t you just write down how you actually feel.” She was basically saying, to use your term, that it was too flowery. It seemed poetically put together. A lot of bullshit lines. And that triggered me. I said, “Okay, I’m going to write exactly how it works when I’m not doing good.” And once you start doing that, it’s almost addictive in and of itself. It’s like working your own program, 100 percent. You’re just letting it all out. It’s a great exercise and I highly recommend it to anybody. But there are definitely nights I play that song that are a little bit uncomfortable.

Osborne’s Category 5 VOW signature 4x10 combo (left) and 1900 head driving a 4x12. Photo by Paul Natkin

You have an unorthodox guitar style: You play with a pick, but you occasionally hit notes with a finger on your picking hand. How did you develop that approach?
I think it was unconscious—it just evolved. At some point I realized there were certain runs and things I wanted to do faster, and I couldn’t quite get to the notes quick enough with just a pick. So I just started grabbing them with a finger. It especially helped that I tend to use open tunings. Open tunings are great when you’re soloing, because they open up the fretboard—you can go across the strings as much as do the vertical scale thing. You play horizontally a lot more. So I’d hold down a chord formation and just drill it with my fingers. With a pick, for me, the movement almost comes more from my shoulders. With my fingers, I can move much more effortlessly.

His main Strat has a ’68 body, an ebony-topped ’80s neck, and stock pickups except for the middle unit, which has recently been switched from a Duncan Hot Rails to a stacked humbucker. Photo by Paul Natkin

Do you mostly play in open tunings?
It comes and goes. Right now, I’m about 50/50—but it used to be 90/10 in terms of open tuning versus standard.

What tunings do you favor?
Open D, for the most part, because it gives me some nice low end. There are a bunch of open D songs on the new record: “Send Me a Friend,” “Black Tar,” “Black Eye Galaxy”….

… A lot of the heavier material.
Oh yeah. I put on real heavy strings, .013– .054s, and raised the action, so there’s big tone. That helps with the slide, as well.

Onstage, you’re never without a slide—you switch between slide and fretting notes pretty seamlessly.
It’s a comfort thing for me to have the slide on the pinkie. Even if I don’t need it—and I could certainly use that extra finger sometimes—it’s almost a little security blanket. It’s like, if I have an open tuning and a glass slide, all of a sudden I feel safe.

Which specific players influenced your slide work?
In my early years, certainly Ry Cooder. He doesn’t play heavy, but he plays a different kind of heavy. That’s one of the debates I had with Stanton—that, a lot of times in the past, I had been a little too tongue-in-cheek and comical in my slide approach. Doing those fun, cool little licks. Live, I would play really heavy, with a really big tone, but on my records I would always bring it back into Ry Cooderland. That’s stopped now.

Anders Osborne's Gear

Fender Strat with ’68 body, Fender 1962 Strat reissue, Fender 1957 Strat reissue, Gibson Les Paul Standard goldtop with P-90s, 1959 Gretsch 6118 Double Anniversary, 1966 Guild Starfire V, 1969 Martin D-18, 1963 Gibson B-25, 1961 Gibson J-45, custom McAlister flattop, Yamaha AC3R, Yamaha CPX1200

Category 5 signature VOW, Category 5 1900 models

D’Addario .011–.052 sets, D’Addario .013–.054 sets (for ’68 Strat tuned to open D), Planet Waves 1mm picks, handmade bottleneck slide (“Preferably from Italian wine bottles—they have a warmer and denser tone”), 1972 handmade custom black leather strap with caveman imprints, TC Electronic PolyTune, Morley ABY pedal, Planet Waves cables

Tell us about your primary stage guitar—the black Strat that looks like it’s been put through the ringer.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I got that guitar in 1986, and it’s a mix of things: It has a ’68 body and what I believe is an early-’80s custom bird’s-eye maple neck, with an African ebony fretboard. There’s a metal pickguard, and there used to be a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup in the middle position but I swapped it out and put a stacked humbucker in there. The other pickups are stock. It’s banged up, and there’s a tone knob missing at the moment, as well.

So it’s something of a mutt.
It is. It was already modified to how it is now when I got it, except for that middle pickup. I saw it at a music store in New Orleans and the guys working there didn’t even know what it was. So they charged me 170 bucks for it. But it’s an interesting guitar. It’s not even originally black. You can see that it had this beautiful, creamy sunburst finish that was just painted right over. Somebody messed it up real good, but it’s perfect for me—I love it—and it’s been my main guitar ever since.

YouTube It

Listen to the jagged electric blues coming out of Osborne’s “mutt” black Strat as he employs his unorthodox picking style at 4:30.

This performance at The Independent San Francisco showcases Osborne improvising to find the groove with drummer Stanton Moore’s band.

Osborne unleashes his inner Cajun Swede on “Louisina Gold” from his latest album, Black Eye Galaxy.