I don't know much about Sweden, to be honest with you," Anders Osborne says. "I left when I was 16."
Seated at his kitchen table, Osborne uses a pencil to sketch a map of his native Scandinavia before tracing the origins of the wanderlust that led him to New Orleans 30 years ago. Bright sunshine streams through the kitchen's stained-glass windows, which Osborne installed while repairing his home from damages after Hurricane Katrina. Originally built as horse stables for the Allard plantation (which became New Orleans City Park), Osborne's home features the original oyster-shell driveway as well as a thriving rosemary bush at his front gate. He offers clippings from the rosemary to take home for germination.
Osborne just woke up and is dressed in black fleece slippers, board shorts and a T-shirt. He's still adjusting from a recent trip to San Rafael, Calif., where he performed a week's worth of gigs at Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's Terrapin Crossroads. To perform with Lesh and other musical guests, including frequent collaborator Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars, Black Crowes), Osborne had to learn nearly 50 Grateful Dead songs.
"Yes and no," he says when asked if he's a Deadhead. "I'd never been familiar with their catalogue until the last year. I lived for a brief stint in California in 1986 and had this old Cadillac I'd drive around and used to play 'Touch of Grey' — which was their little bit more of a commercial attempt to reach people like me. I'd listen to that and Peter Gabriel's So and (Bob Dylan's 1975 album) Blood on the Tracks."
He credits local guitarist Billy Iuso with his recent exploration of the Dead, and says he finds the jam band's song's to be special.
"They're all really special," he says of the songs he learned, retrieving a dog-eared stack of white papers.
"Like 'Dire Wolf,'" Osborne says, pulling out a sheet of music from a stack of Dead songs he learned. It's covered in black Sharpie notations. "It has so many chords, and they never stop changing. (The Grateful Dead) have this folk tradition and they follow an extended melody. So it's not just learning the 1-4-5 chord progression. In New Orleans, most of the music is 1-2-5, or 1-6-2-5. Most of my songs are pretty basic, too."
Over coffee, Osborne shares often-personal revelations into a musical journey that's long been embraced by a loyal local audience but in recent years has blossomed into new sounds, bigger stages and larger audiences. Osborne goes from sold-out, two-night stands at Tipitina's to prime placement on festival lineups, which often draw the fanbase the Dead first spawned decades ago. It's a scene that suddenly adores Osborne.
The musician is known for incendiary improvisational jams including one last spring at Republic, in which he melted a cover of Jimi Hendrix's instrumental "Third Stone from the Sun," along with fellow guitarists Dickinson and Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule) and Billy Iuso, to the point of full-tilt frenzy that's now the stuff of local hippie lore.
Osborne's rise came after a tortuous bout with addiction, and he was guided by the light of intense introspection along the way. He has been drug-free since 2009, and in the last three years has released three albums (American Patchwork, Black Eye Galaxy, Three Free Amigos), which are among his finest works, and attained the type of popularity that gives the husband and father no days off for the next two months.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Anders Osborne accompanies George Porter Jr. during a performance at the Big Easy Music Awards.
"In 2009, I made a conscious shift," he says. "I had trusted my talents a little bit too much and hadn't done enough of the hard work. I started to see things in a new light — basically, that you can't go running around crazy or you won't last. These days, there's nobody backstage. All private. Just the band. And before the show, we're praying."
Osborne's path to substance abuse began at age 13, when he started experimenting with alcohol, hashish and amphetamines. "I was covering up all the emotions that I was supposed to learn and grow into," he recalls.
Years later in New Orleans, he developed a fondness for cooking cocaine as well as heroin. "I went through different waves; sometimes I'd go for uppers, sometimes I'd go for downers," he says. "But the thing that got me every time was alcohol. I used to think I could be cool with it.
"All the terrible stories that come with addiction, I have them. Blacking out, waking up not knowing where my guitar is and I've been running around with no pants on for two days."
Leaving his last stint in rehab (Osborne first attempted sobriety in 1999) he was diagnosed as bipolar and found balance with the help of medication. The bipolar diagnosis "explained a lot," he says, remembering it as a time of extreme anxiety. "I couldn't sleep at all. I'd work like crazy, paint like crazy, doing like two or three paintings a day. Manic stuff."
Osborne emerged from rehab sporting a wildly bushy beard and greying hair past his shoulders. "I think it's a very spiritual thing to let everything grow," he says. "My wife complained about it, but it was just that I had to let something grow. My hair, my beard — it was like my protective shield."
Osborne rechanneled his considerable energy into creating louder, heavier music, largely leaving behind the New Orleans-style R&B that marked many of his years, especially in his long-running trio with saxophonist Tim Green and sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, whom he counts among his closest friends. "A lot of that stuff sounded like what it was — a white boy backed by a couple of black guys," he says. "It was missing the Bob Dylan link, the Joni Mitchell link, the Black Sabbath link. I had to get back to who I was originally. Getting all R&B sweet and cute — that's not how I started out.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
- Osborne and wife Sarah share a laugh with friends at the Big Easy Music Awards at Harrah's, where Osborne was honored as Entertainer of the Year.
"Something just clicked and it suddenly felt natural to just play the f—k out of my guitar," he says. "I felt like I had rediscovered my childhood, like I was 13, 14 years old."
Osborne also has written country hits for the likes of Tim McGraw and toured the world in a band featuring Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Such shifts in style parallel his notions of how the passage of time and space flow in his adopted hometown of New Orleans.
"The thing about New Orleans, I always claim — having kids born here, friends that moved here, friends that are fourth-, fifth-generation Louisiana — is that the city is the combination of all these people," he says. "The tourists arriving on Sunday afternoon are New Orleans as much as the old generation. That's the point where understanding New Orleans clicked for me. It's not something I have to reach for or touch. I am this city. I am becoming it, making it, shaping it. You have to constantly work on New Orleans, be a part of it. Carry on traditions while you make new ones."
This sense of discovery comes alive in the song "Tracking My Roots" from 2012's Black Eye Galaxy, the inspiration for which was Osborne's desire to trace his family's ties to Louisiana. (His grandmother's cousin's family immigrated to Lafayette and his grandfather had extensive business contacts in the city.) Like all his songs, "Tracking My Roots" is autobiographical.
"I can take some liberties; I can write stories and twist them around a little bit, maybe change locations," Osborne says of his approach to songwriting. "But, really, I don't know anybody except myself all that well. And that's what I'm most comfortable with."