I’m including the full text here, but the credits go to Relevant Magazine for setting this up. By the way, Relevant’s Podcast is pretty funny; you should listen to it when you get the time. So, without further ado, the interview:
An Interview with Andrew Osenga, by Jason Boyett
Andrew Osenga has done more in the last decade than any working musician should expect. As a small-town teenager, he gained a cult following as the frontman for The Normals, only to see the band fall apart within a matter of years. He recorded a critically acclaimed solo album with hardly any budget to speak of. He took a job with another band with a devoted following Caedmon’s Call and ended up filling the empty slot left by Derek Webb’s departure from the band.
Now entrenched as the lead guitarist and songwriter for Caedmon’s, Osenga is stepping out once again with a solo album. The Morning, released under the Square Peg Alliance brand, comes out this week. RELEVANT author Jason Boyett caught up with Osenga during a stop on the Evening of Compassion tour, headlined by Caedmon’s Call.
Jason Boyett: Your new record has songs called “After the Garden” and “New Beginnings.” The title track, “Early in the Morning,” ends the record on a powerful, optimistic note. Maybe it’s just because I was an English major, but I’m sensing a dominant theme here. Newness? Starting over?
Andrew Osenga: Yeah, that was sort of the idea of the record: starting over and healing and restoration. I was with The Normals for a long time and that whole thing ended kind of bloody with the label. It was really tough, because some of the guys I worked with at the label were mentors. And when that fell apart, those relationships got thrown out, too.
JB: It wasn’t just a business thing, then.
AO: No, it was personal stuff, more than business relationships. I actually left my church because of that, because the guys at the label were elders at my church. And those relationships have never been fixed.
AO: I spent a couple of years just being really bitter and angry about it, and part of the reason I took the job with Caedmon’s was because I just got to stand on the side and play. These days, I’ve gotten to where I’ll talk and sing, but early on I just played guitar and didn’t have to invest in anything. I especially liked that I didn’t have to talk about Jesus in front of people because I wasn’t ready to do that yet.
JB: What changed?
AO: Caedmon’s took that trip to India a couple of years ago [during the recording of Share the Well in 2004], and we got to see so many things there, which was really good for me. Also, my wife and I had a baby, and that was the biggest thing. We got involved in a new church and became members. We’re going through the process of forgiveness and healing and those things really fit in all the songs. That’s where it came from thematically.
JB: It’s also a new direction musically.
AO: Musically, I’ve been such a big part of the folk circuit (a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar) and sometimes I just hate that. It can be really boring. Don’t get me wrong: there are guys like Andy Peterson and Randall Goodgame who can get up with an acoustic guitar and blow your mind. But Nashville’s got a lot of this three-chord acoustic stuff, and I really wanted not to do that. On Christian radio, especially, an acoustic guitar is usually the biggest thing in the mix and it takes up all the space. But I’d listen to old Peter Gabriel records, and old U2 and Pink Floyd records, and they’re so huge-sounding, because there’s not something in there that takes up the whole range of your hearing. So I intentionally started every song with a drum loop (which I suck at) and keyboards (which I suck at) and built around those. The guitars were the last thing to go on, even after the vocals.
JB: You’ve written songs for The Normals, Caedmon’s Call, and then for yourself as a solo artist. Do you write a song differently depending on who might record it?
AO: I write my solo stuff like I used to write for The Normals, because I was the lead singer. All the records I’ve done with Caedmon’s [Chronicles, In the Company of Angels Vols. 1 & 2, and Share the Well] I tried to fit who Caedmon’s is and what they’ve done into the songwriting, not knowing who was going to sing the songs. It’s a totally different thing writing for other people, to contribute stuff that’s not so uber-personal and sort of focus outward, like on Share the Well.
JB: I think Share the Well was a real restoration of Caedmon’s Call as a band, especially after Derek Webb left. It was their best record in a long time.
AO: The band feels that way, too. On every level, the songwriting, the sound, the rhythmic vibe, we rolled the dice and it worked. It was really a magical time, to be able to write those songs and play them live on that tour.
JB: You’re also taking deliberate steps now to begin writing for other artists.
AO: Yeah, I just got a publishing deal. It’s like a part-time job where I stay at home a couple days a week and just write songs general songs that anybody could put on their record — you know, artists who don’t write their own songs. Christian radio has a lot of terrible stuff on it. So when they came to me and said, Hey, we like some of the stuff you’ve been doing. We’d like you to come and write for some of our artists, I thought, well, who knows? Maybe we can get something that’s not so dumb on the radio. It’s a fun challenge, trying to write something that’s catchy and simple and personal — but not too personal, you know?
JB: Do you ever come up with a good hook or line and think, Man, I should have saved that one for myself?
AO: All the time. I let one go last week. I was writing with an artist who just got signed and she needed help on her first record. I played her this song that I had been working on and immediately I wanted to take it back.
JB: You’re one of the founding members of Nashville’s Square Peg Alliance, along with artists like Derek Webb and Andrew Peterson and Matthew Perryman Jones. Tell me about it.
AO: It’s a conglomeration of 13 artists. Most of us have had label deals at some point (and a few of us still do) but we’ve all been through that machine. You know what you used to love about a record label back in the Decca days or with Columbia? When Columbia had a new artist, you just knew it was quality. I wonder who this Jeff Buckley guy is? He’s with Columbia; he’s probably good. Labels have lost that appeal. The Square Peg Alliance is our attempt to create something of a label for us. We’ve all been friends for years and years. But because we live in Nashville and most of us are playing acoustic folk/rock, we don’t always get a lot of exposure. So we’ve banded together to get people to come alongside of us and create a community.
We’ve been doing some Square Peg events, and we hope to put together a Square Peg tour. None of us are at a point where we can really tour by ourselves (other than Andy Peterson or Derek Webb) but if we go out together, we can make the Square Peg an event, and people can be a part of that movement.
JB: You’re already playing on each other’s records anyway, right?
AO: Right. It’s pretty much giving a name to something that already exists.
JB: You’re known for being a multi-instrumentalist. On the new record you play guitar, piano, upright bass, mandolin, baritone, trombone…
AO: It’s fun. The truth of it is that, on the record (my best friend, Cason Cooley, who was in The Normals with me, co-produced it) it was pretty much just Cason and I and our bass player during most of the recording. We’d go, “What does this song need?” and figure out an idea, then we’d stick a microphone on it and record. The Normals records were that way (where everybody played every instrument) so the records were just hodgepodges. That’s what I love about the old Band records and Rolling Stone records, because they used to do that. There’s a lot more personality. Unlike a Coldplay record, where the guitar player plays the guitar on every song and they all sound the same. I prefer that mad scientist vibe.
JB: You mentioned fatherhood earlier. How did becoming a dad change you as a musician and songwriter?
AO: There’s so much responsibility. When I was a kid I always thought I’d get married and have kids and settle down. But actually I think I play music with more of a passion now. I know my daughter will someday listen to these records and I want her to know then how much I love her.
JB: As a father, I was really drawn to the last song on the record, “Early in the Morning.” It’s a storytelling kind of song with a big carpe diem message.
AO: Yeah, that’s the magnum opus of the record. Putting that at the end ties it all together. I love that the song and the whole record ends with that last phrase: “Let your love rage like a lion. Let your heart break like a lamb.” That’s another theme: Don’t waste these things. Our life is too short to spend that time being bitter or angry, but instead be loving and enjoy the people who are around you. That’s what the record is all about. The song’s modeled after Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven.
AO: I’m a Steinbeck junkie. The book is a series of short stories set in this little valley, and you think what on earth is this about? until the last chapter is told from this other perspective, outside of that valley. It’s amazing. I wanted to do that with the song. It doesn’t really have a chorus or bridge, but just these little vignettes, and then the big ending: If I didn’t say it before, then this is what I’m trying to say.
JB: Well I’m not that much of a music critic, but it’s a killer song.
AO: I’ve had a career of only being liked by music critics, so I’m glad you liked it. You probably get a song like that only two or three times in your life.