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Finding an Honest Muse: An interview with Andrew Osenga



It’s no surprise to hear that Andrew Osenga is spinning multiple musical plates these days. That’s how most people know him as a career musician through his own music, his days with The Normals or Caedmon’s Call, or as a producer and label exec. What is surprising is where the music is coming from these days.


There was a season, not so long ago, that Osenga says he thought he was finished—at least in any public-facing way. A trip to Laity Lodge followed a season of uncertainty and provided the sort of imagery that opened the doors to a new well for his music—what he calls finding “an honest muse.”

A new album is on the way and a new EP arrives on Friday. There’s also a beautiful new hymns project alongside the community of worship leaders and artists that he’s nurturing through his day job. And it finally feels congruent for an artist who is settling into eldership.


Just to start, I’d love to have you tell us about the musical plates you’re spinning these days.


My day job is being one of the directors of A&R at Integrity Music where I work with artists making worship music and I oversee an imprint there called Running Club Records, which is kinda like my indie rock roster, with artists like Citizens, Mission House, Sarah Kroger, and Leslie Jordan. And then I oversee a couple of community projects: the Faithful Project and Anchor Hymns.


As a musician, I’m out this spring with Matt Maher playing guitar. As an artist, I’m in the process of releasing a record called Headwaters over the course of several months. In between those releases, I’m doing a separate project called The Quiet Hours, which is acoustic vocal Fleet Foxes-y hymns with one mic and one guitar.


It’s been a while since you’ve had some original music, right? Headwaters is the first album since The Painted Desert?


Yes, and it’s directly related. I made The Painted Desert and then two years ago, I went to Laity Lodge with Sandra [McCracken] and we made a record for her called Light in the Canyon. When I was there, I saw the headwaters of the Frio River. At one point there is nothing, just desert, and then suddenly there’s a big river and everything south of it all the way to the ocean is lush and green. Everything to the north is desert.


I thought it was amazing to think that here in this desert, the water is never that far from you. We just aren’t aware of it. I had written The Painted Desert in this season of depression, a dark night of the soul… and I’m not saying everything is better now, but I do know that I’m not there now, and so this season needs a different kind of song. And so these days I’m much more concerned with what I want to communicate to my daughters and so my songwriting follows that thread. What do I want them to know about me and themselves and the gospel? That’s where these songs come from.


These days I’m much more concerned with what I want to communicate to my daughters and so my songwriting follows that thread. Andrew Osenga

I love that Headwaters picture, so do these songs feel informed by a recognition of that water being close? You said circumstances haven’t necessarily changed, but are the songs marked by at least recognition of the life that’s there?


Yeah, the way you said that’s really wonderful. I’ve been going to this Anglican Church for a long time now and you say these liturgies over and over again and often you’re not paying attention to them. Then one day, you wake up and realize, ‘Oh that is deep in my bones.’


This is definitely the most gospel-forward project I’ve done personally. I’m usually more story-songs and slice-of-life poetry kind of songs, so this was a big change for me. Our church already sings a couple of these songs a lot, too, which has been really encouraging. Writing even slightly corporate songs is a lot different for me, but I’ve found myself in this community of people who are serving the Church with songs like this in my job and I’ve been inspired by it.


As my kids are growing up in it, I love the thought of them encountering my songs from a place of “we sing these songs at church with all these people that I love and trust and who care about me, and all of them are standing and singing and agreeing with this thing my dad wrote.” That’s better than “I went to this thing and dad was sad again.” Which is what it was like for a while there. [Laughs]


Did you notice when that turned for you—when songwriting went from a way for you to emote and process that sadness into something else—


It was a very conscious decision. I actually thought I was done after The Painted Desert. The cards in my life have mostly been played, you know? I know what I’m dealing with. I felt like those are the best versions of the songs I’d been writing for a long time, so I didn’t think I needed to write them again. Until something else came along that made me feel like I need to process it. I’ve processed my own melancholy enough for one life! Ha.

I realized I’d never processed the way that a community of believers had really profoundly shaped my life. I wanted to contribute to that in a different way. And it really was thinking about my daughters, but I want to be careful there. I don’t want to use them as a marketing tool. It was just the heart impetus of what I was doing for them. After a while, I found out I just really enjoyed it. Some people might not like it, but it feels like it’s an honest muse. I can say that.


This feels like such a first half of life and second half of life difference.


Yes, 100 percent.


A Richard Rohr-ian—

Yes, you’re dead on.


You made it sound like you were glad to turn that corner away from the sadness or that phase, but was there a grief in being done with that in general? Even as a musical or career turn?


Honestly, here’s the thing. I played a few shows this weekend and I have this song called “The Year of the Locust” on that Painted Desert record. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written and every night, the conversations about that song are something really special. That song impacts people in a deep way and I’m so grateful for it. Yet at the same time, I already have that song, y’know?


We have this little photo printer that will print in three colors. It spits out the blue and then goes back in and spits out the red and then it spits out the green. After those three, the whole picture emerges. I feel like I’ve been communicating in mostly one color for a long time and I don’t think it’s been the full story.


This is the part of the story that I don’t think is as cool or artsy, but it’s also a really, really true part of my story. Because of my own cynicism or ego or whatever, I’ve just not wanted to go there, but now I’m old enough to let some of that go. I’m also old enough to think maybe I have the tools to do it in a way that feels honest without just trying to regurgitate what others have done.


It’s all too common to find art created from that first half of life. So much of pop culture is juvenile and it’s hard to make a career in the arts to even reach that longevity. Is there a part of what you’re doing now that feels important because it’s harder to find points of reference in a way?


That’s a good question and I lament that. That’s why I love Paul Simon so much. In his seventies, he’s making records about being in his seventies and not doing greatest hits compilations, whereas U2 is doing their residency and playing their 40 biggest songs. I love U2 but that’s been my criticism: that they won’t grow up and accept that they’re old. That’s what I really want to hear from them, whereas Paul Simon has always been willing to go there.

I feel like I’ve been communicating in mostly one color for a long time and I don’t think it’s been the full story. Andrew Osenga

Can you tell us about The Quiet Hours? Where does that come from?


I had this interesting realization that I grew up in this fundamentalist church where I learned from a lot of really wonderful people a lot of things about Jesus, but I don’t really agree with a lot of that theology now. Yet we sang the same songs then that I sing now in my church here in Nashville. I think there’s something about some of those songs that were true in a way that superseded each church’s theology and maybe even superseded the lyric of the song—more like the essence of the song?


There’s some sort of intangible, sacred truth in these songs that we’ve passed down to each generation. I’m just so into that. I’m also sitting at the helm of this project at work called Anchor Hymns, where I’m the producer and director of it, whatever that means. But I’m shaping this community by trying to put new songs like that into the world.


So in the midst of all of that, I was in England last year in May and I had the night off in this Airbnb in Brighton on the south coast. It was this super cool building and my bedroom was above this little cafe. I had a microphone in my bag and I set it up and started recording these intimate versions of a few old hymns. I loved it so much. So I decided when I travel, if I have some downtime, instead of watching a movie on Netflix, I’ll keep my mic in the bag so I can grab my guitar and record a couple of hymns in the way I’d play them if I wanted to sing the girls to sleep.


And how are you releasing music there?


As The Quiet Hours, I did a Christmas EP that came out in November. Then that one I recorded in May will be called Above A Cafe in Brighton and it will come out on March 24. I’m really happy with it. Between my solo Headwaters album, The Quiet Hours, and the Anchor Hymns community projects, I have something coming out every two or three weeks for the rest of the year. It’s fun to have been doing this for 25 years and be more excited about creating and releasing music than ever.


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