Nashville musician Andrew Osenga is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and not just because he likes my books. Andy’s a thoughtful, literate, Steinbeck-loving storyteller who also happens to be an excellent guitar player (he plays lead for Caedmon’s Call — a job he assumed after Derek Webb departed — and was frontman for The Normals way back in the day.) He’s also a prolific blogger at www.andrewosenga.com, where he keeps his readers involved on the day-to-day life of a hard-working musician trying to raise a family and make a living.
Anyway, his solo project, The Morning — which released in 2006 — was one of my favorite records of the year. It was less acoustic-driven than his earlier solo stuff, and was a great combination of killer lyricism and flat-out rock. One of the best records I’d heard in a long time, in fact, and I’m not the only one who thinks so (see #11 here).
When Andy found himself between projects a couple months ago, he had a fun idea. He decided to solicit ideas — words, phrases, even photographs — from the fan community on his blog. Then, from those ideas, he wrote Letters to the Editor, Vol. 1, a six-song EP, which he recorded at his home over a period of around two weeks. He even used vocals from his fans, who were asked to record a short, easy series of vocals via GarageBand and which Andy assembled into a choir in the song “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates.” I love the creativity and community of this idea, and “Swing Wide” is a fantastic song.
Anyway, I think the whole concept is brilliant, and possibly the future of indie music. The “Letters” EP is available for free download at Andy’s website (with an optional $6 donation).
I asked Andy to answer some questions about the project. Here’s what he had to say…
Jason: How did you come up with the idea for doing a record this way?
Andrew Osenga: Well, I had a few friends over who were telling me that they thought people really liked my acoustic stuff, even though I don’t do it very much. They told me they thought people would pay for it, even an EP, something I could do quickly. Money was tight that month, as it is every month, and so I thought “why not?” The goal was to try to bring in enough money to cover the mortgage that month. It did. That was very good. So that was the inspiration for doing it at all…and for doing it quickly!
Walk me through the creative process — asking for ideas, receiving submissions, then writing and recording it. What did that look like from your end?
I’d just finished the new Caedmon’s record, for which I had written a couple dozen songs, ten of which we used, so I felt really creative, but also very out of ideas. I posted on my blog that I’d like to see if people had any good ideas I could try to write songs about. The response was overwhelming.
I’m a very quick writer, and always have been. The last Normals record was written and recorded in about two weeks, as well, so it’s not totally unusual for me. I believe deeply in gut instinct when it comes to music. This type of writing and recording process is set to capture the gut very well. I wrote in my basement and when I felt I had the song close to done I’d record the first guitar pass. Then the lead vocal. Then I’d just add stuff that felt cool until I thought it seemed done. Most of these songs were recorded and mixed within a few hours of the initial idea for the song. I love that.
What has been the response since the release?
The response has been incredible. The blog folks have just gotten behind it like nothing before. It’s been so exciting and encouraging. Without any prompting from me they started calling and e-mailing magazines and bigger blogs, trying to get people to cover the EP. And that got those people interested, so I’ve been getting reviews and doing interviews, and that’s all been very positive as well.
Since it’s downloadable for free, I have to ask: Has anyone been paying for it?
Yeah, people have been paying for it. Like I said, we paid our mortgage in time, just from donations, and we’re paying this month’s that way as well. So it’s been great. I’m incredibly grateful. That’s indie music at it’s finest, you know?
The “randomness” of some of the imagery and lyrics is a lot of fun, and also reveals the unorthodox way you assembled the songs (especially “Anna and the Aliens” and “The Blessing Curse”). But I’d put songs like “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates” up there with any of your more traditional songs — people would hear it, I think, and be surprised to learn the back story. How do you feel about the finished product? Do you see these songs as part of a fun little side project or do you include them in the “official” Andrew Osenga catalog?
Thanks, man. Because the whole project was just so loose and open, it let me have fun in ways I don’t usually get to. I would never put a song like Anna on a record, but maybe I should. I’m a sci-fi nerd who loves Springsteen, so you know, why not? But some songs, “Swing Wide,” “Wanted,” and “The Ball Game” especially, I feel turned out beyond the scope of a little thrown-together project. I think those tunes will have long lives, and could be fun to hear with full production later on. “Anna” will probably be fun live as the in-joke among a few folks, which will be fun to have.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview, which includes Andy’s explanation of Webground Vocals(TM), the creative process behind the song “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates,” and what coming up next…