Andrew Osenga: A Career of Inkless Novels

Andrew Osenga

Andrew Osenga’s career has wandered between the roles of front man, side man, backing musician, producer, and studio player. For most folks who are familiar with him, his emergence upon the scene took the form of a band called The Normals. They put out three records, one of which was produced by Malcolm Burn, the craftsman behind Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Girl. Like any time spent with a great craftsman, the sessions became a kind of school. The prevailing story goes that, during tracking, Burn was trying to explain something to the band. He made reference to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s great break from the cars-girls-surfing formula. Everybody got it except Osenga, who had never heard the record. Burn’s response was to give the band a little time off while he tasked Osenga with listening straight through the record—twice.

In an era of upbeat pop from Forefront Records—other releases around that time include Kevin Max, TobyMac, and Audio Adrenaline—The Normals stood out with introspective lyrics full of questions and doubts, backed by layers of mid-heavy electric and analog drone.

I took the long way home,
But it led to the same apartment
Where no one’s paid the phone bill
And no one really cares.
When will that road
Go somewhere beautiful
And somewhere safe?

– “We Go On,” A Place Where You Belong (2002)

The Normals gained a cult following that lingers to this day. One would meet fellow fans at Caedmon’s Call concerts after Osenga joined that band as guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist in the Compassion International trip to India and South America, sowing the seeds of experiences that became the Caedmon’s album Share the Well. He continued with Caedmon’s through the making of 2007’s full-length release, Overdressed. Around the time of his Caedmon’s tenure, he began releasing solo records, revealing the extent of his masterful songwriting chops.

One could accurately say that Osenga’s writing grew up through years of musical experience. That tends to be the way of artistic endeavors, of course. People learn by doing. It might be better said, however, that his writing matured under the tutelage of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Osenga’s songs—and, in turn, his solo projects—often play out like novels, peopled with crooked or broken characters, worldly struggle, and otherworldly yearning. “The Priest and the Iron Rain,” off of his Souvenirs & Postcards EP, comes directly out of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Osenga has cited Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven as inspiration for “Early in the Morning,” an ode to his neighborhood that appeared online as an acoustic demo and then on his full-length record The Morning. Other, less prefigured creations emerge from the milieu of Osenga’s literate mind as well. There’s Kara, the girl from a small town in Indiana, and her album-mates: Stanley, the butcher; Frank, the washed-up Baptist pastor; and Michael Brown, the divorced professor. These are followed by an entire cast of desperate smiles in “Broadway Bartender.” After that come the “Farmer’s Wife” and the unrequited love of “Marilyn.”

It is distinctly the classic American novel that feels most present in Osenga’s back catalog. Our national schoolchild regimen of postwar requisites—essentially every author from the Lost Generation onward—hinges on protagonists and anti-heroes who hover on the brink of dystopia, longing for a paradise that was promised but has not come. We find our own struggles and fears in the mirrors of these fictional characters, and albums from 2002’s Photographs to 2008’s Letters to the Editor, Vol. 2 give us the same sort of opportunities for cathartic, redemptive self-examination and—when subsumed into the Holy Ghost—relief from our fears of and tendencies toward isolation.

In both Letters to the Editor projects, in fact, the characters are no longer even fictional. For these EPs, Osenga reached out to his fan base, asking for stories, pictures, and other ideas that could be turned into songs. The response allowed the sort of pain, joy, and heartache written in the tales of Osenga’s songs to come full circle. The human difficulties that emerged through the making of the records were numerous and, frankly, difficult to hear.

So much anger, so much pain,
We’ve had to go numb to survive.

So I am closing my eyes,
And I’m praying for those in my life.
Let us feel, let us love, let us be alive.
Let us know You.

“Let Us Know You,” Letters to the Editor, Vol. 2

Fans even got to participate in the musical process, sending in audio samples of themselves singing or playing along on the respective closing tracks of both records.

Following this, Osenga embodied the character himself, donning a custom spacesuit—no, really—inhabiting a custom, fan-constructed spaceship—yes, you read that right—and recording the full-length album Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut. Leonard, alone and surrounded by stark white panels and straight lines, sings of human connection—the only thing he doesn’t have. It was a whole new level of concept record. It was Osenga’s novel. Leonard leaves his boyhood, his family, and his love, forced to face himself in a space-bound room with only a guitar and a potted plant for company.

Recently, after taking himself off the road—with the notable exception of playing electric for Steven Curtis Chapman—Osenga has put together four stellar EPs that function as one. Heart, Soul, Flesh, and Bone are evidence of a musician and writer in full command of his extensive capabilities. The songwriting pulls into focus the larger narrative arc of one man’s heart. The questions that found expression through The Normals are still often present, but there is a deep, deep sense of hope.

I’m a pilgrim in a foreign land.
I’m an outcast on my own native sand.
I’m alive in a world of death.
The voices all around whisper
There ain’t nothing left.

Set me free
Set me free
Prison walls and concrete halls
Got no room to breathe.
Set me free
Lord, I believe you;
Help my unbelief.

– “Set Me Free,” Soul EP

The Heart EP rings with intimate, layered folk, washed through with Osenga’s signature electrics. Soul is an opportunity to groove (being soul music, of course), though it also closes with a delightful visionary journey called “The Bird Who Was Friday,” which would do Sergeant Pepper proud. Flesh is all-out rock and roll assault, and Bone, recently released to complete the quartet, is a six-track instrumental meditation.

The way we approach musicians and their craft often tacitly intimates that there are only two ways to go about the work: enjoy meteoric fame or toil in obscurity. In reality, most musicians live in the wide country between these two extremes. Much of the time, they take on multiple roles in the process. In the midst of extensive, committed work on other people’s songs as producer and guitarist, Andrew Osenga has put together a solo career full of personal, resonant music. If your heart is in the process of beating, it’s worth a listen.

You can find a humbly partial CV, contact info, and lots of excellent music to buy at Andrew Osenga’s website.

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