I had the good fortune of talking with Andrew Osenga about his new album, The Painted Desert, in October of 2017 when he was still in the process of making it.
We sat in Osenga’s recording space in the basement of his house and discussed his year of desert-wandering, records that allow space to be sad, the difference between sadness and bitterness, and the heavy gratitude of feeling indebted to one’s friends, among many other things.
What follows is a lightly edited transcription of that conversation as well as a track from the record.
You can hear The Painted Desert in all its finished glory by supporting it on Kickstarter here—any pledge you make earns you an immediate download.
Andrew: I thought I had moved into the phase of my life when I was no longer a recording artist, that I was the guy who helped other recording artists—which I am! And I love. But the last year for me was a difficult one: a dry, barren wasteland of a year. Career questions were just the symptom of things that needed to be dealt with. And sometimes the Lord sends you to the desert for a bunch of different things, and you just have to wander.
I’m not usually the kind of guy who says, 'I heard the word of the Lord, and he told me to get a burger for lunch instead of Korean food.'Andrew Osenga
So that’s what the last year felt like. Which sucks. Even though it can be good for you, it sucks. It had been years since I had written songs to get my feelings out and I felt like I didn’t have anything to say anymore.
I’m not usually the kind of guy who says, “I heard the word of the Lord, and he told me to get a burger for lunch instead of Korean food.” It’s very rare that I sense things like that, but this time I strongly sensed that I needed to write more songs, and the Lord was giving me the songs. They just kept showing up.
So I went to my friend Paul’s house, sat on his couch with my guitar, and the first day there I wrote three songs in two hours. And I don’t normally do that.
Drew: Wow! What’s that even like?
Andrew: I advise people to take their time, edit, edit more; a song’s not just done because you’ve written three verses and a chorus. I am an editor, but fully formed songs were popping out. Part of that is just the dam effect: the dam was finally loose, so I got to say, “Oh! Look what was in there!” And I’ve had to go back and re-write some of them, but the first few songs came out pretty much fully formed.
There’s a scripture from Joel that meant a lot to me as I made this record: these locusts come, then more locusts, then more, then a final herd comes, then an army comes after that and kills everything else that was left. Fairly dark. I won’t say my year was quite like that, but emotionally sometimes it felt that way.
Then, midway through the second chapter there’s a shift. It says the Lord will redeem the years the locusts have eaten. I’ve been trying to live out of that. A lot of the new life growing in my career, my relationships, and my heart feels like the Lord redeeming the year the locusts have eaten. I am now at the beginning of that process.
So it’s not a record about keeping your chin up—no, no, no—it just sucks. And it’s not necessarily just a sad record. My goal is to make a record like some of the ones I’ve spent time with in the last few years. You put them on because they create a space for you to feel the way you need to feel. Sometimes you need to be sad and put yourself in a place that lets you be sad, lets you mourn, and so forth. There are a couple records that do that for me, some of my very favorite albums, so I wanted to make one like that.
Drew: What are they?
Andrew:Voyager by Kathleen Edwards. Holy moly. It’s fantastic. It’s not sonically great. It’s beautiful, but not correct. It’s wonderful.
Drew: That’s an interesting thought. Do you feel like there’s a trace of that in your own record? Are there moments where you’re saying, “This isn’t correct, but it needs to be what it is?” Or is your editing hat keeping you from doing that?
Andrew: That’s hard. The other record I was going to mention is Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, which is the same way, wonderful in its weirdness.
Drew: The air conditioning is on and you can hear it in the tracks.
Andrew: Yeah, and obviously mine is always on. But also I’ve produced a lot of records. I’m a competent musician, sometimes to my own detriment. I don’t play sloppy. It’s a challenge to get things feeling raw because I’ve just played guitar for a long time. I don’t tend to play raw.
So it’s a lot of gritting my teeth and keeping first takes, and a lot of layering, singing or playing the same part a few times so that the takes sit on top of each other and rub each other. It creates a bit of unease, some humanity. Sometimes you have to work really hard to get the feeling of raw emotion, oddly enough.
The song I was just tracking vocals for this morning, “Beautiful Places”—I already have a fully finished vocal track that feels a bit too technically correct, so I decided to try a second time. And now I can’t stop crying. I have one that’s too good and one I can’t even get through. So right now I’ve got nothing!
Andrew shares a song he has been recording called “The Rain.”
Andrew: As you can hear, the songs are pretty sparse. What I love about Carrie & Lowell in particular is that there’s actually a lot happening on it, but it never feels like there’s a lot happening. When I think about that album, I think about one guitar and one voice, but there’s always about seven things happening. There’s never a spot where one acoustic guitar thing ends and another starts. There’s always some other element in between that holds it together, often synth. It makes what could be boring never get old.
. . . this record has a lot of scripture in it, but I interact with it in a different way than I have before. Not as a band-aid, but as another friend who sits with you. It doesn’t let you wallow, but doesn’t necessarily offer an immediate answer, either. It offers presence.Andrew Osenga
So I’m not trying to rip that record off, but I do love the thoughtfulness of how sparse it is. Community is such a huge part of my life and I’m surrounded by friends who help me to keep doing what I do—they’re also all great singers—so I want the voices of my friends to play a role in the songs.
Drew: Sounds symbolic of your friends upholding you throughout your year of wandering.
Andrew: Yeah, and I want people to hear loneliness, but also how community can step into that loneliness, not necessarily as an answer, but just as solidarity. So Jeremy Casella’s going to sing on this song, because he’s amazing…
Andrew plays me “Still Waters.”
Drew: I’m really intrigued by the theme you’re describing of the interplay between loneliness and community. To the extent you wish, I’d love for you to talk about the year of wandering and how that theme of loneliness and community played out for you. If any of these songs have particular stories tied to them, I’d love to hear those as well. You said you did a lot of wandering around at Radnor Lake?
Andrew: Yes, and “Still Waters” was written on my phone walking around Radnor. At the time, my family was trying to memorize certain scriptures. So we would sit together every night—it sounds like we’re super holy, but we only did it for maybe a week—we were learning Psalm 23: “You lead me beside still waters; your rod and your staff comfort me.” And I thought, “I know that’s a metaphor, but I don’t need a metaphor right now. I really need you, right here and right now. I need something tangible.”
So I remembered that there is water near my house. I drove to the water, and it was still, and I walked around it. I thought, “I’m here. Where are you?” And that’s how that song came.
As far as community goes—here, I’ll play a section of a song for you.
Andrew then plays a verse from “Give Up:”
I’ve got good friends I hope I don’t wear out
If all I bring is more bad news
I know they’ll tell me I am more than that
Don’t know how I get so confused
Guess I’ve just always liked the blues
Hold my heart, I can’t go on
Bone dry, closed mind, I give up
So yeah, that’s the idea. I know I’ve got these people here and they’re here for me, but I feel like I’m wearing them out. You bring all your self-doubt, all your baggage into it. And they’re not perfect, and they’ll let you down, and you’ll probably wear them out, but that’s okay. They’ve worn you out, too. I’ve lived in this town for twenty years, so a lot of the people that I was walking around Radnor with are people I’ve been friends with for fifteen or twenty years. I’ve annoyed them and they’ve annoyed me and that’s fine. That’s good.
Drew: When you talk about being friends with people for fifteen or twenty years, I just think, “I have no frame of reference for that.”
There is no way I can possibly understand. But I have felt that sense of being a burden to my friends and I have also experienced that in the opposite direction, with friends feeling like they’re a burden to me. And I always think in those moments, “Even if you are a burden to me, I don’t care! You’re my friend and I will carry this burden with you. That’s what I’m here for and the last thing I want you to do is lament how annoying you feel.”
But then I’m in the opposite position and when I’m needy, it’s so hard to accept help.
Andrew: Well, it’s always fun to be a hero.
Drew: Of course! Just sail in with perfect advice: “Well friend, if you thought about it this way…”
Andrew: “Oh, all my problems are fixed now!”
Drew: “Thank you, Drew, that was just what I needed!”
A lot of what I’m hearing in what you’ve shared so far is just how hard it is to accept the fact that we have needs, especially when we feel like we are out of answers. Am I right to say that’s a theme?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s definitely in there. Which is not the same as saying, “I don’t believe it” or “I’m giving up on it.” That song I just played you is called “Give Up,” but it’s about giving up self-sufficiency.
Drew: That’s worthy of giving up.
Andrew: And it sort of twists into being about giving up my phone.
I don’t really understand how it did that, but it seemed to work. It’s all really the same, the idea of control. A lot of the record comes out of a place of giving up, a good giving up that hurts.
And this record has a lot of scripture in it, but I interact with it in a different way than I have before. Not as a band-aid, but as another friend who sits with you. It doesn’t let you wallow, but doesn’t necessarily offer an immediate answer, either. It offers presence.
I hope no one hears bitterness in this. To me, there isn’t any. I think there’s a lot of sadness.
Drew: That resonates deeply with me—could you speak to the difference between those two?
Andrew: Bitterness thinks it has a right to these things it wanted. A sense of deserving. There’s a selfishness to it. But sadness—it’s okay to grieve the things you lose, the loss of a dream, a calling, of something you want, or someone you love. And it’s okay to grieve the ending of something even when the new thing is better. People can grieve when they get married. There’s a small death in that; you’re not single anymore.
Bitterness is when you’re angry that you’re sad. Maybe that’s what it is. It’s okay to be angry and it’s okay to be sad. A lot of this was written out of the journey towards being okay with sadness. Because then you can move past it, deal with it, and walk through it.
Listen to Osenga’s song, “The Year of the Locust,” below.