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by Wendy Lee Nentwig

September 22, 2011

I Helped a Christian Rock Star Build a Spaceship

by Wendy Lee Nentwig  |  September 22, 2011

In today's scaled-back music industry, indie artist Andrew Osenga is thinking big. Stratospherically big. For his new project, Leonard the Lonely Astronaut, Osenga is headed into space or at least a pretty impressive re-creation of it. Yes, he's building a "spaceship." And yes, I helped him.

He knows the idea makes him sound a little crazy, but this usually down-to-earth husband and father of two has had the pet project in the back of his mind for a while now. Then friends, fans and even fellow artists began hopping onboard, encouraging the otherworldly adventure. When Andrew Peterson introduced Osenga on the Ryman Auditorium stage last December as "my friend Andy who's building a spaceship," there was no turning back. A successful Kickstarter campaign seemed to confirm that the time was finally right to bring Leonard to life.

I know what you're thinking, but Osenga isn't a desperate indie artist looking for a gimmick to give him his big break. He's already had that. He left college at just 19, when the band he founded and fronted, The Normals, was signed by a major Christian label. They released three critically acclaimed albums before he went on to join Caedmon's Call, and most recently filled in on some Jars of Clay dates while band member Stephen Mason welcomed a new baby. He has also released several solo projects that have nothing to do with space, and he regularly produces music for others in his modest recording studio in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood.

So how did he get here?

Osenga blames it at least partly on his lifelong insomnia. Leonard's story developed while Osenga trying to fall asleep. The character grew, and his creator began entertaining people with tales of the lonely astronaut whose estranged wife is killed in an accident, so he packs up his regrets and heads into space. As a musician, it was only natural for Osenga to turn those stories songs.

It wasn't long before Osenga spent a breezy September weekend in Nashville building a replica of a spaceship's interior in a warehouse next door to a Baja Burrito. A few dozen Kickstarter supporters were on hand to help, traveling from Connecticut, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland, Iowa and other far-off locales to donate their time. His parents even made the trip from Normal, Ill., to pitch in. They admit they're not totally clear on where their son is going with this, but they're supportive, and Dad's electrical skills come in handy.

The build, overseen by founding Caedmon's Call member (and talented carpenter) Todd Bragg, was successful, yielding an all-white structure that will feature prominently in the record-making process. Consider it "method recording." Osenga will play most of the music himself (Leonard is a "lonely" astronaut, after all), and he'll even be decked out in a custom spacesuit donated by a Nike employee whose day job consists of creating gear for elite athletes, showcased at venues like Wimbledon. (She stumbled upon Osenga's Kickstarter page and eagerly offered to help.)

Osenga fittingly wrapped up the spaceship-building weekend with an acoustic show for the volunteers, playing a handful of songs from Leonard, several of which were still works in progress.

"This is my dream, as weird as it is," Osenga admits with a shrug, glancing at the spaceship structure behind him. Allowing so many people to be a part of it has added a new kind of pressure. "I owe you a great record," he tells us all, suddenly seeming a little overwhelmed by the events of the weekend and the physical show of support.

Here's where true sci-fi fans might be disappointed. Despite the spaceship and the high-tech suit and the astronaut talk, this really isn't an album about space. It's about love, loneliness and longing the everyday emotions we earthbound folks know so well, but need musicians to express for us. Tracks like "Brushstroke" and "Firstborn Son" make it clear there will be no Bowie-like theatrics. Even the song titled "Only Man in the World" is more plaintive than preening. In the end, the spaceship may just be an analogy for the walls we each put up around ourselves, and the whole exercise points back to the music, as it should.

Or as Osenga explains it, "This is the best way I know how to tell a love story. It's not really about a spaceship; I just needed to change the context. This is how I'm able to write about the things I care about without it all being about me."

This week Bragg and Osenga will put the finishing touches on the spaceship's interior, and the recording process will get underway. There will be plenty of video footage shot to accompany the project a "making of" bonus feature is a given. The full album should be completed before the end of the year.

On the surface, it's a merging of two of Osenga's great passions: music and science fiction. But underneath it all is the childlike hope that a heaping helping of nostalgia might restore some of that wonder that gets lost as we grow up. After years of recording his own projects in his spare time, Osenga admits that he hopes Leonard can bring back some of the excitement he felt making his first record. It may not be one giant leap for musickind, but it's a start.

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