Joan Osborne Shares Stories Of Her Unrelenting Soul Career (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Mary Andrews

“I’m fresh from my walk and feeling good,” Joan Osborne tells me when I call in for our interview. “I live mostly on the East Coast so it’s great to be someplace where it’s 60 degrees in the middle of January.”

Osborne is indeed refreshed from the sunny California weather and spends our time together talking freely about her music. She has a new album of old songs culled from past radio programs that have been hiding away in a closet, unheard. Appropriately titled Radio Waves, the songs are bright lights from a career that started almost on a whim during her college days in the 1980s. The earliest track is from 1995, a sensually emotional version of “St Teresa,” off the album that would make her a star, and culminates with several 2012 songs that brim over with fun, sass, and self-enjoyment. If you only knew Osborne for one song, you need to finally discover the REAL voice that has grown more beautiful over time and showcases just what singing is all about.

A Kentucky girl who moved to the excitement of New York City to study filmmaking, Osborne became an IT girl of the new strong yet feminine singer-songwriter community. Her debut album, Relish, soared, heavily rotating on MTV, snatching up Grammy nominations and earning her a co-headlining slot on 1997’s Lilith Fair. With fame in the palm of her hand, although that was never really her goal, she has been able to sing, write and perform with some of her musical idols – The surviving Grateful Dead members in 2003’s “The Dead” tour, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples among them – and record eleven studio albums. 

Radio Waves is such an entertaining amalgam of styles and sounds, reinterpretations, and subtle enhancements. The first singles, “Real Love” and “Shake Your Hips,” sweat with heat and sexiness. “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” from 2012’s extraordinary Bring It On Home, worms its way into your soul that not swaying to the rhythm is just impossible, while her 2003 cover of James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is” becomes an aching poem that sits naked on the nerves. 

Osborne is always ready to take her music to the people but the pandemic interrupted her plans, enabling her to write and record 2020’s Trouble & Strife. Although she was able to play some venues as the pandemic slowed down, others had to be postponed. When we spoke, she was on a short West Coast run. She has shows planned for the spring and early summer as of now, so seeing her sing these songs and more will be an absolute pleasure once again.

So Joan, how have you been doing?

Well, it’s been an interesting time, I think for a lot of people. In particular for musicians, it’s been a real challenge to deal with, with the realities of covid and the realities of how nowadays people don’t make any money from recorded music. They are really dependent on live performance to support themselves and feed their families and stuff. So covid hitting made that really challenging. But I think also, for people who have children, it’s nice to be able to be at home all the time with them. I have a teenage daughter and she may not think it’s a good thing but I think it’s a good thing that I’m home with her all the time (laughs). She’s not going to be at home much longer. She’s going to go off to college so I find these very precious times. So it’s been a mixed bag.

When we do get out to play shows, it’s still a little bit hit or miss. There are some places where everyone is vaccinated and masked and tested and there’s a big crowd and everybody is really thrilled to be seeing live music again and it’s wonderful. Then there are other places where you have a gig planned and the promoter will call you a couple of weeks in advance and say it’s just not the right time, people are not buying tickets, they’re still afraid; so you postpone it and do it another time. You just have to remain flexible. 

Personally, I feel a little bit of a sense of mission because I think live music really is important for people, just as individuals. There really is nothing quite like it. And also I think for communities it’s good to have something that allows people to get together as a community in a time when people are so divided. You can come out and listen to music and see people in your community just as fellow human beings instead of what’s their political opinion and what’s their party and are they in my tribe or not. So when we can perform, we enjoy it and we love it and we also feel like it’s a positive thing.

You were on a short tour. Then what happens?

Then I go back to New York and continue to be a parent and continue to work on some writing. I’m trying to write some songs to hopefully release maybe at the end of this year. And just trying to do what I can do while I’m not on the road – laundry, cooking, going to the grocery store, that kind of stuff (laughs).

Speaking of writing songs, do you find the songs you’ve been writing more angry, more deep thought or the total opposite of finding fun within the same four walls?

Well, I do believe that music is a very important way to keep connected to a sense of joy, the joy of being alive, and we all need that right now because the times that we’re living in are so challenging. We need that energy, we need that joy. So some of the things that I have been writing are more in that space. I did put out a record in 2020 called Trouble & Strife, which was very much a response to what’s happening in the world and political challenges, what’s going on at the southern border, immigration. There was a lot of things in that record that were dealing with just the issues that we’re all facing right now. 

I felt like as an artist, I had a platform beyond just being a citizen and contributing in that way I could contribute as an artist. I feel like those songs are really connecting with the audiences when we play them live so I think there’s real meaning for people in songs like that right now. But I also feel like music is something that we don’t necessarily have to have it be about issues or politics or anything like that. It can also just be food for the soul and a renewal. So I feel like the songs that I am writing now are more in that vein of just trying to find things that are going to renew me and then hopefully through that will renew other people as well.

You’ve delved into the past to make something new, which is your new album. Did you get sick of listening to yourself?

(laughs) You know, no one has ever asked me that question but yes! (laughs). This record is called Radio Waves, a collection of recordings that I pretty much just found when I was cleaning out all my closets during covid, you know. I was stuck at home and was like, well, time to clean out that closet that I’ve been meaning to tackle for the last seven years! And I found all of these recordings and I did listen to a bunch of them. I didn’t spend many, many hours every day doing it but I would check back in with them and go through them and the ones that I couldn’t stand to listen to are not the ones we’re releasing, let’s put it that way (laughs). It’s the stuff that actually sounded good to me and I’m usually my own worst critic. So it’s the stuff that felt fresh and felt alive to me that we’re releasing. 

It was kind of nice to have this sort of time capsule. As a live performer, most of the work that I do exists only in the moment that we’re performing and then it’s gone forever. So all these years and years that I’ve spent on the road, I’ve certainly made records and put them out, but most of the work that I’ve done is very ephemeral and is gone. So it’s nice to be able to go back and have these little time capsules of, Oh, here’s something that we recorded in a radio station in 1995 and here’s a little demo that I did and just sort of forgot about back in the early 2000’s. It’s like looking through a photo album or something.

You start off with “St Teresa,” which is a version that was pretty much done at the time of Relish’s release. In today’s world, who do you look out your window and see as the modern-day St Teresa?

That’s a really good question. I think I find that in this moment when we really are living in these challenging times, that there are people all around who are, maybe they’re not saints in the sense of a Catholic saint where they’ve lived this completely pure life hundreds of years ago and died as a martyr, but I find that spirit of trying to get beyond yourself and trying to do something that is of benefit to other people is very much alive in this moment. It’s like that great quote from Mr Rogers when I think he was a little boy and he saw something in the news that disturbed him and his mother said, “Look for the helpers.” There are so many people who have responded to this moment of conflict and of crisis in a way that brings out the best of them and in a way that I really admire. So I find people like that all over the place all the time.

It’s not that you don’t see that there are problems but if you can allow yourself to imagine a brighter day, you can allow yourself to connect with, what could I do to help in this moment. Then I think it’s much easier to be able to function in a world that seems to be turning upside down in a lot of ways. If you just allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the negative things and the endless news cycle of this crisis and that crisis then of course you’re going to feel discouraged. But if you allow yourself to say, who am I, what skills do I have, what can I bring to this moment that is going to be positive, that’s, I think, a way to live your life and to not feel overwhelmed and not feel discouraged.

That song is so Appalachian in nature. When did that type of music really start to mean something to you?

You know, I think it was not until I was in my mid-twenties when I really started to become a part of this music scene that was happening in New York City at the time; and this was the 1980’s we’re talking about. There was a lot of rock music but there was also a lot of roots music, there was blues music, there were country bands, people doing singer-songwriter stuff; people like Jeff Buckley were around at that time on that scene. So I was really interested to delve more into the music that I loved and to find out more about it and learn about it, finding out that the roots of blues actually included things like Appalachian music or included things like country music or the roots of gospel included things like Jazz and work songs and really educated myself. That’s when I started to have an appreciation for all these different styles of roots music and I think a lot of what happened on the Relish record was to take that knowledge and take some sort of understanding and facility with those deep roots and weave it into something that could be very individual. It wasn’t just trying to sound like an old blues person but to try to take that tradition and combine it with whatever was unique to me and unique to the people I was working with and create something new out of it.

You do a retranslation so well of “Shake Your Hips” and I kept thinking that poor old Slim Harpo was probably having a heart attack because your version is so sexy.

(laughs) You know, one of the reasons that I fell in love with blues music is because you have all these great female role models in the blues. People like Etta James and Mavis Staples and Big Mama Thornton, these were women that did not take any mess from anybody. As a young woman trying to navigate the realities of just living life, to be able to sort of put on that costume of having that kind of attitude and having that kind of confidence and that sort of swagger, I think was a real wonderful thing for me to be able to do. Eventually, when you imitate people that are your heroes enough, something of that starts to become part of your character. So I think that sort of confidence of those women really rubbed off on me and that’s what I love about doing a song like this. Here I am, check it out, let’s all enjoy this, let’s enjoy each other; that sort of confidence and that swagger, it’s just fun.

Your version of the Bill Withers song, “Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” is very powerful whereas he’s all cool and smooth and a little funky. What attracted you to that one?

I love Bill Withers. He was an amazing singer, amazing writer and there was something about that song. I hadn’t really known it very well until I was searching for material for the Bring It On Home record. There was just something so powerful about it and I felt like, especially when you get to that breakdown moment where the band stops and the vocal takes over, it sort of cried out to me for this really emotional delivery. I wanted to try to find something in the song that was different from the Bill Withers version. His version, of course, is amazing and wonderful and the definitive version but if you’re going to cover someone else’s song, you don’t just want to try and do it exactly like they did it, cause what’s the point, you know. You want to find something in it that can bring out a different shade of meaning and I guess I felt like that song had a sort of desperation and a sort of emotional quality that I could connect with and that’s what I tried to bring to the performance.

Were you prepared for the fame that came after “One Of Us”?

No. I’m not sure anybody can really be prepared for that. I, personally, didn’t see that as a possibility when making the record or even when getting into music. I just felt like this is something that I love and it’s something where I feel like, if I can make a living doing this, if I can be like one of my heroes and can continue to make records and have a place in this world, then I’m good, I’m golden. Having a hit song was a little bit of a different experience than that. I’m basically a private person so it kind of blew that out of the water, at least in that moment. It’s not like I walk around these days and people are chasing me down the street like they used to, thank goodness. But in that moment, that was something that I’m not sure anybody can be prepared for that. And I think there’s a certain level of fame, if you’re somebody like J-Lo, you can afford to have this sort of bubble around you of a lot of layers of protection – you know, managers and agents and security guards and lawyers. You’re never in a place where you’re sort of vulnerable on the street and just anyone can come up and talk to you. 

At that point in my life, I had this huge exposure but I was still kind of walking around, going to the corner grocery and buying tampons, just trying to live my life, and it was really very unnerving to have people recognize me. Certainly there were moments where it was lovely and people can be very lovely in those circumstances but it could also get weird and get uncomfortable. So that was a thing that I didn’t love about it. That being said, I’m more than grateful that something that I helped to create meant so much to so many people. As an artist, that’s what you want, that’s what your dream is, to have made something that connected with people; not just the song “One Of Us,” but also the rest of the record and the live shows and being able to perform in front of thousands and thousands of people. That’s an opportunity that I will be endlessly grateful for.

Because of that fame though, you have been able to perform with some stellar artists. Who is the one that you got on stage with and your knees started knocking?

There have been so many. I’m a huge Patti Smith fan and to be able to sing with her was incredible. To be able to share a microphone in the studio with Bob Dylan, to record with him. I mean, I’ve had to pinch myself so many times. I got to fly to Italy and sing with Luciano Pavarotti. It’s been a charmed life in a lot of ways. It really has been.

What was it like with Mavis Staples?

Oh, she is one of my idols and continues to be one of my idols. I always loved her voice and I always loved her performance. I first saw her in The Last Waltz movie and she just blew me away and I wanted to sound like that and I wanted to have that kind of ease and grace onstage. Then getting to actually know her and getting to tour with her, she is all that and more. She is the kind of person who can walk out onto a stage and she’s just beaming this incredible, beautiful, positive energy onto everyone. Everyone is invited to be part of this experience with her. She is just such a wonderful presence and then as a person, she’s funny and she’s warm. She’s just amazing and she’s a national treasure and I am so grateful that I got a chance to work with her and to tour with her and get to know her. She deserves every bit of love that comes her way because that’s what she is putting out to the world. She’s really an amazing person.

How did you hook up with Anders Osborne? He’s one of ours, you know, down in New Orleans.

I think we met working with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. I think that’s how we first got to know each other. I had, of course, seen him and just been a fan, but this was the first time we really connected in person and we ended up continuing to be in touch. When I put together a thing called Dylanology, where we would do a full band show and have some guests and do nothing but Bob Dylan songs all night long, he was one of the first people that I thought of. He came out to do that with us and then he invited me down to do one of his Christmas shows in New Orleans. We’ve kept in touch and, man, what a spirit he is. He digs deep for everything and every moment and it’s inspiring to watch.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Ooh, that’s a good question. Does BB King count as a real rock star? (laughs) Maybe it was when I opened for BB King back in Rochester, New York, and this would have been I think the early nineties and it was a real brief meeting but I worshiped BB King, I still do. His record, Live At Cook County Jail, was, and still is, one of my favorite all-time records. And just to be able to open for him was such a thrill. I just got to say a real quick hello and he was very warm. It was very brief but I would say BB King was probably the first real rock star I ever met.

What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?

I remember being very young and going out into the woods. I grew up in Kentucky and I liked to go out into the woods and build little forts in the woods and I remember bringing my transistor radio – I had a little Realistic Radio Shack transistor radio – and I would bring it out into the woods with me and I remember that Minnie Riperton song “Lovin’ You” used to come on and I would sing along. Every time it came on I was so excited because I could sing along to it and I could hit those high notes (laughs). I must have been like six or seven at this point so I had a very high voice. I don’t think I could do that again (laughs). But I think that was the first song that I was just really, really thrilled about.

What is a favorite memory from being at Jazz Fest in New Orleans?

We were playing on one of the main stages – I think this must have been 1996 or 1997 or something – and I had been to Jazz Fest as a fan many, many times – and was just so thrilled to actually be playing it. So we were on and had just finished and I raced over to be able to watch Van Morrison. I got to watch him from the side of the stage and it was such a thrill to just hear him up close like that and to look out at this sea of fans just going crazy. You know, he’s a very eccentric performer so there were moments where he had his back to the audience and then he’d play some saxophone and then he would sing and it was just so interesting to watch him up close, because he’s not the kind of artist who’ll just come out and go, “Okay, here’s my greatest hits. I’m going to sing them just like the records sound.” He’s exploring all the time, whatever he’s doing in that moment, and that was really fascinating to watch. I think there is a sort of curmudgeonly vibe that he has of just, grr, don’t bother me (laughs); but you can see that that is in service of him trying to be really present and really authentic with his art and that was very interesting to see.

What song that you have written has changed the most for you in terms of its original meaning?

That is a really good question. It’s going to take me a minute to think about that … But you know, you may have stumped me there (laughs). 

What do you see as the biggest change in you as a songwriter?

I think that as I continue to do this, and also to get older, the fear of making mistakes or of looking like a fool or writing something terrible, falls away more and more. I think the connection that I have with myself and the knowledge that I have of myself becomes deeper. So to me, instead of it being this sort of minefield of, Oh it’s got to be perfect and it’s got to be this and it’s got to be that, which I have certainly felt in my life, I feel now much more like, this is fun and this is interesting, and there are no wrong answers, and if you write something that you hate, you don’t have to show it to anybody (laughs). And that’s going to be part of the process, doing something that sucks but that’s okay. So I feel like it’s a much less fraught arena for me now.

Portrait by Jeff Fasano; live photos by Mary Andrews

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