Joan Osborne Interview: Rescued by the Blues
Image attributed to Joan Osbourne
Joan Osborne has sold millions of albums and garnered multiple Grammy nominations throughout her critically and commercially acclaimed career. In addition to her own headlining tours, Osborne has sung lead vocals for The Dead (formerly the Grateful Dead), toured with Motown sidemen the Funk Brothers and was featured in the award winning film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Kentucky native is known for the pop song, “One of Us,” which asked questions about how the listener might relate to God. The song was released in March 1995 on the album Relish and became a Top 40 hit in November of that year.
"We went to this bar, which happened to be a blues bar. The band had finished playing, but there was a piano player who was still there playing for himself and a handful of people who were still at the bar. My friend dared me to go up and sing a song with this piano player and said he’d buy the drinks if I did. So, being the broke college student that I was, I was like, 'Sure.'”
Osborne began her career singing in New York blues clubs and on her newest album, Bring It On Home, she makes a return to her musical roots. A collection of some of her favorite classic songs, Bring It On Home is Osborne’s tribute to the music she has long loved and drew inspiration from.
Bring It On Home includes tracks originally made famous by American blues masters such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters, as well as recordings originally released by some of the greatest R&B singers ever including Ray Charles, Al Green and Otis Redding.
Osborne has a daughter who was born in December 2004.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joan, how are you?
Joan Osborne: I’m doing good. I’m having a nice relaxing morning in grey, drizzly Brooklyn.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): With a day filled with interviews (laughs).
Joan Osborne: Yeah, well, at least I’m home (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The album is very entertaining.
Joan Osborne: Oh, great. Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve come full circle since beginning your career singing the blues. Why go back to your roots now?
Joan Osborne: Well, I can’t take the credit for the idea. It was brought to me by the people at Saguaro Records label. I was doing a concert at Lincoln Center as a guest of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and Saguaro is their label as well. These guys from the label were in the audience that night, and they approached me afterward, and said, “We love hearing you do this bluesy gospel stuff. Would you be interested in doing a record of covers?”
At first, I was not that interested in it. I was in the middle and still am in the process of working on a bunch of original music and wanted to stick with it until it was finished. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I might not get the chance to do something like this again. They were very interested and were willing to put a lot of resources behind it. I thought I would just be crazy not to do this, so that’s when I accepted their offer and began to really think about what songs to do.
I had a bunch of songs in my mind that I always wanted to do. They had some thoughts about songs they’d like to do which were really great ideas. The Ike and Tina Turner song, “Game of Love,” is one that they brought. I also asked around to some other people I know who are great scholars of this music, and they gave me some ideas. So, we started putting the song list together from that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have said that blues music rescued you when you were in need of rescue. What did you mean by that?
Joan Osborne: Of course, I had heard blues music before, but I think when I really first connected with this music, I was in a bit of a dark place in my life. I was really trying to do everything with my mind and my intellect. I was trying to live my life through my mind and my intellect. It’s not that that can’t get you places, but you really have to allow your heart and your soul and your spirituality to really play a big part in how you live your life. I wasn’t doing that.
There was something about this music that just really opened me up in a way and allowed me to connect with those parts of myself that I just hadn’t been doing before. There’s rawness to the expressiveness of it and the emotion and soul in it that just allowed me to connect with it. That’s what I mean by it rescuing me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you feel an added responsibility in making the songs as well as the originals or did you just concentrate on your interpretations?
Joan Osborne: I think you definitely have to ask yourself when you’re covering songs, “Is my version going to be different enough and interesting enough that I wouldn’t rather just send people to the original version?” It has got to allow people to hear the song in a fresh way or there is just no point of doing it. If you are trying to outdo Otis Redding on one of his own songs, you’re never going to be able to accomplish that. You can’t outdo Muddy Waters at his own game.
You have to try to find a way into the song that allows for people to hear it in a fresh way. But, it’s definitely an intimidating process. I mean, these artists are really my heroes, and I would certainly never put myself in the same light as them and say that I’m as good as Al Green. You try to have a real humility in approaching it and try to bring what you can bring to the song.
In a way, being a singer makes it a little easier than if I were a guitar player or something because the human voice is, in and of itself, unique. There are no two singers who are ever going to sound exactly the same, so in that sense you have a little advantage. Some of the great jazz singers will probably say that as well. You’re singing songs that other people have done, but there’s something about the way that you sing that is only you.
At the same time, it’s very intimidating. When you want to take on a song made famous by Muddy Waters, you have to sort of talk yourself off the ledge a little bit (laughs). You have to ask yourself, “Why would anyone care?” and be able to answer that question truthfully.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Several of these songs were written by men, for men. You had to turn them into female sounds.
Joan Osborne: That’s one of the strategies I used on some of the songs, particularly the Muddy Waters tune, “I Want to Be Loved.” It was actually a Willie Dixon song, but made famous by Muddy Waters. The Muddy version has that forceful delivery and that very sort of hyper masculine way of presenting a song, so I tried to approach it from a little different angle and sort of feminize it to give it a more seductive energy by adding the female chorus and rearranging it a bit. I think that was, in my mind, a way to bring a freshness to it.
On the other hand, the songs, “Game of Love,” and Olive Brown’s “Roll Like a Big Wheel,” are sung by women who are just laying down the law. You don’t want to soft pedal it in those instances. You just want to bring all the strength you’ve got to the songs.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that the engineer used a 24-track tape and that vintage microphones were used to give the album an “older” sound.
Joan Osborne: Yeah. We went to Waterfront Studios in New York that is owned and operated by a guy named Henry Hirsch. He is a well-known producer in his own right and probably most famous for doing all those Lenny Kravitz records that were such big hits. He is a real scholar of this old vintage gear and these “older” ways of recording music, which many people feel brings a warm sound quality that you just can’t get with digital equipment. He actually engineered all the sessions for us.
Even though Henry is a producer in his own right, he agreed to be just the engineer on this record. I feel like that gave us a real advantage to be able to work with somebody who knows how to get those sounds as well. I do think it brought to the record a real warmth and an immediacy that we would not have gotten otherwise.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree. You recently sang at Levon Helm’s funeral.
Joan Osborne: I did, yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you two close friends?
Joan Osborne: I’ve known his daughter, Amy, and I was really privileged to be able to do the (Midnight) Ramble. I wouldn’t say that I was his best friend. I think everybody who knew him wanted him to be his best friend (laughs). He had that kind of warmth about him. But, yeah, I knew him and was really grateful to have been able to not just be a fan of his (which I was for many years), but to get to know him a little bit and to make music with him before he passed. I was very honored to be part of the music at his service.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you ever get tired of singing, “One of Us” or do you get tired of this question?
Joan Osborne: Somehow, I knew you were going to ask that (laughs). I do get asked that question pretty frequently. I think anybody who has this one hit that was more successful than other songs gets asked that question a lot. For some people, it’s a double-edged sword or it becomes a kind of albatross around their necks. But, I don’t feel that way about it. I feel really grateful that I was able to have that kind of moment of notoriety and fame.
That song allowed many people to find me that may not have found me otherwise. People became fans through hearing that song, and they’ve stayed with me. I’ve been able to have a really long career partly due to the audience that song brought me. So, I’m really sort of grateful to it. It’s a pop song, but it’s got much more to it than many pop songs do. It’s not like I’m known for a song about shaking my booty. It’s got a lot of heart to it.
The song asks people about their spirituality and asks them to reflect on their relationship with God. I think those are things that don’t get old. Bringing that message to people is something I think a pop song does only rarely, so I feel like if there is just one song I have to be associated with, that’s a good one.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you raised Catholic, Joan?
Joan Osborne: Yes, until I was about nine or ten years old, I was raised Catholic. At that point, I rebelled (laughs). I had many questions and a lot of difficulty understanding traditions of the Church. I had been really taken with all the rituals of it when I was younger.
When I was really small, I wanted to be a priest. Then, I found out I could not, in fact, be a priest because girls were not allowed to grow up to be priests. I felt like this was very unfair, and I think that was my first moment of questioning what it was all about and what the institution was all about. But, yeah, I was raised Catholic until that age.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a Christian now?
Joan Osborne: I would not say that I am a Christian in the way that many people would define themselves. But, I do believe that there is a higher power, and I do believe that there is a positive force in the universe that we are a part of. I believe that very strongly.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The New York Times has said you draw from a voice called “angelic ecstasy and sexual abandon.” What are your comments on that?
Joan Osborne: My goodness (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that an unlikely pair of terms?
Joan Osborne: I don’t know. I kind of feel like those things are right next door to each other in a way. I really learned how to sing by trying to emulate great blues singers and soul singers like Otis Redding, Etta James and Tina Turner. I think their music has its roots in American gospel music, and so they have that kind of expressiveness in their voices that you find in church.
Then, they brought that music out of the church and into a secular world. Many of the songs are about passionate love, romance and sexuality, so I think those two things are not worlds apart, but are next door to each other. I hope I bring that kind of soulfulness to every kind of music that I do whether it’s soul or pop music or whatever. I feel like that’s a great compliment they paid me even though it’s quite a mouthful to say and a little embarrassing to hear. I do hope what I do approaches that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Right Hand Man” was definitely about sex.
Joan Osborne: Yes, for sure, yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that written after a personal experience?
Joan Osborne: Well, it wasn’t written immediately after a personal experience, but it drew from my personal experiences. Let me put it that way (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Catholic Church denounced the song, “St. Teresa.”
Joan Osborne: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your inspiration?
Joan Osborne: It’s funny. That character actually was based on a woman I used to see out my window when I was living on the lower east side in New York City. I would see this woman out on the street corner, and she had a baby in a stroller with her. She was selling drugs fairly openly on the corner. Those were the days when that neighborhood was really kind of like the Wild West.
I was fascinated by her because I thought she was really a strong person to be out on the street doing what she was doing with her child by her side. I kind of admired her in a way, not that I would ever want to raise my own daughter in those circumstances, but this was a woman who was making the best of her situation and doing what she could to support her family in this urban jungle environment. So, I became fascinated with her.
I thought that if I could see her that maybe there were other people who were looking out windows and watching her as well. The song is from the point of view of imagining somebody else who is watching her and who might go down and buy some drugs from her and have a relationship with her. It was based on that. I don’t want to say much more about it because I don’t like to interpret lyrics too much, but that is who the song was based on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. What was life like in the small town of Anchorage, Kentucky?
Joan Osborne: It was a pretty idyllic way to grow up. I lived in a town where everybody knew everybody, and nobody locked their doors at night. I have five brothers and sisters, and we used to just go running around in the woods, building forts and staying out all day. In the summertime, we’d leave in the morning and come back in time for supper and have adventures. It was a very idyllic place, and there was a lot of freedom growing up in that way.
I live in New York City now, and I’m raising my daughter in a very different way. You just can’t open the door and let them run out in the street and play all day (laughs). She’s having a different kind of childhood than I had for sure. But, I’m grateful to have had that kind of freedom and connection to nature and all the things that were great about growing up in that time and place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you leave home as a teenager to pursue music?
Joan Osborne: I left home at nineteen actually to go to college in New York City. I was not planning on doing music, but I was interested in filmmaking. I went to pursue a degree in filmmaking at New York University. I thought I was going to become a documentary filmmaker and was very interested in that. But, that’s when I discovered that there was this music scene happening in New York and kind of accidentally went out with a friend.
We went to this bar, which happened to be a blues bar. The band had finished playing, but there was a piano player who was still there playing for himself and a handful of people who were still at the bar. My friend dared me to go up and sing a song with this piano player and said he’d buy the drinks if I did. So, being the broke college student that I was, I was like, “Sure.”
I sang a Billie Holiday song. The piano player said, “That’s pretty good. We have an open mic night every Tuesday night. Why don’t you come back again?” I started going there every Tuesday night and singing my two little songs. Then, I found out about other places that had open mic nights, met musicians who were playing gigs in these clubs and started really becoming aware of and a part of this scene that was happening at the time. It was very much blues music based and was really vibrant. Many great musicians and bands were playing. You could go out any night of the week and hear two or three good bands.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any regrets that you did not become a documentary filmmaker?
Joan Osborne: No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve had an amazing time of it, and I feel like I’ve discovered the place I was meant to be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned your daughter earlier. Do you think it’s harder raising a seven-year old the older you get?
Joan Osborne: Well in terms of just energy level, yes (laughs). I always want to quit playing the kitty cat game before she’s ready to quit (laughs). But, as far as having more patience and more gratitude, I think it’s a good time to be a parent.
I know how lucky I am. It was certainly not a given that I was going to be able to have her, and I feel really fortunate that she picked me and came into my life. We’re having a really good time. She’s a wonderful kid.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has she taught you?
Joan Osborne: Just joyfulness, you know? There’s something about re-experiencing the world through the eyes of a child where it makes you remember all over again how amazing this world is and what a joy it is just to be alive. I think that’s the biggest thing she has taught me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When will the original music be released?
Joan Osborne: It’s not ready yet, but we are working really hard and hoping to put it out either the end of this year or the beginning of next year. I’m home now for much of the month of May and quite a bit next month, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on … that, and just being mommy.
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