March 19, 2020 Interview – Joan Osborne
A multi-faceted being, Joan Osborne has accomplished a lot in her last three decades both as a musician and songwriter. Bursting onto the music scene in a big way with 1995’s Relish, the debut yielded a nomination for Album of the Year at the 38th Grammys, and also earned nominations for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Osborne. An impressive introduction to the world, in the years since she has released nine solo studio albums, collaborated with countless others, and toured the world over.
An artist who has dabbled in Pop, Rock, Folk, Soul, R&B, and more, Osborne interrupts music in an exceptional fashion. Keeping herself busy, and with new music on the horizon, she recently took the time to chat about becoming a career musician, her love for New York City, life on the road, plus a whole lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You began your music career some three decades ago. Since that time you have been very successful, been nominated for awards, had platinum-selling records, and toured all over. First, tell us, how would you describe your career in music to this point?
Joan Osborne – That’s a big question. I feel like I got into this sort of by accident. I grew up in Kentucky, didn’t really do music there, and I came to New York City to study film-making at NYU. It was during the time I was studying that I discovered this amazing music scene that was going on; in particular, a lot of the Blues clubs and bars that were happening. I got invited to sing at a sort of open mic night and really from there fell in love with this whole music scene, music community. Started meeting other musicians, started going to see their bands, and really became a part of this great scene that was happening at the time.
In a way it was just a huge, happy accident and I did it for the love of it from the very beginning. I did not know I would be able to make a living even doing this, but as I continued to work, I really saw that this was really sort of a life’s work. I saw that it wasn’t just something that I loved to do, but it had a really positive impact on other people. I feel like I’ve been so fortunate to have kind of stumbled into this work, to have been welcomed into so many different musical worlds, and to have been able to work with so many amazing people. I have been able to really meet my fans and get a very direct idea about what this music has meant to them. It has been really satisfying. That is not a very short answer. (Laughs) I guess, if I had to sum it all up, that would be the best way I could come up with.
Cryptic Rock – That is a great summary. Your music borders on Rock, Folk, Country, Blues, and also R&B. What led to your inspiration as a songwriter to mix all these genres?
Joan Osborne – Well, as I say, I was very into the Blues scene, that was sort of my first love. The thing that really captured my imagination was the way that Blues and R&B music seemed to connect with people on every level. It was the mental level of the beautiful poetic image of a song. It was the physical level of making you want to move and dance with the bass lines throbbing in your body. It is also the spiritual level of releasing your truth, expressing your truth into the world, having other people listen to that, and listening to someone else’s truth being expressed. That is what I really fell in love with in the beginning.
Through learning about the Blues and R&B I wanted to dig a little deeper, find out where does this come from, and I wanted to learn everything I could about it. That sent me to Gospel music, early Appalachian Country music, Jazz, and all these roots of different American music genres. Doing that really allowed me to feel connected to this longer tradition of people making music in this country. It also allowed me to have this shared vocabulary with other musicians who also were familiar with these kind of roots of American music. For instance, when I went to work with the guys in The Funk Brothers, who were the Motown studio musicians, knowing something about Soul, R&B, Gospel, and Jazz music, that allowed me to communicate with them; not even verbally so much, but just to know what they were talking about, know what they were doing musically, and have some familiarity with that. The same way working with The Grateful Dead, those guys are very steeped in Blues, Bluegrass, and Country music. Those are the sort of the ingredients they put together to create their particular stew of cosmic American music. We had that language in common.
Cryptic Rock – It is fascinating how an interest in one form of music can lead you down a rabbit hole to want to discover other forms of music and the roots of it.
Joan Osborne – Exactly! Nowadays you do it on your computer. You watch something on YouTube and then you check out the other things they did, and then you ask, “Who is that person they are working with?” or “Who was that producer?” or “Who is that person they name-checked as one of their influences?” The amount of information that is available today to people is enormous and you can just get it right away. We had to go to look in record stores, talk to people, go to the library and stuff like that. It’s still the same quest of trying to dig deeper and understand. It’s because you love it, you love this music and want to know it fully.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. You mentioned about moving to New York from Kentucky. At this point in your life you have lived in New York longer than anyone else, so you are a full-fledged New Yorker. What has kept you calling New York home?
Joan Osborne – As you could imagine it was a hugely different experience to live in New York and to live in the place I grew up. The place I grew up was a relatively small town; nobody locked their doors, everybody knew everybody, kids could go out in the morning, run around all day, and their parents would call them home for supper. It was a very different kind of way of growing up. I absolutely fell in love with New York when I came here because it’s one of the greatest cities in the world. People from all over come here. To just walk down the street and see other humans of every race, every color, every fashion sensibility, every sexual orientation, every religion; they are all grouped together here. It was just so thrilling for me, and it still is.
I think there is something very nourishing for any artist who comes here. So much of what happens in New York happens on the street and happens in this sort of public sphere. If you grow up in the suburbs you are not going to be able to go sit in a cafe and overhear a conversation of two people who just came here from West Africa or something. You are not going to be able to watch people living their lives, arguing, and having these moments out in the street. I think, for me, growing up in a relatively sheltered place, it was a real eye opener and immensely inspiring. I felt all I would have to do to get inspiration for something is just take a walk for a half an hour and I would stubble along some kind of amazing thing.
Cryptic Rock – There is no shortage of culture in New York. You released the album Songs of Bob Dylan back in 2017. A cover record of Bob Dylan’s music, it is not just that, because you put your own flavor on it. You have covered Bob Dylan’s work in the past, so what was it like putting together an entire record of his music?
Joan Osborne – I had always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something similar to what Ella Fitzgerald did back in the 1950s and 1960s. She put out a whole series of songbook albums and each album was dedicated to a particular songwriter or songwriting team – there was The Harold Arlen Song Book (1960), The Cole Porter Song Book (1956), and all these classic American songbook writers. Ironically those are the people Bob Dylan chose to cover when he decided to do a series of cover records in the last handful of years.
I always thought that would be a great idea and a great way to approach the idea of doing other people’s songs, to have a sort of series. We got invited to play a residency at The Cafe Carlyle in New York City, which is a storied cabaret room. I thought I am not really a cabaret singer, but wouldn’t this be the perfect opportunity to test out this idea of using this entire residency to devote to one songwriter; really do an in-depth exploration of their music and see what happens. We chose Bob Dylan as the first person to cover and it was really a wonderful experience. We were kind of nervous about it, but the audiences were very interested, the press was very kind, and for us it was really amazing. As you say, I had sung a couple of Bob Dylan songs before, and I had the good fortune to work with him a handful of times, but I had never done this deep dive into his material. It was so rewarding to get to know all the nooks and crannies of his body of work. He’s a great American genius. It was really rewarding and wonderful.
That was the impetus for putting that record out, the weeks we spent working on that material and really getting familiar with it. Also, trying to figure out ways to re-arrange it and give it our own particular spin. For me, in a lot of cases, that is what you want to do with someone’s song: you don’t want to just imitate what they’ve done, you want to bring your own perspective to it, and find that place where your voice and artistry meets the songs that really allows them to blossom in a fresh way.
Cryptic Rock – You accomplished that. The album has been out for nearly three years, so what is next? Will there be a new cover album or perhaps an album of new material?
Joan Osborne – We actually have a new record of original material that is going to come out this year. That will be the next thing we release and the working title is Trouble and Strife. A lot of it is in reaction, or response to, just the state of the world today. I would say it’s a more political record than I’ve done before, but I feel like music has a real job to do in this moment to allow us to be uplifted.
I think it can be very discouraging and frightening to live in this time no matter what your politics are; it seems like a very chaotic moment in the world and there are a lot of very frightening things going on. I think using music to stay connected to that sense of joy of being alive and that sense of hope and optimism is very important. Because if you don’t have that for yourself, if you allow yourself to get discouraged and depressed, then you’re not going to be able to rise to the challenge that we all need to rise to right now.
This new album of original ideas is what’s coming next, but we’re also continuing this songbook idea. In fact, we did another residency at The Cafe Carlyle and we did the songs of Tom Waite this time.
Cryptic Rock – Excellent! It will be great to see a new album come out too. You do an immense amount of touring, do you enjoy being on the road?
Joan Osborne – I do, I absolutely love to perform live. I love seeing the fans and I’m so fortunate to be able to work with great musicians. It’s really a great way to be able to make your living. The one thing that I don’t necessarily enjoy so much is being away from my daughter. She’s in high school now, so I can’t just drag her out of school and take her on the road with me. I do have to be separated from her sometimes and that’s really the worst of it; she kind of doesn’t mind because she’s a teenager and she wants me to be gone anyway. (Laughs) For me it’s hard because I know she’s not going to be living at home much longer, so being away from her is the one down side of it.
Cryptic Rock – Very understandable. Were you able to be with her more when she was younger?
Joan Osborne – When she was younger I would just bring her with me. Sometimes my mother would come out and be the road nanny; if I was on stage and couldn’t physically be with my daughter, I knew there was someone that I trusted that was with her and taking care of her. That was a lovely time. I feel like we were able to spend more time together than other working parents can with their kids because I was able to bring her on the road with me.
Cryptic Rock – That is wonderful that you were able to have that time together. One could imagine it was something very enriching for her too.
Joan Osborne – Yeah, I’m sort of on the fence about that. On the one hand everybody says it must have been so great for her. I think, yeah, she definitely had the opportunity to go to a lot of places and be around working musicians and artists. But then there was also, you have to get up at 6 AM, get to the airport, and you’re dragging your kid around. I think there is also a flip side to that, maybe a certain lack of stability. She didn’t grow up with a little backyard picket fence. It’s a different kind of childhood than I had, and I hope on balance it was a good one.
Cryptic Rock – Very good point. There are positives and negatives, hopefully the positives outweigh the negatives. Your debut album really took the world by storm. It went multi-platinum, was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. What was it like for you when everything was taking off?
Joan Osborne – I think, on the one hand, I was not really prepared for what that attention can do to your everyday life. It was a great thing and I felt really gratified that people were so interested in the music, but not just people who heard the songs live, but people who heard the record and who were listening overseas. From that, to go from playing around the Northeast playing Rock clubs and small theaters, to something like that, it was amazing, but it was also a little bit destabilizing for me. The scrutiny and attention that goes along with something like that, I kind of felt like I was back in middle school; everyone’s watching me, everybody’s judging me, people are saying mean things about me. (Laughs) It was a little uncomfortable in that sense.
I think I also was very prepared, because unlike someone who, say, goes on American Idol and gets discovered right away, I spent years and years playing in small clubs, playing in front of live audiences, working with musicians, traveling around. In that sense I had a confidence about what it was like to step into these situations of, you got a call from so and so and they want you to sing with Stevie Wonder at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for Gladys Knight & the Pips. If I had never performed the way I had for all those years, I would have been terrified and not been able to do that. I think the training that I got from working 3-4 years doing clubs – at a certain point I was working 5-6 night a week in New York City – that was a great training ground to prepare me for that larger world platform.
Cryptic Rock – That experience has to help and more than likely gave you the maturity to handle it, as well.
Joan Osborne – Yeah, as far being a working musician, it gave me the experience I needed. I don’t know if emotional maturity can prepare you for that kind of fame and attention just because it’s a weird thing. I am certainly grateful that it happened.
Cryptic Rock – It is something very special. Last question. Being someone who studied film, do you happen to have any favorite Horror or Sci-Fi films?
Joan Osborne – There is this Psychological Horror film called Knife in the Water (1962) and it’s absolutely the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen in my life. If people don’t know this movie, if they are Horror fans, they definitely should know this movie.
I actually did study film at New York University for a while and I’m really a film buff. Horror is not maybe my favorite genre because I get too scared. (Laughs) These days I’m really wanting to watch Comedy movies. With so much that is coming at us from the media can really be discouraging, I try to follow politics, but that can wear you down. When I go to a movie, I don’t want to be scared, I don’t want to necessarily have some deep intellectual experience; I want to laugh. The movies I’m trying to turn my daughter onto are movies like Groundhog Day (1993), Back to the Future (1985), and there was a film that came out last year that was very funny called Booksmart (2019). I’m just trying to find something that is going to make me laugh and make me feel good. I love the Eddie Murphy that just came out on Netflix, Dolemite Is My Name (2019). I go back to the classics like Young Frankenstein (1974) and things like that. That’s what I’m about these days.