Joan Osborne Is One Funky Lady

If your only exposure to Joan Osborne is her 1995 hit “One Of Us,” then you haven’t met Joan Osborne.

Appearing on her major-label debut album Relish, Osborne’s recording of the song penned by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters became a world-wide hit and helped launch the New York-based artist on a career that, so far, has resulted in several studio albums and two live discs.

While Osborne is a superb songwriter, her versions of soul classics such as Sly Stone’s “Everybody Is A Star”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine” are simply stunning. But then, soul music comes as naturally to Osborne as does breathing. She’s toured with the Funk Brothers and appeared in the 2002 documentary about the group, “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.”

But Osborne’s interpretations aren’t limited to soul and R&B. Through the years she’s recorded songs written by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Robbie Robertson, to mention a few heavyweights, and toured for two years as vocalist for The Dead. And no matter how old the tune is or how many times you’ve already heard it, Osborne manages to find something new when she steps up to the mic.

About to launch a co-headlining tour with singer/songwriter Dar Williams, Pollstar caught up Osborne while she was on holiday in the Catskills.

Photo: Doug Seymour
World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, Pa.

How did a lady who grew up in Kentucky develop such a funky and soulful sound?

It’s probably because when I first started singing I was enthralled by the blues and the singers I tried to emulate were people like Etta James, Ann Peebles, Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. The people who came out of the gospel sound … and that was the thing that really galvanized me. I guess I cut my teeth more on the soul and R&B side and I think that’s where a lot of that flavor comes from.

Growing up in a state known for its love of country music, were you kind of unique in your tastes?

It’s hard to say. We were just little kids and we listened to whatever was around. My parents would take us to see “Sound Of Music” and we would get the soundtrack albums. When I was a little girl, I would sit and listen to it over and over. My dad had an extensive collection of classical music, and I would listen to it at home. Also the radio a little bit. I remember a time when I was about nine years old and I was home, sick. My mom brought a tiny little transistor radio into my room to keep me company. That was a time when you could hear Charlie Rich, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Spinners, all these different kind of groups, on Top 40 radio. I think I liked whatever was available at that point.

My parents weren’t big fans of country music. It was around a little bit, but I didn’t get a huge exposure to it until I was quite a bit older.

How do you approach other people’s songs?

I approach with caution (laughs). In particular, if it’s a song by a great singer, a recording that people know and really love and cherish, you don’t want to get in there and try to outdo someone like Aretha Franklin or Al Green at their own game because you’re beaten before you start. What I try to do is find some sort of approach that hasn’t been tried with the song, whether it’s a rhythmic approach or re-harmonizing it somehow, almost like telling a different part of the story with the same song and try to re-imagine it in a way. I think that’s easier than trying to copy what someone else has done. More like a jazz singer’s approach. People who sing jazz, there’s a lot of material that gets covered over and over again, and it’s up to the singer and the musician to bring something fresh and original to it. That’s kind of the hat I try to put on when I do covers.

You recorded a version of the old Classics IV song, “Spooky.” What is it about that song that attracts so many singers?

I don’t know. I think it has a great little melody. {hums a few bars from the song}That’s a real singable melody. I think the mood of the original song is very sexy, it has that laid back sexiness about it. That’s what drew me to it.

But David Sanborn covered it and he’s an instrumentalist. He covered it because of the melody and not the lyrics. I think it has a strong melody and that’s probably one of the first things people notice about it.

As a songwriter who’s covered some great songs, are there ever moments where you feel challenged to write songs that are just as good?

For sure. Particularly for the Pretty Little Stranger album or the Breakfast In Bed album, that was very much the task I set for myself. If I’m going to write things, they have to not only stand next to these cover songs, but fit into the album as a whole. Like Breakfast in Bed, the original songs like “Cream Dream’ or “Alone With You” are in the same style as that lush early ‘70s R&B and soul I was trying to emulate. So I really did want to set that challenge for myself. And I definitely rejected some stuff of my own that really didn’t belong. I’m sure a lot of writers will tell you the same thing, that you write 10 songs and you hope three of them are any good.

When writing, does it come in fragments, or do you work with melody first, or words first?

It’s different with each song. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and something will kind of land on me and I’ll be in a situation where I can grab something to record it or jot it down. There are times when I have these ideas and I’m in the middle of doing something, and it slips away. But sometimes I’m lucky enough to grab it. And other times it’s a matter having that discipline where you say, “This is the time that I’m going to write and you sit down with your guitar, blank piece of paper or whatever, and work on stuff. Sometimes song ideas come from that. Not necessarily direct inspiration but from the craft of it, the discipline of it.

I’ll take song ideas from wherever I can get them. That, to me, is the hardest thing I do – writing songs. So I’ll take whatever comes my way. I’m grateful to have it.

After my daughter was born, it really forced me to become a lot more focused. I had so little time left over after caring for her that I really had to be more disciplined. “All right, she’s napping. I’ve got two hours, I’ve got to get this done” rather than wait for inspiration to strike me. I didn’t have that anymore.

Are there times during your writing that you feel you’re working on a good song that’s really not for you, but you can imagine another artist recording it?

It’s so hard for me to come up with things that I do try to hang on to what I’ve written. But, boy, I’d love it if I were able to write songs for other people. I have met people over the years that tell me they’ve covered my songs, and to me that’s such a great compliment. I feel that [songwriting] is the hardest thing I do. I wouldn’t call it my strong suit even though I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve written. But it is the thing that’s toughest for me. So to hear someone say “We like that song enough that we do it with our band” is a great compliment to me.

You’ve worked with some very well known artists and bands – The Dead, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Luciano Pavarotti. Do you sometimes feel as if you’re in a dream world?

Yes. Especially when the Relish album became successful and being the flavor of the moment and having a lot of fame and attention. Every day I was expecting someone to come in and say, “I’m sorry, but you don’t belong in this room. You’ll have to leave now,” and escort me to the place with the ordinary people. It definitely was like a dream.

You have to be able to walk in those ways, but you can’t be so overwhelmed and intimated that you are unable to do what you came to do. You can’t be standing next to Bob Dylan and drooling on yourself when you are supposed to be singing. You do try to keep that sense of excitement, thrill and wonder but not let it get in the way of giving a good performance.

How did the upcoming tour with Dar Williams come about?

That was something my booking agent suggested. I had been doing this duo gig – myself and Keith Cotton on piano – that has have been really interesting for me because I’ve always been used to working with a full band, a rock ‘n’ roll kind of soul band. And I was asked to do an acoustic duo for a fundraiser for WXPN in Philadelphia. At first I was like, “I don’t know if we can do this or not. I’m not used to this.” But we sat down and worked through the songs and it was very interesting to me to present these songs in a very stripped-down, essential way where it’s a voice and piano and nothing else. So we decided to do an entire tour behind it.

We’ve been doing that here and there in the course of a year, going out for a couple of weeks at a time. When we said we’d like to do it again in the fall, my booking agent said, “I heard Dar Williams is going to do the same kind of thing” and it wouldn’t it be great to do a double bill?”

And I thought that was a fantastic idea. I don’t know Dar very well but we’ve run into each other over the years at festivals and shows. Probably backstage at was the first time I met her. I always felt that she’s got this great down-to-earth charm about her. And I really appreciate the fact that despite being an artist and a mother and all the things she is, she’s also very active politically and puts her time and money where her mouth is and does a lot of work for different causes. I felt this is a really cool match.

And Keith [pianist Keith Cotton] had worked with her years before and knew her, so it’s a nice synergy that way.

What’s your take on criticism levied against artists for being political or promoting messages through their music?

I can see it from both sides. I can see it form the side where people say, “Why should your voice count any more than anyone else’s? You should just vote like we all have to and just because you’re an actor or singer doesn’t mean you should have any greater access to getting your opinion out there than anybody else. I can see the logic in that.

But at the same time, I also feel like there just aren’t as many people who do that on, let’s say the right side of the political spectrum than the left side. People who are artists and writers and all that, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t come out and talk about our opinions. It doesn’t mean that we know any more than anyone else. And certainly you can trivialize an issue by pretending you know about it but when you get up there you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You can trivialize it and do more harm than good. But I think it’s incumbent on everyone to get involved to the extent that they can. It’s a nice way to take that attention that you get from being in the public eye and refocus it from yourself to something more important than that.

Who would you like to work with?

A lot of people who I’m a big fan of, it’s almost like I’d rather just be a fan. Someone like Bjork, who I feel is incredibly talented and is a unique artist. It’s not like I’m going to go over and say, “Hey, Bjork, can I sit in one of your shows?” What she does is very unique and I don’t know if there would be a lot of room for me to kind of step in. I’d be willing to give it a try, but some people I admire I’d rather be a fan of and not collaborate with them.

I’m hoping to try to see Aretha Franklin on this tour. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get a ticket to see her at the Ryman Auditorium in October. That’s somebody I’d rather just sit back and be in awe of and listen and not have to try to figure out a way to fit myself into it.

One more question. When Hollywood shoots “The Joan Osborne Story,” who should play you?

(laughs) Probably someone who hasn’t been born yet because I don’t know if anyone would be interested. I don’t know if that’s high on anyone’s list.

“… it was very interesting to me to present these songs in a very stripped-down, essential way where it’s a voice and piano and nothing else.”

Joan Osborne will perform at The Courtyard in Bend, Ore., Sept. 13 before her co-headlining tour with Dar Williams begins in Eugene, Ore., at McDonald Theatre Sept. 14. Other dates with Williams include Napa, Calif., at the Opera House Sept. 16; San Francisco’s Fillmore Sept. 17; Los Angeles at the El Rey Theatre Sept. 19 and Mesa, Ariz., at the Virginia Piper Repertory Theatre Sept. 20. For more information, please visit and click here to read Pollstar’s interview with Dar Williams.