Joan Osborne: The Wonder that Follows the Hit

A hit single can change your life. It certainly changed Joan Osborne’s.

At the beginning of 1995, Osborne was regarded as the best female singer on New York’s blues-club circuit but little known elsewhere. But that March, she released her first nationally distributed album, Relish, whose first single was “One of Us.” With its earworm melody and its irresistible catchphrase, “What if God was one of us?” it slowly but steadily climbed into the top five of Billboard’s pop charts. The album hit the top 10 and garnered seven Grammy nominations. It was a blessing and a curse.

“When I had that big song,” she admits, “I was grateful like any artist, but I froze up inside. I was afraid—I didn’t want to make a misstep. I got tied up in knots trying to please everyone, even myself. I became the poster child for the sophomore slump. It was a rough time, but I eventually was able to come out of it. My salvation was doing live shows, which are my favorite thing to do.”

She never had another single on the pop charts, but “One of Us” opened the door to something more valuable to her than pop stardom. It gave her a high enough profile that she started getting invited to do interesting projects. And that gave the kind of career she preferred.

“If I hadn’t had that hit,” she says today, “I don’t think I would have been known enough to be welcomed into all these situations, like singing with the Funk Brothers, duetting with Bob Dylan or Luciano Pavarotti, or being asked by Stevie Wonder to induct Gladys Knight & the Pips into the rock ’n’ roll Hall of Fame. To stand next to Stevie and sing with someone of that stature was amazing. That’s not something everyone gets to do in their life.”

She sang with the Funk Brothers as part of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary about that label’s brilliant house band. She got to co-headline the 1997 Lilith Fair Tour and to tour with the Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends between 2003 and 2006. She got to produce two albums for her early-career mentors, the gospel-soul masters the Holmes Brothers, and to do three residencies at the Cafe Carlyle, Manhattan’s premier cabaret showcase.

She’s been able to make albums that alternate between original songs and tributes to influences such as Bob Dylan and classic soul music. Her newest release is Trouble and Strife,” a collection of originals. To be able to release an album of new songs 25 years after your last hit single is a luxury that most artists don’t get. Osborne can do it because she has built a different kind of reputation.

“I look to guys like Muddy Waters or Tom Waits for what a successful career can be,” she explains. “You’re not having radio hits or filling stadiums, but you can work for decades in clubs and theaters.”

It helps that she owns her own label, Womanly Hips, so she can decide what and when to record. For this new album, she had set the date of the first sessions for September of 2018, but she hadn’t decided on the material. Should she do a sequel to her warmly received 2017 album, Songs of Bob Dylan? Or should she feature her own songwriting this time?

“I procrastinated in deciding till four days before,” she says, “but then I told myself, ‘I’m tired of being the tribute queen.’ I felt like I’d been caught in the role of cover girl for too long. I wanted to use my other voice, not my singing voice but my creative voice. I wanted to give my particular perspective on the world in my particular style, like a painter or a poet.

“I like doing other people’s material; it’s all about searching like a detective or librarian, looking for the songs that will connect with your voice and personality in a way that will bring something unique to the song, even if it’s not the definitive version. But now I wanted to do some writing, some storytelling.”

Part of her motivation was wanting to respond to the current state of the world, which was roiled by climate change, gun deaths and official corruption—and this was before Covid-19 came along. She did all the things a normal citizen should do—voting, contacting elected officials, attending demonstrations, donating money—but she wanted to take advantage of her artistic gifts and high-profile to do more. But what can music do?

“A song is not going to change the reality,” she acknowledges. “If I write a song about climate change, it’s not going to lower the amount of CO2 in the air. But it can change the story we tell ourselves about the climate. As human beings, we tell each other the stories that form our view of the world. So it’s necessary to call out the liars, because if you sit back and allow people to abuse their power, you’re giving them license to do it more. Music and culture can move society. Just look at what Motown did in the ’60s; they moved the culture forward by breaking down barriers.”

But it wasn’t as if she had a stockpile of songs like that. What she had were bits and pieces of songs in the form of melodic fragments on her phone and partial stanzas scribbled down. So she locked herself in a room for those four days and combed through all those voicemails and notebook entries to see what was worth keeping.

“It’s a whole lot of trial and error,” she explains. “I’ll have a lyric idea, but I won’t know which melody idea might work with it. I’ll find four or five that might work, and I’ll try them out till I find the one that does. Then I ask myself, ‘If this is the chorus, what might the verse sound like?’ I put different pieces together to see if they vibrate with one another, if the whole becomes larger than the pieces.”

Osborne didn’t want to write songs that responded to current events only to become irrelevant when the news cycle moved on. She wanted to write songs that addressed fundamental dynamics that express themselves in a new way in each succeeding decade.

“Hands Off,” for example, is an uptempo blues-rock number that finds Osborne telling a would-be lothario: “The women don’t like you, no matter what you do. Hands off the things that don’t belong to you.” But she never mentions Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein or Donald Trump by name; she leaves it a universal scenario that can be applied to any scoundrel in any era.

“Panama,” an R&B-noir meditation full of reverb, tribal drums and Nels Cline guitar, considers how bad things have to get before you pack up and leave for another country. “The meek are in the jailhouse,” Osborne sings; “the wicked are in charge.” Every time things take a turn for the worse, people start asking, ‘Is it time to go?”

That’s countered by “Whole Wide World,” a more optimistic view of things. Over the piano triplets and high-pitched oohs of classic soul music, Osborne reassures the pessimists: “We may be down, but we can rise again. You’ve got to know you’re not alone.”

“When you’re talking about these larger concepts,” she points out, “you’re not attacking a particular person; you’re saying these underlying tendencies are wrong. You’re saying people shouldn’t be thinking only about their own wealth, their own power, their own gratification. These songs will still be useful 20 to 30 years from now. Phil Ochs wrote some powerful songs, but they seemed tied to events at the time, and that’s why people don’t sing his songs as often as they do Dylan’s.”

There was a Dylan song (“Man in the Long Black Coat”) on Osborne’s breakthrough Relish album. In 2000, she covered Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” on her Righteous Love album. That same year she duetted with Jackson Browne on Dylan’s “My Back Pages” for the Steal This Movie soundtrack. In 2012, she duetted with Dylan himself on the tribute album of the same name. And in 2017, she recorded 13 more Dylan songs for her own album, Songs of Bob Dylan.

“I think I benefitted a lot from doing the Bob Dylan album,” she says. “He’s known as a political songwriter, but if you look at his songs, few are about a specific political event. Most of them are about mythical characters in mythical situations, so they can refer to many different situations. I tried to use that. I didn’t want to talk about any particular figures in these songs. I wanted to talk about issues that can be personal as well as political. You could have a partner who’s abusing power the same way that a leader does.”

In 2016, Osborne went to see the New York Dolls’ David Johansen at the Café Carlyle, perhaps the premier cabaret showcase in Manhattan, an intimate room where the likes of Bobby Short, Betty Buckley, George Shearing, Woody Allen and Ute Lemper have had regular residencies. So Osborne was surprised when, a few days later, the Café invited her to do a residency.

“I thought it was strange,” Osborne confesses, “because I don’t think of myself as a cabaret singer. But then I thought it would be an opportunity to try out an idea I had long had: to do my version of Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks, where she devoted a whole album to each of the best writers of her time. I wanted to do the same thing, but with the best writers of my time, not the ’40s and ’50s. We considered a lot of writers, but Dylan kept rising to the top.”

She turned her Dylan cabaret show into a tour and then an album. She put together a second Dylan show for the Carlyle and earlier this year she did a Tom Waits show. She’d like to do future shows with maybe Lou Reed, Paul Simon, the Bee Gees or Lucinda Williams. The shows are stripped down: Osborne on vocals, rhythm guitar and hand percussion; her personal/professional partner Keith Cotton on keyboards and a lead guitarist.

She wants to pursue her career as one of our best interpretive singers, but she also wants to sustain her career as a singer-songwriter. That she is able to do both is a tribute to the lingering power of her early hit single, “One of Us,” written by her then-producer Eric Bazilian of the Hooters.

“It had this catchy melody in the guitar,” she points out, “and the lyrics were asking you a question the way a little kid tugs on your sleeve to ask a very basic question, like the time my daughter asked me, ‘Mommy, when did time begin?’ People felt like they weren’t being preached to; they were being asked a question and allowed to come up with their own answer. It was a way to talk about spirituality without a loaded agenda.

“I got some very nice letters from church groups who were singing it, but I also got some death threats and nasty letters saying I was being sacrilegious. That song could mean different things to different people, and I’m still trying to write songs like that.”