Joan Osborne is the multi-platinum and seven-time Grammy nominee behind classic albums such as Relish and How Sweet It Is. She had a huge breakthrough in the 1990s with the Eric Bazilian song, “One of Us.” The record went three times Platinum in U.S. record sales with more sales worldwide. She has proven herself a master vocalist of rock, Americana, R&B, blues, and country music.
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Osborne in advance of her Kahilu Theatre concert on March 20, 2020. (Get tickets here.)
Tell me about your new album Songs of Bob Dylan.
When we got this offer to do a residency at the Café Carlyle in New York City, I thought I don’t really see a way into doing a cabaret set because that’s not my thing. And I don’t want to just go in and do my normal set, because I feel like I’ll be missing an opportunity to be unique here. For a long time, I had this idea about taking a cue from something that Ella Fitzgerald did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She put out a series of Songbook albums, songs of Harold Arlen or the songs of Cole Porter or the songs of Lerner and Lowe, all of these sorts of classic American standard songwriters. And she devoted a different album to each one of them. And I always thought that would be an interesting thing to do. So, when the Carlyle called us, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to try this idea out and pick one songwriter and devote this whole residency to their work and see if this idea is interesting to people and interesting to us. So, we chose Bob Dylan for the obvious reasons, because he’s one of the greatest American songwriters ever. And I have a little bit of a history with him having sung some of his songs before and having sung with him a little bit. So, I thought, this is great. It’s a no brainer. So, the guys who did the residency with me, Keith Cotton on keyboards and Jack Petruzzelli (guitarist), we spent a lot of time sifting through his material and trying out different arrangements. That was the genesis of it, and that’s why we decided to release that record with the hope that there will be other records coming soon too, sort of a series of songbook albums.
Is there someone whom you’ve never collaborated with, but you’d like to?
I have great admiration for so many artists that I’ve never been able to work with. I think the producer Danger Mouse is really brilliant. I love the sounds that he gets and would love to work with him. Somebody like Bjork, who I think is brilliant, but I’m not exactly sure how she and I would do something together. But I’d be willing because I think she’s amazing. I love Dolly Parton and would love to sing her. I’ve got a good friend, Joseph Arthur, who I’d like to do some writing with. I’ve certainly done a lot in my career, but there are so many more things that I would like to do. I’m sure I won’t have time to do them all, but that’s also exciting. You know, if you get bored, it’s your own fault because that means you need to go and cast the net a little bit wider and have a little bit more imagination with your next project.
Here are a few of our readers’ submitted questions. What did you think of Prince’s cover of “One of Us”?
He was very vocal and very generous in his praise of the song, in praise of me. So, being a huge Prince fan, it was just one of those moments where you sort of pinch yourself and you’re like, “Is this really happening?” It just seemed so surreal. Of course, I was immensely flattered and was able to meet him because of his love of the song. He reached out and invited me to the party that he was throwing in New York City. I guess he was releasing a new album.
So, I get to this party and it’s like this fantasy of what you think the most amazing party will be like… LL Cool J is out on the dance floor, and there’s Sheryl Crow. And, you know, you go into a room and Lenny Kravitz is there. It was just all these fabulous famous people. I got on the dance floor and I think Questlove was deejaying the party. I was dancing and sweating, and so about an hour or forty-five minutes later, somebody comes up and says, “Would you like to meet Prince?” I said, “Yes, of course!”
You know, he’s a very devoted person, and I had just been sweating on the dance floor. I’m sure I looked like a crazy person, you know, all sweaty and my face was probably all red. And they ushered me in, and I was just like, “Oh, my God, I’m so thrilled to meet you! I’d really like to give you a hug!” He sort of looked me up and down and said, “Well, words can do a lot.” He was really not wanting me to do that since I was a sweaty mess. (laughs) He probably thought, “This girl’s great, but I really don’t want her to hug me.”
Do your Kentucky roots still influence your music after decades of living in the Big Apple?
That’s a good question! Growing up in the place that I did, and in the way that I did, we lived in a fairly small town. It was sort of a satellite community of the city of Louisville. But for us growing up there, it was like living in a small town. Everybody knew everybody. We walked to school. Nobody locked their doors at night. It was a very safe place to grow up. And I think that sort of feeling of safety probably gave me the courage to feel like I would be OK in different situations, whether that’s moving to New York City, whether that’s dropping out of school and pursuing music, because it’s become such a huge force in my life and because I want to see how far I can take this. Whether it’s feeling like I could be accepted in these different musical worlds that I’ve been invited into. I think there was this sense that the world is an OK place from growing up in this State where things felt safe. And I think I carried that with me throughout my life. As far as musical influences go, some of the first music that I heard was the different radio stations that were playing at the time. Growing up in the 1970s, if you listened to pop radio, you’d hear a song by the Rolling Stones and then a song by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and then the Spinners, and then Ike & Tina Turner, The Who. It was such a great mix of Americana, soul, or country music. It was the best of all of those genres.
That was an incredible time to be able to turn on the radio and hear stuff like that. It’s very different now. I think that’s a part of the ingredients that I try to draw from, particularly for a record like Relish. I was very much drawing from these different American music traditions and trying to put them together in some stew that could be my own thing, but that also had all of these great ingredients in it.
Besides touring, which projects are you working on right now or projects for the near future?
We are doing another residency at the Cafe Carlyle and doing the songs of Tom Waits. He’s got such an amazing catalog and so varied and so interesting. He’s gone through so many different periods as a songwriter. We’re also finishing up an album of all original material that is going to come out later this year. I don’t have a date yet exactly. But it’s all brand new songs and a lot of it is in response to just the state of the world and the state of our country. Some of the songs are more political in nature than anything I’ve ever written. And some of them are really just trying to use music as a way to express what I’m feeling and keep a sense of optimism and hope about the future because it can be a very difficult and scary time to live. But I think music has a role to play to keep us connected to a sense of joy and being alive. And I think that is a necessity right now, because if you are feeling discouraged and you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not able to do anything to help yourself. And you’re also not going to be able to participate in the larger world in the way that we need everyone’s participation now. I think if you have that feeling of joy of being alive, you can feel renewed and you can feel like you have the energy to step out into your community and help the people who need your help.
Another reader asked, “If God was one of us, what would God say about the state of the world today?” but I think your last response just covered that.
Yeah, we need to help each other. I’m a relatively privileged person and I feel like that means that I need to reach out and try to do what I can do to help those who are not so privileged.
What can fans look forward to at your upcoming show at the Kahilu?
We’re going to do a mixed show… things from our back catalog, songs from the Relish album and songs from albums that have been out for a while. We are going to do a lot of stuff from the Bob Dylan record because that’s our most recent release… some of the brand new material. And even though it won’t be out yet, we might be able to have a single or something available for people. It’s gonna be an overview of things I’ve done throughout my career, plus some brand new stuff.
If you go… Have a good show!
Event: Joan Osborne in concert
Where: Kahilu Theatre
When: Friday, March 20, 2020, at 7 p.m.
Info: Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, (808) 885-6868 or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Waimea.
This interview was edited for space, clarity, and continuity. To hear the complete interview, click the play button.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.