Joan Osborne set for Sunday show at Center for the Arts of Homer
Acclaimed singer Joan Osborne returns to Central New York for a Sunday night show at the Center for the Arts of Homer.
Since she broke through in 1995 with the multi-platinum “Relish” and its mega-smash “One of Us,” the seven-time Grammy nominee has had a varied career that includes performing with the Funk Brothers in the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” documentary, fronting the band Trigger Hippy, touring with Mavis Staples, and releasing a Bob Dylan tribute album – all while continuing to write, record, and produce her own music.
Earlier this month, Osborne released her latest album, “Nobody Owns You,” which she calls “the most personal record I’ve ever made.”
“These songs come from my feelings about people in my family, about people who I care about, and just what to do with this time that we have on the earth,” she said. “They come from a raw emotional place. And I’m asking myself that question: What am I here for?”
In a recent Zoom interview from her home in the Catskills, Osborne talked about the new album, her early days as a blues singer, and her favorite thing about being a musician.
Q: You’ve been coming to Ithaca and Central New York for a long time. In fact, you’re one of the first people I interviewed when I kicked off my career in music journalism about 30 years ago.
JO: Yeah, I've been coming to Ithaca for a long time. What's the name of that club that we used to play there? The Haunt? They always had a lot of reggae bands. And there were always stickers all over the dressing room from all these reggae bands.
Q: Back then, you played a pretty raucous brand of blues, and did cool covers like Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.”
JO: Yeah, we did that one. Back in the day, we would do Wilson Pickett’s “The Midnight Hour,” BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” and Etta James’s “Tell Mama,” and a bunch of Al Green songs, like “Take Me to the River. Yeah, we would do all those classic blues songs.
Q: “Fingerprints” was another one that I really liked.
JO: Yeah, that was an original song of mine. That was one of the first songs I ever wrote.
Q: This time around, you’re promoting a new album, which must be very exciting.
JO: Yeah, we have a new record coming out September 8, and it's called “Nobody Owns You.” And I'm excited because it's a record of all original material. And it's really the most personal record that I've ever written.
You know, I've been through a lot of different changes. And I'm going through a lot of different changes in my life right now. My daughter's going off to college. I just ended a 15-year romantic relationship. My mother is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's, and she's starting to kind of disappear before my eyes. And I turned 60 last year. So it's a moment of just taking stock of my life – there's all this stuff that's in my mind and in my emotions, and it's all it all came out in the music on this record.
Q: Was that cathartic for you?
JO: It was, I think it was sort of a feeling of, “If I don't get this out and create something with it, then it's going to eat me alive,” So it was cathartic, for sure.
But I think it was also exciting for me as an artist to be able to take this stuff and make new music out of it. At this point in my life, where I've been doing this for decades now, I felt gratified that I could still dig into myself and write songs and create something that I think will connect with people.
Q: I like the first single, “Great American Cities.” It's an anthemic type of song, I think.
JO: That came from me overhearing all these different TV pundits. If I'm traveling, I'll be sitting in front of somebody's TV or in an airport and hearing these TV pundits run down America's cities and talk about how they're this and they're that and they're crime-ridden. They’re trying to make this point that the cities are not really America, somehow.
And I was like, “You know, I don't think you really go to these places, I think you're sitting in your air-conditioned studio. And then you get into your air-conditioned chauffeured town car that takes you to your gated community, and you never go to these places.” But I do, I go to these places all the time on tour. And of course, they’re like anywhere else – they have their issues, but they're full of energy and life and creativity and joy, and they are a big part of what makes America so wonderful.
Q: Yeah, it seems very timely through -- the coming election is going to be about largely red v. blue, urban v. rural, etc.
JO: I grew up in Kentucky, in a small town, and I love that. I have a little farmhouse up in the Catskills where I am now, and I love that the people up here are wonderful. And I love the cities, too. So I don't think that it needs to be “either-or”; I think that we can all be part of the same nation, recognize each other's strengths, and help each other through our struggles, whichever they may be. So that, to me seems like a much saner way to go forward than this sort of divide-and-conquer mentality that we're dealing with right now.
Q: I know you worked with a new producer on this album, Ben Rice, who’s worked with Valerie June and Norah Jones. How did you pick him? And how did it go?
JO: Yeah, well, it went great. He's somebody that I had never worked with before. And that's actually what I was looking for. I was looking for something new, a different kind of sound and a different working relationship, because I felt with the records that I had done right before this, “Okay, I know what that is. I know what I can make this sound like.” I wanted somebody to come in and push me in a direction that I couldn't do by myself.
Ben Rice has worked with Valerie June, the National, and Meghan Trainor, so he has this very eclectic background. And he's a younger guy, so I liked that about him as well. He brought this different, younger perspective. And, we just hit it off, like a house on fire.
I think we both were bringing some heavy emotional stuff into the studio – he lost his father during the making of this record. But we both were really grateful that we had this place to come where we could take all these turbulent emotions and put them into the work and also just enjoy making music. It wasn't all this dark, heavy stuff all the time; it was also really joyful, and really fun, too. So it was a great experience. And, I haven't checked this out with him yet, but I really would like to go back into the studio, again with him very soon, because I still have a lot of ideas.
Q: Yeah, the new album sounds more Americana but there’s still some other stuff going on.
JO: For me, I didn't come in with this sort of preconceived notion of “It has to be this with that style.” I wanted the songs to be very direct and very simple. And I wanted people to be able to hear them and know what they were about right away. So we tried to let that guide us when we made our stylistic choices and choices about instruments.
Q: How do you actually write your songs? Do you sit down with your notebook? Do you sing into your phone? Or something else?
JO: I do all of that stuff. I try to gather ideas throughout the day, every day. It can be anything from reading poetry and having that spark an idea, or It can be overhearing a conversation and hearing someone say something that sounds like it belongs in a song. It can be me writing in a journal and trying to figure out something that's going on in my life and coming up with something that seems like it could be a song.
So I try to make these big piles of little snippets and musical ideas, then I'll sing a melody into my phone, or I'll sit down and work with my guitar and come up with a cool chord progression. And just go into a writing situation, whether it's alone or with someone else, with these big piles of ideas, and then it becomes fun. You just pull something out of one pile and pull something out of the other pile and put them together like you're a kid with building blocks, and it becomes really playful that way.
I like taking things from different days in different moments and putting them together because sometimes they don't fit. And then other times, they fit in a way that you never would have thought of in advance, so you can still surprise yourself. And it's still interesting in that way.
Q: You have some guest stars on the new album who are also your peers in some ways, and friends as well, too. It must have been fun to sing with them and get together with them in the studio.
JO: Absolutely. I mean, I love Catherine Russell, the singer, and I love watching her. She's been a first-call backup singer for many, many years. She's worked with David Bowie, Paul Simon, and she still works with Steely Dan, so she’s the go-to backup singer. But now she's also got this amazing solo career. And she's doing this old-school jazz stuff, and traveling all around the world doing her own shows. And it's just so wonderful for me to see my friend in that situation, and really just kind of exceeding whatever she might have thought she could do.
My friend Rachael Yamagata, who's an incredible singer and songwriter with an amazing voice is also in there singing. Cindy Cashdollar, the pedal steel player whom I've become friendly with recently, is an incredible player who has been around for decades. She used to play with Asleep at the Wheel and has been on Bob Dylan records and records by so many other people, so I was really excited to get her in the studio and see what she would do with this material.
Q: I noticed the pedal steel right away because I don't always associate that sound with you. But it was a nice different touch on the album.
JO: She's able to do it in a way where it doesn't immediately sound like a country record. There’s a song called “So Many Airports, which is this sort of atmospheric song and she brought this beautiful part -- it almost sounds like a human voice, with what she's doing on the pedal steel. And it really meshes very well with this beautiful atmospheric setting in which the song takes place.
Q: Well, you mentioned Bob Dylan; you’ve done a tribute album and tour of his music. And you were in the Motown documentary with the Funk Brothers, and played with the band Trigger Hippy as well. Do you enjoy these different types of gigs?
JO: Yeah, it’s more fun, and it is definitely less pressure. I’m kind of the leader, for lack of a better word, in my own world and my own music, and it's nice to just be the hired gun and be the person who doesn't have to make all the decisions and just enjoy it on a musical level. So yeah, I've really enjoyed doing that, and would still love to do that kind of stuff.
But I also feel like I’m at an exciting point right now where I'm really interested in what I'm writing, and I feel like there's so much more that I want to say. So, it's nice to be able to walk on both sides of that street – to be able to have my own music and do my own work, and then step aside from that a little bit and just get together with a bunch of other musicians and have fun.
Q: What’s your favorite part about being a musician?
JO: Gosh, my favorite part about being a musician. Yeah, it's just that the joy that you can reach with other musicians in front of audiences – the live performing experience that’ sort of group mind that you get into where everyone is elevated by the music. It’s wonderful; it can be an ecstatic experience. And to have that as part of your job is a pretty rare privilege, I think.
Q: The last time I interviewed you, you were about to go on tour with Mavis Staples.
JO: That was a highlight for sure of my entire working musical life. I've been an admirer of hers since I was in my 20s. And she has been someone just as a singer who I tried to emulate when I was first starting out – I just fell in love with her voice.
But I also learned a lot from touring with her because she's just this incredibly warm, wonderful human being. And you certainly see that on stage. And she has this very welcoming energy that includes everyone in her sort of embrace. And that's a rare thing and such a wonderful thing. And I tried to learn from that. And then also just being able to hang out with her on the bus and sing a little bit with her and get to know her a little bit. And that was such a joy.
Q: For your current tour, what sort of band are you touring with this time around?
JOL: Right now, we're doing most of our shows as a trio. It's myself and Jack Petruzzelli, who I've been working with for decades. I first met him on the New York City scene back in the 1980s, and he and I have done a lot of things together. He's an incredible guitarist, and he sings and he's one of these multi-instrumental guys who will come up with all these different arrangements, so that's great.
And then we have a new guy, whose name is Will Bryant, and he's from Texas. He's a keyboard player, and amazing singer, and just a very musical guy who has all these great ideas. We sometimes kid him, because he's the youngest of the three of us. He lives in upstate New York now, so it's nice and convenient for us to get together and work on stuff.
Q: We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of your breakthrough album, “Relish,” which had the smash hit “One of Us.” When you look back at that era, what were the highlights and challenges?
JO: I mean, that was something that I didn't really expect to happen. It wasn't the reason that I started doing music, to become famous and be all over MTV and stuff like that. I mean, I had ambitions for my music to reach a larger audience, but I don't think I understood some of the things that go along with that. So just as for me, personally, it was a little uncomfortable, it felt a little bit like going back to junior high school where you feel really exposed and self-conscious.
But also, that was a small part of what that experience was. The major part was just feeling so gratified that so many people were connecting with the record and not just the one song that was all over MTV and VH1, but the rest of the album too. And it definitely opened up a lot of doors for me. You know, I was invited to sing with Pavarotti in Italy. I was invited to record with Bob Dylan. I was invited to, help Stevie Wonder induct Gladys Knight and the Pips into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And none of that would have happened if I hadn't had that one breakout hit. So, ultimately, I have to be very grateful for it. And I feel like it's probably part of the reason that I still can do this today and be able to have had a long career.
Q: I know you still play “One of Us” – I’ve heard you play it a variety of ways over the years. Musically, it’s a really cool song with a great melody.
JO: It’s a beautiful song. I mean, I keep thinking, if it had to be one song that was the big breakout song, that's a pretty good one to have. Because it resonates so much with people. And you can do it so many different ways. And it still has an impact. There’s nothing wrong with a party song or a booty song or something. That's great, too. But I think it would have been harder for me to maintain my interest in a song like that. Whereas a song like “What if God was one of us?” is still very interesting.
Q: When I was researching for this interview, I discovered you and Isaac Hayes covered “I'm Just a Bill” from “Schoolhouse Rock.” Did you listen “Schoolhouse Rock” when you were a kid?
JO: I absolutely listened to “Schoolhouse Rock “as a kid so I was very excited to get the call to do that. And I think Isaac Hayes and I were trying to write songs together at that point – we had met on a New Year's Eve TV special. And, you know, I mean, he's Isaac Hayes. So I tried to talk to him and was very excited about meeting him. And I think he was surprised that I knew so much about him and about his history at Stax Records, not only an artist but as a producer and songwriter. And, you know, I love all that stuff. I think he was surprised and impressed by that, so we decided to try to do some songwriting together. And nothing ever came out of it in the writing, but we did get to record that song. And he also guested on a record of mine, where we did a version of “Smiling Faces Sometime” together.
Q: When you're not doing music, do you have any hobbies? What do you do in your spare time for fun and relaxation?
JO: I'm one of these people who loves to raise vegetables and flowers and stuff, so I do love working in my garden. It's definitely a centering and relaxing thing. And I just love the smell of the earth and going through the garden, and picking a piece of fresh oregano off of the plant and rubbing it in between my fingers and smelling it, or eating the fresh vegetables from the garden. I just love that. So that's my kind of therapy, I guess you would call it.
Q: Any thoughts on coming back to Central New York?
JO: As you said, I've been playing up here for a long time, and I do have a lot of fans up here. So I guess I just want people to know that I'm so grateful that they're still around and still coming to the shows. The only reason that I'm still out here is because I have fans like them who have stuck around and are still interested. And I feel like we're still at a very interesting part of the journey together, and I'm excited by that.
Q: And as you said, the new album is kind of a new beginning for you, something you can build on for the next 10 or 20 or 30 years.
JO: I'm definitely not an old these acts just going around doing the songs that I recorded a long, long time ago. Not that that's a bad thing – it's great to be able to check in with those people and hear those songs that you love. But for me, I still enjoy being somebody who can create something new. And that's very important to me.
If You Go
Who: Joan Osborne
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24
Where: Center for the Arts of Homer
Cost: $27-$45, available online here