It’s a tribute to the unfathomable nature of the music business that an artist can sell a million-and-a-half copies of an album — a first album, no less — and then be “released” by his or her record company.
But that’s what happened to Joan Osborne after her major-label debut, Relish (Mercury, 1995) — and she was as shocked as anybody.
“It’s just one of those moments when you’ve got to figure out what to do, and make things happen for yourself,” she said by phone recently. “I wound up having to spend what was left of my money to go into the studio and make a record, and then take it around to different companies and get a new contract. Now that it’s all over I’m actually kind of glad, because you want to be in a situation where people are excited about working with you.”
Making use of her many influences — from blues and gospel to roots and world music — Osborne resurfaced with Righteous Love (Interscope, 2000), an album that meets the singer’s own standards of the heart, shying away from anything current or hip. “There’s an Oscar Wilde quote: ‘Beware of being too fashionable, or you’ll soon be unfashionable,’ ” she offers. “I try to dig at the roots of the things that I’m drawn to, because those things, to me, are timeless. And if I take my inspiration from that, there’s a greater chance the music I make will also be timeless.”
Osborne remembers serenading the birds in her back yard while growing up in Anchorage, Ky. — but when she moved to New York City in the 1980s it was to pursue film, not a singing career.
“Music’s really the only thing I’ve ever done where I felt like this was meant to be, this is what I’m supposed to be in the world. But it was almost like an accident. I was with a friend and we went into a blues bar around the corner from where I lived, and they had a piano player. My friend dared me to go up and sing a song, so I sang ‘God Bless The Child,’ the Billie Holiday song. I started coming down every week, and I discovered this whole community of people who were doing blues and roots music in New York City on the Lower East Side, like Chris Whitely, Blues Traveler and [The] Spin Doctors. The more time I spent on the scene, the more people I got to know, and all this money I was supposed to be saving to go back to school I ended up spending on blues records.
“I sang a lot of blues and really immersed myself in that music,” she recalls. “I listened to people like Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker — those are the people that I really idolized, [plus some other] women singers. I felt that there was something about the way they sang that really spoke to a darkness — but also a power about being female in the world that I didn’t hear in other kinds of music, and that really made an impact with me.
“It really just happened one step at a time. I tell people that I started [my career] singing at an open-mic night, and in their minds it must have been like there was a famous producer in the audience that night who swept me away and made me a star. And it’s nothing like that at all. I worked for a long time before I even came close to getting a record deal.”
Signed to Mercury Records in 1995, she scored a hit with her second single from Relish, a bouncy, humanistic ditty called “One of Us.” Evidently the image of God riding a bus was a bit too much for some in the religious community. “I think the song really says that if God is one of us, then all we have is each other, and we really have to respect each other and appreciate each other in that way,” she explains. “I was surprised when certain people thought that it was sacrilegious. I definitely got some angry and bizarre letters from people, and at one point religious groups were picketing my concerts. I don’t mean to denigrate anyone’s faith, but I do think that sometimes people will choose a religion because they want everything answered for them. So if they’re facing something that they don’t really understand, they have to decide whether it’s fully inside the territory of their beliefs or fully outside — there doesn’t seem to be a middle way. It’s either all right or all wrong …
“I guess there were people who felt that way about my song.”
Osborne recorded Righteous Love at Sunset Studios with producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Crowded House, Suzanne Vega). “Ultimately, when you create something, you create it for yourself, even if you don’t intend to do that,” the singer explains. “You can only put in a record what’s inside of you, so I think you end up doing it for yourself whether you realize it or not. I try not to think about selling a certain amount of copies, or who’s going to like it or anything like that. I try to make sure that I’m satisfied with it — that I make a record that I want to play night after night for people.”
Among other flavors, a decided dash of Eastern music spikes Righteous Love. “I first heard [the late] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great qawwali singer, about seven years ago when we were in Europe. I just fell in love with his voice and with that style of music — qawwali music. It reminded me a great deal of American gospel music — the incredible expressiveness of the singing and incredible elevation of the music. The music is made in order to raise people up and bring people together in a sort of worship context. To me, that’s so inspiring and amazing. There’s something about the rhythms and melodies in Indian music — it’s very emotional.”
She says she enjoys the camaraderie of touring with a band — the present lineup features drummer Billy Ward, musical director Jack Petruzzelli on guitar and mandolin, bassist Andy Hess and guitarist Andrew Carillo.
“You’re in such close quarters and you’re making music together, which is a very intimate thing,” she reflects. “After a while, you become this little tribe and start to have these group mind experiences, where you’re finishing each other’s sentences and communicating on-stage — everybody sort of looks at each other and knows what to do without saying anything. It’s interesting. I wish there was a psychological study about what happens to the brain in that kind of situation.”
On her own, the singer recently launched an on-line publication, Heroine Magazine (www.heroinemag.com) — “a magazine that is woman-centered but doesn’t pretend women are obsessed by shopping and dieting.” She’s also an active board member of Planned Parenthood’s Vox program.
“I find that it’s a great way to help the causes that I believe in — by sort of lending them my visibility,” she explains. “It also helps me, because it gives me something more interesting to talk about than who I’m dating or what I’m wearing.”