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Joan Obsorne Sounds Off Through a Filmmakers Eye

Some people know Joan Osborne for her hit single, “One of Us.” Others for her participation in Lilith Fair or the documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which chronicled Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers, that played on countless R&B hits. In the jamband world, there’s her inclusion on H.O.R.D.E., time spent with The Dead in the summer of 2003 and numerous shows as one of Phil Lesh’s Friends.

Still, that’s not enough to allow you to really know Joan.

With an interest in film, she moved to New York to study. For the music world’s gain, she moved towards a singing career, playing local clubs, then recording and self-releasing her work before a major record label gave her widespread recognition with a hit single (“One of Us”) and album (_Relish_). Since that time Osborne has continued to follow her distinctive life path — releasing more albums that strived to move beyond recreation of her hit, studying with Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, the internationally acclaimed performer of Qawwali music, which is based on the devotional music of Sufism, becoming a mother and making guest appearances on recordings and concerts.

Although she released a holiday album, Christmas Means Love, that was sold exclusively in Barnes & Noble stores in 2005, it had been four years since a real studio effort came out. Last fall, Pretty Little Stranger displayed another side of Osborne. Despite growing up in Kentucky, she avoided making a country album. Her version, flavored by the influence of blues, R&B and Qawwali, distinguished it from the Nashville hit factory.

I was prepared to discuss the past few years of her life, but Osborne surprised me with the news that that a follow up album was ready to come out on May 22.

When I mentioned the short gap between albums, she responded, “It’s good. I feel like I’m in a really creative time now. I’m not necessarily taking everything deadly seriously, and I find that that’s freeing me up creatively to do different things.”

I catch Osborne during a train ride back to New York. The previous evening she took part in a Stevie Wonder Tribute, as part of an ASCAP event for songwriters’ rights in Washington D.C. The night included Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Chaka Khan, India.Arie, Wyclef Jean and Diane Reeves performing Wonder’s songs as well as the guest of honor doing a short set. She performed “You Are The Sunshine of My Life.”

JPG: I’ve wanted to interview you ever since I watched Standing in the Shadows of Motown. (Osborne did “Heat Wave” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” with The Funk Brothers.) I was really impressed with your performance in that documentary. Then, I read that the producer of Pretty Little Stranger, Steve Buckingham, felt the same way when he watched it. Did that open the eyes of other people?

JO: There were certainly a number of people who haven’t heard me sing like that before. I learned how to sing by singing soul music and blues music and imitating singers like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner. Those are my idols. I did that singing in bars and clubs in New York. But then my wider success came with a song and an album, which wasn’t really like that.

I think it was surprising for people to see me in that world, to hear me sing that way. Certainly, The Funk Brothers didn’t know who I was when I walked on the set of the movie. They thought I was the make-up girl. (laughs) No, I’m gonna sing with you guys.’ Then, I won them over. At the end of the song they were like, That was good! Come out on tour with us.’

JPG: Not that I’m trying to knock Pretty Little Stranger, but after seeing you do that style of music as well as you did, and then taking part in the Sister Rosetta Tharpe tribute album, I had hoped that you would have made a gritty blues album. Is that still a possibility?

JO: Of course. I’m looking at this phase of my recording career as if I were a film director who was going to direct a bunch of genre movies, as if I were a director who was going to do a western and then I’m going to do a musical comedy and then I’m going to do a disaster movie and then I’m going to do a gangster movie. I’m looking at these different genres of music and I’m trying to bring some original and unique touch to each one of them.

Pretty Little Stranger is a country record, and I’m just about ready to release a record that’s like a Philly Soul thing that’s very much inspired by The Stylistics, The O’Jays and that whole Gamble and Huff Philly Soul sound.

I’m not sure when exactly it’s going to happen but I definitely want to do a very gritty blues record that takes me back to that music that I loved singing in clubs, that was emulating Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James and those rough textures and very raw sound.

JPG: Since you mentioned it, give me a little more information on the new album.

JO: Well, it’s called Breakfast in Bed, and it’s coming out on Time-Life, which is the company that does a lot of the repackages and sells records on late night infomercials. They let me do a record that was half covers and half originals. So, I wrote a lot of songs that were in that same Philly Soul style. That’s what I most proud of. If you listen to it front to back, the mood is not substantially different between the older songs and the ones I wrote. In fact, some of the people who were working in the studio with us recording it didn’t know which ones were the covers and which ones were the originals. So, I’m proud and excited that I was able to put myself in that world as a writer, and emulate that style.

JPG: Speaking of covers, you did an entire album of them on 2002’s How Sweet It Is. Half of your next album consists of covers and Pretty Little Stranger has a number of them as well. As a songwriter and an interpreter, how do you decide how much to do of others’ work and after that what to sing?

JO: It’s very much an instinctual process for me. I’m really fortunate that I do enjoy doing other people’s songs. I have made something of a name for myself as an interpreter. So, I don’t feel like I only have to do my own material, but at the same time I still feel that I have something to say as a writer and it’s really just an instinctual thing.

I get to a point where I think that’s enough covers for now, that I really need to work on my original material. And then I’ll get to a point where I’ve said what I’ve needed to say as a writer for the moment and I really want to tackle this kind of song. And there’s so many great songs already out there that I want to sink my teeth into as a vocalist. So, I just let my heart lead me and not overthink it too much. That’s my mantra these days, not to think too much about any of it.

JPG: You originally came to New York to attend film school. Tying that together with your work as a singer, do you see the idea of covering songs written and recorded by others almost like a film editor reconfiguring a scene?

JO: Yeah. There’s actually a lot of parallels between [the two], particularly the editing process and the writing process for me. If you take a song and say you replace verse one with verse three and verse two with verse one and whatever, you can tell a completely different story. And it’s the same way with film editing. Depending on the order of shots and the way that you present them, you can tell a completely different story and make a completely different emotional mood out of them.
I think I’ve carried a little bit of knowledge of that with me as a writer and have been using it throughout. I just have that image in my mind, Alright, what happens if I take this moment, in which I try to make each line of a song some sort of moment, some sort of observation or some sort of image. What happens if I take this and I put it at the end of the song and what does that create.’ It’s fun to play with that.

JPG: Now is there anything in particular that you look for in a song or do you just hear a song and something hits you and you make a mental note about it?

JO: Well, the cover songs that’s just something where your head leads you and it’s pretty easy to tell what the song’s impact might have been and if you really want to do it. The question really is if you can bring something. That’s the question I ask myself. Can I bring something to this song that is unique and that hasn’t been done before, that can make the song live in a little bit of this place where it hadn’t lived before?’

I don’t want to just copy what someone else has done. In particular, with these great Soul songs and these great Soul singers, who are my heroes, you can’t copy or try to out sing someone like Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight or Etta James or any of those people. You’re beat before you’ve started. So, I really just try to see if there’s a way that I can look at the song with a fresh eye and bring something unique to it and not try to compete with the other version but try to make the song live in a little bit of a different way. That’s really the question.

JPG: Staying with the subject of covering material that’s been immortalized, and then adding your own particular freshness to it, you toured with The Dead and Phil Lesh and covered the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” on Pretty Little Stranger. How was that situation for you because I saw you a few times with The Dead and, later, with Phil Lesh you seemed more comfortable with the songs?

JO: HmmmI don’t know, I mean, I was a little more comfortable because I knew the material a little better. When I first started working with The Dead, I really only knew a handful of their songs. It was quite a lot of work to learn the amount of material that they have. And, if you’ve seen their shows, you know that their shows differ so vastly from one night to the next. It’s not like you just learn 20 songs and you’re done. I learned four or five new songs and got them ready to perform that night. And then you fall into bed, exhausted. You wake up and you’ve got a whole new list of songs to learn for the next night. So, it was very challenging to do that so maybe (slight laugh) that’s why I could relax for the Phil shows. I don’t know. I don’t know the shows that you’re talking about.

JPG: I saw a number of summer shows Camden, Verona, Darien, Joliet, Deer Creek plus a couple on the west coast and then I saw the two Vegoose shows with Phil. And, as I said, at those later dates you just seemed to me to be more relaxed at that time.

JO: Well, that might have been why. As far as musically, the territory that their material covers, I feel pretty at home in that world, the whole American Music and the blues and bountry and stuff like that they draw from. That feels like a very comfortable territory for me. It wasn’t that the material itself was difficult. It was just the amount of it, and being thrown into it.

JPG: There was a time or two when I could see Rob Barraco giving you direction.

JO: Oh, definitely. He was my lifeline through that whole first summer, cause he knows that stuff backwards and forwards. He’s an incredibly gifted musician and he’s got that ability to retain all that stuff so he was like my librarian. I would run to him between songs, What’s my part on this?’ and he would play it for me and sing it to me.

JPG: I could see how it worked that way.

JO: That’s good to know. I was grateful for the reception that I got with the fans because I didn’t know going into it whether people would look at me as I was trying to replace Jerry, but I don’t think most people took it that way. I think everybody was kind of like, Well, what’s this?’ and We like this.’ I was very grateful for the embrace and the welcome that I got from the fans.

JPG: Talking about following your heart, at The Dead shows when you did the dance at the front of the stage during jams, was that just one of those moments that just hit you?

JO: Yeah, it’s just that they’re a dance band, you know. And I, sometimes, felt like I didn’t just want to go and sit down by the side of the stage or go backstage. I wanted to stay in the music and in the moment. If there wasn’t anything for me to sing, I did a little percussion here and there, but mostly what I felt like was the right thing to do was dance.

JPG: Now, during “Space” was that Qawwali vocals you were doing (a.k.a. among taper circles as the “Joan Moan”)?

JO: Qawwali music. Yeah, that’s part of what I would go to, Qawwali music and some of it is just I would be experimenting with these weird sounds like, I don’t know, Yoko Ono. Just because that’s a very free space to play around and do whatever you want to do, and as long as you hear it and it’s musical and it seems to correspond with what the rest of the musicians are doingPart of what I would do was just the Qawwali music and then I would just do whatever happened to occur to me.

JPG: Is that Qawwali one hears at the end of “After Jane” [on Pretty Little Stranger?

JO: Yes. I find that there are similarities between a lot of the Appalachian country music and ancient hills music and the music of India, in particular Qawwali music, which is the spiritual music of the Sufis. Even technically, as far as the scale and the notes and the way that the notes are presented, that there’s some similarities. I felt that that would be an interesting thing to experiment with on the record, what is ostensibly a Country song, Country record. Give it a little flavor of the Qawwali and the Asian sound.

JPG: How did you get involved in that?

JO: Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn was a hero of mine. A friend of mine in Switzerland introduced me to his music. I just heard so much in his voice and his music. It’s sacred music, so it’s very specifically to raise you up out of yourself and connect you with the Divine. For me that’s the highest purpose that music can have and I’m very fascinated by that in whatever tradition and whatever country and whatever religion. That just feels like such an amazing, wonderful power. I was always attracted to that whether it’s Qawwali music or regular Gospel music or whatever.

So, I was a huge fan of his. Then, I had the opportunity to meet him backstage at, I think it was a VH-1 event. Just, basically threw myself at his feet and said that I would love to study with him. He kind of gave me a little impromptu audition backstage in the dressing room, and he agreed to give me lessons. Unfortunately, I only had a chance to study with him very, very briefly. We only had a handful of lessons before he went back to Pakistan for awhile and then he became really ill and passed away.

JPG: Do you still practice or have you done additional studies?

JO: That’s a thread that I would like to take up again and follow again. It’s something that, I guess, I really felt a loss when he passed away. I felt that he was supposed to be my teacher and now he was gone. So, I didn’t really look for another teacher or anything like that. I thought, Well, I’m just going to leave this alone for awhile’ because I felt very saddened by this happening. But that’s a thread that I think I’m going to pick up again in the future, whether it’s as a student or whether it’s trying to take what I learned from him and use it morein a genre record, how would I, if I was going to make a Qawwali record, what would that sound like. Try to attempt to write some things in that style and see what that would turn out to be.

JPG: Speaking of songwriting, with Pretty Little Stranger you were listening to certain country artists and noticed that the lyrics were much simpler, more direct, and that influenced your original material. Has that continued to influence you or are you back to more abstract lyrics?

JO: It’s nice to be able to do either one of them. I don’t think either one of them is a superior way of writing. Each has its place. There are some songs that I love that are that simple and there’s other songs that are very complicated and abstract andyou listen to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, half the time you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But it’s beautiful. So, I think there’s a place for any of those styles and I just felt that I wasn’t that familiar with the simpler style and I really needed to teach myself how to do that and that was very challenging. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do that some more. I don’t think that will mean I won’t write in the other style anymore. Now that I have those different abilities, I hope I have some practice of different skills that I can use whatever’s appropriate for the moment.

JPG: I see that you’re going to Scotland to play some shows with Jerry Douglas

JO: Jerry, the dobro player works with Alison Krauss. He invited me to this thing called the Transatlantic Sessions, where theyI think they do it in the UK every year, a bunch of Irish and Scottish musicians get together with a bunch of American musicians and do a lot of collaborations. And they film it for the BBC.

JPG: Does it happen in one place or?

JO: I don’t even think it’s like a concert. It’s more that they just set us up in different rooms, in some castle in the middle of Scotland somewhere, and I don’t think it’s even a performance for a live audience. I think it’s just for the TV.

JPG: Will you be performing tracks from Pretty Little Stranger or decide what to do at that time?

JO: I’ll be doing it a couple songs from that. I might be doing “St. Theresa.” They’ve asked me to. I think one of the Scottish musicians had an idea of how to do that in an interesting, unique way. We’re going to do that song as well. Then I’m probably going to collaborate with them on their music. It’s gonna be fun and we’re going to mix it up.

JPG: Speaking of concerts, I haven’t noticed any tour dates supporting Pretty Little Stranger or the upcoming release.

JO: Just here and there. I haven’t gone out on any solid touring. I’m a mom now so I don’t do quite as much of that as I used to. But, we’re doing shows here and there, some scattered dates throughout the summer.

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