No Separation: The Music and Spirit of Joan Osborne
From Triple Cities Carousel, October 2015.
Joan Osborne is a goddess in her own right: creating art for art’s sake and finding success while dismissing the trappings of fame, she has elevated herself by remaining grounded. Her composed and insightful disposition and powerful, soulful voice were merely hinted at when she arrived on the scene in 1995 with her internationally chart-topping single, “One of Us.” Since then, she has established a loyal fan base, solidified a reputation as a blues and soul singer, and gave birth to and raised up a daughter. Now, she is touring the country with one of her vocal heroes, Mavis Staples- their Solid Soul Tour kicked off aptly at The Fillmore in San Francisco- and they make their way to Binghamton University’s Anderson Center at the end of this month.
Ms. Osborne can recall a time when she played a circuit that encompassed Binghamton, before she was ever signed, but this will be her first time back here in a very long while. She was gracious enough to speak with us about her musical roots, spiritual inclinations, the pop charts, and turning your brain off.
How did your relationship with music begin? I sang as a child- I grew up in Kentucky, in this small town, with a lot of woods around our house, and I used to go into the woods and built forts and stuff, and I would get into this game of singing back and forth to the birds, and I would try to get them to sing back and forth with me- I would imitate their song. Not like people do bird calls- but more like singing- and I would do that all the time when I was little. But, as far as singing songs [goes], I started doing that in school, when I was, I guess, in junior high school, middle school. We had a really great music teacher at my school, a woman named Carolyn Browning, and she gave us these relatively complicated pieces to learn; you know, we were doing four- and five-part harmonies in sixth and seventh grade, so I think I was really challenged and I think I learned a lot about harmony in that period of my life, and I think that probably stood me in good stead.
I never sang in high school or college, really- I was in a band for two weeks in high school, because I was dating a guy who was a drummer, and he was in a band, and they asked me to be a backup singer for a couple of weeks. But then the bass player decided he didn’t like me, so they fired me from the band. That was my entire high school music career.
And I actually went to college to do something different: I went to New York to go to NYU to study filmmaking, and I thought that I was going to become a documentary filmmaker, but I sort of accidentally went into this club one night- a guy who lived in my building invited me to go out for a drink with him- and we went to this bar on the corner, which happened to be a blues club. And even though the band had finished playing, there was a piano player there still playing- just kind of for himself and the handful of people who were left in this club- and my friend dared me to go up there and sing a song with him, and he said that he would pay for the drinks if I did that. So, being the broke college student that I was, I took him up on the offer and I went and I sang a Billie Holiday song with this piano player, and the piano player was like, ‘You know, that sounds pretty good- you should come back- we have an open mic here once a week.’
So I started going to this open mic night at this blues club, and was really sort of terrified, at first, to sing in public- and especially for a girl who grew up in Kentucky, to sing in a club in New York City just seems sort of overwhelming. But there was something about it, and about, I think, the immediacy of making music, and of singing, that really captivated me, so I kept coming back, week after week. And that was my introduction to this incredible music scene that was happening at the time in New York.
There were a lot of blues and roots bands around, there were interesting rock bands around, and there was a whole scene going on downtown. I started meeting other musicians, and going to other places that had open mic nights, and then, eventually, put my own band together and started trying to get work in these clubs. And, you know, that took me a long time; even to get my first booking took me six or eight months of taking my little cassette tape around to all the different places. I would go and sit in with some friends, who already had a booking, and then I would go up and talk to the guy who was the manager or the booker and try to get a gig there. And, at first, everybody was ‘no, no, no,’ but eventually I sort of stuck around long enough, and they started booking me for shows.
So that’s how it all began.
What was it like, working the blues circuit in New York City then, and how has it changed since? Well, it’s hard for me to say how things have changed, because I live a different life now- you know, I’m not a person who goes out and spends every night out at clubs and looks for music. That was another part of my life. I’m a mom now, and I do this professionally, and you know, I do go out and hear music sometimes, but I’m not out in clubs every single night. And when I work, I’m usually on tour somewhere; I travel around. So, I don’t think I’m an expert on what the New York City scene is right now.
But I can talk about what it used to be, and it used to be a very mutually supportive, really inclusive kind of thing, where I don’t think we had any kind of conception that… most of us didn’t have any sort of conception that we were trying to get ‘discovered’ or get a record deal, or anything like that, and it was really just people out trying to play music and have fun.
And some guys were out there, just trying to support their families, as musicians. Some people were younger, and didn’t have families, and were just out trying to have a good time, and make cool music, and meet interesting people, and it was a really nice community. I guess I’ve heard stories about other scenes, where there was a lot of competitiveness, and the scene that I came out of was nothing like this; everybody was really supportive of each other, and we would go to each others’ shows and sit in with each other, and it was just a fun hang.
And then, after the show, you would go someplace for breakfast at, you know, one or two o’clock in the morning, and you’d sit and talk and laugh and hang out with other musicians, and talk about music or whatever, and you’d end up going home at four o’clock in the morning, and… For a while, I was working a day job, as well, and had to get up at seven and get to my office, and there was one room that wasn’t used, and I would pass out on the floor during my lunch break, because I was so tired; I never got enough sleep.
Wow. That sounds amazing. It really was. It was really fun.
Yeah. Wow. I just want to give you a few names of people that were around on the scene at that time. I’m sure people have heard of Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, and the Holmes Brothers- whom I became really close friends with, and have worked with many times over the years. People like Chris Whitley were around on the scene, and Jeff Buckley. There’s a lot of others, but those are the ones I think people are most familiar with.
So, since then, you became famous through the success of your first major label album, Relish, and so a lot of things changed. Could you reflect on how it was, moving from the lifestyle you just described, to being in the public eye, to then what transformed after that, once you established your fan base and found your voice in a different way? It was definitely a big change, and, in one sense, it was something that took me out of that community that I had become part of, and opened doors to me, to a lot of other interesting places, and to situations which I don’t think I ever would have been able to take part in if I hadn’t had that kind of success. You know, I got invited to Italy to sing with Pavarotti, and I got invited to sing with Stevie Wonder at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. I got to sing with Bob Dylan- record a duet with him- and also just travel all around the world, performing in different shows and festivals and things like that. So it was like getting a ticket to the world of music, and that was really amazing.
I think the machinery of being, you know, a famous person and becoming, sort of, a commodity, and the necessity of having to sell yourself as a commodity and do a lot of work to, sort of, service your fame so you can sell a lot of records- that part of it was always tough for me to deal with. And the kind of public scrutiny, which I guess is even worse now- with the internet and trolls and all that- to me, it felt sort of ridiculous and beside the point, and I kind of felt like I’d been put back in junior high school, or something, the way that people would feel, just, completely okay making comments about the way you look, or saying they hate you, or sending you weird death threats in the mail, and just bizarre stuff like that. That aspect of it was hard to navigate.
But I think the most important part about the success of that record, was that I felt really proud to have been part of making something- and I didn’t make the record on my own; I had some collaborators, who were really essential to getting it to sound the way it was- that seemed to touch a lot of people and seemed to have meaning to a lot of people on this mass scale, of selling millions and millions of records. Which is really amazing, and as an artist, that’s the kind of thing you dream about.
It seems like the mid-nineties were a special time for women in popular music- which, for me, was great, because I was a preteen, so I had access to music that was real, coming from women who were a little bit older than me, instead of manufactured… I mean, I don’t want to downplay music that’s coming out today, but I don’t feel like what’s happening now really measures up to what was happening when you were big on the scene, with the Lilith Fair and all of that. So many of your contemporaries were really, I think, strong role models for young women, without that necessarily even being the intention. What do you think happened? Well, I mean, it’s hard to say. I think, you can definitely look at these things as cyclical: even though there may not be a lot of women doing music that is as lyric-driven, personal, or as, I guess, unusual- there aren’t that many women doing that kind of music that are on the pop charts right now, but they’re still out there; they’re still making that music- you just have to dig a little deeper to find them.
There’s tons of great music being made by women and men and all kinds of artists now, it’s just, what the mainstream media chooses to take notice of tends to be cyclical. It tends to notice things. Like, right now, it’s time for somebody like Pink, or Katy Perry, or whoever, these pop-divas to take the lead; whereas, when I was coming out, that sort of music was considered a little bit lame, and a little bit processed, and people rejected it as being manufactured. Whereas now, everybody’s interested in embracing it and enjoying it. I have a ten-year-old daughter who loves that kind of stuff. We sit in the car and listen to it, and there’s some of it that I love, too; I think it’s great. It’s just a different moment.
And there’s going to come another moment when that kind of thing goes out of fashion, and another kind of thing will rise and will be considered interesting, and mainstream media will take notice of that.
I hope that’s true. It’s always changing. It’s never going to be stuck in one thing.
It’s funny- it feels like this time of year: today is Eid [al-Fitr]; yesterday was Yom Kippur; the Pope is in the country- Yeah.
I feel like this is really apt, for me, to be speaking with someone… at the beginning of your career, you were really known for music that had spiritual overtones. When you were coming out on the scene, was spirituality where your head was at? I think that spirituality is one of the places that music takes us to, and every spiritual tradition that has ever been on the earth has used music to bring people to this higher state of consciousness, or feeling like they’re connected with the divine, in whatever way the divine is defined in these different traditions. So, I’ve always been really conscious of the fact that there’s really no separation between music and spirituality.
Some kinds of music don’t choose to draw on that, and don’t choose to make that connection, but the music that I love- soul and blues music and rock music- so much of that came out of gospel music in America, and that kind of gospel fervor is such a big part of it, that I feel like it’s just one of the great things about the music that I love. So, it’s not that I set out to, specifically, to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to make this song into something spiritual,’ it’s just, making music is a spiritual experience for me, and that’s one of the things that it has- it’s got that power. So I don’t think that I necessarily thought about it when we were making the record, but then, when I sat back and listened to it, and judged from people’s reactions, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, guess maybe that is something that sets this apart from other kinds music that’s out there right now.’ That’s always been a big part of what I feel music does for us, as humans.
Has that helped you in your songwriting, in terms of getting in touch with the muse and finding inspiration? I don’t think about it overtly; I think I’m just naturally drawn to music- for instance, somebody like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who was a great Qawwali singer- Qawwali is the spiritual music of the Sufi religious sect of Islam- I’ve always been a huge fan of his, and that kind of music, just, moves me, and, so, I’m naturally drawn to that, and I think just following my natural inclinations and following my ears and my heart has taken me to those places. It does keep me inspired, for sure, but I don’t necessarily think about it while it’s happening.
But it’s made it- You can think about stuff too much, and just think it into oblivion. There are certain parts of your brain that you want to turn off at certain times, and just let yourself be in the flow, and not be considering and judging things all the time.
That’s very good advice. How do you feel, working with Mavis Staples, this gospel great? Not only is she a gospel great, but she’s one of my musical heroes and one of my favorite singers in the world, and I’m just so overjoyed, and I cannot wait for this tour to start, and I’m just trying to be very conscious that it’s only going to last a couple months- I feel like it’s going to be one of the great musical experiences of my life, and I really want to try to appreciate every moment that is happening. I’m such a huge fan of Mavis, and the Staple Singers, and any chance I get to sing with her, I’m gonna take. We’re actually going to be traveling together, on the same bus, and I’m just so looking forward to getting to know her better, as a person. I’ve met her several times, and she’s very warm, generous spirit, so I feel like it’s going to be nothing but a wonderful time to get to know her better, and to sing with her.