Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Joan Osborne is as unique a talent working in music today – a singer-songwriter able to transfer the layers of herself to the live stage. Osborne was born in Kentucky in the 1960s, gravitating toward music at a young age. And like so many performers bitten by the music bug, she eventually migrated to New York City, arriving there in the late 1980s to study at the NYU School of Film. However, the vibe of New York’s music scene quickly captivated all her energies, and she soon began showcasing herself in the city’s rock clubs. Osborne’s vocal style – this sweet amalgamation of folk, rock and blues stylings – caught on fast, and by the early 1990s, she’d launched her own Womanly Hips Records and released “The Soul Show: Live at Delta 88.” This record proved that Osborne was not just a regional act, but instead, an international talent; she signed with Mercury Records soon after. Her first Mercury release was called “Relish,” and the record was nominated for Album of the Year at the 38th Grammys. With “Relish,” Osborne was on the threshold of a big-time pop career. However, she nobly eschewed a lifetime of radio play to continue on her starkly personal mission – that being, to tell the story of the Americas and its people in her own way, via songs that blend the lyrical depth of Walt Whitman, Richard Brautigan and Michael McClure, via a voice that elevates to flight to extend a path cut by Mary Travers, Bessie Smith, Judy Collins and Odetta. Obviously, it’s this depth of sense and emotion that’s carried Osborne to her latest endeavor: Covering the songs of Bob Dylan. On this record, the best of Osborne is on full display, as she comes to interpret a sampling of the work of the greatest American songwriter to ever live with the impulses of her own heart and soul. The result? A record written by Bob Dylan that belongs only to Joan Osborne.
The Electric Review was fortunate enough to catch up with Osborne this month in Northern California, in advance of a series of shows she is doing in the U.S. to expose her fans to The Songs of Bob Dylan. In print, she plays much like her music: deliberate, nuanced and insightful, speaking in a voice all her own. For more on Osborne, and to follow her tour schedule, go here.
Well, I grew up in Kentucky; I was born and raised in a small town close to Louisville. Eventually, I moved to New York City – my plan was to attend NYU and become a documentary filmmaker. But one night a guy I went to school with asked me out for a drink, and he took me to a blues club. Later that night, he dared me to go up on stage and sing a song. I took the dare, and did this song by Billie Holiday. It went over well and I was invited back to sing at an open mic night. I quickly realized that was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the New York music scene. I kept singing and performing in clubs, and eventually put my own band together. I just fell in love with it. The music. And performing. It was a place where I could belong. As I branched out from New York to the rest of the East Coast, I had to keep going. I knew that if I didn’t see where it could take me, I would always regret it.
I guess that was back in 1991. I put out a live record – “The Soul Show: Live at Delta 88” – on my own label [Womanly Hips Records].
I always had the idea in the back of my mind to to do a project like Ella Fitzgerald did with her Songbook Series. She did a series of records, each one dedicated to a different songwriter’s work. So I decided to do something similar. And I chose Dylan. We debuted the work at the Café Carlyle and received strong responses from both the critics and from the audience, which told me I had something here…
One of the hardest parts of the project was narrowing it down. And we had a few different criteria we followed to do this. I wanted to do songs from throughout his career, and not just the most familiar pieces to his fans. I wanted to represent all eras of his writing career. So I chose some familiar songs, and some lesser known cuts. I wanted to get a mixture there to give the audience a chance to discover some things they might have not known about. At that point it came down to trial and error – bringing fresh reinterpretations to the songs while still being careful to respect the underlying vision of the material.
I picked that song and decided to perform it. Dylan’s version is very spare, but the lyrics nonetheless have this celebratory feeling – it could easily have been a pop song. When we put a full band to the song, it became light, with a real joyfulness to it.
Thank you for that. The sax was my co-producer, Jack Petruzzelli’s idea. Initially, I did not hear it, but once we laid down the track, I saw how well the sax worked there.
The first time I met him was in a recording studio. He had asked me to be his partner on a version of “Chimes Of Freedom” that he was doing for an NBC special on the 1960s. Bob had asked me to duet with him, so I made sure to get to the studio early. I remember I was chatting with members of his band, who I knew, and he walked into the room behind me. I instantly knew he’d entered, because it was like the weather changed. People suddenly became very aware that he was there; focus changed instantly to him, with people gauging his mood. He has this great personal charisma and it’s readily apparent.
Well Bob is very mercurial. He changes his mind quickly. And he can change an arrangement very quickly as an idea strikes. If you’re not paying attention you can get left behind. And that’s what struck me most about doing that recording – how he dealt with this barrage of ideas, trying them out, then discarding them if they didn’t work. I remember during “Chimes” we sere singing together at the same microphone, and I was trying to match his phrasing with my harmony. I had to focus so hard I didn’t have time to be nervous!
I don’t know if he’s heard it. But the people in his publishing office have been very supportive and complimentary. (Laughing) I’m sure Bob has other things to do in his life then listen to other people’s versions of his songs.
I would say a lot of the great R&B singers – Otis Redding, Mavis Staples. The people who came from the Blues tradition. I gravitated toward that kind of confidant swagger. That Muddy Waters/Etta James sound. I liked to put on that costume. It’s about a musical style and an attitude. I also respect Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones. People with individual voices that resonate and blossom.
I honestly don’t see what all the controversy was about, this thing over whether he deserved it or not. If a poet can win a Nobel, so can a songwriter, who is just a poet in another form. Dylan influenced the culture at large, he brought Beat poetry to the radio. Allen Ginsberg couldn’t do it, but Bob Dylan did.