Joan Osborne: How Sweet She Is

Lyle Lovett has this song “The Girl in the Corner.” If it weren’t about Julia Roberts it could easily be about Joan Osborne on this bright Brooklyn morning. That’s where she was sitting in the corner of a neighborhood café reading the New York Times. Wearing a Mary J. Blige t-shirt and matching red sneaks, she could easily pass for any other hip 30-something New Yorker. But this is Joan Osborne, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter, the fiercely committed women’s rights activist, the star who due mostly to her religiously-controversial 1996 hit, “One of Us,” has been hailed publicly as “Saint Joan” by some and an “instrument of Satan” by the radical right. With a casual air and an easy smile, there’s nothing about Joan that conjures up images of ultra-celebrity or the devil. Rather, she’s celebrating the release of her new record, How Sweet It Is, without too much fanfare – by talking with Velvetpark, working out, rehearsing for five hours with her band, and going on a date. So, after we toast to her new album, we chat it up for a while and cover a lot of ground.

Upon introductions, I find that we’re practically neighbors when she ventures upstate to her place in the Catskills. It’s a place that she says saved her, a refuge and hideout she visits when the city and the business get a little overwhelming, which happened after the ride she took with her debut album, Relish. “I think I had this vision of what it would be like to be a recording artist and to really be able to not have a day job and be able to completely devote all my energies to doing music. And my vision of it was more like I’d be able to take piano lessons and study all these different kinds of music that I really want to study – to spend all this time really focusing on the creative side of it. And you end up spending a lot of time promoting yourself and sort of servicing your own fame. I really felt like that after a while with the release of Relish,” and with a chuckle she adds, “I’m almost ambivalent about the notion of having a hit song, at this point, because I feel like it would be great because then more people will get the record – and it’s a record that I’m really proud of – but I also don’t want to find myself in the situation again where I’m scheduled every minute of every day to do something that is about selling myself, which I don’t consider to be really being an artist. That’s this other obligation that you have to take care of.”

You would never know that she doesn’t enjoy it all that much. But the Relish turn left her weary and wise, grateful and respectful. Joan learned about fame the old-fashioned way: she earned it. Having grown up in Anchorage, Kentucky, Joan made her way to New York City to attend film school. Financial difficulties forced her to take a break from studies and a dare got her to sing at an open mic night in a blues club. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and jump (and several years of major effort) to her seemingly overnight success.

Joan dissects her time in the limelight thusly: “I think I didn’t necessarily have a lot of respect for someone like a J. Lo or wouldn’t have before, because the music’s not really for me and you can tell it’s this packaged creation or whatever. But then you realize these people are working their asses off all day, every day. And you have to give them credit and some respect for that. It’s really hard work. I found that I’m not necessarily comfortable with some of the human ramifications of some of it. It limited the kinds of things I was able to do and be comfortable. Like I couldn’t just walk around by myself in New York without people following me or yelling out my name. It became very uncomfortable. Everywhere I went people would recognize me. I know other people who are more famous than me who don’t have this problem. I guess my face is somewhat more recognizable or something.”

That lack of privacy was a big compromise for Joan and one that she did not make willingly or easily. Sure, her voice was pumping out of every speaker in town. And maybe her face was plastered on every newsstand. But that’s no reason to interrupt her basic human needs: “People just knew who I was, and then I would go into the store to buy tampons or something and suddenly some guy is like ‘Excuse me, excuse me. I don’t mean to bother you, but…’ So I got to the point where I wouldn’t go anywhere by myself. For me, that was very restrictive. And I could understand how people who are at the really high levels of fame need this entourage. It’s like a buffer zone. Otherwise, you can’t relax.”

Aside from the inconveniences of stardom, I asked, how does it feel to be that voice, that face, person that everyone wants a piece of? It has to pump your head up at least a little. Joan admits to having had a small case of ego-itis. “I certainly am not the most egotistical person I’ve ever met, but [fame] definitely turns your head. I do think I became invested in this notion of myself as this important person and artist. And there’re some days when you’re just not. You’re doing whatever. You’re watching TV and hanging out. Or you’re boring. Or you’re stupid. You don’t live this glossy life, even if you’ve had a wonderful success. Maybe some other people do. I was never able to work that out.

“I think I had this idea that once you were famous you’d get invited to this party. You’d walk in the room and there’d be all the other famous people and you would hangout with them. I couldn’t ever find that room,” she laughs.

If the room was at the 1996 Grammy Awards, she certainly got invited. Five times over ( though she left empty-handed).

Or maybe the room was that 1996 VH-1 benefit for Witness, an organization that puts technology in the hands of activists and citizens so that they may record human rights violations firsthand. There was Joan, sharing the stage with Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant, Gloria Estefan, and world renowned qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The irony of the list of performers did not go unnoticed by Joan, who is a huge Khan admirer: “To have this embodiment of music as spirituality, plopped down in the midst of the L.A. Shrine Auditorium, all these different bands, VH-1, all the glamour and the glitz, I think was really wonderful. To have this person dropped in the middle of it who comes from a completely different notion of what music is and what it can do – it’s a spiritual thing. It can transport people.”

Her reverence and love for Khan is apparent much like it was when she performed with him that night, transporting more than a few people, including herself. It was a dream come true. She had the rare opportunity to study traditional Sufi Qawwali singing with Khan before his passing, though for only three or four lessons. “He would just sit with his harmonium, cross-legged on the floor in whatever hotel room he happened to be in. And I would sit across from him. And he would play a little something on the harmonium or sing a little something to me and have me sing it back to him. It was just this chanting back and forth – all by ear. Qawwali is not a written tradition. It would be anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours of just singing. At the end, I would be just floating, in this completely hypnotic state,” she recalls wistfully.

Khan was ready and willing to take Joan on as a full-fledged student, but his health declined and he never made it back to the West. “He was magnificent. I feel lucky that I was able to study with him as much as I did. There’s still a lot to learn, just for me, from listening to his recordings. He’s left this incredible legacy behind. And there’s so much stuff in Pakistan and India that you can go and buy in the record stands. Stuff from ten years before, when he was in even better voice. He was amazing. He was like this lion.”

After riding her celebrity high for a while, Joan settled back into reality. While she was decompressing from eighteen months of Relish touring, Mercury Records put out The Early Recordings, a live record originally released on Joan’s Womanly Hips label back when she was singing in New York bars in the early ’90s. That gave her a nice breather.

Soon enough, she recorded and submitted a new album, Curds & Whey. Mercury shelved the tapes and dropped the artist. That gave her a rude awakening.

Ever determined, Joan self-financed her next collection Righteous Love, and got Interscope Records to distribute it in 2000. Produced by Mitchell Froom, it was an eclectic mix of acoustic blues and electric rock with a hint of world beat for added flavor. The five years between records no doubt played head trips on Joan, leaving her genuinely touched and surprised that the House of Blues was packed on the night Righteous Love was released. “It’s difficult to come off a wait like that. For most people, that would have been like ‘Career over, thank you very much. Next.’ Which may happen to me still. So yeah, that was one of the things that long wait did for me, one of the positive things. So far, I haven’t had to get a real job again so I’m thankful about that. I’ve had all kinds of real jobs and I’m not anxious to go back to that,” she freely admits.

Righteous Love did only fairly well, compared to her debut. No matter that, Joan set her sights ahead of her, rather than behind, and planned her next venture – an album of soul covers which would eventually evolve into How Sweet It Is.

But something happened on the way to the studio: the immense leveling day of September 11.

Those events affected Joan just as they did the rest of the world. To offer what she could, Joan volunteered with the Red Cross and at a Tribeca center for those who were displaced. “I just got this real sense of the fact that myself, or any individual is just not in control of what happens. And you can certainly try to control things. And you can certainly try to make your life be exactly what you want it to be. But there’s always going to be something that comes along and wrecks your plans. That’s just the way life is and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, when you come to the notion of power, each of us does have power. Whether it’s just to impact people in our immediate circle – even if it’s just that – then there’s definitely amazing power that we have. The more I’m around in the world, the more I realize you can have pairs of opposites with both things true at the same time.”

So where did that leave Joan as an artist? Despite performing at a slew of benefits, she felt she could still contribute something more. She thought perhaps, in the grand scheme of life music isn’t all that. But, then again, maybe it is. “To be someone who makes music that does affect other people in a positive way is just a privilege. I think I renewed my sense of that. And I renewed my determination to do it in a way that would be a positive thing for whoever. The thing I can’t control is what happens to the music once I make it. But to just try to invest it with as much of myself, and as much of that life as I can, I’m newly determined to do that.

“When I turned my attention back to making the record, I wanted to do something that touched on these themes of peace and talked about what I heard people talking about in the street or at parties.”

The casual listener might not understand that true soul music, at least the kind Joan wanted to do, “…had this great flowering. Where it was not only this incredible, joyful music, with positive lyrics about brotherhood, but there was a political content that you would never hear on the radio right now.” I suggest that folks like Michael Franti and Amy Ray are making that kind of music. It just doesn’t get on the radio. She agrees and expounds further. “I just don’t know whether people look to music today for that kind of message, that kind of reinforcement of what they’re thinking about, for a touchstone. I’m not sure people turn on the radio and are looking for that. Maybe they are.

“It’s a very different time. The reality is that you can’t turn on the radio and hear this stuff, for the most part. There will be change. We’ve gotten to this place in music where the ‘delivery’ system is really inefficient. It’s narrowed the kind of thing that you’re able to hear to a trickle.”

Having been around a few blocks, that corporate hindrance doesn’t faze Joan one bit: “It’s all cyclical. This is just one moment on the wheel. And the wheel keeps turning. Something’s got to give. Music is too powerful to be contained by this structure. And people have a need for it, for something that’s much more authentic than that. When the corporate stuff becomes so pasteurized and so unlistenable what are you going to do?

“I do feel there’s definitely, right in this moment, a dearth of that consciousness around music. I wanted to do a record that would have this political edge to it. So I thought, whether it gets on the radio or not, I don’t care. I want to do something that has some relevance to what people are thinking about right now. In the post-9/11 world, I just felt like I couldn’t ignore all of that.”

So there she was, ready to make a record full of great soul tunes. Okay, what next? How in the world do you pick twelve songs out of infinite possibilities? The political edge was the key. “I think if I had set out to just make a soul record, if that were the only focus I had, it would have been impossible. But I really did want to focus on things that had some relevance to the political and social climates that we’re in right now, like the fact that the war machine is grinding up again. I wanted to sing about those things. I wanted to have songs that expressed this real, renewed appreciation [people have] of each other…this community spirit or whatever you want to call it, that people have within themselves and they’re looking for a way to [express],” Joan offers thoughtfully, turning her hazel-green gaze downward.

Glancing back up, she adds, “I haven’t made this thing that’s a polemical document where you have to sit down with a thesaurus to research and understand it. You could put this record on and listen to it start to finish with no political thought in your head and still enjoy it as the music.” When I compliment her on striking a great balance, she replies, “Thank you. I worked hard for that balance. We don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a particular time where particular things are happening. I wanted to try to address it in whatever small way I could.”

Small to Joan is pretty great for the rest of us. She sings the hell out of these tunes. I tell Joan that her version of “How Sweet It Is” kicks James Taylor’s butt, and she cracks up. “I really wanted to make that into an erotic thing, where it’s almost scary how much you care about someone.” As for the other cuts: “I was scared to take on some of these songs. You’re never going to out-do the original. So I really tried to approach these like: ‘Okay, the definitive version of these songs already exists.’ I’m trying to find where the song and my voice intersect to really bring something new to life.”

And she certainly succeeded. Joan’s voice sits so comfortably in these songs that you might, just for a second, think they were written for her. They are of her. Or, perhaps, she is of them. She tackles works by Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Wonder. These are her idols. These are everyone’s idols. And, as with Nusrat, her reverence and humility in the company of greatness is ever apparent. This was clearly evident when she performed “Love’s in Need of Love Today” at Wonder’s induction into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, a big moment which she handled with graceful aplomb. And thanks to an absent Billy Joel, Joan had the honor of presenting Wonder with his award.

At the end of the morning, we make plans to talk again, as I have a handful of questions left to pose and, naturally, I also want to get a little trashy. Joan grins big and asks if we want to know how many girls she’s kissed. Of course – enquiring dykes always want to know. “I thought that would’ve been your first question,” she teases. I explain that I had to warm her up a bit, build her trust, as I would never go that far on a first date (I mean interview).

We reconvene a few days later at the photo shoot and I pop the question. “Oh boy! Now’s my big chance!” Joan exclaims, somewhat feigning enthusiasm. “Well, a few, yeah. I definitely have had far more encounters with men, but I’ve had a few erotic encounters with women. I always kind of thought of myself as straight, but then there were exceptions to that of women who I thought were particularly sexy and attractive and they felt the same about me. So I thought ‘why not?’ I will say that the women I’ve been attracted to have been on the more voluptuous side of the curve.”

Since we’re on the subject of sexy, to see Joan perform live is an experience not to be missed. She owns the stage like nobody’s business. Joan struts her stuff and wiggles her womanly hips to every beat and groove, all the while pouring every ounce of her energy and considerable vocal prowess into what becomes a spiritual and sensual experience for all present. I will personally admit to needing cold showers after several of her shows.

It’s no wonder, then, that her performances with the Funk Brothers in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown are turning a lot of heads. Word on the street from early screenings is that Joan steals the show and wins a lot of new fans. “I don’t know that it’s really a matter of stealing the show,” she counters. “My big impression of it is that these players are finally getting the attention they deserve after so many years. They’re the architects of this quintessential American music, all those Motown hits. They’re such a part of our cultural DNA at this point. Yet, unless you’re a musician, you don’t know who they are. For me, that was the real satisfaction of being a part of that. To get to sing with them, number one. And to get to be a part of something that really gives them their due was really cool.”

On her days off from the music business, you might think Joan would kick back, take it easy a little. Rather, she’s widely known as a great supporter of women’s rights, Planned Parenthood, environmental issues, LGBT rights, and she’s even volunteered as an escort for women at abortion clinics. To further put her money (and more) where her mouth is, Joan established HeroineMagazine.com, an online outlet and community that focuses on inspiring women and the relevant issues about which she feels passionate.

Despite her amazing achievements, these days, the Joan Osborne Fame Quotient has declined by a few points and she can roam her neighborhood almost freely. “Sometimes people will recognize me and they’ll come up and say, ‘Did anybody ever tell you that you look like Joan Osborne?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I get that all the time. Isn’t that funny?’ I walked here today and nobody said boo to me.” It’s a bit of a pleasant irony for a girl who just wants the luxury of hanging out with her friends and being normal. Just being Joan. And what a beautiful thing that is.

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