A Conversation With Joan Osborne
Mike Ragogna: Joan, your new album, Bring It On Home, is all blues and soul classics. How did you whittle the potential contenders down to 12 songs?
Joan Osborne: That's a good question, because there is so much amazing material to choose from that it is a little bit like trying to take sips out of a fire hose. You can't make it an exhaustive list. What I did was there were a handful of songs that I knew that I always wanted to sing. The label who approached me about doing it had a couple of ideas. I asked around to friends that I know who are big blues and R&B and soul scholars, I also opened it up to the band and asked if they had any ideas. So it was a collaborative song-gathering process.
MR: And one of the guys in your band was the great Allen Toussaint.
JO: Yeah, he played on one of his own compositions, a song called "Shoo-rah! Shoo-rah!" which had been a hit for Betty Wright years and years ago. We just felt like to have him on this song would be amazing, and sure enough, it was. He just has a certain feel that he brings to it, which...I mean, I don't know anybody else who can do that.
MR: Al Green comes to mind as another soul artist who puts tons of signature sound on his recordings, making it impossible to duplicate.
JO: Yeah, which is why when we covered the Al Green song "Rhymes," we really just tried to turn it on its head and give it a very different reading because, as you say, what Al Green does is very unique and very specific to him.
MR: How did the song come to you?
JO: I was out working in the garden in the country, digging weeds, and the song itself popped into my head, but it had this different, more amped-up groove behind it. I remember running into the house and picking up my recorder and getting it all dirty because I didn't have time to take my gloves off. I didn't want to forget this idea, and I recorded myself singing the first few lines with this groove underneath it was in my head. I ended up bringing it to the band and they just took off with it.
MR: Let's talk about the band. You've got "Barbecue" Bob Pomeroy on harmonica.
JO: Yep, and the core of the band is the guys I've been working with as a road band for a lot of years now. They are Keith Cotton on keyboard, Andrew Carrillo on guitar, Aaron Comess on the drums, and Richard Hammond on the bass. Each of these guys is a great musician in his own right, and they all work all the time around New York City and go touring out with other people. But I've found that when I've got them in a room together, collectively, they have this incredible chemistry and charisma, and they really feed off each other's energy. It's one of those situations of the whole being the greater than the sum of its parts, which is really fun. So they are the core of the band that was on this studio recording, and they're also the core of the band that I'm going to bring out live for the tour.
We had "Barbecue" Bob Pomeroy who I used to run into way back in the day when we would both be playing these little blues clubs in New York City when I first started out, so he's been around for a while. He's also good friends with my co-producer, Jack Petrizelli. [Jack] suggested Bob, and he was somebody who's got that classic gut-bucket harmonica through a bullet-mic sound, and he's just been doing that, that's his meat and potatoes, he's been doing that for years. I thought he'd be a perfect call so we brought him in as well.
Other guests who are really close to my heart are The Holmes Brothers. If you guys don't know about them, you should definitely check them out. They are an American roots band, they were my mentors when I was first starting out, and they're wonderful, wonderful guys, amazingly soulful singers, soulful players, with a really raw and emotive sound. I just knew that I wanted to have them come in and do some singing on this.
MR: And also you have as your horn arranger, Jimmy Vivino from Conan O'Brien's show.
JO: Yep, that's right. We brought the A-team for this record, you know? Where not fooling around.
MR: Let's looks at the track list. As you mentioned, you have "Rhymes," and you mentioned "Shoo-rah! Shoo-rah!," Allen Toussaint's song. And there's the Slim Harpo song that the Stones also covered, "Shake Your Hips," and "I Don't Need No Doctor," which Jimmy plays on.
JO: That's right, he does play on that and he rings the horns for that.
MR: "I Don't Need No Doctor" is another one of those songs that seems taboo since it's a Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Jo Armstead original that Ray Charles is associated with.
JO: Yeah. A lot of the songs on this record, we tried to put a different twist on them, and a lot of times, it worked. I felt like the song, "I Wanna Be Loved," which was originally recorded by Muddy Waters had this very aggressive delivery of the song, and I really tried to make it more feminine, sinuous, and seductive, in a way. I felt like that worked, but when we tried to take "I Don't Need No Doctor" and mess around it with it, the song obviously didn't want to be messed around with in that way. So we stuck more closely to the Ray Charles arrangement on that one.
MR: Also, it was really sweet uncovering that Ike Turner song, "Game of Love."
JO: Yeah, isn't that a great find? I'd like to take credit for that, but I can't. It was the guy at Saguaro Road, the label, who initially approached me about doing this. He actually brought that song to me and I didn't even know it before. I certainly know a lot about Ike & Tina and know a lot of their songs from the past, but this was an undiscovered gem for me. I love this song. It's so great because you think about it as something that Ike Turner wrote, but in reality, it's a feminine manifesto in the form of a blues/R&B tune with Tina just throwing it down. It's a great song.
MR: Your association with soul is pretty well-known, especially after your on-camera stint in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, plus you've done soul songs on your How Sweet It Is album.
JO: Yeah, and I also put in a Sonny Boy Williamson song on the Relish record as well, "How Sweet." That music--blues music, soul music, and R&B music--I learn to sing by trying to imitate my idols in this music, people like Etta James, Mavis Staples, Tina Turner, and Ann Peebles. Those are the people that I wanted to sound like, and that music--listening to Otis Redding, Al Green, and Muddy Waters--it was such a huge part of my world, and I feel like I connected with a part of myself that nothing else had been able to bring me to, falling in love with this music. It is something that I have regularly dipped into, but it had been a while, and for this project, it was not something that I was burning to do. It was the guy at Saguaro Road who approached me about it. I ran into him at Lincoln Center, I had been a guest vocalist on a show with The Blind Boys of Alabama and had done a couple of gospel tunes with them, which was such an amazing experience. Saguaro Road also released The Blind Boys stuff, so these guys came up to me after the show and were like, "We love it when you do this kind of stuff, would you ever consider doing a record of covers, this really raw blues stuff? If you ever want to, please call us and we would love it!" At the time, I was buried in working on some original music and wasn't jumping at the chance when they approached me about it. But it was an idea that took root in my mind, and I kept thinking about it every once in a while, like, "Gee, maybe I would do this song," or "If I ever get around to doing that, maybe I'll try that song," or "I have a great idea for this tune." Slowly but surely, I started to get really excited about it, and ultimately called them up and said, "When and where can we do this?"
MR: What's nice about this album is that you make the connection between soul and blues. Do you feel like that, like we often forget the "blues" part of rhythm and blues?
JO: Well, I don't. But they are like companion music, and I feel like so much of American music owes such a huge debt to blues and whether it's country music or jazz music or soul or R&B, or whatever it is, there is something very unique about blues. I think it's formed so much of American music. Of course, rock 'n' roll wouldn't be what it is without blues music.
MR: Joan, you cover Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bring It On Home," it being the title track, Muddy Waters' "I Want To Be Loved," and even John Mayall's song, "Broken Wings." That one, especially, is an interesting choice.
JO: Yeah, that was one that I almost didn't want to put on there because it was so raw and so mournful. But I felt like it's probably the most straight-up blues song of any of the ones on this album. It just kept coming back to me again and again, and it's just so moving. It was one of those songs where I got through with the recording and I felt like someone had wrung me out like a wet rag. It really took it out of me.
MR: My personal favorite is "Same Love That Made Me Laugh."
JO: Oh, thanks! Yeah, the Bill Withers song. I have to give credit to Jack Petruzelli, my co-producer, because he was the one who really helped with the arrangement on that and gave it that bigger ending. The Bill Withers version of it is a briefer recording, but we expanded it and gave it this bigger ending that it has, almost taking it into a Beatles-esque territory, that's one of Jack's strong suits. He's in a band called The Fab Faux, which is probably the world's pre-eminent Beatles cover band, so he's really steeped in that music and is a real scholar of that music. I think he really brought a little bit of that touch to the "Same Love That Made Me Laugh" tune.
MR: Okay, you've had one of the most memorable pop hits, "One Of Us." Growing up, what music were you listening to?
JO: When I was a little kid, my mom would take us to see the movie musicals like The Sound of Music or the Dr. Dolittle movie before Eddie Murphy. It was one of these big Hollywood musicals, and we would bring home the soundtrack records, and I would just listen to those, in particular, The Sound of Music. I just listened to that again and again, learned all the parts and would sing them along with the record. Probably, to this day, I can still sing any part of any of those songs, so I think if you have an affinity for music, you can find something to love in a lot of different places.
MR: Right, and featured on your breakthrough album Relish, the song "One Of Us" was a huge single that year. With "One Of Us" having left such a mark on culture, what do you think about it now?
JO: Well, I think it's definitely the song that I'm most known for in the wider world. I certainly have a lot of fans who know much more about me other than that song, but as far as being in the global consciousness, I'm connected with that song. If it has to be for one song, you really couldn't ask for a better one because it is a pop song, but it's got a much deeper message than almost any pop song that I know of. I think that's why it had the big moment that it did, and why it continues to resonate. They just did a cover version of it on that show Glee, and that song has been in movies, and it was the theme song for that TV show Joan of Arcadia, and it has continued to have a life beyond its first appearances as a hit. I think that's because the song itself is not telling anyone what they should believe, it's asking people to search inside themselves and figure out what they believe. I think that you don't often get something like that from a pop song. So as I said, if it has to be one song, I'm connected with that. It's a really good one.
MR: The other point to be made about that song is that it was so controversial. Basically, it seemed like politicians and pulpits tried to make it an issue for their own agendas.
JO: Well, I think I was definitely aware of that and certainly knew what was going on with all the protests and the controversy, and I do think that to a certain extent, it was a moment when religion was being talked about in popular discourse in a way that it isn't always talked about. I think that the religious groups...they had a very specific version of what they think "God" is, and they didn't like people questioning that and having alternate versions. They wanted to be part of that discourse and say, "Hey, we don't like this song and what we think is this." So I think they were just trying to get in to the public discussion that was going on at that time, and the song sparked it. Some of them did it in a way that was maybe not so nice, and I got some threatening letters and we got picketed at some of our shows, and some of them took it to an extreme. But I think others were just trying to say, "This is what my version of it is, and this is why I don't think this song is great." But there were just as many people who thought it was wonderful, and people who sang the song in their church groups, and discussed it in their church youth groups. I would get wonderful letters from them saying that this was something that they used to open up discussion with their youth group and it was really a great tool for them. So, like I said, because it's not telling anybody what to think, it was something that could be understood in a lot of different ways.
MR: Nice. Joan, what advice do you have for new artists?
JO: Well, that is a good question. I think that if you can love doing this at every stage, even at the stage where you' re just starting out and you don't have much of an audience yet and you're not making any money and if it feels satisfying and real to you, even at that stage, then you can be a success in music for as long as you want. If you're in it just to become a big star and make a lot of money, you might have picked the wrong job because you have to give up so much of yourself to do this with your life--so much of your time, so much of your energy, and so much of everything that unless it's satisfying to you every step of the way, you can't just be doing it for some big payoff down the road.
MR: You're going to be on tour for Bring It On Home?
JO: Yes, we are. We're going to the Northeast and the South, and we're hoping to bridge out to the Midwest as well. We got some shows in California in June, so we're going to be taking it all over and the band that you hear on the recording is the band that I'm bringing with me live, so it's going to be a real party, I think.
MR: Nice, and speaking of parties, are you going to take any breaks and join The Dead for a little bit?
JO: Well, I don't know. I haven't talked to those guys in a minute, but it would be a welcome call if I got a call from them, because that was definitely a cool experience, and they just have such great songs. It would be wonderful to sing those songs again.
MR: Okay, here's the obnoxious question, and forgive me for asking it. What if God was one of us? Got any more words of wisdom on ya?
JO: Any words of wisdom...let's see. This is a good question, because I have a 7-year-old daughter, and I'm always trying to give her some life advice. To realize that it's not a bad thing that you don't get everything that you want, and that what you should do is focus on being grateful for the things that you have and not focus on the things you wish you did have.
1. I Don't Need No Doctor
2. Bring It On Home
3. Roll Like a Big Wheel
4. Game of Love
5. Broken Wings
6. Shoorah! Shoorah!
7. I Want to Be Loved
8. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
9. Shake Your Hips
10. I'm Qualified
11. Champagne and Wine
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger
NOTE: Just got back from SXSW, and its ambition and number of events were quite overwhelming. Catching up is going to be a challenge, but over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting a number of SXSW interviews as well as regular interviews that have been stacking up at the airport. FYI, this festival just keeps growing and getting better. Try to take the time to look up Bruce Springsteen's inspirational keynote speech because it was very, very powerful.