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By Andy Argyrakis
Photos by Todd Chalfant
After The Dead, famed troubadour returns to her pop roots
"One on One"
Oct. 17, 2008
Hardly an hour goes by when Joan Osborne's "(What If God Was) One of Us" isn't played on pop/rock radio, making the smash single from the five times platinum selling/six time Grammy nominated CD Relish (Mercury) remain just as relevant as it is provocative. From then until now, the singer/songwriter's maintained a consistent streak of fame in other arenas, starting with stepping up to the lead vocalist slot in The Dead (replacing the late great Jerry Garcia no less!), touring with Motown house band The Funk Brothers (and appearing in their blockbuster movie "Standing in the Shadows of Motown"), plus collaborating with the legendary likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and even Luciano Pavarotti! These days, she's returned to solo territory with the brand new Little Wild One (Plum Records), which not only reunites her with Relish producers/co-writers Rick Chertoff, Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, but also finds her writing an insightful batch of lyrics inspired by living in New York City.
What inspired you to reunite with the production team from your breakthrough disc Relish for the new Little Wild One?
Osborne: It wasn't any sort of pre-meditated thing. We've always sort of kept in touch and kept saying "we need to get together and we need to do something. Eric [Bazilian] and I had been emailing and said "we really have to stop talking and just do it," so I made time to go Philly and sit around his house. Rob [Hyman] came in to borrow an amplifier- he and Eric are still in The Hooters [the 80s rockers known for the hits "And We Danced," "Day By Day" and writing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time"]- and he said "hey, what are you doing?" So he sat down and started working with us, and after a few hours, we sort of said "this feels really good and familiar, but it seems like something's missing," so we gave Rick [Chertoff] a call and said "we're kind of getting the old group back and you should really be part of it." We enjoyed working together last time and all really proud of the Relish album, so it was just a matter of putting aside other things that were cluttering [our calendars] and saying "let's just do this."
How did New York City inspire you in the songwriting process?
Osborne: It's funny because I didn't come [to New York] with stars in my eyes. I moved here to go to school, but it just so happened I wanted to be here. As soon as I got here, I quickly fell in love with the vibrant mixture of people. It's not like anywhere else in America, between the cosmopolitan nature and the fact you can see all of humanity- every race, creed, color and fashion- it's all there!
What types of stylistic goals were you going for in these sessions?
Osborne: I feel like more of a pop sound than the last couple records. Right before this I did Breakfast In Bed, which was a soul record, and before that I went to Nashville to record my version of a country record. It was a little departure with those genre pieces back to something as much pop as I ever get- not like a Mariah [Carey] record- but more in the pop world. I do always try to think of spiritual component or at least allow that to be part of what comes out because I feel like that's such a strong piece of what music can be in people's lives.
What was it like joining The Dead on its most recent tour?
Osborne: That was a great experience, but really a challenge for me because even though those guys in The Dead and I had similar influences, I still didn't know their music very well. [The set lists are] completely different one night to the next- they have such a huge catalogue and such a rapid group of fans who follow them all across the world to be there on every night of the tour- so you need to do a different show. I had to learn not just 20 songs but 200 songs in three weeks! They call a completely different set one night to the next, so it was kind of like boot camp. I would see the list for the day around 1 p.m. and then [rehearse] for the rest of the afternoon, do the show, collapse in bed and get up to do it again! But it was really great to be able to sing front of that audience, though I didn't know if they were going to accept at first. You can never replace Jerry [Garcia] who's a total original and genius. I felt like the best I could do was bring whatever uniqueness I had and sing from the heart. As nervous as I was in the beginning, [the fans] were very welcoming and accepting.
With so much material to choose from at this point, what can we expect from your fall tour?
Osborne: It's gonna be pretty exciting with a great band of New York guys who are really talented players. The songs will probably sound different the way we recorded them- they just tend to be a little more rockin' and energetic. I love being spontaneous and trying anything at any moment. We never play to tracks- it's pretty old school and could turn on a dime!
I'm sure a show doesn't go by without you singing "(What If God Was) One of Us" and I'm wondering what your actual intentions were with that song when originally writing it?
Osborne: That one got us in a lot of trouble! It was from the perspective of a little child coming up and tugging on [an adult's] sleeve asking a question that you don't have the answer to or know exactly what to say, but it's something that stays with you and makes you really turn it over in our mind. What feelings are about God in the world today and what does it mean in your life everyday? In a way, I presented it in such an off hand way that some people took it to be disrespectful and were very upset, but there were also people who took it in more of the spirit it was intended and that was sort of [from the perspective of that] innocent, childlike voice.
Joan Osborne appears Tuesday, October 21 at Chicago's Park West. For additional details, visit www.jamusa.com or www.ticketmaster.com.