One of Us: The Undefinable Joan Osborne

September 28, 2016 2:07 pm0 commentsViews: 696
Photo: Jeff Fasano

Photo: Jeff Fasano

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

She’s never been to Cape Cod before, but Joan Osborne can’t wait to play Payomet. “I’ve always done major cities in the northeast,” she says. “Boston, Providence, places like that. Never Cape Cod. I can’t wait! I’m bringing my daughter with me. Where should we go, what should we do?” She’s eager to explore.

That exploration has led the musician/singer/songwriter into many different musical genres over the years. “I learned to sing by emulating roots music,” she says. “Roots, soul, country, gospel… those are all a base language for jazz and rock. And having that kind of musical foundation allows me to move between them—and then across the pond, too, to connect with Celtic music.”

While some might resent their inability to put Osborne into a neatly labeled box, she’s happy to be freed from that kind of labeling. “I’m really fortunate,” she says, “to be able to cross genres. I’ve never been able to stay in one lane! Alison Krauss, for example, she can—and she does it well, continuing a certain tradition.” Osborne laughs. “But I’m way too restless,” she says. “I never really saw that as my road. There’s so much great music out there, and I listen so widely to it, that I’d never be able to pick just one.”

Osborne acknowledges that it might have cost her. “It’s commercially not a good idea,” she admits. “But it’s not ever boring, that’s for sure!”

Her life so far has been anything but boring. Joan Osborne moved to New York in the early 1980s, starting out performing at open mic nights before moving on to clubs. She created her own label, Womanly Hips, so she could release her first live album and EP. “I’d been developing a regional following in the northeast,” she says. “Upstate New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, places like that. And whenever I performed, people would ask, ‘do you have a CD?’ So after a while I thought, ‘no, I don’t, I guess I’d better.’ So we made this Delta 88 recording and sold it old-school, right out of the back of the van. Sort of a DIY record label.”

She signed with a major production company to release her second album, 1995’s Relish, featuring what’s been called a “pop-oriented, spiritually ambiguous” song, One of Us—and earned eight Grammy nominations. “But I’ve been reviving the label lately to honor those DIY origins,” she says. “Who knows where it might go? The music business has changed so much, it’s nice to have the label as a sort of flag.”

She doesn’t just reach out to different musical genres; people are a priority as well, with different causes attracting her support. One of her recent Facebook posts said, “Hoping you’re surrounded by loved ones. Hoping you travel safely thru the world. Hoping you do something kind for others or the planet.”

Photo: Jeff Fasano

Photo: Jeff Fasano

She lives out that kindness herself: Osborne’s causes have included the Playing for Change Foundation, War Child, V-Day, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Girls Rock! and more. “I’m involved in a lot of women’s causes,” says Osborne. “I was a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood before I started performing. And I’ve been active around gun control legislation.” She pauses. “I know some people embrace just one cause and make it theirs. And maybe that has more impact. But I’m not able to say no when someone asks for help.”

Her music has evolved over the years. “As a singer,” she says, “I’ve become more economical. You have a tendency to over-sing when you’re younger. I learned a lot from jazz singers about doing a lot with a little bit.” That’s a useful tool when it comes to maintaining her voice as her primary instrument. “It’s always a challenge keeping my voice in shape,” she says. “I’m not a partier or even much of a drinker, and I don’t smoke, so that helps. There’s always the problem of not sleeping enough, though that’s gotten better now that my daughter’s 11. But tours are the same thing—it’s hard to take care of yourself. So it’s even more important to be careful when you’re on the road. My vocal coach gives me exercises to warm up, to cool down, to generally keep my voice in shape. I’ve gotten more disciplined about my voice as my instrument.” She pauses. “Age has something to do with it, too,” she adds and laughs.

She’s not just evolved as a singer, Osborne says, but also as a songwriter. “More and more I find myself using simple language,” she says. “I used to write in such an imagistic way before; I’m much more straightforward now. I sometimes like to circle back to that again, but even when I do, I’m better at it now.”

So what will she bring to the Outer Cape? “Well, we have some core songs in the set list,” she says. “We always include some that people are most familiar with. And I understand that, I’m a fan, too, and when I go to a concert, I think, I want to hear that favorite song, too.” She pauses. “And then maybe something I’m working on—something fresh and interesting that will keep people engaged and excited. I usually ask the guys in the band what they want to play, too.”

Payomet’s a relatively small venue for Osborne. “Oh, I like that,” she says. “In the smaller places, sometimes someone from the audience will call out a song title, and if it feels right, I look to the band, and if they know the song and are up for it, we’ll do it. I want people to know…” She pauses. “Please tell the fans I’m so grateful for them still being there,” she says. “It’s an honor and a privilege to do music for a living, and they’re the reason I can do it.”

Osborne will be available to sign autographs after the show. “I always ask people what they liked,” she says. “And I listen to their answers. I want to leave room for spontaneity.”

Sounds like she’s going to fit right in here.

The Joan Osborne Trio performs on Saturday, October 1, 7:30 p.m. at Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., North Truro. For tickets ($30 – $50) and information call 508.487.5400 or visit payomet.org.