On her new record, Love and Hate, singer/songwriter Joan Osborne delves deeply into matters of the heart. It’s a lovely, sensual work that reflects her as a woman and an artist. For the bulk of the set, Osborne partnered with long-time friend and collaborator Jack Petruzzelli as a co-writer and co-producer. Together, they fashioned a sound that is befitting of her voice and style — eclectic, but cohesive, sassy, yet mature. Never one to fall back on mere vocal gymnastics, Osborne sings the hell out of these tunes… just like she always does. The potency, though, stems more from her knowing, from her well-worn heart, than from her voice alone.
With that knowing in mind, I thought I would ask her for relationship advice rather than pose stock interview questions: “Wow. Okay. I’ll do my best. I have to put out a big disclaimer that I’m not a relationship expert by any stretch of the imagination.” Copy that. Except… she had some pretty solid wisdom to share, so I think we stumbled into a back-up career, if ever she should need one.
What are the greatest lessons you have learned from your experiences of both love and hate?
Patience and forgiveness — the importance of both of those things. A lot of times people are very focused on what their partner needs to be doing and what they’re not doing and why haven’t they done this and what’s going on with them. And those are things — to a great degree — those are out of your control. So the things that are within your control are patience and forgiveness. And I think those are really powerful things.
Very true. You can’t control anyone else’s feelings or actions, but you can control your responses. And those are two very powerful ones. Good answer! How do you feel about happily ever after? Are you a believer?
Ha! A believer in happily ever after… no, because I think there is no such thing as an ending to a relationship. As long as you’re still with the person, then that’s a continuing story. It can certainly be a happy one, but it’s not like you just set things on autopilot and then, for the rest of time, everything is cool and groovy. People change and situations change and families change and relationships change. So, you do have to keep checking in and taking risks, I think. The thing that whole happily ever after thing implies is that you’ve found some sort of a safe harbor and nothing is ever going to challenge you again and I just don’t think that’s a realistic assessment of what love is like. I think it will continue to challenge you. And you have to be prepared to face those challenges and take those risks.
I saw something the other day that said something like “happily ever after happens one day at a time.”
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if ‘work’ is the correct word to use when you talk about a relationship, as in you have to work on your relationship, and work on this and work on that. But I can certainly understand why people do that because you can’t just slack off and expect things to be the way you want them to, but I think skill and effort applied in the correct way, in a graceful way, is something that will yield results more than just, “Oh we have to bear down and work on this thing and wrestle it to the ground.” I think there’s a lighter touch that can be very effective.
Going back to your stunning cover of “Make You Feel My Love” (from Righteous Love), talk to me about strategies for waiting someone out when you’re all in, but they are still undecided.
Oooooo, oh man. Wow. That is really tough. Again, you can only…
Patience and forgiveness are pretty good on this one, too.
Yeah. You can’t force someone to act how you think they should and to care about you as much as you want them to. Those are things that are completely beyond your control. This is so funny because I have a nine-year-old daughter and she recently came home with a completely overwhelming crush on a boy in her class, and would just talk about him all the time. And, you know, “Today, this boy did this. And, today, this boy did that. And I really like him. And I think he knows I have a crush on him. But I don’t know if he has a crush on me…” You know, all this stuff that everyone struggles with at any age, but to see my daughter go through it at the age of nine is like I’m getting this perspective on the dawning of what love can mean and just this very fact that she’s crazy about this boy, and she can’t make him like her.
The only thing she can do is to try to be herself and be a good friend to him and get to know him. I think it would be the same for somebody who’s in the situation you’re describing, where you’re all in and you’re waiting on the other person to respond to that and to meet you in that place where you already are. You can only give of yourself and you can’t force them or manipulate them into doing anything. But you can be ready when they are. If they ever decide to meet you there, you can be ready for it and you can try to be the best partner or the best friend to them that you can. You’re never going to lose doing that. Even if the person never comes to feel that way about you, at least you know that you were as good a friend to them as possible and you did as much as you could do. But that can be a heartbreaking situation to wait on that, to feel so much for somebody and not know — or know that they just aren’t there yet.
Recording “These Arms of Mine” (from How Sweet It Is) was a deeply emotional experience for you. How have you dealt with a longing that runs so deep it feels like it’s going to break you? Do you dig into music, do you distract yourself…
Yeah, of course. That’s the thing that falling for someone so much can leave you stranded and leave you feeling like it’s all about them and this connection with them. And that’s a very heavy thing to try to put on somebody else. That’s a huge responsibility that you’re giving to that person to make it all okay and make it good for you. So you need to fall back on the things that help you feel good about yourself and make you who you are and connect you with something larger than yourself — whether that’s music or whatever it is — the things that you are put here to do and experience. And, of course, loving somebody is part of that, but there are other things that we are put here to do in this world. And, if you can remain connected to that, then you’re coming from a place of strength or certainty or a calm center to yourself…
Your own truth.
Yeah. And that’s more attractive rather than being like, “Oh my God, if you don’t love me, it’s all over for me and there’s nothing…” You know? Some people probably like that, but I can’t imagine that’s going to work with most people. What’s attractive is someone who knows themselves and who is connected to something larger than themselves beyond just the relationship.
A song like “Work on Me” (from Love and Hate) seems to come at longing from a completely different side. Which do you think is harder — loving and losing or never having loved at all?
Whew. I think that’s a good question. The obvious answer, that everyone says, is that it’s better to have loved and lost. But I think it’s harder to love and lose. I think it’s still a worthwhile thing to do than to never have those feelings. I think that’s an easier way to go through life — to never be pushed in that way and overwhelmed in that way. But, you know, do you really want to live like that? I think most of us would say no. Most would rather risk those kind of debilitating feelings and put themselves in those kinds of situations.
But not everybody does, and not everybody can. There are people who will keep you at arm’s length throughout the whole thing because they don’t feel like they can go all in — even if they’re with you. They’re saying, “Hey, I’m right here. I’m right here.” But you’re like, “Um, yeah, you are, and you’re kind of not.” Because it is frightening to give yourself over to something like that. You’re opening yourself up with all your vulnerabilities and all the things you know in your heart are wrong with you… they are all on parade for that person who’s intimate with you.
In a new love — like your daughter’s, for instance — there are so many conflicting and confusing emotions. Where — and how — do you even start to deconstruct that for a song? Do you pick one aspect as a way in?
There is a phrase that I keep coming back to again and again — and whether you’re a songwriter or any kind of artist — it’s finding the universal in the particular. Finding the small details that connect you to that larger emotion. If you’re talking about writing a love song, you can write a love song of “Oh baby, you mean the world to me.” That’s kind of an overarching thing and it’s probably true, but there are more detailed ways of expressing that.
For instance, the song “Work on Me,” I was looking for these small moments and small examples of how somebody would make you feel rather than “I love you and you make me feel happy and all that stuff.” You know, what exactly do you mean by that? So you want to find these very particular, small details which, then, refer back to these larger things. And I think that is a very effective way to really capture a listener and let them know that you’re in on this experience and that it’s real for you. And that they can trust you to guide them through the world of this song, instead of you’re just sitting down and writing a song because you want to get on the radio or make money or whatever. But you’re breaking it down into these very small moments that are very real and, for me, that’s really important and that’s what I keep trying to get back to again and again and again with my writing.
Train” (from Love and Hate) feels, to me, almost like an echo of “Crazy Baby” (from Relish) in a lot of ways. In both, the singer stares into someone else’s darkness and offers them a way out. It’s a tough task to do that well and not push someone further away. What’s the key to a successful search and rescue mission?
It’s a delicate thing. I think you’re right. I think you can try to solve someone’s problem for them, but you can’t really do that. There are certain things — most things — that people need to work out on their own. And when you talk about a song like “Crazy Baby,” the impetus behind that was to give that person an example or a bit of a reality check of, “Even though you’re in this very dark place, people do come out of these dark places. You can’t see that now, but this is really what’s possible for you.” And I think maybe the song “Train,” as you say, is kind of a related thing. It’s opening the door. The other person has to walk through the door, but you’re opening it for them and saying, “This is what’s waiting for you, if you choose to take this path.” And, then, the rest is up to them. Whether they are capable of it or want to or whatever… again, it’s out of your hands. That’s such a humbling thing to keep being reminded of how little control we have over these things that are so important to us.
Yeah, especially when someone we care so deeply about is in trouble. And all we want to do is help them and love them. And, very often, you’re right, there’s very little we can do besides be there and be steady.
Yeah, and I think, having a little bit of experience with coming through some dark places myself when I was younger, and knowing people who have done that, it is important just to be that presence. When the person who is struggling can’t see anything but their difficulty and their problem and their pain, it is important to just be a little bit of a beacon of, “I see what you’re going through and I’m here. And there is a different way.” Again, you can’t walk through the door for them, but you can open it for them. And you can be that presence for them.
When love’s good and true and sustaining. What song — your own or someone else’s — truly captures that feeling for you?
Yeah, let’s see… There’s this great Johnny Nash song, “I Can See Clearly Now.” I think that’s not specifically about love — at least not about romantic love, necessarily. But I think that is a reflection of a place that you can get to if love is, as you say, this positive, sustaining force in your life. People who support each other are better together and you can reach this place of like, “Oh, yeah! This is how it’s supposed to be.” It’s what this world is made for — for us to have these feelings for each other and reach out to each other in this way.
There’s also that… was it a Motown song? (sings) “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before.” I think it’s Jackie Wilson. The ones I’m thinking of are painting it in broad strokes and I’m drawing a blank on something that would celebrate the kind of love you’re talking about and do it in more detailed terms. I’ll have to think on that…
What’s your go-to musical heartbreak remedy?
Go-to musical heartbreak remedy… whew. Man. I mean, Hank Williams is pretty deep on that subject. He has this amazing tune that I’m sure everybody knows which is called “Cold, Cold Heart.” And it’s one of these songs that is dead simple. It’s like there’s nothing to it, but it just rips your heart out…
Three chords and the truth.
Yeah. It’s stupid simple. “Another love before my time made your heart sad and blue, and so my heart is paying now for things I didn’t do.” I mean… it’s like he just wants to be with this person so much, but she is completely closed off to him — and there’s nothing that he can do about it. It’s just gut-wrenching. Hank has a lot of them like that.
Let’s flip it over and touch on hate for a second. Give me your best practices for un-burning bridges. Or do you feel like some bridges should really be left in ashes, as evidenced in “Thirsty for My Tears” and “Kitten’s Got Claws” — because those guys seem like bad news?
Un-burning bridges… Well, I’ve been doing a bit of research and there are conflict resolution methods — and this is something that’s been studied a lot… I’m talking about governments studying ways to resolve conflicts. I think what they have discovered is something that is very apt for interpersonal relationships, as well. If you hurt someone or if they have hurt you, that has to be acknowledged. And it has to be understood. You have to be able to listen to that person and speak back to them what they have spoken to you, so that they know that you understand. Once that happens — once that’s on the table — then an apology can have real meaning and repairing something that is broken can have real meaning. But you can’t do that unless both parties feel like they have been seen and understood and heard. And I think that can take a lot of work, to step outside of your own perspective and look at things from someone else’s point of view. And be able to, then, reflect that back to them. Because it often is an unflattering view of who you, yourself, are. That can be a tough thing to do. But I think it’s probably the only thing that can work because if you just say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” then… How? For what? Why? There has to be some real understanding of what it was that caused that pain in the first place.
Yeah. I think you’re selling yourself short here. I think you’re really pretty good at this relationship advice thing.
Ha ha ha! I can start a radio talk show and give some advice?
Ask Joan” or “Dear Joan”… We’ll come up with something.