Joan Osborne, man. Joan Osborne. She’s a singer’s singer… the kind who doesn’t just love to sing, but knows how to sing. No matter the era, no matter the genre, any song she lays her voice upon is made that much more glorious by her presence. For the past couple of decades, she has proved that time and again with pop hits, soul classics, country ballads, folk ditties, and blues romps.
Last year, Osborne released two records. One, Love and Hate, was a solo project that found her in her finest form since 2002’s How Sweet It Is. The second was the self-titled debut of her new supergroup, Trigger Hippy, which found her more than holding her own next to Steve Gorman, Nick Govrik, Tom Bukovac, and Jackie Greene. This year, Osborne is already working on new material for both trajectories, including — maybe, possibly — a new version of her own debut, Relish, to mark the occasion of its 20th anniversary… even though, it’s worth noting, the original still holds up just fine.
We have to talk about Annie Lennox on the Grammys.
[Laughs] Oh my God! I was hooting and hollering!
What goes through your mind — or, maybe, your soul — when you see a performance like that?
I was just so proud and joyful. It was like, “Yeah. That’s the way you do it, people.” I was saying [that] night that it’s interesting to have these juxtapositions when you have a show like the Grammys where you have people who come from these generations now where you don’t have to be that kind of performer in order to be a success. And you see some people who are great and some people who that’s not really their wheelhouse just getting up at the Staples Center and putting on a show. It goes back and forth and up and down. But to see somebody who clearly knew what the job was — she’s done it many times — to just come up and take control of that. I mean, the song… “I put a spell on you because you’re mine!” She meant every syllable of that and she performed it in that way. I was just so excited to see that.

I’ve re-watched it a couple of times and, at the end, she is so fiercely making that point of “you are mine.” Her eyes… just crazy. She, like you… you both have vocal prowess that you can throw around, but that’s not necessarily the go-to move. You guys get into the heart of a song and work from the inside out. Like you said, that isn’t the way it is these days. Is that a difference of intention? Is it generational? Is it training?
Well, obviously experience has something to do with it. If you’re known as a great singer and you come up doing concerts for years and years and years, doing tours after tours after tours, and records… you start to understand what you’re capable of doing and to really be able to get up in those situations and really do that thing. Whereas, if you’re maybe a younger person with less experience or you’re used to having a lot of technical enhancements to what you do, then you either can’t or you don’t know how to just stand up and knock one out of the park like that.
The industry’s different, music is different now. You used to have to be able to do that kind of thing to get anywhere. And now you really don’t. There are other things you have to have, but you don’t have to have that kind of singing talent in order to be a success. But, if you do have it, then you can really take control of a live performance moment like that. It was great. Her and Rosanne (Cash) winning three Grammys… I just hope everybody’s sales are spiking like crazy today. It’s a good day for some veteran female performers who just really kicked some ass.
Exactly. Now, there’s no other singer around today, that I can think of, who has spanned the genres the way you do. You’ve been, basically, polyamorous… dabbling in blues, soul, pop, rock, folk, country…
[Laughs] Yeah, you could put it that way…
[Laughs] Have you felt more kinship with certain styles at different moments in your life? Or are you just going with the flow all the way around?
It’s difficult because I started out as somebody who was doing blues and soul and R&B songs in bars and in clubs in New York City. And that was the circuit. But I also had an appreciation for songwriting and wanted to try and write songs myself, and didn’t feel like I wanted to confine myself to just writing a blues song or an R&B-style song. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music. Even though I loved blues and soul and R&B, and kind of learned how to sing by singing that, I didn’t feel like it was incumbent upon me to be a torchbearer of that tradition to the exclusion of other things. I felt like I could certainly use that as an ingredient in what I was doing and have my love for that inform other things that I was doing, but I didn’t feel like I needed to stay within the confines of that genre… or any other, really. Music can be whatever you can make it. It doesn’t have to follow all these rigid rules.
There are people who do that and carry on these genre traditions, and they are amazing. And I totally respect what they do. Somebody like Alison Krauss. That’s a wonderful thing to do. But, for me personally, I didn’t feel like that was something I needed to do, or wanted to do.
And the people you’ve played with, from the Funk Brothers to the Grateful Dead to, now, Trigger Hippy… these are the best of the best. So… do you ever feel like — and don’t take this the wrong way, because you know how I mean it — but do you ever feel like somebody made a mistake letting you in or have you made peace with the fact that you belong there, that you’re an absolute badass?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think a lot of people who do this for a living wrestle with that feeling of… you know, we all have our heroes and people we idolize. And to be sharing the stage with them or to be thought of in the same breath as them or to have people compare you to them… part of you is like, “No. No way. Are you kidding?” It is sort of a thing like somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, miss. You don’t belong here and here’s the exit.” [Laughs] I’ve felt that way for a long time.
But that’s just one of the mental meanderings and mental roadblocks that any artist has to overcome. One of the many ways that you can psyche yourself out of just doing the work is to say, “Oh, I don’t belong here.” Or “People don’t like me.” Ultimately, maybe that could be true. But it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of following through with this choice that you made, which is to do this with your life and to bring everything you have to it whether you doubt yourself or other people doubt you or any of that stuff. Yeah, if you decide that you’re going to quit… fine. But, until you do that, you have to push all that aside and not let it get in your way.
For the love of it… well, it’s obvious that you’re a fan first. The reverence for you have for the artists around you…
Absolutely. Yes.
So, if you had split the pie that is the thrill of your career… on one side, you have performing for your fans. On the other, you have singing with folks like Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What’s the split?
Oh, man… In a way, they are quantitatively different things. Obviously, I’m so honored to be asked to do any of these things that I’ve ever done. These are wonderful moments when you’re guesting with somebody — when you’re standing next to Emmylou, or you’re on the mic with Bob Dylan, or whatever it is. Those can be great musical moments, but I think there’s something about being the guest, being the special thing and it being a once-in-a-lifetime whatever, that in a way almost takes you out of it just a tiny bit.
Whereas, if I’m doing just a regular show — doing my music with my band and it’s my audience — that feels a little bit more like it doesn’t have a sheen of, “Oh my God, it’s this amazing thing!” And I can just relax and do what I do. Those are the moments, when you’ve stopped thinking and you just allow the music to come through you, that… I’ve had some incredible out-of-body experiences doing that.
I think that, as much as there’s this incredible honor and I would love to keep doing these kinds of things and, also, just getting to talk to these people backstage and relate to them artist to artist or acolyte to hero or whatever it is… those are amazing moments in your life and I would certainly never trade that. But, qualitatively, it’s a little bit of a different thing. Whereas, just the day to day, doing what you do, connecting with that joy of it is maybe in some sense a little bit deeper because you’re not thinking about it as having to be some sort of special thing. It’s just what you do.
When you’re doing what you do, playing with just the duo, and you’re trying to do something special with a song that everybody knows and people are trying to sing along… does that pull you out of it? Because I saw Ani DiFranco once stop in the middle of a song and chastise the crowd. She was like, “I can’t do what I’m trying to do because your voices are bouncing back at me. So, thank you, and stop.”
[Laughs] Those sort of things, frankly, I don’t hear them that well, because I’ve got a microphone, so I’m going to overpower anybody in the room. [Laughs]
[Laughs] And you’re you!
Yeah. People are not gonna be overpowering me. The one thing that sometimes does bother me is, if you’re in certain kinds of rooms when people are eating and drinking, just the acoustics of the room, you start to hear a lot of things like conversation, and forks clattering, and that sort of thing. That can be a bit distracting. And I have, in the past, if people are talking and I’m trying to do a song that’s very quiet and emotional and impactful, and somebody’s chatting over it, I’ll pause and sort of stare them down to try to get them to notice that everyone in the room is looking at them and they’re going, “Blah blah blah blah blah.” [Laughs] I have done that.
Back in the day, when I played in bars, I would leave the stage, climb up on the bar, walk along the bar, and turn off the television. And I would get on the mic and be like, “If you want to watch television, go home. You are here to hear music.” [Laughs] I don’t think I’d have the balls to do that right now…
[Laughs] But a little stink-eye…
[Laughs] Well, yeah! Some of the guys would leave because they were like, “I came here to watch the game. I don’t care about you.” But other people were like, “Yeah, alright.” I mean, if you can do that and then turn around and give them something that was better than watching TV, then you have the right to insist on it. [Laughs] At least that was my thinking, at the time. As I retell this story, I realize I sounded like a total asshole. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that…
[Laughs] Let the poor man watch his game! Oh my God! [Laughs]

[Laughs] I would imagine that one of those quieter, emotional songs is the way you’re doing “One of Us” which you’ve turned into, really, a hymn instead of a pop hit. If that song came out today, with the new Pope and everything that’s going on in the world, would it have the same kind of success and the same kind of backlash?
That’s hard to say. Pop music, right in this moment, is, for the most part, dance music. Unless it was like a dance-pop version of the song, I don’t know that it would have much of a chance to get on the charts in the way that it did when it came out. I could be wrong about that.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it did become a hit. I absolutely think it would be controversial because the reasons that people took offense to it are kind of evergreen. They felt like saying “What if God was a slob like any person, you or me?” That’s a fundamental tenet for some people of faith that God is not you and me. We are very different and we are far inferior. God is infinite and we are these little grubs and we should just be grateful for the grace that He’s given us. So I think there are a lot of people who have their faith in God and consider Him to be not human, not like us at all. And to suggest that God is a part of humanity is blasphemous to those people. That was, I think, the reason we got such negative feedback from people who didn’t like the song and were picketing the concerts and death threats and all that kind of fun stuff.
But I also believe that, if it were a hit again, it would touch the same kind of chord with people who have a different take on it and who have more of this notion of all of us are connected to everything in the universe and with each other. People call that God. That was, for them, a way to allow themselves to ask themselves questions about what they believed in this little pop song. A stealth message. You don’t expect an MTV video or a pop song on the radio to ask you to reflect on these things, most of the time. I think, in that way, it might very well have the same or a similar impact.
Crazy to believe this year marks number 20 since Relish. I still have my Relish ball cap.
[Laughs] That’s awesome! Yeah. It’s the 20th anniversary.
I probably still have my t-shirt.
I see a Relish t-shirt now and again. People tend to show up at Trigger Hippy gigs wearing the odd Relish t-shirt.
Yeah, it has been 20 years and, of course, I thought, “Why don’t we do a re-release? Do a re-mastered version and put it out again.” I talk to people all the time who are like, “Yeah, I love that record! I lent it to my cousin and he never brought it back to me.” Or, “I gave it to my friend and I never saw it again.” So that leads me to believe that there might be people who need to buy another copy. [Laughs] So this might be the moment to re-release it.
[Laughs] Or you could pull a Butterfly Boucher and re-record it, then own the masters.
That is true, too. Eric Bazilian, who wrote “One of Us,” he and I have been doing a little bit of recording and working on a couple of new songs. I think we might end up with something like that. One of the things we’re discussing is to do a super stripped-down, piano-vocal version…
The Jagged Little Pill unplugged version…
Yeah, exactly. Do something like that. And, yeah, own the masters.
But it is nice to look at it from that distance of 20 years. It’s not that I’ve ever stopped singing a lot of that material, but I don’t go back and listen to that album very often. So it’s nice to go back and be like, “Oh, yeah, hey, that was kind of cool.” Of course, some of the stuff, I sort of cringe over and wish that I’d never done them that way, but… in general, you sort of look back on what you’ve done…
But it holds up.
I feel like it does because I feel like we certainly were not trying to be specifically current when we were making it. We wanted to make something that was very much informed by the roots music that we all really loved and were interested in. So, in that sense, I think it has a certain, maybe, timeless quality, if you want to go so far as to say that.
I would. I’d go so far. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, then, I’ll let you say that.
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.