Don’t you dare call Joan Osborne a one-hit wonder.
Sure, she became a household name back in the ‘90s with a song about God being one of us and pissed off a bunch of pious folks (but, delighted others). The single, however, was hardly an example of her searing, soul-biting chops and deep groove tendencies. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter never went away. Heck, she’s barely taken a break in the past 25 years since her Grammy-nominated debut “Relish” dropped.
Since then, she’s produced a record for the Holmes Brothers, hit the festival circuit backing the Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends, jammed with gospel legend Mavis Staples, and formed a supergroup, Trigger Hippy, with some guys from The Black Crowes. And that’s just the start.
A pandemic-pause related cleaning binge led to Osborne’s latest release, “Radio Waves” (Womanly Hips Records), a collection of live performances from in-studio sessions at beloved stations like KROQ and KCRW that showcase her powerhouse vocals and impressive career.
Recently, Style gave her a buzz to catch up in advance of her gig at the Tin Pan in RVA, to see what’s been shakin’ and what to expect when she hits the stage for the first time in a good long while.
Style Weekly: You’ve been making music over 25 years and "Radio Waves" is a really diverse collection of songs that pulls in some deep cuts from way back. How on earth do you begin the process of picking and choosing which of your kids makes the cut?
Joan Osborne: It’s really strange. Like so many people, I was at home during COVID. Couldn’t go out or go on the road. I just started cleaning my house from top to bottom. I discovered so much material in the back of a closet. I found all these boxes full of old CDs, cassettes, and files. I started listening to them and realized how high quality some of them were.
We’d be touring, play a few songs live at a radio station -and at the end, more often than not, the engineer would hand me a CD or tape of what we just did. At the time, I’d just put them in a bag or box and forget about them.
The process was the same as it is when you do a record; you don’t put out every single thing that you have. It’s about making sure the record as a whole hangs together and works as an album. That was the guiding principle for the choices that we made with this one as well. It could have gone a bunch of different ways, but we picked a few favorites, tent-pole things if you will, and built the collection around that. There’s still so much material left [she laughs].
Other than a total purge and deep clean, what else have you been up to these past two years?
I did some writing, but I also used it as an opportunity to branch out into some other things. I started working on developing a television show with my friend, Jill Sobule. It’s not a done deal or anything but people seem to be very interested in it. It’s also been nice as a mom to be at home with my teenage daughter more. She’s not going to be in the house that much longer, so to be able to have a more normal home life where I’m not jetting off every other month has really been great.
What are you most looking forward to when you get back in front of live audiences, because you released in 2020 and I would assume didn’t get to tour that [material]?
Yeah, we really didn’t get to tour “Trouble & Strife” like we wanted to because, just when things started opening up again, here comes delta, then omicron. There’s an impulse with me and the guys in the band to play stuff from “Radio Waves,” but also that one because so many people haven’t heard it live yet. The few times that we have done it live, it just goes over so well. And it’s always nice to have brand new, original stuff to play. Super excited about that, but also to dip back into the “Relish,” fan-favorite stuff. Just getting out there again, honestly. I just really don’t think there’s anything like the experience of live music. It’s great to do a Zoom concert or whatever, but it’s not the same as being there in person. We’re excited.
You’ve been a lifelong activist and now you’re a parent as well. How have you navigated the turmoil of the past few years, both for yourself and your daughter?
Going back to 2016, when the presidential election surprised so many of us: I was sitting there, watching the results come in with my daughter, expecting a very different outcome. And I was aware that she was watching [me] and my partner to see what we would do when something didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.
I said to her, “Here’s what you do. You try to help out those who need your help. Yes, you’re disappointed and dismayed, but that doesn’t mean you don't have a responsibility to be a citizen and participate.”
We did a lot of things that ordinary citizens can do. We went to demonstrations, wrote letters, called representatives, and donated money to organizations doing great work. But as someone who has somewhat of a public platform, I really used that experience as an impetus to write more political songs than I had ever written. So that became “Trouble & Strife.” It’s a response to the mayhem that we’ve all been living through, not just COVID but everything before that.
You touched on it, but music can really heal. Especially live music, that feeling of being with others and being present in the moment.
Given that we are living in a time when we are so polarized, family members not talking to each other, neighbors or friends insulting each other on social media, everyone is in their corner and so heavily defending it … I feel like live music is one of the few places where community members can come together. They are not having to think of each other as being from a red or a blue state or what’s their opinion about this or that, but as fellow human beings enjoying this primal experience of listening to music together in a room. I think those opportunities are rare in today’s world.
Your repertoire is incredibly diverse incorporating everything from blues, folk, Americana, the list goes on. Has there been any one genre that stands out as having taught you something important or shaped a music memory?
Definitely blues and roots music. Those really helped me as a person. I have a tendency to live very much in my head and try to connect with the world through my intellect. You can’t rely on that when you are doing music like blues, soul or country. It reaches into your heart.
If you are a singer, you are using your body as well connecting with this thing on every level. It’s an intellectual thing, but also an emotional, physical, and spiritual thing. That kind of expressive music unlocked parts of me a human being that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the ‘90s, an era where you really hit the big time with Grammy nominations, controversies, all the goods. The 90s are back. What are your thoughts about some folks who might be hearing your music for the first time?
Thankfully, we have the technology to preserve music. I think about that all the time. I am sitting in my house and pull out a Billie Holiday record and I think – ‘wow, I can be in my house and call up the spirit of this woman who passed away decades ago and listen to her brilliance and genius like she’s here.’ While I love live music, that’s one good thing about recorded music. You have access to the past, especially with the internet.
I think it’s natural that if an era becomes popular again, people would go find what’s just sitting out there. There was definitely a quality to the things that came out in the ‘90s, in particular the female singer-songwriter stuff. You don’t hear that on pop radio today. It makes sense that when people hear it, they think it’s cool or different. The work speaks for itself.
Last one, what would people be surprised to know about Joan Osborne?
Let’s see. I don’t have a lot of deep dark secrets. At least not that I’m going to tell you [laughs]. I’m a really good dancer, not trained or anything but I can cut a rug out on the dance floor. I love doing that.
Joan Osborne plays the Tin Pan on Saturday, April 2. Doors at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit tinpanrva.com.