Born on July 8, 1963, in Anchorage, Kentucky as Joan Elizabeth Osborne, Joan's early desire was filmmaking, which led her to New York City where she was a film student at New York University's prestigious film school. Faced with the daunting task of financing her own education, circumstances resulted in a lapse in enrollment.
It was during this break that Joan found herself in a little blues bar singing Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child" after a friend's late night dare. The realization of a great talent was, thus, born. What followed next was Joan's full blown induction into New York City's thriving blues and roots music scene, a scene that also nurtured acts like Blues Traveler, Chris Whitley, the Holmes Brothers and the Spin Doctors.
A hungry student, Joan began her immersion by attending open-mic nights and sitting in with bands. It wasn't long before Joan pieced together bands of her own, quickly making a name for herself as an incredible live performer. Rolling Stone magazine predicted early that Joan was the "next explosion waiting to happen" and in 1992 she formed her own label, Womanly Hips, releasing the live-recorded Soul Show. The 5,000 copies sold fast; and shortly thereafter, Joan released the three track EP Blue Million Miles. It wasn't long until Mercury Records won the major label bidding for Joan, signing her to their roster.
In March of 1995, Joan's first major release Relish was released. The album was an immediate critical favorite, but commercial success didn't arrive until the stimulating "One of Us" became a smash hit. The song, with its memorable melody and provocative lyrics, garnered attention from not just radio, television, magazines, but also some religious groups. Many debated the song (and sometimes Joan) as pro or non religious. A staunch supporter of women's rights and reproductive freedom, Joan did not hide or lessen her involvement for Planned Parenthood and pro-choice initiatives. Nevertheless, Relish earned an astounding 8 Grammy Award nominations, including one for Album of the Year. "One of Us," "St. Teresa," and "Spider Web" were all nominated songs. Relish has sold more than three million copies to date; in 2000, Entertainment Weekly recognized Relish as one of the top 10 albums of the entire nineties. In November 1996, Mercury didn't waste time in issuing Early Recordings, which comprised selections from Joan's early independent releases, Soul Show and Blue Million Miles. Joan's success was further exclaimed as she toured for the next three years before beginning work on her follow-up album
Joan's politics and spirituality have always remained strong and true. She sits as an honorary member on Planned Parenthood's Board of Advocates. The organization has frequently been invited to set up information booths at her concerts; additionally, Joan has recorded public services announcements on their behalf. Joan has also studied Qawwali music, a form of traditional, spiritual Indian music. World-revered Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan honored Joan with an invitation to study with him, which she did briefly before his unexpected death.
During 1997 and 1998, Joan participated in the historic and successful Lilith Fair tour and was featured alongside tour-founder Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and Fiona Apple on a cover of Entertainment Weekly. Joan continued working, contributing to soundtracks, compilations, and guest albums. In 2000, Joan produced Speaking In Tongues for The Holmes Brothers, which received rave reviews, especially for Joan's production. Despite Joan's success and collaborations, her own project Curds & Whey was being heavily scrutinized and delayed by Mercury who were uneasy trusting Joan's artistic license and harder rocking tunes. Forcing her into a tense stalemate, Mercury ultimately released Joan from contract at the very end of 1999. Undaunted, Joan self-financed and co-produced Righteous Love with Mitchell Froom. Joan's follow-up to Relish was finally released by Interscope Records in September of 2000. The album was met with glowing reviews and a strong concert tour, but did not generate huge sales.
In 2002, Joan signed with indie label Compendia Music Group, revitalizing her own Womanly Hips moniker in the deal. Indie spirit in hand, Joan released the soul covers album How Sweet It Is in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The collection drew inspiration from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Initial inspiration, however, came from The Funk Brothers, the previously unsung Motown studio musicians showcased in the hit film documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown. Backed by The Funk Brothers in the film, Joan's "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" has been praised as the "showstopping highlight" that "brings tears to ones eyes" in this "soaring" rendition.
Not long thereafter, Joan was invited to open for the Dixie Chicks on their record-breaking Top Of The World tour in spring 2003. Surviving Grateful Dead members also sought Joan out when they regrouped as The Dead in the summer of 2003. Joan toured with the band on their monstrous Summer Getaway tour, which marked the band's return to performing. Joan's contribution was magical as she earned yet more praise from both critics and always-scrutinizing "deadheads." all of whom welcomed Joan's inclusion as a full-status member of The Dead...
Thats a totally hopeless task, says Joan Osborne, talking about the fantasy of trying to re-tweak pop music classics so that they might eclipse the power and stature of the originals. Theres just no way you can do that.
Its something Osborne has wrestled with since last year, after she appeared in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about the work of the record companys legendary Detroit-based rhythm section The Funk Brothers, and subsequently began to prepare her new album, "How Sweet It Is", released jointly through Womanly Hips, Osbornes independent label, and Compendia Music.
On this collection, Osborne revisits, in ways both comforting and startling, mid-60s soul standards. Once we had selected a song, she says, we had to forget about the versions that had been done before. The result is transformative. I was never interested in trying to out-do anyone, she continues. I felt like there were certain songs that retained, as things have turned out, a particular resonance in this moment that we are all in now. I wanted to try to bring something of myself to these songs, something new, to let people hear these very familiar songs again, but maybe hear the meaning of the song in a fresh way.
Recorded in New York with producer John Levanthal and engineer Rick DePofi, "How Sweet It Is" was made after the events of September 11 uniquely re-ordered everyones physical and emotional worlds.
The notion of doing this sort of collection had come up before then, says Osborne, a Kentucky-born Brooklynite whose music has long been informed by local and passionate sources, both from the U. S. and abroad. We were just starting to put the wheels into motion when 9/11 happened. This, of course, set everyone back on their heels, and nothing got done; making a record became the last thing on my mind. Yet ultimately, because Im so fortunate to be able to make music in my life, I decided that yes, this is a way that I might be helpful, even though Im not a doctor or a nurse or a fire-fighter, that there is something that music means to people that is necessary. After emerging from the shock of what happened, I began to think again about this project. I began to ask: What is about these songs that I love, and what is it about them that has some relevance to people in the world today?
For soul classics popularized by creative titans like Otis Redding (These Arms of Mine), Aretha Franklin (Think), Jimi Hendrix (Axis: Bold as Love), the Spinners (Ill Be Around) and others, Osborne and Levanthal fuse the literate intimacy of singer-songwriter rock and the dramatic vocal freedom of interpretive pop singing with the rhythmic life and harmonic luxe of soul.
But in developing this approach for the black popular music of 30 years ago, Osborne first looked at the ways and means of the black popular music of right now. I started out working up these songs in my home studio, she says, making demos out of them. I was very interested in taking some of the lessons of a modern hip-hop record, like a Mary J. Blige or a Dr. Dre production, which is incredibly minimal compared to, say, todays rock records, or even a lot of soul records that have come before. Its very much about a beat, and the singer, and maybe just a few little instrumental things that serve as hooks. Theyre spare. So a lot of the cohesiveness I think we ended up with came from that. Of course, we certainly moved beyond hip-hop minimalism with some of the songs. But thats where we started: I really wanted to uncover the bones of this approach, of me singing a particular song like "How Sweet It Is". Once youve located the structure, that sort of bone eloquence, yes, you may need to add texture to it with guitars and organs and all these other things. But we started there.
Osborne had also lately immersed herself in the vibe-filled sounds of DJ and techno culture. There are certain clubs and places in Brooklyn that I go and check out that world, she says. I think these musicians, who are still underground, draw a lot from classic soul records as well. Ill sit in a café where DJ music is playing, and for a while its great; I¹m hypnotized by the beat. But then Ill want a song. Maybe my brain was hard-wired at a time when a song was important. But Im also a singer, and the singing you usually hear on DJ records tends to be, like, one phrase, which will come in and happen over and over again. Its very much used as part of the overall collage.
With vocals that establish her further as one of the most sensitive and mighty interpretive singers at work today, Osborne steered "How Sweet It Is" in a different, more classic, direction. On 2000s Righteous Love, the follow-up to Relish, her multi-platinum 1995 major-label breakthrough recording that spawned her One Of Us hit sensation, Osborne had sung with a bit of an agenda.
On "How Sweet It Is", that has vanished, replaced by a concentration so jealously focused on the needs and message of a particular song that Osbornes focus melts into pure soul elegance and communication.
On my last album, she explains, I had a little bit of a sense of mission of wanting to sing very strongly and very expressively. I guess I had felt that on Relish I had missed some opportunities to really sing, and I wanted to make up for that. I was wrestling with all that when I made Righteous Love. This time, I didnt care about that at all: I surprised myself in approaching these songs; a lot of times I would start out thinking, OK, Im going to tear this song up, do all this acrobatic stuff. But in the event it just didnt appeal to me. I thought it was wrong. I felt like the better thing was to be more straightforward, more intimate with the meaning of the lyric. If you had never heard this song before, had no other association with it, then you would understand it on this very basic level. Sometimes when I was singing in the studio, I would picture myself sitting on the shoulder of somebody wearing a Walkman. Its a very intimate, sort of whispering-in-their-ear kind of thing. I was less interested in displaying my singerly chops than seeing how I could present this lyric and sing this song and really mean it.
In addition to Leventhal and DePofi, who contribute a variety of different instruments to the music on "How Sweet It Is", Osborne was able to call on musicians like R&B legend Isaac Hayes, as well as drummer-percussionist Ahmir Thompson of the Roots and singer-songwriter-bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who comprise the rhythm section on the albums version of Undisputed Truths Smiling Faces.
I tried to be judicious, Osborne says. I tried to balance the album so that it wasnt just political soul songs. I do think there are a few that have a real message, a social component. We may not live in a time when people look to music for content like that, but there have been many times when people have. Yet as interested as I was to re-do these political songs, I was just as interested in songs that had a real joyfulness to them, a sense of optimism, this community spirit and talk about brotherhood. I wanted to touch on that as well, along with the shock and the sadness of event in our recent history. We may not usually think of our civic and musical lives joined like this, but lately, the feeling has been in the air.
"How Sweet It Is" brilliantly confirms that, with altogether new and stirring richness.
(James Hunter, 8-02, via www.compendiamedia.com)
Joan Osborne toured as a member of The Dead (Grateful Dead) with their huge Summer Getaway 2003 tour, which earned Joan raves and a new throng of fans; garnered immense praise from critics and fans for her magnetic appearance in the acclaimed 2002 film Standing In The Shadows of Motown; graced the cover of Rolling Stone in March of 1996; earning an astounding 8 Grammy Award nominations for Relish, including one for Album of the Year.