Joan Osborne’s Bring It on Home offers a dozen interpretations as equally infectious as innovative. The singular singer entirely transforms the project’s best songs into her own, and her approach earned a Grammy nomination this year for best blues album.
CMT Edge caught up with Osborne, known for her 1995 hit “One of Us,” recently as she returned home from the Cayamo cruise, which included Brandi Carlile, Hayes Carll, Lyle Lovett and several other star performers.
“Oh, my gosh, Cayamo was so amazing!” Osborne said enthusiastically. “I got to sing a duet with Richard Thompson and hang out with Brandi Carlile and with Buddy Miller. Cayamo is a different animal. You’re on a boat together for a week, so you get to check out all these other bands, and you get to collaborate. It’s pretty special. I think the fans are very aware that this is a unique thing, too, and they all seem respectful but also really appreciative. I can’t say enough good things.”
CMT Edge: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.
Osborne: Thank you. Yeah, I had forgotten that I would be eligible for something like that until the nominations came through. I wasn’t lobbying or expecting it, so it was a nice surprise.
What does it mean to be nominated?
Well, it means that the record that I co-produced and that my road band played on had some impact and is being recognized. That means a lot. It means a lot for it to be something that was a bit of a homegrown project. I was able to co-produce with a guy I’ve worked with for a number of years [Jack Petruzzelli] and had worked with since I started playing out at little clubs. I was able to bring my road band in the studio, and they did such a great job. So it’s a bit of an affirmation in that way.
What are your chances to win?
You know, I try to avoid making odds on who’s got the best chance. The other nominees in the category are all amazing. I really like the Heritage Blues Orchestra. I know Bill Sims because we used to play a lot of the same clubs in New York. The fact that it’s his daughter Cheney in the group with him is pretty special. They’re amazing.
Of course, Dr. John is incredible, and the fact that the guy from the Black Keys [Dan Auerbach] produced the record, I’m sure they’ll get a lot of recognition for that. So I don’t even know if I have even a ghost of a chance, but it’s pretty exciting nonetheless. I mean, I’m going to go to the ceremony, and we’ll be doing some performances in L.A. I’ll be happy to be a part of the hoopla.
Bill Sims was the first person Ruthie Foster, a fellow nominee, brought up, too.
Yeah, it’s a great record. I’d be very happy if they won. Not as happy as if I won, but still pretty happy. (laughs)
Describe the song selection process on Bring It on Home.
I tried to cast the net as wide as I could. I knew a lot of things that I’d always wanted to do and had a bunch of songs in mind, but I also have a lot of friends who are all really deep scholars of this music and could come up with some great ideas that I couldn’t on my own. So I asked a lot of friends and even spoke to people at the label [Saguaro Road Records] because they’re real passionate about this music, as well. I met them through singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama. They have a real deep appreciation for this music, too.
I really got as many ideas as I could and then narrowed those down to what I thought would fit my voice and what I could bring something unique to. Then we narrowed down again once we got in the studio and started rehearsing. It was a very long process, but also a very fun one.
What drew you to the title track? That’s one of the better-known songs.
Yeah, I think it was the fact that it had a connotation of me as an artist coming home to a style of music that I’d always loved and had really learned to sing by trying to emulate my favorite blues artists. The title struck a chord that way, bringing it home to a place where I feel at home. And I had never done any quote-unquote “blues” record. That’s the reason we chose that as the title.
I think Sonny Boy’s was the first recording that struck pay dirt. I’m not sure if Willie Dixon himself recorded it. He normally didn’t do that. He normally was just a writer. I knew the Sonny Boy recording, and I’m sure that a bunch of other people have done it. Maybe even the Stones have. Sonny Boy’s was the version that I knew.
Like with all the songs, I tried to do something other than just imitate the original recording or the most famous recording. I tried to find a different way into the song in the way that a jazz singer will take a standard and bring their own style to it. To me, the song is very spooky, so I tried to make the track very atmospheric and set a real mood.
Many discovered that song through Led Zeppelin’s version on Zeppelin II.
Oh, yes. I’m definitely a fan of Led Zeppelin, and I think they’re one of those bands that can take a blues song and completely rearrange it in their own style but make it completely true to the blues, as well, and take it to a whole different style. Robert Plant has such a great voice. He’s not an old blues guy sound in any way, but he has such a great instrument for that music.
What was Sonny Boy’s greatest asset as a singer?
You know, I think there’s an earthiness and grit that he had as a singer that’s very convincing. Even though he might not have written the song, you know that he knows exactly what the song is about, and it sounds like it’s coming directly from his soul. He’s got that depth to his voice.
You say you idolize Otis Redding in the liner notes. Explain.
Oh, well, I don’t know how much explaining you have to do about that. (laughs) He always impressed me as being like a force of nature. He clearly was an intelligent person who wrote a lot of great songs, but he also was such a natural singer. He had such a great charisma. I admired so much what he was able to do. He was able to break down barriers just by being so natural and being so completely himself. People across all walks of life responded to him. He was like a gift. His voice and his presence and his warmth were all such a gift.
What was the greatest challenge interpreting a song like “I Want to Be Loved”?
Well, you have to make sure you’re not going over the same territory somebody else has already gone over. What’s the point of doing your own version if you’re going to imitate what somebody else has done? There seems to be no reason. I feel like, particularly with a song like “I Want to Be Loved,” which was a Muddy Waters hit, there was room for me to add a female energy to it. Muddy’s version is commanding and demanding, and I felt like I could see a way into the song that was more seductive and more feminine and maybe even a little slinkier.
I felt like that was a way to bring that song to life in a different way. I mean, I love Muddy’s version, and he’s incredible and one of my heroes, but I felt like there was an aspect in the song that hadn’t been explored yet. That’s what I was trying to do. Same with the other tunes as well.
Do you think many blues interpreters play it too safe?
I can’t really talk about how other people approach it, but I think there’s something to be said for keeping a tradition alive in its traditional form. I think that’s a valuable thing to do. I think for myself, I don’t consider myself a blues singer. I consider myself to be an individual. If I take a blues song, rather than do it as a blues singer would do it, I want to do it in the way I would do it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have the same impact or power that the blues has, but I just want to go about it a different way.