When Joan Osborne first started playing small clubs in New York City in the early 1990s, she didn’t think she would have a hit single, much less make a career in music. Just drawing a small crowd was exciting.
“People are going to pay to hear me sing?” she says. “That blew my mind.”
Over time, her smoky vocals drew more and more people to hear her sing, and in 1995 she scored a massive hit with the spiritually-curious “One of Us.” Even though she never reached that height again, she has crafted an impressively diverse catalog that ranges from rock and blues to folk and jazz.
“I remember that feeling of not knowing where this is going to take me, but I’m going to take it as far as I can,” she says. “Thankfully, it’s still going.”
Fresh from a show in New York for her eighth studio album, the adventurous Love and Hate, Osborne spoke to CMT Edge about designing tattoos, writing from the subconscious and having people find new meanings in your music.
CMT Edge: Tell me about that album cover. Where did that image originate?
Osborne: I was bored of always having a picture of me on the cover of my albums, and I wanted to do something different. People talk about how love leaves a mark on you, like a tattoo, so I thought that would be a good way to represent the album — specifically, this very iconic image of Adam and Eve together, the fall from grace and all that.
We looked around for some different tattoo artists and came across Gia Rose. There was something about the way she rendered faces and bodies that I really liked. Instead of the traditional apple and snake and the temptation of knowledge, I felt like there should be an equal share of power, so each one should have an apple and each one should be ambivalent about taking it from the other. There is a certain amount of ambivalence — not so much about falling in love but staying in love.
Did you get the tattoo?
I do not have the tattoo, but I have gotten a couple of message from fans who would like to get it. Not that I would encourage anybody to do that, but it sounds cool. If they do, I hope they make a video of getting it. Or at least send me a picture of the finished product.
Those were the touchstones for us in the very beginning. Jack Petruzzelli, my co-producer and co-writer, said, “We both love this kind of music, so let’s see if we can’t make a record with some lush, beautiful arrangements.” But then as I was writing these songs, it seemed like they wanted to be about something else. We really struggled with whether we should stick to this theme, or do we follow the songs where they want us to go?
We decided to branch out, and I think it makes the record more eclectic. Whatever is on your mind and in your heart is going to come out in your writing. You can let your conscious mind dictate what you’re going to do, but your subconscious is going to take you in a direction that is almost always more interesting. That’s what music does for us. It lets us stop thinking so much and lets our souls lead us where we need to be.
These songs seem to constitute an autopsy on a relationship. Was there any particular event that inspired them?
I wouldn’t say these are confessional lyrics, like diary pages, but there are plenty of things from my personal life that I put into these songs. But there are also plenty of things that I observed in people around me.
This is an interesting time in my life to write love songs. You’re not in your 20s anymore and you don’t get together with somebody and then break up with them six months later. You have children and families. You have mortgages. You’re committed to people in a way that you aren’t when you’re younger, so you have to keep making it work out. That’s a huge challenge.
That’s what that song “Train” is about. Romantic love can take us to a very spiritual place. You’re getting close to God or to some higher power through loving this person.
I thought it was interesting to follow up that spiritual song with the most sexual song on the album, “Up All Night.”
The two can go hand in hand. That song “Up All Night” can be read as a sexual or erotic song, but when I started the lyrics, I was being kept awake by an argument. We were at each other’s throats. It was 3 a.m., and we couldn’t figure it out. “Oh, my God, we’re going to be up all night doing this to each other.” That’s how the song started out, but it turned into something else.
Can you tell me about “Mongrels”? It stands out on this album as a very political song.
When I was writing that one, there was this image that kept coming to mind of this couple that is constantly locked in these battles. I saw them as two dogs under the table fighting over table scraps, so intent in their conflict that they could not see the world around them.
But I brought in these background singers to work on it, and they heard it as a very political song. I played it for my niece, who’s 20 years old and involved in the Occupy movement, and she heard it as political, too. We’re the 99 percent struggling against each other to grab the leavings of what the one percent allows us to have.
So maybe it does have a political aspect to it. It’s one of those times when a song can be written to mean one thing but can be read as something entirely different.