Photograph by Jimmy Ienner, Jr.
'Sweet' Soul Music
Joan Osborne finds soul inspiration
By Greg Cahill
The 9-11 attacks spurred a lot of soul searching among those looking for more meaning to life. Joan Osborne found that meaning in soul--the soul music of the '60s and '70s. The result is How Sweet It Is (Compendia/Womanly Hips), a collection of 12 mostly soul covers first made popular by Edwin Starr, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Otis Redding, Timmy Thomas, Aretha Franklin, and others. All of the songs evoke peace, love, and understanding; several sport a strong antiwar sentiment.
It was a gutsy move for Osborne, who is blessed with a powerful set of R&B pipes but whose career has stalled since 1995's hugely successful Relish (Mercury), the triple-platinum disc that spawned the odd hit "One of Us," which asked the philosophical question, "What if God was one of us / just a slob like one of us?"
"We're playing these songs at every show and getting a really good response from audiences, so I feel kind of vindicated," says Osborne, who had cancelled a long-planned album project to record this collection of soul covers.
Thirteen months ago--on Sept. 11, 2001--the Kentucky-born Brooklynite was in an L.A. studio when she learned about the terrorist attacks. Osborne had hired ace producer Don Was, booked session players, and was preparing to record the follow up to 2000's Righteous Love (Interscope), her first full-length CD since Relish.
"We were just starting to put the wheels in motion when 9-11 happened," she explains, during a phone interview from a Chattanooga hotel room. "This, of course, set everyone back on their heels and nothing got done. Making a record became the last thing on my mind."
Osborne scrapped the sessions and returned to New York. "I just wanted to be at home with my family," she says. "At the time, it was like the whole world had stopped, and I wanted to help out any way I could."
Three months later, Osborne realized the best way to help was through her music. "I knew that whatever I did had to be topical and relevant to what people were talking about," she says. "I decided to choose material that had a personal or political slant from that time when soul music was really flowering and a song like Edwin Starr's "War" was a No. 1 pop hit. It was a chance to record material that would help people reconnect, so a lot of these songs are about community or brotherhood or peacefulness."
Osborne enlisted producer John Leventhal (who had worked with Shawn Colvin and David Crosby) and set out to give the songs a sparse spin. In some ways, How Sweet It Is marks a return to Osborne's musical roots.
"It was kind of an accident that I got into music in the first place," she explains. "I was living in New York City and going to film school at NYU and working odd jobs. One night I went out to have a beer at a little blues bar and a friend dared me to go up on stage to sing with the piano player. I sang "God Bless the Child," the Billie Holiday song. The piano player invited me back the next week for open mic. I started going every week and learning new material."
Osborne soon found herself immersed in a musical community, playing five and six nights a week, and quitting film school. "I just fell in love with it," she says of the music. "It really just took over my life."
This year, soul music has played a particularly large role in her life. In addition to How Sweet It Is, Osborne can be seen in Standing in the Shadow of Motown, a great new documentary about the Motown studio musicians known as the Funk Brothers. Osborne appears with Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, and others at a Detroit concert produced for the film. She can be heard on the film's soundtrack, singing blistering versions of Martha & the Vandellas' "Heat Wave" and Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?"
The film shows Osborne as first and foremost a fan of soul music, unpretentious, and in awe of its strength. "I came to it first from a fan's point of view," she says, "and to be somebody who actually found a place in that music community--to actually be a part of it--really meant a lot to me."
Joan Osborne and her band perform Friday, Nov. 1, at 8pm, at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $25. 707.765.2121.
From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.