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Jersey Arts Interview: Joan Osborne

Jersey Arts Interview: Joan Osborne

She may forever be remembered as the curly-haired singer who asked, “What if God was one of us?” But Joan Osborne has been nothing if not busy since “One Of Us” — and her hit debut album "Relish" — made her a pop star in 1995. She’s toured with The Grateful Dead and Motown musicians; dabbled in blues, soul and country on a string of acclaimed albums; and shared stages with Bob Dylan and Luciano Pavarotti.

Now, the 49-year-old Kentucky native is working on a two albums: one a collection of R&B covers, the other a set of original music. She’s also touring with keyboardist Keith Cotton, stripping down her sound to just piano and vocals. They’ll stop in Red Bank on Friday, Aug. 12, performing at Two River Theater in an evening presented by the Count Basie Theatre. Brent Johnson spoke with Osborne over the phone about her new music, her memories of hearing “One Of Us” for the first time and how her daughter loves Katy Perry.

Brent Johnson for Jersey Arts: What can fans expect during this tour?

Joan Osborne: We’re really sort of reinventing and reimagining a lot of the familiar stuff that people would know — from Relish and Pretty Little Stranger, and all those records. We also have a bunch of new material that has not been released yet for an album that is tentatively titled Love And Hate. We’re still kind of putting the finishing touches on that. Hopefully, it’s going to be coming out early next year.

I just wanted to make a real sort of unique show for people that have seen me several times and throw in stuff that I may have only done a handful of times — things I’ve done with other groups, like The Dead or The Funk Brothers, or also things I may never have done.

JA: This new record is different from the collection of soul and R&B numbers you’re about to release?

JO: There’s actually two new records I’m working on. One is the R&B one, which is tentatively titled Bring It On Home. We’re just mixing it down, and we’re planning on releasing it in the fall.

I’ve got a whole bunch of things going on right now. I’m also doing a side project with the drummer from The Black Crowes and this bass guitarist named Audley Freed who has worked with The Black Crowes and The Dixie Chicks and this guy named Jackie Greene, who’s a great singer and songwriter. We’ve put a band together called Trigger Hippy. It’s more of like a rock ‘n’ roll thing.

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JA: Is this all to keep yourself from getting bored?

JO: [laughs] Yeah, it’s partly that, and it’s partly because I love making different kinds of music. And I’m really fortunate that I’ve been welcomed into all these different worlds. I was able to go to Nashville and make a country record. I was able to tour with The Dead and be part of that whole scene. I’m so grateful to be able to do all this different stuff.

JA: Is there anyone you dream to work with?

JO: Oh wow. I think the people I admire most are such unique artists. I love Bjork, and I love her music so much. But I don’t know if I’d ever be able to just go hang out and fit in with Bjork. Her thing is so pure to her and so unique. But I am also just happy to listen and be a fan.

There’s plenty of people I’d love to work with. I got a chance to sing with Stevie Wonder once, and that was amazing. I’d love to do that again.

JA: Is there ever a point where you’re standing on stage with someone like Stevie Wonder and think, “How in the world did I get here?”

JO: [laughs] Oh yeah, all the time. I had a chance to sing with Luciano Pavarotti. I got to duet with Bob Dylan. I just was in Central Park last week, and Emylou Harris and Levon Helm were on a double bill. I was there, hanging out, and they invited me to sit in. To be on the stage with both of those people at the same time? I mean, I was in heaven. Pretty much every day, I’m like, “Oh my God, how did I get to do this?”

JA: You worked with Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of Philadelphia rock band The Hooters on "Relish." And Eric wrote “One Of Us,” your breakthrough hit. When was the first time you heard it? And did you think it was a hit right away?

JO: He had written it at like 3 o’clock in the morning. He’s one of these guys who will wake up in the middle of the night with a song idea and run down to his home studio and demo it up. He heard it as being sung by … what’s that Canadian band with the singer who’s got the super-low voice?

JA: Crash Test Dummies?

JO: He heard it as a song for them. And he made a demo of it in a sort of dirgey kind of way. Almost like a Leonard Cohen-style version of it. He said, “What do you think of this? I might present it to the Crash Test Dummies or do it for my own record or something.” And [producer Rick Chertoff] heard it and was like, “Oh, that’s a hit song. You have to sing that.” I said, “That’s kind of cool, but I don’t really hear myself singing it. I’m not that kind of a singer.” And Rick was like, “No you need to sing it. Do it in your own way.”

So I listened to it again and again, and I thought, “This is something like a little child would ask you.” It sounds like something a little kid would come up, pull on your sleeve and ask you. It’s one of those questions that would be so completely innocent, and you don’t really know how to answer this question this child is asking you. So I tried to give it a real innocent quality.

JA: My friends and I always talk about how the mid-1990s were a great time for music — when guitars and singer-songwriters were actually played on the radio. Do you ever feel that’s missing from today’s music? Do you even think “One Of Us” or "Relish" would be a hit today?

JO: It’s hard to imagine in today’s climate anybody getting all that excited about the Relish album. But I just don’t know. I think there’s always an audience for that. The fans are always looking for that sort of thing. I think the machinery that services them is not always looking for that, and it goes in cycles, where things that are sort of more manufactured pop are more popular.

And I don’t have a problem with that, either. That stuff is what it is, and that’s great, and that’s fun, and there’s room for that. I like that stuff, too. I have a little daughter now, and she wants to listen to the radio and hear the Katy Perry song or whatever. So I’m not upset about that. And if you dig a little deeper, you’re going to find people doing interesting stuff. There’s so many different ways to find out about music now.

JA: What music have you been listening to lately?

JO: I love this new Booker T. record that ?uestlove from The Roots played on and produced. It’s mostly instrumental music, but there’s also some singing on it. It’s really cool. I like Florence & The Machine — I think she’s great. I love Adele — I think she’s amazing. And of course, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Amy Winehouse stuff, because that’s just so upsetting. What a talent. That’s a real loss.

JA: Last month, you performed Beatles music with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Are you more a Beatles or Stones fan?

JO: Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think I would have said Stones up until a handful of years ago. I was always a big John Lennon fan. You kind of learn that music, and you study it, and then you set it aside and listen to other things as well. But going back and listening to some of the John Lennon stuff, he was so amazing — the raw emotion he put into everything he did. He was such an amazing genius. I would have to say, for his sake, maybe I’m more of a Beatles person right now.

Joan Osborne comes to Red Bank via the Count Basie Theatre on August 12.

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