This Singer-Songwriter Is Hardly 'One of Us'
Joan Osborne combines emotional lyrics with a knockout, blues-inflected voice
BOSTON — It could be called the women's movement in music or women's empowerment in music. But whatever you label it, it's evident that women in rock today have a higher profile than even five years ago.
Joan Osborne is part of this growing wave of female rock performers who are writing their own songs and singing about personal experiences - love and sexuality, hope and heartbreak.
On tour in Boston recently, the Kentucky-born, New-York based Osborne said this is nothing new. "People forget [that] performers like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner" have all covered this material before, Osborne said backstage at the Orpheum Theatre. "I just feel I am extension of them."
Her debut album "Relish" is a compilation of 12 songs that prove Osborne is no one-hit wonder. So it was a surprise that she walked away empty-handed at the Grammy Awards this year after being nominated in five categories.
"Relish" has gone multi-platinum and has received high marks from music critics, fans, and peers. With a plethora of women performers, Osborne stands apart from the punk-influenced performers such as Alanis Morrisette and Liz Phair to the more girlish-sounding Lisa Loeb and Juliana Hatfield.
What has put Osborne on top is her hit song "One of Us." Although she did not write the lyrics, Osborne has taken flak from some listeners who have interpreted them as being sacrilegious. In the song, she wonders "What if God were one of us?"
The song as a whole is ambiguous: The meanings could range from an honest search for God in everyday life to squeezing the concept of God into a material framework.
Osborne said backstage that "it just depends on who you talk to. I get different reactions from different people. 'One of Us' is only one song on the album. I feel it's not really representative of my work."
Indeed, if concertgoers were hoping to hear more tunes along the lines of "One of Us," they were in for a surprise.
Most of Osborne's songs are just the opposite. She belts out soulful blues and gospel melodies with a raw, husky voice - somewhere between Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge.
Opening with the gospel-sounding "Pensacola," Osborne's voice bordered on yodeling (she recently studied qawwali singing in India to help strengthen her voice). As she sang about finding her long-lost father destitute in a trailer park, you could feel her emotions permeate the theater.
Some of her songs, such as "Right Hand Man," focus on love and sexuality, but these themes do not dominate the album. "Crazy Baby," is a song about talking a friend out of suicide; and in the bluesy "Spider Web" she has a dream that Ray Charles gains his eyesight but has no voice: "No 'Georgia on My Mind'/ I stay in bed with MTV."
Osborne's earthy and spiritual sides emerged not only through her performance, but also through the stage set as well: Candles were lit behind her, and three large paintings hung in the background. The largest was of a young girl with angels holding a guitar above her head (which Osborne designed herself and appears on the front cover of "Relish"); the other two were of Hindu deities.
It's obvious that Osborne's flair for songwriting, passion for singing, and strong beliefs all fit the bill of a '90s woman in rock.
*Joan Osborne performs April 22 at the Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Vt.; April 23 at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, N.Y.; April 24 at the Auditorium Center in Rochester, N.Y.; April 25 at the Palumbo Theatre in Pittsburgh; and April 30 at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Ky.