The strange career trajectory of Joan Osbourne
Joan Osbourne’s 1995 hit “One of Us” helped to define the wispy, female-flower-power sound of the Lillith Fair era. Unfortunately, some of her contemporaries let the era define them.
Osbourne though, turned out to be full of surprises. First, there was her remarkably soulful work in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about unsung Motown heroes the Funk Brothers, and her emergence around the same time as a preeminent interpreter of other people’s songs confused some of her mainstream audience.
They shouldn’t have been so surprised, since even “One of Us” was a cover (it was written by Hooters frontman Eric Bazilian). But since the rise of singer-songwriters in the ’60s, there’s been a certain stigma around singer-songwriters putting the emphasis on “singer” instead of “songwriter.”
“In pop music, it’s sort of been looked down upon in the last 40 years or so if you don’t write your own material,” Osbourne tells GT. “It still has a little bit of an aura of ‘you’re not a real artist.’”
But over the course of the last decade, Osbourne has actually done a remarkable job of balancing covers and original songs, across a broad and twisting range of genres, from country to Christmas songs.
In that time, she’s grown by leaps an bounds as an interpreter—her last album of covers, 2012’s soul/R&B tour-de-force Bring It On Home, was her best.
So what makes for a great cover song, in Osbourne’s mind? She has a couple rules. First, “if you can’t do anything with it, leave it alone.” But even if she thinks she can bring something new and different to a song, she knows thinking alone will only take her so far.
“You can conceptualize it all you want,” she says. “But the song has to play you.”
With her new album, Love and Hate, she’s swung back around to originals, with a complex, emotional record. But there’s one rule she lives by that applies to every song she does, whether or not she wrote it.
“I try to only perform songs that I love,” she says. “If you put a song on a record, there’s a good chance you’re going to be singing that song hundreds of times a year.”
Joan Osbourne performs Friday, June 6, at 8 p.m. at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz. $28/gen, $42/gold. 423-8209.