Even if you don’t know Joan Osborne’s name, chances are you’ve heard “One of Us.” On a chart of the most popular songs of 1995, this track would surely be near the top.
However, Osborne is far from a “single marvel”. Boasting mountain-moving pipes, a deep knowledge of all musical genres, and an ability to go from pop star singer to touring singer with the post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead to singer with the house band from Motown, the Funk Brothers, she’s a rare breed of musician who doesn’t let her ego drive her career.
Osborne’s road may have been bumpy, and she may have had the occasional curveball, but after 25 years and a slew of all-around records, she’s learned to hit anything thrown at her, with Powerful.
Osborne released in September 2020 Troubles and conflicts jumps in the signs of the times before dropping the needle on the record: the cover, a collage created by the musician, sums up the horror that is happening in the world around us: a little boy points a handgun, visual depictions of pushback against Black Lives Matter, global warming, and violence toward Asian Americans. A picture of Osborne, sporting a vintage astronaut suit and helmet, is glued amidst the chaos, smiling and holding a microphone; she offers a talisman, in the form of her music, as protection against a minefield of hate.
“These are all things we’ve struggled with for decades, but they’ve come to a head recently,” Osborne says. “I’m trying to bring a magic wand to this crazy situation, which is my microphone, which is the music – songs aren’t going to change the world, but songs change human beings and attitudes.”
“What’s That You Say” is driven by an R&B spine infused with the Meters’ brand of nonstop funk, courtesy of Osborne’s longtime studio band; his soulful alto voice blows over the instrumentals like El Nino whipping the Santa Anas. The muffled sound of a woman’s voice speaking in Spanish occasionally slips into the background.
Osborne describes the song as a response to the horrific situation going on at the US-Mexico border.
“I grew up thinking that people came to America from different countries and brought their dreams, their talents, and their desire to succeed to a place where they could be free,” says Osborne. “It seems like a lot of the talk over the last few years has turned that idea on its head, telling us that these are people we should be afraid of. When I see someone who is from another country, I see someone one who works hard to survive.
Osborne reached out to Raices (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) — a nonprofit that provides free, low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees — and they put her in touch. with Ana Maria Rea. She came to America from Mexico City after her father was kidnapped and held for ransom. Although he was eventually released, Rea’s family no longer felt safe in Mexico.
“[Rea] is a beacon of light that brings all that energy and positivity,” says Osborne. “We need it – a lot of what is being said is not being said by the immigrants themselves. I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to pass the mic to someone to tell their story.’ [Rea] is a pillar of our company.
Osborne approached Rea as if she were a journalist, covering the woman’s arduous journey to the safety she eventually found in Texas after fleeing Mexico.
“It was intense,” Osborne reveals. “We were both crying.”
The story Rea tells in Spanish throughout “What’s That You Say” is about escaping to the United States as a child and growing up feeling like an outsider. It took time, but Rea was accepted into the Texas community she calls home. She pronounces the last line of the melody: No tengo miedo (“I am not afraid.”)
Meanwhile, Osborne doesn’t try to hide that David Bowie was a major inspiration behind “Boy Dontcha Know,” both in sound and message. It would fit alongside “Changes” on Bowie’s Hunky-dory. When Osborne first heard the British rocker on the radio, she felt like she was tasting a vibrant new flavor of ice cream. She admits it was scary at times, but she realized music could be a sweet catalyst for change and self-expression. It doesn’t matter that he’s cold or that he doesn’t have a definitive sexual identity.
“And when she looks good, so good, very good, she feels a target on her back / And if she don’t try to appease your ego, she’s accused of such a dark, so dark mood” , sings Osborne. “She’d rather be a boy, I don’t know.”
In addition to releasing Troubles and conflicts during his Covid-related time away from touring, Osborne spent time with his teenage daughter.
“When you’re on tour, it means being away from your family unless you can take them with you,” she says. “But once your children are of school age, it’s much more difficult to bring them with you. Covid allowed me to spend more time with [my teenage daughter] because I’m stuck at home – although she might think that’s not a good thing. This time has been very precious to me since she will be going to university in a few years.
Osborne seems to have a knack for finding pockets of brightness even under dark skies.
“Covid has forced us to hit the pause button on our normal lives, got us off of these treadmills that we put ourselves on – I gotta make money, I gotta do this, I gotta accomplish that,” she says. “We’re still going and going and going, and we don’t have time to think or stop to breathe and just exist.”
She also acknowledges the tragedy; illness and death, as well as how the pandemic has hit so many musicians financially.
“Covid has halted all live music,” says Osborne. “So the sources of income have completely dried up for many artists, many of whom are my friends.”
Osborne is adamant about the importance of music, not just for performers but for audiences. And the prolonged absence of live music has deeply impacted the world.
“There’s something very unique and special that happens within an audience in a community when you have live music,” she says. “Music is more important than ever these days, living in such a divided world.”
On February 22, Osborne will publish radio waves, a collection of previously unreleased studio performances. All 13 covers, dating back to 1995, feature deep cuts from Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Dylan, Bill Withers and 10 other big names.
“People seem very distant from each other, and music has this ability to overcome that and allow people to come together and be in the same physical space and enjoy the experience without involving politics or politics. ‘opinion, but just like other human beings,’ Osborne said.
Joan Osborne plays Friday, January 21 at the Rio Theater, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 8 p.m.; $36.75-47.25. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (within 72 hours of the show) required. folkyeah.com.