Joan Osborne Comes to Suffolk Theater with Songs as a Lifeline

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Joan Osborne, who will perform at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Friday, January 25. Courtesy photos

A rite of passage for so many 20-somethings is fielding criticism, or even downright disapproval, from their families.

Joan Osborne was no exception.

“You’re smart,” her parents once insisted. “Why are you doing this?” they had lovingly pleaded.

But Osborne listened to her gut. She reasoned with dreaded regret. And she followed her inner compass away from a filmmaking degree at New York University and toward living off of slices of pizza and the kindness of friends, and moving around from one grungy apartment to the next, all in the passionate pursuit of music.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t pursue this and really try to see how far I can take this, then I think I’m gonna regret it.’ I’d look back as an old person and be like, ‘Why didn’t I follow that?’” she recalled during a telephone interview last Wednesday. “So I thought, ‘I don’t know how long this will last and I don’t know how far I can take it, but I just want to see what this is gonna be.’

“Here we are, still 30 years later now, still trying to see what this is — and still taking it as far as I can.”

That afternoon, the seven-time Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum-selling singer and songwriter was off to the studio to work on a slew of new material, some that she will preview during an East End concert on Friday night at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead.

“A lot of the songs that we’re working on right now are very fun and energetic and joyful. A lot of it is music to help people connect to their sense of joy, because we all need that,” she said. “We all need to be revived after a rough day. It’s hard enough to be a person in the world any time, but this is a particularly challenging time, so music needs to lift us up. That’s part of what people will experience, we hope, when they come to the show.”

Her first-ever performance started as a dare. The recent Kentucky transplant was grabbing a drink with her neighbor at a nearby blues bar on East 21stStreet — and if she was singing, he was buying, he said.

She approached the piano player and, in her signature smoky voice, she performed Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child. What started as a joke quickly transformed into an awakening, she said.

“Music, especially for a singer, it’s a physical, immediate thing,” she said, “and I think there was something about it that really captivated me, and woke up this other part of myself and my being that was hibernating — this more emotional, physical part of myself. And it really turned my head around.”

More open mic nights followed, then proper gigs, then Peter Honerkamp of The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett lent her the money to rent a remote truck and record one of her shows to release on cassettes — the birth of her Womanly Hips record label.

“There were no major labels interested in me at that time,” she said with a laugh, “so it was either do it yourself, or just sit around and wait, and I was not one to really want to do that.”

Ultimately, Osborne decided to sign with major label Mercury Records and, soon after in 1995, she dropped her first studio album, “Relish.” With it came success that she never fathomed, she said, watching her songs “One of Us,” “St. Teresa” and “Spider Web” climb the charts.

“It was exciting because we started playing all over the country and we traveled all around,” she said. “When you’ve worked on something and it starts having an impact and reaching an audience and having some meaning for people in their lives, that’s an incredible feeling — and that’s what you want as an artist. That part of it was great.”

But suddenly, she was under the watchful eye of the public and forced into the vanity of the industry. And that was never the reason she got into music, she said.

“I had no desire to be famous or any of that stuff,” she said. “There’s certainly a part of it that gratifies your ego, but the amount of work that goes into maintaining something like that and sitting in makeup chairs for hours and having people stuff you into outfits and doing photo shoots and doing endless interviews, it was all kind of beside the point.

“I felt like my job was, instead of to be myself, it became to sell myself,” she continued. “And I didn’t love that. I also didn’t love losing the ability to just hang out and be a person in the world, because everywhere I went, people recognized me and would follow me down the street. I would be at the corner store trying to buy tampons, and somebody would be coming up behind me and it was a little uncomfortable. Thankfully, that’s not the situation anymore. That was just a moment, and that moment passed.”

These days, Osborne has a tight grip on what she loves about the music industry, and is at work on her tenth studio album, due to drop sometime next year. Though the overall tone is upbeat, it does address the current state of the country, she explained.

“Music for me has been a real lifeline, and a lot of the songs that I’m writing are a direct reflection of that,” she said. “Some of them are my feelings and my opinions about things that are going on in the world, and some of them are wanting to create something that people can grab onto, to soothe them in a difficult time and to help keep them from getting discouraged. I think those are very important jobs that music can do, and I’m just trying to do my little part in that way.”

Her new song, “Hands Off,” is a response to the corruption Osborne is seeing in the world right now and the product of raising a teenage daughter in the wake of the Me Too movement — and the egregious events that preceded it, and followed, she said.

“It just makes me really mad,” she said. “And what do you do in the face of that? What kind of example do you set? What do you do with that energy that anger is? Anger, you can either turn it against yourself and let it eat you up inside, or you can allow it to be fuel for something.”

That fire is not only fueling the album, but also her career — fanning her mission as a musician, one she feels compelled to follow now more than ever.

“It’s a real privilege to have been able to do this for the length of time that I’ve been able to do it,” she said. “It’s amazing to think that I was this little girl growing up in Kentucky in this nowhere little town and have been able to have this work that takes me all around the world and has a positive impact on people’s emotions and people’s lives. I think there is nothing better to do in the world.”

Joan Osborne will play a concert on Friday, January 25, at 8 p.m. at the Suffolk Theater, located at 118 East Main Street in Riverhead. Tickets range from $50 to $65, and doors open at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call (631) 727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com.

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