By Michelle Trauring
It was right when Joan Osborne left home in small-town Kentucky to pursue documentary filmmaking in Manhattan that it all changed.
She was 19 years old, electric and passionate, right in the heart of a vibrant club scene—and instead of channeling her fire behind a camera, she got in front of a microphone.
“There was something very exciting and immediate for me about doing music, something that felt like the opposite of making films,” she said. “Filmmaking is a craft that takes a long time, a lot of machinery, and a lot of people and money from initial idea to finished product. And though you put in your time to learn music, the act of playing music is very immediate. In the case of singing, it’s something that you’re doing just with your body.
“So there is a very raw emotional quality to that,” she continued. “And I think getting involved in music allowed me to get out of my head and away from my intellect, and allow my heart and soul to lead the way. I have been too afraid to do that before, but music gave me a path to my emotions.”
Within the last year, she celebrated the 20th anniversary of her triple-platinum debut album “Relish” and its breakout hit, “One of Us,” with a reissue. She co-founded a new band, Trigger Hippy, and continues to redefine herself while staying true to what she says makes her Joan Osborne: her voice.
The Sag Harbor Express: What can we expect from your upcoming concert at the Sag Harbor American Music Festival?
I’m bringing two incredible guitarists who are also old friends, Andrew Carillo and Jack Petruzzelli. They have known me since before my major label debut, over 25 years in Jack’s case. So it’s going to be a fun, intimate show with the three of us. They might have some embarrassing stories about me. We will be doing songs from the eight albums that I’ve released, and also songs from the Bob Dylan cover album we are working on right now.
Do you prepare set lists for your performances, or roll with it as you go?
I usually have a set list printed out, to give me something to hold onto, but then might change the show depending on a momentary idea, or a request from an audience member, or just however I feel. I like to leave room for spontaneity, it keeps it fresh for me and the musicians, as well as the audience.
You first started singing in your 20s? What was it like entering the industry at that time?
I wouldn’t say that I entered any “industry” when I was singing in my 20s. It was really just discovering this incredible music scene happening in Manhattan at the time. It felt like a big party with a community of like-minded people who loved music and wanted to share it with each other, much more than an industry. When young people ask me for advice about a career in music, I always tell them to try and belong to a community because you can learn more that way, and even if you don’t become rich and famous, you will make friends and have a wonderful life experience that will stay with you forever.
What was the city like?
Well, as everyone says, the city was a lot dirtier and a lot more dangerous back then. You had to be careful where you walked day or night, you had to take precautions and be alert. And I was very poor, living off of slices of pizza and the kindness of friends, moving around from one grungy apartment to the next. But it was a very exciting time, as well—performance artists and musicians and drag queens ruling the nightlife scene, going into tiny smoky basement clubs where bizarre things were happening. It was a lot of fun. In my world, there was not a lot of talk of “making it” or careers, it was more about achieving a level of outrageousness or mastery. How long can you keep people dancing tonight? Who is the hottest band on the block right now?
How did it inspire you as a musician?
New York is a great place to be an artist, because so much of the life of the city takes place out in the open, in the streets and on the sidewalks. It’s not a car culture place like LA, where people are hidden inside big machines, or hidden inside big houses like in the suburbs. You get to see raw human interactions, you get to overhear bits of conversation, you get to be a witness to life as it is, and that is great for an artist. You can take those observations and spin them into stories or fantasies or poetry or music. And the mix of different cultures is a wonderful opportunity to learn about different kinds of music and art, different modes of expression. I guess the Internet is people’s substitute for that these days, but I’m not sure if it’s really equivalent.
How did New York compare to your childhood in Kentucky?
I had a great childhood in Kentucky, there was a lot of freedom to roam around in my small town because everyone knew each other. It was very safe, there were woods to play in, and I had five siblings that I grew up with in a very loving family. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I looked around and did not see much opportunity to get involved in the kinds of things I wanted to do. Louisville was the big city, and even though it’s a very hip town today, there was not a whole lot going on back then.
When did you know that you wanted to be a full-time musician?
After I started singing in clubs, earning enough to live on, I dropped out of film school at NYU. I figured I could always go back and complete my degree if I wanted to. It just felt to me like doing music was something real. I was able to sing in clubs in New York City for money, which I could hardly believe, and I was gaining a following, as well as some respect from people that I admired. So I wanted to see how far I could take it.
Take me back to “Relish,” when the Grammy nominations were flowing in. What was your reaction?
I was traveling in India at the time, studying Kawalli music, and I got a call from my manager at 3 a.m., which woke me up. He told me that Relish had received seven Grammy nominations, and that my picture was in all the daily newspapers and in all the music magazines, and Rolling Stone wanted to put me on the cover. It seemed like some weird dream or hallucination. I went back to sleep and when I woke up the next morning, I had to call home again just to make sure that it was all real.
Decades later, would you say you’ve found your sound? You flow from genre to genre.
I wouldn’t say that I have found one particular sound that I want to restrict myself to, no. I think my voice is probably my only “sound.” I like that it allows me to go into different musical worlds and feel comfortable in them, and I feel very lucky to be welcomed as a collaborator by so many people that I respect.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
I like Elle King—love to hear her on the radio. Been listening to JD McPherson, William Onyeabor, Madeleine Peyroux’s new album, “Lake Street Dive.” Patti Smith reading her “M train” audiobook. On my turntable now is Solo Monk and the new Paul Simon.
What inspires you?
People that I love, good music that has emotion and soul in it, beautiful art, being in nature.
What is your songwriting process?
I am a sort of magpie. I try to collect thoughts, ideas, snippets of poems or lyrics, melodies, and keep them until I have time to sit and piece them together. Since becoming a parent, I’ve had to be much better about organizing my time instead of procrastinating. But it’s a nice feeling to sit down to work and pull out the little jewels I’ve collected; some of them are not as interesting as I had first thought, but others are really fun to work with.
What are you working on now? Can we expect a new album in the near future?
I did a residency at the Café Carlyle in the spring, nothing but Bob Dylan songs, and it was so satisfying that I’m working on an album of Bob Dylan songs. I’m also heading to Nashville next week to continue working on the new Trigger Hippy album. That’s a side project band I have with Steve Gorman, who was the drummer in the Black Crowes. We played in Westhampton on our first tour and can’t wait to come back again.
Joan Osborne will headline the Sag Harbor American Music Festival on Friday, September 30, at 8 p.m. at Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $35, $60 or $100. For more information and the weekend’s complete lineup of performances, visit sagharbormusic.org.