From Breakfast in Bed to Becoming a Deadhead: An Interview With Joan Osborne
Osborne talks with PopMatters about performing with the Funk Brothers, filling the shoes of Jerry Garcia, and the sidewalk inspiration for her latest album of R&B and soul songs.
It has been said that prior to the 19th Century, what we now know as "bed and breakfasts" were widely known to be an informal occurrence that catered to two things: social rank and acquaintance. Or, in today's terms, if a dirty, old mechanic wanted to have his or her most important meal of the day delivered to him or her while in bed, he or she was only allowed to stay in the room with another dirty, old mechanic. Perhaps they weren't too worried about things such as romance prior to the 19th Century.
The notion of sitting in bed while having breakfast is also notorious for having inspired Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts to write the popular 1960's soulful classic "Breakfast in Bed". The song became popular when first performed by Baby Washington in 1969. It wasn't until later that year, when Dusty Springfield decided to turn the tune into a mega-hit with her oppressively seductive delivery, that it became noticeable. Though the song will go down in infamy along with Springfield's name, she wasn't even the first to cover it.
I'll give you one guess as to which of those bed and breakfast connotations inspired singer-songwriter Joan Osborne's title for her latest effort, Breakfast in Bed, featuring classic R&B and soul covers. Here's a hint: It's not the first one.
"["Breakfast in Bed"] is the model for a classic record," Osborne says. "[Springfield's] vocal technique is very subdued. It's soft and sensual. She isn't shouting, she's whispering, and that's what makes her and the record so great. It just felt right to name the entire album after that song. It's a classic."
Though naming the album may have come naturally, it could be a wonder as to why an artist widely regarded for her recent work within the world of country music would decide to release such a drastically different kind of album. For Osborne, the decision came as easy as walking down the street. Literally.
"I have had the idea to make a silly soul record for a while," she says. "But as I walked down my street every day in Brooklyn, a guy would be selling these mix CDs that he would make on his own. The CDs had a lot of different old R&B and soul groups on them. I would always see how the music would make people smile. There was always a lot of movement lyrically to the music."
After deciding to finally move forward with the project, Osborne went to Time Life and began discussions on how they could make such a record happen. From the beginning, she said, she didn't want to do a full-on covers album. She had some ideas for songs she wanted to do, and some ideas for songs that she could write to put alongside the covers. This led, according to her, to the album being almost an even split of covers and original material. "It's probably something like a 60/40 split of covers to originals, and I loved doing them all. But 'Kiss and Say Goodbye' was a blast. In the studio, I would drop to my knees just like Otis Reading near the end of the song. I had a lot of fun."
While Osborne's dive into R&B may seem surprising to some, it should come as no shock to anybody that has seen Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 film depicting the journey of Motown's legendary house band, the Funk Brothers. Throughout the movie's soundtrack, Osborne is heard at her possible best while performing Martha and the Vandellas' "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave" and Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted", two songs that the legendary group had a hand in producing. "The Funk Brothers are largely forgotten," Osborne says. "And the film was aimed at trying to rectify their situation and educate people on how important they were. It was such an honor to sing with them. They have played behind everybody from the Temptations to Stevie Wonder, and when I got to work with them, they played just like they used to play. Performing with them was just like falling backwards into a giant featherbed."
An additional legendary group Osborne has had the opportunity to work with, though they may not be rooted in R&B, is the Grateful Dead. In fact, in 2003, Osborne became a full member of the Dead, a band consisting of remaining living members of the Grateful Dead along with the Allman Brothers Band's Jimmy Herring and Ratdog's Jeff Chimenti. During her time with the Dead, Osborne was asked to tackle another intimidating musical task: to take the place of the late Jerry Garcia. And while the job may have been daunting, it was something Osborne says she won't soon forget.
"I certainly couldn't take his place," Osborne says concerning her duties taking over for Garcia. "Their fans took the whole thing in spirit and really helped make it happen. I don't think anyone could really fill his shoes but all of the fans seemed very gracious. They were wonderful to sing for."
And though singing for the Dead may have been an accomplishment in itself, Osborne has recently taken on what may be the biggest mission of her life. Recently, she became the proud mother of a baby girl. And while the singer-songwriter may have been thrilled to work with the plethora of artists she has been able to work with, there isn't an individual in this world that she would rather sing for than her daughter. "I love my daughter," she says. "I love singing lullabies for her. I don't do quite as much as I used to. I'm not really about to do a full-on tour anymore, but I still try to get out as much as I can."
So while one can't expect a full-fledged tour from Osborne, she does plan to occasionally perform in support of Breakfast in Bed. And though she may not be able to leave home for months at a time anymore, Osborne is still looking forward to performing many of the songs off of her latest release, along with what she likes to call "audience favorites". "I am looking forward to performing," she says. "Usually we make our setlists right before we hit the stage so I can't guarantee anything, but I can say that we will be doing some stuff off of Relish along with other songs we know the crowd will want to hear, like 'St. Teresa'. Not thinking about what's going to be on the set for the night really keeps it alive. We don't want to feel like we are on a treadmill every night. We try to always add in what we think we know the audience will want to hear, but each night is going to be different."
Regardless of the fan favorites she promises to dust off during her upcoming wave of shows, Osborne says she is still looking forward to playing a lot of the songs she recorded for Breakfast in Bed -- one of them, in particular, being the old Springfield hit that shares the album's title. And while she is currently writing material for a follow-up album that may return her to the country twang she has become synonymous with, Osborne insists that she isn't quite sure as to how the finished product may come out.
"I am listening to a lot of blues right now," she says, stirring up the possibility of exploring yet another genre for her next record. "And I am really excited about the things I am trying to write."
Then, after pausing for a minute to think about which direction she would truly like to go, she comes back by making a precarious suggestion of her own. One of which can only be thought to be half of a joke.
"Who knows," Osborne says lightly. "Maybe I'll make a record full of lullabies for my daughter."