In March of 1996, Joan Osborne and her dimples were on the cover of Rolling Stone. She had earned five Grammy nominations for her first major-label debut Relish (1995) and had a smash hit single, “One of Us”. It’s still the song most people associate with Osborne, although Rolling Stone writer Ann Powers called it “prime-time” compared to the “wild, mystical and erotic visions” of the rest of the Relish album.
The disconnect between that single and the other tracks might be that singer-songwriter Eric Bazilian of the Hooters wrote “One of Us” and not Osborne. In a recent podcast, Osborne said Bazilian had originally intended to give it to the Crash Test Dummies to record, but Relish producer Rick Chertoff wanted her to try it out. I had a chance to ask Osborne about the song’s history and its inclusion on her latest album, Radio Waves, a 13-track compilation of her live in-studio performances over the years.
“The power of [“One of Us”] is that it talks about these larger philosophical questions, and puts them in this very simple, direct form as if it’s this little child asking you a question,” she tells me. “When my daughter was very young, I remember her asking, ‘Mommy, when did time start?’ That’s kind of the power and the charm of the song … But the next thing will be originals, new original music. I don’t want to keep recycling older material.”
She sounds definitive about this, as if to say, we are done talking about that song. I take the hint.
“I’m actually writing stuff now,” Osborne notes. “We have some long drives in between shows, so I’ve been working on lyrics in the back seat. Just trying to keep moving the needle forward.” She tells PopMatters that, aside from regularly testing for Covid while she’s on the road, and noticing how some seats remain empty even at sold-out shows, she tends to “have fans from all across the opinion spectrum.”
“We’re living in this time when everything is so polarized, everybody is sort of divided into their tribe of ‘What’s your political stance on this or that?'” she tells us. “There are very few spaces where community members can come together and just sort of see each other as fellow human beings instead of red or blue. [Our shows are] a place where people can kind of let go of all that for a night. For us, also, it’s so amazing to actually be playing music in front of live human beings. There’s no substitute for live music.”
Interpreting songs has always been one of Osborne’s specialties, so we talk about her versions of “How Sweet It Is” and “Shake Your Hips” from Radio Waves. “The Marvin Gaye and James Taylor versions [of “How Sweet It Is”] have this sort of joyousness and this bounce to it,” she explains. “So, I said, ‘What can I find in here that hasn’t been found yet?’ There’s a sense of longing that seems to be in the song, but it hadn’t been brought out yet. With ‘Shake Your Hips’ I have to give credit to the band: Aaron Comess from Spin Doctors on drums, Richard Hammond on bass, Jack Petruzzelli on guitar, Keith Cotton on keyboards, and Andrew Carillo also on guitar. They all just love each other so much.”
She’s known many of these musicians “since way back in the day” when she first started on the NYC club circuit. “Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler and Chris Whitley and Jeff Buckley … they were all coming up on that scene at the same time that I was,” she notes of those early days. “We all knew each other. I would go and sit in with them on their gigs, and John Popper would come and play harmonica sometimes on my gigs. We were all part of that same scene.
“These days, the thing that is really exciting to me is that I’m seeing sort of next-generation fans.
A mother came up to the autograph table with her daughters and said, ‘My kids grew up listening to you. Your music is something we can all listen to together.’ If [my music] is one of those things that a parent will pass along to a kid – that just makes me feel so good.”