Considered one of the great voices of her generation, Joan Osborne is a multi-platinum selling recording artist and seven-time Grammy nominee. Her debut album, Relish, wove together strands of American roots music, poetic lyrics and impassioned vocals, and produced the international hit “(What if God Was) One of Us.”
Since then, she has released several albums, toured extensively with her own band and as a member of The Grateful Dead, appeared in the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” and shared the stage with Bob Dylan, Luciano Pavarotti, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris and Patti Smith to name just a few.
Joan has produced two albums for Americana stalwarts the Holmes Brothers, and co-produced her most recent critically acclaimed release, Bring it on Home, which was nominated for a Grammy (Best Blues Album).
“I knew when the time was right and my voice was ready, I wanted to make a recording like this one,” Osborne says of the critically acclaimed release.
That recording is Bring It on Home, a collection of vintage blues, R&B and soul songs that make up the seventh album from the multi-platinum artist. It’s an apt title—for Osborne, Home marks a return to her musical roots. “I cut my teeth in New York blues clubs singing songs like this,” Joan remembers. “I’d do three or four one-hour sets per night. That’s where I really learned to sing.”
Despite her long history with the music, it was only recently that the singer felt like she was ready to put some of those standards on record. “There’s a texture and richness to these songs that singers don’t have right away, that I didn’t have when I started out,” she says. “But the more I’ve done this, the more tone and depth I’ve developed. This was the time.”
The challenge for Osborne and her band mates (the same crew she uses in her live show) was to get the song selection right and bring something new to the music. “I didn’t just want to take my set list from 20 years ago – so that’s why most of these songs are ones I had sung never before,” she says. “And it’s a challenge to bring something to a recording that you already know so well and love. The key is, what can you do that’s different but just as satisfying?”
The answer involved mixing a little bit of the old and the new. Osborne tackled vintage songs by Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Al Green (among others), treating them with respect while giving them some interesting twists in tempo, key and feeling. “It was different for each song,” she explains. “For the Ray Charles track (“I Don’t Need No Doctor”), the arrangement was already there; we didn’t change a lot, but we just tried to bring a new energy and commitment to it.”
On the flip side, Osborne’s take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bring It on Home” (written by Willie Dixon) features a decidedly female sensuality not present in the original song. “It was more about getting the right vibe,” she says. “First, that song is not highly structured. And like a lot of the songs on here, it was written by a man for a man to sing. In the end, we kind of went for a seductive energy. For the Muddy Waters tune ‘I Want to be Loved,’ I wanted to dial down the swagger and approach it in a more caressing way.” But there was an exception to that rule, she notes. “That Ike Turner song (‘Game of Love’) is from the point of view of a woman who lays down the law.” She laughs. “I wanted to swing that as hard and forceful as I could.”
The loose, fun vibe of the record is evident on the first single, “Shake Your Hips,” a Slim Harpo boogie/soul number (also known by the Rolling Stones cover on Exile on Main Street) recorded during an impromptu jam. “We were just sitting around, and Jack [Petruzzelli, Osborne’s long-time collaborator] started playing the lick from that song, and everyone just joined in. It was a shared mindset. We didn’t have to say anything to each other – we just communicated through music. Afterwards, we were all like ‘that was really cool!’”
Most of the tracks on Home were recorded live, “in one or two takes,” at the Waterfront Studios in Hudson, New York, with engineer Henry Hirsch (Lenny Kravitz), who used a 24-track Studer tape machine to replicate the analog sound of the era. “He’s an obsessive scholar about equipment and sound,” says Osborne. “I think my band was drooling over all the vintage gear and microphones.”
Guest stars on the album include “Barbecue” Bob Pomeroy on harmonica, Allen Toussaint on piano (playing on his own song “Shoorah! Shoorah!”), Conan O’Brien band director Jimmy Vivino (horn arrangements, electric piano), vocalists the Holmes Brothers and Rufus Thomas’s daughter Vaneese. “The Holmes Brothers were particularly great to have on there – they were the kings of the clubs I used to get gigs at,” says Osborne. “To hear those harmonies, that group of voices, it was such a pleasure. They were mentors to me – I’ve been fortunate to play with them live and produce some of their stuff since then.”
Besides Bring It on Home, Osborne is keeping incredibly busy, working on her “stone rocking” side project Trigger Hippy (featuring Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, ex-Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, singer/songwriter Jackie Greene and bassist Nick Govrik), finishing up an album of her own original music, and touring the U.S. in 2013, including several intimate gigs with band mate Keith Cotton. Plus, there’s motherhood, listening to new music (“The Black Keys…they get it. We’re not doing polite music. There’s a rawness to it, and they understand that”) and discovering the wonders of Glee, the hit TV show that just used her breakthrough single “One of Us” in a recent episode. “My college-aged nieces were thrilled,” she says, laughing. “I got a lot of excited text messages when that happened.”
If it sounds like Osborne is having the time of her life, credit the recording of Bring It on Home. The record reminded the singer of what music is all about. “These songs, they’re a remedy–they get me out of my head,” she says. “These songs put the music back in my heart and my soul.”