Joan Osborne on the Group Mind Experience, the Studio as Sanctuary and Grateful Dead Boot Camp

Dean Budnick on April 12, 2024
Joan Osborne on the Group Mind Experience, the Studio as Sanctuary and Grateful Dead Boot Camp

photo: Laura Crosta


“One of my North Stars in trying to write the lyrics for this record is that I wanted them to be plain and direct. I’ve written songs in the past that were short stories or more open to interpretation, but I wanted these to be understandable by anyone who heard them,” Joan Osborne says of her approach to the material on Nobody Owns You. Produced by Ben Rice (Valerie June, Norah Jones), the warm and eloquent album reflects a moment in Osborne’s life when she took stock, with her daughter leaving for college, her mother experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s and a longtime relationship coming to a close. “Before I started writing, I thought, ‘If this were my last record, what would I want to say?’ That’s a big part of why the record is so personal and why the songs are talking about things that I haven’t talked about before in my music.”

Osborne, who has been touring in support of the record, also has performed a number of shows interpreting the music of Jerry Garcia. Although she was not a Deadhead growing up, Osborne was invited to join The Dead in 2003 and toured with them over the course of that year. When asked whether her recent immersion in the Garcia-Hunter songbook had any impact on the Nobody Owns You material, she remarks, “I don’t know if there was a direct influence, but there is a phrase that always comes back to me when I’m trying to write something—‘Let there be songs to fill the air’ [from ‘Ripple.’] That, to me, is this beautiful permission to try and sometimes fail. It’s a hard thing to write songs. You’re exposing yourself and you can be overwhelmed by fear and doubt. But that simple phrase brings me back to the feeling of, ‘It’s OK. This is what the breath in my body is for—to sing songs.’ That’s a real touchstone for me.”

Given your limited prior exposure to the music of the Grateful Dead, I’ve heard you were learning the material on the fly during the summer 2003 tour.

It was like Grateful Dead Boot Camp. I would get up in the morning, drink my coffee, get the setlist for the day and go to soundcheck. I would spend the time between soundcheck and the show making sure that I knew my parts on all the material that we were doing that night. Then we would do a fourhour show, I would fall into the bunk on the tour bus and pass out. The next day would be the same thing. So I was learning the songs and learning my parts continually throughout the tour.

I have a pretty good ear for harmonies, but the Dead material is all so specific, and the harmonies were so unique that I had to go over them again and again. Rob Barraco, who was playing keyboards at the time in The Dead, was my saving angel because he knew it all backwards and forwards. I would sometimes shimmy over to him in the middle of a song and ask, “So this next song, what’s the note that I start on?” And as he was playing, he would be giving me that note too. [Laughs.]

Now that you’ve been playing the material regularly as of late, is there a particular song that resonates with you?

I remember doing “Stella Blue” with The Dead at Red Rocks in July. There was a full moon, and it was this incredible, transcendent moment. You could have heard a pin drop in the crowd. Everyone was under the spell of this song, myself included. That’s a special memory that I have. We have been performing a version of “Stella Blue,” and it never fails to put a spell on everyone in the room.

Thinking back to when I first worked with those guys, one of the big surprises of digging into that catalog and learning the songs, is I was struck over and over again with how deep and soulful the songs were. That was sort of my life vest, if you will, in being thrown into this scene. The songs were what I clung to. They were beautiful, mysterious and wonderful.

In writing this new record after performing a number of Jerry Garcia tribute shows, do you think that being inside those songs had any impact on your new material?

I don’t know how much of an influence the Garcia-Hunter stuff has on this record in particular, but there is a phrase that always comes back to me when I’m trying to write something—it’s the simple, “Let there be songs to fill the air.” That to me is this beautiful permission to try and sometimes fail.

It’s a hard thing to write songs, and you’re exposing yourself. You can allow yourself to be overwhelmed by fear and doubt—“Am I any good at this? Should I even be doing this? Does anyone care?” Then that simple phrase, “Let there be songs to fill the air” just brings me back to that feeling of “It’s okay, I have permission to do this. The breath in my body is to make songs with.” It’s something that is a real touchstone for me.

You’ve said that the songs on Nobody Owns You represented something new for you. Was there one in particular you completed early on that gave you confidence in your approach?

It was “Secret Wine,” which started as a poem I wrote for my mother after speaking with my sisters on the phone about her. My mom is pretty much on her way to having Alzheimer’s and dementia—she’s beginning to disappear mentally. It’s a difficult thing to face, watching someone that you care about kind of fade away in front of your eyes. So I wanted to make a little prayer to God or the universe that if she is going to lose parts of herself from having this disease, maybe there are things that can replace those parts that can be positive or beautiful.

The record opens with “I Should’ve Danced More” which is a simple, direct sentiment but also resonates on a deeper level.

I turned 60 [in 2022] and as you can tell from the record, there are a lot of changes going on in my life. It’s also a moment to take stock, look back at your past and think about what you want for your future. There’s sort of an acknowledgement that this is a finite existence we all have on this planet and what do you want your life to be about while you’re still here? That’s where the lyrics for that song came from, the notion of “Well if I haven’t danced enough, then maybe I can get to it now.”

Somewhat along those lines, when you first came to New York you were thinking about becoming a filmmaker. Are there other things you still hope to accomplish outside of music?

I grew up in Kentucky, but I moved to New York to go to film school at NYU. At that time I thought, “Oh, I’m going to become a documentary filmmaker and this is my career path.” Then I sort of stumbled upon the music scene that was going on in New York at the time in the East Village, the Lower East Side, down on Bleecker Street—all of that. I got swept up in it and I think it was very much the act of singing that really turned my head around. There was something that really galvanized me when I was in my 20s and I started doing it more seriously.

Filmmaking is an art form that I still find fascinating, particularly as a mental process. But it also involves a lot of technology. It involves large amounts of money. It involves crews of people.

Singing is a much more immediate thing, and it’s not just your brain that’s working, it’s your emotions and your body—there’s a physicality to it. So for someone who had always tried to deal with the world with my intellect, that sort of turned me around. I was like, “Oh, I need my entire being to do this.”

It was very liberating. So that’s what drew me to it in the first place. I’ve been so fortunate that I was able to make a living doing it and have success and travel all around the world. It’s been a wonderful thing to do and part of me is like, “Why would I ever do anything else?”

I do still love to perform and I still get that charge from being on stage with a band in front of an audience—getting to that place, which is sort of like a group mind experience, where everyone is elevated by this live music.

I still do love to do that. It is also very physically demanding with the travel and all of that. I don’t feel so tired that I’m going to want to retire tomorrow, but I have to look forward and say, “I won’t be able to do this forever. So what does that mean and what would I do instead?”

So that’s been on my mind. I’ve started doing some writing—not songwriting, but working on a memoir. I’ve also really gotten into painting recently. As I said, I love live performance, but a live performance disappears the moment that it happens. There’s something for me that’s wonderful about making a painting because you can leave the room and come back and it’s still there. [Laughs.] I enjoy making something that has that kind of object permanence. So that’s something that I could see myself doing.

I am more open to other possibilities than I might’ve been at earlier times in my life. But that being said, I do still love to perform, so I’m not really sure what it all means.

That live music scene you describe is very different today. Back then, artists were performing multiple nights a week just in Manhattan. That’s changed considerably, as venues have been pushed out of the city. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I don’t know that I am keyed in so much to what this younger generation is doing in New York City, and I am sure a lot of the creative process that used to happen in live music venues now happens online. But I also know there’s no substitute for an actual live music scene where you run around and from one club to the other and see your friends play, learn about what they’re doing and all of that.

I’m not sure what that looks like in New York City. I’m also not sure if the locus of that kind of creativity is really possible anymore because of the economic circumstances—although it’s always been tough to be an artist in New York.

I guess I just think about how amazing that scene was at the time that I was coming up. I hit it in a real sweet spot where there were dozens of bands, dozens of clubs and places to play. You would play a gig or go see someone else’s gig and then afterwards you and your friends would go to somebody’s house and there’d be a jam session, or you would run around from club to club sitting in with your friends.

It was a wonderful breeding ground and playground for learning about music and learning about live performing and making all these great friendships. Obviously, people like the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler came out of that scene but there also were bands that people don’t necessarily know about nationally like Surreal McCoys that were sort of giants on the scene. So it was a wonderful time, and I guess I have to be grateful for that. I don’t know that I can really speak to what New York means right now to young musicians who are coming up.

You’ve released Nobody Owns You on your own label, Womanly Hips, which you launched at the outset of your career. In many respects you were ahead of the game. Can you talk about the origins of the label?

I created it 30 years ago. At that point I started to have this regional following, not just in New York City, and after the shows people would come up to me and say, “I want to buy your album.” I didn’t have anything to sell them, though, since I had no record deal.

I was like, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to do this on my own.” So I went to the bookstore and I went to the library, and thankfully there was this tradition coming out of the punk scene of DIY making and distributing your own albums. At that point, it was mostly on cassettes.

I was able to raise a little bit of money, and we recorded a live show. We had this regular gig in Chelsea, so we recorded a couple of nights and we mixed that together. That became the first album and the first release for Womanly Hips.

So cut to all these years later, it has become a way for me to put out my own music, and also to do that in a way where I’m a one-stop shop for myself. Then I make a deal with the distributor for them to get it out into the wider marketplace. It’s really about creating the records without having to ask anybody about anything. I don’t have someone at a label looking over my shoulder. I just do the things that I want to do.

How did you connect with Ben Rice who was both a producer and a co-songwriter Nobody Owns You?

Initially, I was interested in the diversity of people that he had worked with. I was looking for somebody new and for a collaboration that was fresh because I wanted to try to push myself in ways that I haven’t been pushed before. He has worked with people like Valerie June, the National and Meghan Trainor.

I felt like he had an interesting kind of resume and one that I hadn’t really seen that much of before. So we agreed to meet in his studio in Brooklyn, which is a 15-minute walk from my house. It felt really comfortable being in that space and also being with him. He has a very calm and thorough approach to what he does, whether that’s writing, producing, getting an overdub on a track or whatever it is. He’s very centered and calm—you get this feeling that no one’s in a rush and we’re going to take as much time as we need to do this. For me, that was a very relaxing and supportive feeling to have. We’re not pushing to get something done really quickly—let’s explore this idea completely, take our time and allow it to unfold to what it wants to be.

I co-wrote many of the songs with him. He and I both were going through some very challenging personal stuff during the making of this album. He lost his father and I was going through a lot of changes myself. So it was like a sanctuary to go into the studio and work on this stuff together.

I really can’t say enough about how great it was to work with him.

Your last album of originals, Trouble & Strife, spoke to the political moment. What prompted you to revisit that general theme on this record’s closer, “Great American Cities?”

That tune came about from my frustration with hearing these pundits talk about America’s cities—saying that they’re horrible and full of crime. When I hear that, I think to myself: “You are sitting in your air-conditioned studio and you’re going to finish your segment, get into your chauffeur-driven Town Car with the tinted windows, and it’s going to take you to your gated community. You don’t ever go to these places that you’re talking about, so you don’t really know what you’re saying.” But I do go to all these places. I go to these cities all the time on tour, and while they have their issues, they’re also full of life, creativity and energy. They are a huge part about what makes America such a wonderful place.

All these pundits are trying to say that the cities are not really America, and I didn’t want to allow that narrative to go unchallenged. I wanted to respond to that and say they are absolutely America, and the people who live in cities are just as much Americans as anyone else.