Holy Roller: Joan Osborne

The blueswoman turned hit maker finds salvation in God and good sex

American musician Joan Osborne performs on stage at Irving Plaza, New York,1995. Credit: Steve Eichner/Getty

A dozen male models in Mylar shorts is not what Joan Osborne asked for from life, but she'll make do on this cloudy Liverpool morning. Once again she's about to perform her Grammy-nominated hit single "One of Us," this time for the kind of television talk show that features muscle-bound models to illustrate why more English women are watching soccer matches these days. The lads shiver as they trot from the studio's balcony-level waiting room to the taping area below. Osborne flirts with the hunks, shimmying a little as she walks by them in her Ann-Margret Viva Las Vegas dress. As guitarists Erik Della Penna and Jack Petruzzelli tune up with a medley of "One of Us" and Yes' "Roundabout," the models return, their work completed, and make a beeline for several platters full of cheese-and-chutney sandwiches.

In makeup for her three-minute performance ("shorter than the version we did for Good Morning America"), Osborne looks like an angelic caricature of herself. Her hair is a cloud and her lips a waterlily, the way she appears in the video for "One of Us." The shorts boys, lured by the music but caught now by Osborne's charm, nibble their sandwiches and stare. Usually adorned with just a little lip gloss, Osborne's Irish-German-Italian face is beautifully off-kilter: wide cheeks, lopsided mouth, proud nose, dimples. The corkscrew hair that's become a trademark is often tied back, and sometimes her nose ring leaves her skin slightly inflamed. She copes with these imperfections as best she can. Her vegetarian diet keeps her body in miniskirt shape, but she doesn't struggle to be skinny; she's proud enough of her curves to have called the independent record label that she started Womanly Hips Music.

For years, Osborne wondered if her anti-model persona would hurt her chances for mainstream success. "I always thought that it was going to hold me back," she says. "I never looked like what a successful rock person is supposed to look like: a skinny chick with a lot of black eye-makeup." She compares herself to Blues Traveler's corpulent leader, John Popper, but Osborne is more a ringer for Sarah Jessica Parker than Popper is for Brad Pitt. Her remark merely illustrates how much more restrictive beauty's rules for women remain.

At any rate, Osborne prefers funkiness to glamour. "A friend of mine works at Armani, and I got a message that he wanted to dress me for the Grammys," she says with a chuckle. "I think I'd feel more comfortable being dressed by Urban Outfitters."

London could be any stop along the road tonight, its avenues slipping by as the blue van carrying Osborne and her band hurtles toward another hotel. Osborne will not see daylight in this city; she's on a whistle-stop promotional tour and heads to Paris before breakfast tomorrow. But she'll be back, and Della Penna and Petruzzelli pester the driver about where to find cool shoes, rare vinyl and tasty curry. Ignoring them, Osborne wraps her coat tighter and tries to relax. The idle chatter continues, and in the midst of a long-winded story, somebody mentions Al Green. Osborne stirs, mutters, "I love his songs," and leads herself into one: She almost whispers at first, then stresses the backbeat harder as she finds the rhythm. "I'm so tired of being alone/I'm so tired off on my own/Won't you help me girl just as soon as you ca-a-a-n, " she murmurs, stretching the long notes for effect. She's a little raw, but her voice wraps a shimmery thread around Green's familiar phrases. Osborne is making an enchanted circle, and eventually it overtakes the group; people fall quiet and listen. Nobody sings along, because nobody could match her. Anyway, she's not in London anymore. Staring out the window at Elizabethan storefronts, Osborne is in a Memphis of her own design, throwing down with Al, reaching for the high notes.

Osborne's years as an acolyte of the blues have taught her that a song can be magic, a holy force moving through her into the world. And the notion that she's been kissed by a higher power is hard to deny these days. After all, God is the star of "One of Us," which has helped earn her five Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year and Best New Artist. Her major-label debut, Relish, explores many musical dimensions: innocent pop, Appalachian-flavored ballads, roadhouse R&B, down-home blues and garage soul. But to millions, "One of Us" is the sum of Osborne's identity. Written by Eric Bazilian, Osborne's chief collaborator on Relish, the song offers a prime-time version of the wild, mystical and erotic visions that dominate the rest of the album. With a tune that is difficult to shake and a lyric that imagines God as an ordinary guy, "One of Us" manages to be both hymn and novelty song. "A doorway into the rest of the record" is how Osborne puts it. She hopes it leads new fans to the more raucous sound she considers her specialty. But some, she knows, won't make the leap. "This is typical," she says, reading me her mail as we ride from one half-day stop to another. "I am interested in contacting Ms. Joan Osborne regarding her song "What If God Was One of Us?" Does Ms. Osborne have an extensive knowledge of the Bible and its meaning? If she would be interested in coming to such a knowledge, she would be more than welcome to contact me or anyone else from my congregation. Sincerely yours, blah, blah, blah, Unionville, Conn.'" 

Osborne rolls her eyes, which are naturally wide but not the least bit starry. "Some people are pissed off that I would sing a song that represents God as anything remotely human," she says. "Others want to sing it with their church groups. And some sincerely want to point me in the right direction." She laughs low and deep, as if to say, rest easy: Joan Osborne is one woman who knows how to save her own soul.

It's easy to get romantic about Osborne's ascendancy, especially because she's Southern and sings a variation of the blues. People imagine her as a swamp girl or a belle gone bad. In fact, Osborne grew up an arty kid in Anchorage, Ky. "We were not in the mountains yodeling from one house to the next," she says. "It was a pretty small town, but we were close to Louisville. I definitely was conscious of not being a hick."

The daughter of a general contractor dad and an interior decorator mom, Osborne is the second oldest of six children. Though the Osborne family was middle class, there were always more mouths to feed than there was money. Even as a young child, Osborne was the feistiest kid in the family. "She was baptized Joan Elizabeth, and when she was a baby we called her Elizabeth," says her mother, Ruth. "Everyone called her that. But when she started first grade, she turned to [her brother] Leo and said, 'Joan is my name, and I'm going to be called Joan.' It took us years to get used to it, but we all call her Joan now."

Joan was forceful in other ways as well. One year, as a Christmas present, she signed up the whole family as the sponsor for a needy child from the Dominican Republic. "She was always socially aware," says Leo, a New York musician who has his own band, Home-Grown Lopes, and sings backup vocals on Relish.

Osborne was also a natural performer. In high school she got into punk rock and musical theater. Osborne's mother, who met her husband in their church choir, was a low-key stage mom who encouraged Joan's creative impulses. "Once I was singing in the chorus, and I got chosen to do a solo in front of the school," Osborne recalls. "And my mom came and sat in the audience and was audibly sobbing in the middle of it. She was always very excited by whatever we did."

At the same time, Osborne couldn't easily imagine a performer's life ahead of her. "Where I'm from, the notion of becoming a professional artist is looked upon as being unrealistic and sort of conceited," she says. "It's not something that most reasonable or practical people would consider." "Joan did so well in school," remembers Leo, "I thought she'd be a doctor or at least some sort of professional." Adds Ruth: "She was so intelligent she was impractical."

After graduating from high school in 1980, Osborne spent a year and a half studying theater arts at the University of Louisville, singing in musicals and enduring a brief stint in the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater, in Jupiter, Fla. In the mid-'80s, she secured a small scholarship to attend New York University's film program. Three years into the program, her school money spent, Osborne was working in a Fotomat and floundering.

Osborne felt lost in New York; she liked filmmaking (she still carries a Super 8 camera on tour), but even documentaries, her chosen field, seemed beyond her financial capabilities. Although her apartment had become the first stop in her siblings' own Kentucky-to-New-York treks ("I was bringing them over from the old country one at a time," Osborne says of Leo, her brother Stewart, an architecture student, and her younger sister Sara), she hadn't found a community to call her own. "I felt like a failure, really small," she says. "And I happened to go into this place where there was this sort of cool scene, and I just found a way that I could fit in."

That scene included many clubs, all catering to roots-music fans and college weekend warriors: Mondo Cane, Mondo Perso, Dan Lynch, Rodeo Bar and Tramps. And then there was the Nightingale, an East Village bar that helped launch the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler. "The Nightingale was one of the only bars that would let young kids play without carding them," says Brendan Hill, the drummer for Blues Traveler, on whose debut album Osborne contributed backup vocals. "It was really a free-form place, very gritty and loud." Osborne soon began spending a lot of time there. "We were there every single night," recalls her sister Sara.

During the late '80s and early '90s, the Nightingale and the rest of the circuit was home to a family of party bands including Five Chinese Brothers, the Worms, the Mighty Sweetones and the Surreal McCoys. Sitting in with these bands, Osborne quickly realized that the Janis Joplin-inspired, ballsout blues queen was one persona that could accommodate her gifts. "The blues is more interesting than The Brady Bunch theme song, which seems to inspire so many people these days," says Osborne now. "I just feel like if you want the real shit, you go back and find it."

She grew out her dyed-black film-school haircut and started haunting gigs by the Holmes Brothers and other local blues bands, buying them beers in exchange for advice. "I probably spent more money on Otis Redding records than on anybody else's," she says. "I definitely felt like it would be easy for me to be seen as a pretender — a white girl from Kentucky trying to sing the blues? But it felt pretty real from the beginning."

One thing that couldn't be disputed was her innate vocal talent. Soul Show, a live album Osborne released in 1991 on her label, Womanly Hips Music, presents her strictly as a Joplinesque belter. (The album includes "Crazy Baby," which Osborne refined for Relish.) An EP released two years later, Blue Million Miles, shows Osborne experimenting with the rock sound that adds a little salt to Relish's blues stock.

Through all the bands and the long nights singing "Son of a Preacher Man" for frat boys, Osborne was waiting for the right deal. It finally came in 1993. Producer Rick Chertoff needed a launch artist for his new label, Blue Gorilla. His friend Rob Hyman, whom Chertoff had worked with as a member of '80s pop band the Hooters, suggested that Chertoff check out Osborne. He did, fell in love with her music and suggested that Osborne collaborate with him, as well as Hyman and Bazilian, another former Hooter.

"I thought of the Hooters as this '80s band that used a lot of eye makeup," says Osborne. "But I knew Rick was into the blues, and I trusted that he wasn't going to try to turn me into Whitney Houston or something."

Some purist fans and fellow musicians saw Osborne's pop leap as a sellout, but she never wanted to be a blues preservationist. "There was always this peace with Joan," says Osborne's friend Kirsten Ames, a New York monologist. "She knew everything was going to happen. She's a great example of someone who had to play the game for a while and then reached the moment she'd been waiting for. I think she's going to get what she wants out of this."

On a good night, Joan Osborne's blues can set a slow fire. The flint is sex, and while she was developing her sound, Osborne discovered artists who embodied a kind of personal liberation she hadn't realized was possible. "Etta James, Aretha Franklin, you would see pictures of them, and they're these big, voluptuous women," Osborne says. "They're like 'Ay-yi-yi,' with all this cleavage, squeezing it into these tight little cocktail dresses. But they're just up there wailing and jamming, and all the men are like 'Oh, my God, this is the sexiest woman alive.' There just isn't a lot in white mainstream culture that you can look to to give you that same sort of positivity about this very womanly thing. I'd read my Germaine Greer, and I love that, but this was like 'These women are the shit!'"

Osborne challenged herself to express that kind of strong sensuality. Although she felt respected by other musicians, she had to learn emotional — and sometimes physical — self-defense against her more raucous male fans. "The mike stand can be a really useful thing in that regard," Osborne says with a laugh. "Especially the ones with the very heavy lead base. Not that I've ever had to haul off and smack somebody with it, but I can pick it up and pound it down on the stage pretty decisively to let them know what I could do if they get a little too close."

Osborne found her own way into sexiness. Besides the blueswomen who inspired her, she avidly explored feminism. She volunteered as an escort at a New York abortion clinic until the success of Relish took over her life, and on Saturday Night Live she wore a T-shirt bearing the emblem of Rock for Choice, the music community's largest pro-choice activist group, which Osborne has long supported. The CD booklet for Relish includes a suggestion that fans donate to Rock for Choice or any of three other feminist groups, with mailing addresses for all.

Osborne's feminist studies have also influenced her spiritual views, which strongly color the lyrics on Relish. "One of Us" is "a good song," Osborne mutters, the way she might admit the niceness of a less-than-thrilling blind date. But she could talk for hours about the portrayal of Eve as the inventor of the kiss in "Lumina," the sanctified street dealer of "St. Teresa," the holy sex of "Dracula Moon" or the surreal fantasy about a sighted Ray Charles in "Spider Web." There's a philosophy at work in Osborne's writing, one she's developed through years of reading authors like the religious theologian Elaine Pagels and the Greek mystical novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. It's a vision based on embracing a fall from grace.

"I just don't necessarily see knowledge — being conscious and being an intellectual and a sexual creature — as a horrible state," says Osborne. "Organized religion presents the garden of Eden as this ideal of innocence and being sheep in the flock, unaware, as the goal. To me, that's just too passive; it's less interesting than the more dangerous and confusing but more satisfying state of actually being conscious — being able to come to God or spirituality with all of yourself, with your brain and your will and your curiosity and your sensuality and everything."

Like many lapsed Catholics (her family drifted away from the church when she was 8 or 9), Osborne has continued searching for a spiritual center. Most recently, she journeyed to India to study singing techniques used in the trance-inducing Sufi devotional music known as qawwali and also to explore that country's divine landscape. In New Delhi she hid a DAT machine within the folds of her clothes to record the native masters as they sang in their temples. You can also hear the influence of qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Osborne's live performance as well as the Appalachian wail she picked up from listening to Smithsonian Institution field recordings.

She's also fascinated by gospel music. The rustic voice that precedes "One of Us" on Relish is a hill woman singing a song about the Lord coming back to earth in an airplane. And a voice that will undoubtedly find its place on Osborne's next record belongs to Dr. Bethenia Rouse, a Schenectady, N.Y., minister whom Osborne discovered when they shared a festival stage three summers ago. Osborne is currently completing production on Rouse's debut album, for which Osborne hopes to find a label soon.

The 59-year-old Rouse does not consider herself a singer first; she joined the Baptist ministry as a teen and has dedicated her life to "reaching out to the unsaved." Rouse never shows off on the Osborne-produced tracks, instead letting her message come across gently, the way a wood-burning stove brings heat to a room.

"Joan is anointed," Rouse says, calling from her upstate New York home. "I believe myself to be a gifted person, and she is gifted, too. We have a spiritual connection. The difference is, Joan is blessed like Aretha Franklin; she can go both ways." Osborne would blush if she could hear Rouse's praise for her. Earlier, when Osborne had handed me a rough tape of the Rouse sessions, she said, "In some ways it's better than my album. You'll see." In fact, it's simply purer than Relish, a vibrant example of the emotionally driven style that first led Osborne to realize her own talent.

Osborne admires Rouse's total immersion in the gospel life, but she has her own mission. Out to reconcile that ancient mind-body split, Osborne's method is soul celebration. In her song "Right Hand Man," spiritual and sexual liberation blend in an ordinary woman's tale of satisfaction guaranteed. Bopping down the street the morning after a mutual conquest, "panties in a wad at the bottom of my purse," Osborne finds reconciliation right where she needs it — in her own neighborhood.

"That's happened to me so many times before," she says, smiling, of the song's premise. "But I've never heard a song about it. Like you just had sex with somebody, and you've got to go home or go to get some milk or whatever. You walk out the door, and the guys on the street know exactly what you're doing, they can feel the energy coming off you. You want to turn that gaze around and say, 'I wonder what you would do to be in this situation. Go ahead and take a look. You know I'm having a great time.'"

Osborne is expert at turning the gaze around. In her blues-bar days, she once played a private gig that turned out to be a bachelor party. By night's end she'd convinced the most obnoxious guest that he, not she, should strip. She loves to discuss playful crushes on fellow performers — Michael Franti of Spearhead and Eddie Vedder — but would rather harmonize with them than bed them. She has always demanded respect as a musician first. "I'd go to clubs with her, and it never had that sexual, groupie thing to it," says Kirsten Ames. "She was very well-respected." Scandal is the last thing Osborne seeks: She's taking her sister as her date to the Grammys, in part because she was so shaken by paparazzi chasing her and a new paramour after she'd finished singing at January's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame dinner.

Despite these efforts at modesty, Osborne has been called a sexy mama more times than she would care to remember. Yet the "new Janis Joplin" tag which goes with that description misses a significant element of Osborne's appeal. Certain similarities — unconventional attractiveness, a frankly sexual stage manner — can't be denied. But Osborne most definitely does not share either Joplin's self-destructive tendencies or the tragic accident of being a supremely talented and forceful woman at a time when most men — and many women — considered those qualities a threat. Osborne identifies more closely with her peers, such as Polly Jean Harvey and Björk, and is quick to acknowledge a debt to rock pioneers Chrissie Hynde and Rickie Lee Jones. By refusing to make over her lifestyle or her politics, Osborne presents an ideal that's not based on being the wildest, hottest or toughest chick on the block: "I would like to promote a certain kind of positive, sexy, real, funny female image" is how she puts it. "But on the other hand, I don't know if I want to take responsibility for what that means, because who am I to do that?" The very fact that she asks the question makes her perfect for the job.

Two days after the Liverpool taping, Osborne "relaxes" in Paris, in the sidewalk cafe at the Louvre. With an hour to waste between television and radio appearances, she employs her fractured French to assemble a meal of steamed vegetables and rice. When the huffy waiter gets the order wrong, she politely puts him in his place. All around us, Parisians take it slow, eating salmon mousse as if there's no such thing as cholesterol. As for Osborne, she talks about the future as she sees it. "The next album is probably going to be more raw," she says. "That's the one thing I'm a little disappointed about [with Relish.] It's really great, but I don't feel it shows what I can do as a singer."

It's true that Relish might well have been called Polish — its clean sound strays far from the grit-and-groceries sound Osborne perfected during her apprenticeship. Osborne has talked about how she altered her voice for "One of Us," adopting an innocent tone to fit the guileless lyric. Careful attention reveals that she changes tone throughout the album, as if this were a musical comedy role she could master. Her adaptability adds depth to the record, but her reserve is titillating: What could she do given total freedom? The songs she most lets loose on — "Pensacola," "Ladder," "St. Teresa" — suggest that she would abandon any attempt at coyness and stretch her vocals to reach new emotional insights.

Osborne has only kind words for Relish producer Chertoff but admits that there are certain moves on the album she's loath to repeat. For example, she won't perform the song "Let's Just Get Naked" live. "I didn't even want to put it on the record," she says of the song, a raunchy garage rocker in which the witty verses about a stale relationship give way to the often-repeated title phrase. "I like it in itself as a song, but people can't see past the chorus. They see a woman singing, 'Let's just get naked,' and they think it's a big come-on and tease. That's exactly what I'm fighting against."

Osborne knows she has to insist on her own vision when the time comes to produce a follow-up. Recently, she and her road band — Della Penna, Petruzzelli, bassist Rainy Orteca and drummer Chalo Quintana — spent time writing new material in the studio, using Osborne's qawwali tapes as a basis for composition. The results, she says, were unlike anything she'd tried before — which is what she wants. "We all love listening to an amazing blues guitar player," she says. "But that's not all music can do."

Clearly, Osborne is a farsighted woman who didn't plant her garden for only one season. If she could model herself after anyone, she says, it would be Tom Waits. "He does whatever he wants," she says. "He goes off on these wild tangents, and he has enough of a core audience that he can still make records. He doesn't have to be somebody's main cash crop."

After a Top 10 hit and all the Grammy nominations, it turns out Joan Osborne wants to be what she's always been: a working artist. But it's also nice, she admits, that she occasionally gets to take afternoons off in Paris instead of Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lives.

After the waiter brings the check, Osborne decides it would be too weird to dine at the Louvre without honoring its art, so she dives into its vast collections for the half-hour that's left for relaxation. At one point, Osborne wanders into a hall filled with 18th-century marble statuary. "Have you noticed how small the dicks always are on these sculptures?" Osborne says with a giggle, then upbraids herself, apologizing for playing the ugly American. Still, she's always liked playing around with the classics.