Holy Roller: Joan Osborne
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.”
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