AS TWIN achievements go, appearing onstage at the church of country music, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and singing with Motown Records’ house band, the Funk Brothers, must rank fairly high. There are more where those two came from, however, in Joan Osborne’s curriculum vitae.
The singer who achieved instant fame in 1995 with the song One of Us from her second album, Relish, has also worked with San Francisco legends The Dead and toured with gospel-soul icon Mavis Staples. She is also one of a select band who have penetrated, albeit briefly, the inner sanctum of Bob Dylan.
Osborne sang with Dylan on an NBC TV series, The 60s, some twenty years ago. “He didn’t talk very much and what he did say was quite acerbic,” she remembers. An expensive bottle of whiskey that Osborne had picked up just beforehand on a trip to Ireland and that she offered to Dylan was gratefully – sort of – accepted. And that was as close to the great songwriter she got until the cabaret show that developed into the tour that brings her to Edinburgh this weekend took her into further investigation of Dylan’s back pages.
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“I feel like an actor must feel doing Shakespeare,” she says of the canon from which she’s chosen her "Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan" project. “When you go deep into what he’s written, it’s amazing, too, how so many of his songs that might be associated with a particular era sound as if they are talking about what’s happening in the world right now.”
Osborne had recorded Dylan songs before this current project, but she wasn’t always so enamoured of his repertoire. When she first became aware of him, as a teenager, she was turned off by his more “vicious” songs and found Like a Rolling Stone unnecessarily nasty.
She grew up in Anchorage, Kentucky in a country music and bluegrass-rich environment, so singing at the Grand Ole Opry years later resonated strongly. Although she was a big music fan, especially of soul groups including the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, the Chi-Lites and the Detroit Spinners, she didn’t intend to go into music for a living.
“I was going to be a film-maker,” she says of her move to New York in the late 1980s. Instead of following this dream into a world of big budgets and large teams of cast and production workers, however, she took a side course in educating herself in American roots music.
“It’s all changed now because now you can make a film on your iPhone, whereas back then it just seemed that film took so much effort and money,” she says. “Music, on the other hand, was immediate and I found it much more emotional, especially when I started listening to Etta James and Howlin’ Wolf. I probably spent the money I should have been saving for film school on too many soul and blues records, but I wouldn’t change anything about that time.”
Setting out as a singer, she formed her own label and released a few records independently before Mercury signed her and issued her first full-length album, Soul Show: Live at Delta 88, in 1991. Four years later came Relish and an experience that she found both incredible and horrible.
“Hearing yourself on the radio all the time is quite an experience,” she says. “But I didn’t like the feeling of being put under the microscope by the media, especially when they weren’t discussing my music.”
Other musicians paid attention to her singing, though, and over the years she’s had support from Patti Smith, who heard about her Dylan project and suggested she listen to Dark Eyes from Dylan’s Empire Burlesque album, and the aforementioned Mavis Staples, with whom Osborne first sang on a benefit for the Band’s Levon Helm.
“I don’t think it was exactly a secret that I wanted to do more singing with Mavis,” she says. “Sometimes if you put something like that out often enough, it’ll come to pass. She’s an inspiration. She’s been making great music since she was a teenager in the 1950s. She marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960s, made hits in the 1970s and is still making great records today, and that shows that a music career doesn’t have to be defined by one moment or one song. It can continue into your later years.”
The Staples connection carries on into Osborne’s Dylan project. Tangled up in Blue has developed a Memphis soul feel that comes from Staples’ old record label, Stax, and Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) has been given a gospel treatment.
“It just gives the song a different energy,” she says. “It’s a very light-hearted song, and people know the Manfred Mann hit version, but something about doing it in a gospel way gives a depth to the lyrics and you hear them symbolically in a way you might not on the Dylan original or the Manfred Mann version.”
Joan Osborne Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Sunday, April 23.