Joan Osborne spent the toughest months of the pandemic the same way a lot of other folks did. “Doing way too much baking and eating of baked goods!” she says with a laugh, her voice crackling over the phone. “For the first time in my life, I have high cholesterol, so I’ve just gone way overboard.”
There might have been some extra stress involved, too, as she spent the middle of 2020 finishing up her 10th studio album, Trouble and Strife, for her own Womanly Hips label. Osborne wrote and produced the record, mostly in her basement studio in Brooklyn, New York, where the seven-time Grammy nominee, now 58, lives with her partner, musician Keith Colton, and her 16-year-old daughter.
Trouble and Strife, which leans heavily on the turbulence of today’s social and political climate, is Osborne’s first album of new songs since 2014’s Love and Hate and the interpretive Songs of Bob Dylan, her 2017 tribute, which tied into two engagements at New York’s Café Carlyle.
It was studying Dylan, she says, and how his work uses characters, surreal lyrics and intimate situations to remain relevant through time, that made her think she might be able to craft overtly political material. Worrying about the future of her daughter when democracy itself seemed on the brink also spurred her on, and she emerged from a writing flurry of four days with almost all the songs.
“I also have a platform as an artist, where it’s not a huge platform, but whatever platform I have, I can put in service to this notion of being a better citizen,” she says.
On the album, Osborne layers her strong and urgent vocals over a ’70s AM radio vibe, a decision she says that had two purposes, one as a means of presenting the “really strong meat” of the lyrics in a way that went down easily.
“I wanted to make sure that listening to the record was not like listening to a lecture. It had to be a pleasurable experience, whether you connected with the political message or not.”
“To me, 1970s AM radio had a certain amount of joy in it, and also a real eclectic spirit. You would hear Charlie Rich and then the Rolling Stones. And then you might hear the Meters and then the Chi-Lites. It was all mixed up in there together. So I felt it had this real pleasure to it, and also this variety, where I could pick and choose in these different styles.”
The format also works well for delivering the scornful, barbed humor that punctuates several of the songs. But Osborne also conveys tender moments, such as in her meditation on human rights.
The churning blues of “What’s That You Say,” for example, spotlights the difficulties of mass immigration and the inhumane conditions at the U.S. southern border. She imbues it with an evocative Spanish-language recitation by the real-life Ana Marie Rea, who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her family seeking asylum after her father’s kidnapping.
“I sat and interviewed her remotely,” Osborne explains of the process. “She went to a recording studio in Texas, and I talked to her over the phone. It was a really emotional thing for her. Both of us were in tears at different points.”
Osborne changes gears on “That Was a Lie,” a puckish pop-rocker. The song skewers certain cable TV news channels and their plasticized celebrity hosts (“There ain’t no difference ’tween a mask and your face”) who peddle misinformation to a gullible audience. “That’s my response to the professional liars, the ones who get all dolled up and camera-ready, and then stand up and deliberately lie for their living,” she explains. “It just makes me furious.”
And “Boy Dontcha Know,” another of the album’s highlights, employs the sexual swagger of David Bowie to address gender politics, misogyny and sexism through the story of a modern trans boy. Osborne, who has long been involved in projects to spotlight the oppression of women, came to the song after reading about young children who wanted to transition. She thought about the societal forces, including the global violence against women, that might influence such a decision.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that kind of ring trues to me, because if you are a particular young girl who’s growing up in Western culture, or many cultures, and you see what the reality is of being an adult woman, it’s not necessarily the greatest thing,’ ” she says, laughing. “You can see that misogyny and sexism are still real, and as much as we tell girls, ‘You can be anything you want, and you can do anything you want,’ there’s that message that they’re getting. But then there’s also — they can see from just watching the news or the culture or whatever — that there’s a whole other side of it, and that it’s not always this bed of roses, and there’s violence against women, and there’s sexism and misogyny, and that’s reality, too.”
Her own upbringing, as the second of six children of a general contractor and an interior decorator in the privileged Louisville suburb of Anchorage, Kentucky, was, she says, close to idyllic.
“When I was little kid, it was really like living in a small town where everybody knew everybody, and nobody locked their doors, and there was a lot of free roaming around. I think maybe that gave me the sense that the world was basically a safe place. And that it’s okay to take risks, that certainly I could fall on my face, but the consequences wouldn’t be too terrible.”
After performing in theater in Louisville, she moved to New York to study film at NYU. Inspired by blues and soul women such as Etta James and Aretha Franklin, she sat in on open-mic nights in the thriving club scene before going on the road. Her first album, Relish, appeared in 1995. The response blew Osborne, with her corkscrew curls and fashionable nose ring, off her feet. The single “(What If God Was) One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters), racked up three Grammy nominations and reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album as a whole also snagged a nomination, as did two other songs. That level of fame, with people following her on the street, made Osborne uncomfortable, and the success was a tough act to follow, even as another Grammy nomination, for best blues album. came with 2013’s Bring It on Home.
That early success has allowed her to enjoy a lengthy career, and experiences such as singing live with the late opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti (“Gesu Bambino”) and doing a duet with Dylan (“Chimes of Freedom”).
“My take on it these days is that if it’s a problem,” she sums up, “it’s a pretty good problem to have.”
Osborne’s post-pandemic touring began May 1 at New York’s City Winery, with more shows scheduled for this summer and a co-bill with Madeleine Peyroux in the fall.
Joan Osborne’s Fave 18 Songs for Foodies
In this playlist created just for AARP, Joan Osborne leans heavily on the blues, jazz and soul (with some fundamental rock, pop and country thrown in) that has influenced her 26-year career. Cooking, eating and spending more time with her teenage daughter, she says, has “been a bright spot in the pandemic.”
Read about her picks, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
Meat and Potatoes performed by Joan Osborne
“Nick Govrik came into a writing session one morning with this groove, and it immediately put me in mind of a playful, funky party tune, a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of song. I wrote the lyrics in a big rush that afternoon, having a blast with the food metaphors and the not-too-subtle romantic innuendo.”
Saturday Night Fish Fry performed by Louis Jordan
A classic party song from the jump blues era. Louis Jordan was a huge influence on Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Bill Haley.
Jambalaya performed by Hank Williams
Cajun musicians have covered this a lot. I first heard it at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
My Boy Lollipop performed by Millie Small
One of a tradition of songs equating a romantic partner with delicious food! I love the sound of this record, produced by Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame.
Make It Funky performed by James Brown
The part of the song where James starts listing food items (“Neck bone! Candied yams!”) was a big influence on the writing of the “Meat and Potatoes” lyrics.
Vega-Tables performed by the Beach Boys
“From the album Smile, an experimental departure from Brian Wilson. At the time, he was obsessed with nutrition as a part of spiritual growth, and wanted to ‘turn people on to eating healthy,’ he said.”
RC Cola and a Moon Pie performed by NRBQ
This is the NRBQ cover of the Big Bill Lister song from the 1950s. Apparently, this combo was an affordable lunch for the working man of the day!
Tupelo Honey performed by Van Morrison
“One of my favorite Van Morrison songs. I have sung it myself many times over the years, and its tenderness never fails to give me a thrill.”
Watermelon Man performed by Herbie Hancock
“Though Hancock later re-recorded this tune in a funk version, I prefer this earlier one with its sensuous Dexter Gordon sax solo. From Hancock’s debut album Takin’ Off.”
If I Knew You Were Comin’, I’d’ve Baked a Cake performed by Georgia Gibbs
“My mother used to sing this song every time she made a cake. There is also a Muppets version, if you are curious!”
Brown Sugar performed by D’Angelo
“Again, a song that equates a lover’s charms with sweet food. Yummy.”
Candy Man Blues performed by Mississippi John Hurt
“Yes, there is a Sammy Davis Jr. record with a similar name. But this one is from famed bluesman Mississippi John Hurt. ‘Well, all you ladies gather ’round/Your sweet candy man’s in town.’ ”
30,000 Pounds of Bananas performed by Harry Chapin
“A story song about a young truck driver who crashes with the titular load of fruit. When I saw Harry Chapin in concert, the entire audience shouted the chorus phrase at the top of their lungs — a high point of the show.”
Savoy Truffle performed by the Beatles
“Written by George Harrison for The White Album, reportedly as a warning to his friend Eric Clapton that Clapton’s fondness for sweets would ruin his teeth. I just found out there is also an Ella Fitzgerald version of this tune!”
Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer) performed by Bessie Smith
“Written by Kid Wilson, this song has been sung by the likes of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Here is the definitive version by the Empress of the Blues, who turned it into a hit.”
Polk Salad Annie performed by Tony Joe White
“ ‘Polk salad’ is made up of greens that grow wild in the American South, and this song is about a poor girl who had to eat them to survive. It became a concert staple for Elvis Presley, but this is the original from the man who wrote it.”
The Candy Man performed by Sammy Davis Jr.
“OK, I couldn’t resist throwing this in, too. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote it for the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but it did not become a radio hit until Sammy Davis Jr. took it on.”
Ice Cream Party performed by Shuggie Otis
“Here’s a big, fat slice of psychedelic funk from the man who brought you “Strawberry Letter 22.”
See instructions below on how to add the playlist to your phone or tablet.
GET THE PLAYLIST
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your device. Here's how:
- Download and open the free Spotify app on your phone or tablet.
- In the app, tap Search.
- Click the camera icon.
- Scan the barcode above, then tap the arrow to listen.
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