Blues music, says singer Joan Osborne, “rescued me at a time when I needed rescue.” She’s acknowledged her roots many times over the years, beginning with Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” on her first record in 1991. But Bring It on Home, due March 27, is Osborne’s first full-length album of blues and soul covers.
“I knew that, someday, when the time was right and my voice was ready, I wanted to make a recording like [this],” she said in a recent press release. Osborne spoke with the Hippo from her home in New York about the new album, her upcoming show at Tupelo Music Hall and the Americana supergroup side project Trigger Hippy.
With Bring It on Home, you seem to be trying to recreate the songs the way that you remember them.
When you cover someone else’s material, especially songs that are such a part of American music history, you want to bring something unique to it. But you also need to know where to stop with that and realize that if it doesn’t serve the song, then it is just a stunt and you don’t want to do that. So it’s a fine line … you want the song to be the star, really, and not have it be obscured by needing to make it different. There were certain things that we attempted to do, [but] “Shake Your Hips” [the lead single] was something we just did without thinking about it at all. Jack, my co-producer, was in the rehearsal studio with the band, and we were all just standing around and he just started to play that lick. Everyone knew what he was playing and they all fell in behind him, and I knew the song and the words to it, so we just started doing it, and the tape was rolling for the rehearsal and we all blasted through it and looked at each other when it was done and said, ‘Well that just feels really good, so let’s just do that.’ Part of it was we just tried to reconfigure these songs — the Muddy Waters tune is an example where I turned it around a little bit and gave it a little bit different reading and perspective.
“Unqualified” and “Rhymes” were also updated a bit.
Yeah, but this is material that I love and respect, so I don’t want to play too fast and loose with it. If the song doesn’t need a lot to make it work, then I’m going to let the song have its head.
“Roll out the Big Wheel” — how did you find that one?
That was one that a friend gave me, by a lesser-known Bay Area R&B woman from the ’40s and ’50s. My good friend, a bass player, grew up around the Oakland, California, blues club scene, and he had a line on some of that music and gave me that CD years and years ago ... a rarity and no one else that I was working with had ever heard of Olive Brown or knew the song. It’s such a straight-up pleasurable tune, and that’s such a great thing about blues music — you get these powerful, female characters who just swagger in, take no prisoners and lay down the law. One of the great things that drew me to this music when I first fell in love with it were these larger-than-life female characters — so I thought that would be a perfect addition to the record.
Speaking of female characters, “Game of Love” is a woman’s song written by a man — Ike Turner — originally sung by Tina Turner. That’s interesting given that couple’s history.
Yeah, it’s pretty ironic. But that was Tina’s power. We all now know the situation she was in was not a healthy one, yet she was out there every night being this goddess of female power. She can just command this power on stage like nobody else, and even Ike had to respect that, he wasn’t going to mess with that at all. He was writing for that powerful female voice even though behind the scenes he had to have all the power. On the stage, he realized he was going to mess around with Tina’s power at his own peril.
You can take a song from a man’s point of view and flip it around to a woman’s and make it work. Are there songs that you like and thought about doing but couldn’t approach because it’s not possible to flip it that way?
There’s a Nina Simone song, something that she brought to it, every time I heard her version and then we’d try and couldn’t do anything to it. I said, ‘Nina Simone just kicks my ass every time, so I’m just going to let her win, she’s clearly the better woman than I — so going to let that be!’ There was a handful that we tried and I decided that they were just for somebody else to do because I’m not woman enough to pull this off [laughs].
You said in an interview that music doesn’t exist until someone connects with it. With this record, are you trying to make people connect with the music so they get it like you do?
Oh sure, that’s definitely part of it. For me, this music made such a difference in my life; it just gave me so much that’s really valuable in my world. If I can turn other people on to it and send them to the source, and if they then have any similar connection to it, that would be an amazing thing to do. I’ve tried my best to do something interesting with these songs, but you can always go back to the source. There’s always a huge, rich vein that you can mine of Americana … it’s not like people don’t know that, but maybe people have forgotten about it or don’t have time. I’ve had younger people come up and say, ‘You know, when you talked about Ray Charles on your album Relish, I was a 12-year-old girl and I didn’t know who Ray Charles was. Then I went and heard his music and it blew my mind.’ That has a lot of meaning for me, that a kid would buy a pop record and would be able to connect to something so much deeper through it — that is a really special, cool thing.
Was there any song that stood out above all of the others that you just felt like you had to put out there?
When you’re in the studio and making records, the song that you just did becomes your favorite song and you fall in love with it, then you have to move on to the next song and that becomes your favorite. I had a lot of favorites through the course of making the record, but choosing one would be tough. I think maybe John Mayall’s “Broken Wing” might be one — I had a real deep connection with that one. It might be the closest to pure blues on the record — so that’s a favorite — but I could also say that about “Rhymes,” the Al Green song, because we sort of amped it up and turned it on its head and made it into this big party song, [because] this music is very inclusive and it invites everyone in … so it has a special place for me. It’s hard to choose one.
What do you mean when you say music rescued you?
Music saved me because I was kind of struggling with myself as a person and there were things that I was disconnected with about myself that music allowed me to reconnect with. In this music, in particular, there is just a matter-of-factness about it. Life has a lot of sorrow in it, and you can either let it overwhelm you or turn it around and create something with it and make it into fuel and energy and power and also make something that connects you with other people. That enables you to get outside of your own head and get out into the larger world. There was incredible value for me in the moment when I really first connected with this music, and it made a huge impact on me.
Were you a singer at that point or did it help you realize you were going to become a singer?
I think singing is a physical thing and it’s about your body and it’s a very immediate expression, [and] there was really a sense of wonder for me about that. Before I started getting into music, I was studying filmmaking at NYU to become a documentary filmmaker. That’s a very interesting world and a wonderful art form in itself, but it does take — from the inception of the idea to the finished product takes a huge amount of time and money and technical equipment, and it’s something that is sort of the antithesis of singing, where you open your mouth and you sing. I think there was something about that that was freeing to me [that] connected me back to that aspect of myself, which I think I was disconnected from. So that is how it saved me.
Did your experience of working with The Funk Brothers on their documentary inform what you did on this record — is their spirit in there for you?
Good question. I think the thing that they were very generous with was they really accepted me in doing this kind of music and accepted me as a legitimate performer, [and] that sort of stamp of approval was very valuable to me … it gave me the courage to say, OK, you can do this. Just because you’re a white girl from a little town in Kentucky, it doesn’t make any difference. If you can do this and be accepted by the people who do this for real, then it’s OK. Go ahead and do it and not be intimated or afraid.
What can fans expect to see when you come to Londonderry at the end of the month?
They can expect to see this amazing band that I work with. Each of the guys individually is a great player and collectively they have great charisma and chemistry together. They are the ones who played on this record, and we are going to do a lot of the material from this new record — if not every single song, most of the songs. It’s going to be like a house party. This music is really fun and energizes me.
A question about Trigger Hippy — I love Jackie Green. What can fans expect down the road?
That is like a rock ’n’ roll side project. It’s really fun for me to be part of a band, and we’re all writing and contributing ideas and it’s really fun to do. We’ve done seven or eight shows now, some last summer throughout the South and around Jackie’s birthday in the Bay Area and Sacramento. It just seems to keep building momentum, and the fan reaction is really just more than we could have hoped for, so it’s really cool. We’re going to do some more stuff. We were just in a studio in Nashville in February and I think we’re going to be playing the Wanee Festival in April in Florida — we’re starting to get some really interesting offers, and it’s cool and fun. It’s pretty rock ’n’ roll … and it’s so fun working with Jackie because he is such a great multi-instrumentalist with a soulful voice — it’s really great to have a soulful partner with a lot of these duet tunes. That’s a really cool aspect of it for me.