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The String: Joan Osborne Reels In The Years On Radio Waves

Joan Osborne
Keith Cotton
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Joan Osborne made the most of her moment, breaking big with the song “One Of Us” in 1995, leading the wave of singer-songwriters offering a calmer and more thoughtful alternative to grunge. On the strength of her label debut Relish, she earned five Grammy nominations and headliner status on 1997’s Lilith Fair tour. And maybe, just maybe, with the “moral majority” picketing her shows over that one song about God and the emphasis on message songs and female empowerment in the zeitgeist and her career recording a lot of different genres, not enough people sufficiently appreciated Osborne’s voice on its own terms.

Certain critics got it. Thom Jurek covers a lot of Osborne’s discography at Allmusic.com, rooting for her to pick the right material and calling her out when it’s less than ideal, but ultimately deeming her “the most gifted vocalist of her generation and a singer who understands the nuance of phrase, time, and elocution.” I’m not sure that’s ever been more clear than on her new release Radio Waves, a collection of radio studio promotional performances plus a couple of demos spanning the years 1995 to 2012. As I note in our interview, her voice, without the elaborate mixing and compression of album recordings, is vividly in the foreground, and the performances are raw and alive.

“You're in a different context,” Osborne says. “I think radio stations - it's a more voice-forward place. The engineers are really used to dealing with these very intimate human voices, which is the quality that you get from those late night DJs, who are sort of whispering to you in the dark, you know?”

The pandemic gave Osborne the time to “take stock” as she spent time with her daughter and gave her home a deep clean, rooting through boxes that had been in the dark for years. “I found everything from little cassette recordings of rehearsals, to demos of stuff that I'd never released to these live radio recordings. So it was a little bit of like, this is your life, Joan Osborne in audio form,” she says here. “And I think being the age I am now (she’ll turn 60 this year), I can appreciate it in a different way, like looking back fondly (on) it all, as opposed to when you're in the moment of doing it, you're thinking about other things. And it gave me sort of a sense of pride, I think, and feeling good about the way that I've been spending my life.”

Also in our chat we cover how Christian culture warriors came after her for “One Of Us,” her work producing two albums for The Holmes Brothers, the struggle she had following up on the very hot Relish debut and singing in the place of Jerry Garcia when the Grateful Dead returned as The Dead in the early 2000s. It’s Episode 200 of The String, and I couldn’t have drawn a better or better sounding guest.

Joan Osborne

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.