When Joan Osborne sauntered onto the music scene in 1995 with her major label debut Relish, she commanded notice. With her big bluesy voice, unconventional sex appeal, and smart feminist attitude, critics and fans could not help but like her. Entertainment Weekly named her double platinum Relis. the number one album of 1995, and it garnered seven Grammy nominations. It is not where Osborne expected to end up, but now that she has arrived, she has made herself right at home.
Joan Elizabeth Osborne was born the second oldest of six children in the small town of Anchorage, Kentucky, not far from Louisville. She was a feisty and arty kid and not a backwoods hick, as she likes to point out. Called Elizabeth until first grade, she promptly came home one day and told the family her name was Joan and that is what they were to call her. She has always been socially conscious and always a natural performer.
In high school, Osborne got into punk rock music and musical theater. Her mom proudly encouraged Osborne. She was also an excellent student, causing hopes in the family that she might be a doctor. She herself never could imagine a performer’s life. “Where I’m from,” she told Rolling Stone’s Ann Powers, “the notion of becoming a professional artist is looked upon as being unrealistic and sort of conceited.”
Apparently though, when this lapsed Catholic first “fell from grace”—her mother found out she was having sex at 17—she was asked to leave. She graduated high school in 1980, then went to Louisville and began studying theater arts at the state university, but left school after 18 months. She had been singing in musicals and even worked briefly at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida.
In the mid 1980s, Osborne received a small scholarship to go to film school at New York University. But after three years her money simply ran out. Letters from Anchorage encouraged her to come home and be sensible. Although she felt lost in New York and was quickly losing her sense of self worth, Osborne stuck it out. She happened to wander into a cool club one night in Greenwich Village and found a scene in which shefelt welcome. One drunken night at a place called the Abilene Cafe, with all her friends were rooting her on, Osborne climbed up on the stage and belted out the gospel standard “God Bless the Child.” They asked her back for their weekly jam session. As Powers wrote, “Sitting in with these [local] bands, Osborne quickly realized that the Janis Joplin-inspired balls-out blues queen was one persona that could accommodate her gifts.”
Born July 8, 1962, in Anchorage, KY; daughter of Jerry (a general contractor) and Ruth (an interior decorator; maiden name, Yunker) Osborne. Education: attended film school at New York University, mid 1980s.
Singer and songwriter. Began singing at blues clubs around New York City, late 1980s; released Soul Show on her own Womanly Hips Music label, 1991; major label debut, Relish, 1995.
Addresses: Record Company —Mercury Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Osborne quickly immersed herself in R&B greats like Otis Redding, as well as the Library of Congress’s recordings of singing cotton field hands and Appalachian backwoods types. Osborne was hooked. Pretty soon she had a band and was playing gigs five nights a week. A few things worried her though: Would she be considered a pretender singing the blues? Would mainstream America accept an average-looking woman as opposed to some fashion model? But the singingjust felt right, and, as she remarked to Out’s Tom Donghy regarding some of her R&B and soul influences including Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Mavis Staples, “Those women were unabashedly sexual, but in that was a sense of humor, strength, and real humanness.” And to Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly, “[They] seemed to be almost like this feminist ideal. You could be sexual and strong and funny, but you didn’t have to look airbrushed. It seemed a more accurate reflection of the way I feel about sexuality than anything I generally see in the media.”
In 1991, Osborne released a live album, Soul Show, on her own Womanly Hips Music label. Two years later she released the album Blue Million Miles. Although the first record was in strict Janis Joplin mode, the album had a bit more of a rock flavor. Meanwhile, Osborne was waiting for the right deal. In 1993, producer Rick Chert-off needed talent for his new label, Blue Gorilla. Afriend, Rob Hyman, with whom Chertoff had worked in the band the Hooters back in the 1980s, proposed Osborne. Chertoff loved her work and suggested she collaborate with him, Hyman, and another former member of the Hooters, EricBazalian. Osborne was hesitant, but “within four or five hours of meeting for the first time we’d written ’Dracula Moon, ’” she told Q’s Phil Sutcliffe. “Ideas flow out of them like water.”
The eventual result was 1995’s Relish. The single “One of Us,” about imagining God as just a regular person, worried Osborne. Bazalian had written this one by himself and Osborne was not sure it was true to the rest of the album. It became a huge hit, however, and if people were thrown off by the rest of Osborne’s work, few complained.
Rolling Stone wrote in their four star review, “Osborne astutely conflates the sacred and profane, and over inventive alterna-cool arrangements… lets her strong, bluesy vocals rip…. What’s especially winning aboutthe woman is her range: Sexy and earnest, her voice, all on its own, conveys whole choirs of feeling.” And Jon Pareles wrote of her live show in the New York Times, “The songs acknowledge both lust and disillusion without cynicism, and Ms. Osborne’s voice teases out every undertone of her smart, subtle lyrics.”
Although her work was nominated for seven Grammys, Osborne did not receive any. She did not particularly care, though. Joan Osborne is exactly where she wants to be and she is doing it on her own terms. A long time friend Kirsten Ames told Rolling Stone ’s Powers, “there was always this peace with Joan. She knew everything was going to happen. She’s a great example of someone who had to play the game for a while and then reached the moment she’d been waiting for. I think she’s going to get what she wants out of this.”
Soul Show, Womanly Hips Music, 1991.
Blue Million Miles, Womanly Hips Music, 1993.
Relish (includes “One of Us”), Blue Gorilla/Mercury, 1995.
Billboard, January 14, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, December 29, 1995; February 2, 1996.
Gavin, April 14, 1995.
Louisville, December 1995.
New York, June 3, 1996.
New York Times, February 9, 1995; March 5, 1995.
Out, June 1996.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 1995.
Pollstar, October 30, 1995.
Q, June 1996.
Request, February 1996.
Rockpile, November 1995.
Rolling Stone, May 4, 1995; March 21, 1996.
USA Today, December 4, 1996.
Washington Post, December 19, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Mercury Records press materials, 1996.
"Osborne, Joan." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/osborne-joan
"Osborne, Joan." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/osborne-joan
Best-selling album since 1990: Relish (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "One of Us," "Right Hand Man"
One of the most exciting female singers to emerge in the 1990s, Joan Osborne sings in a powerful style that owes a heavy debt to soul and R&B. While best known for her gentle, folk-influenced 1995 hit, "One of Us," Osborne is a versatile artist, proving her facility with styles ranging from pop to tough blues. During the mid-1990s Osborne was linked with popular female rock singers such as Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette, even though her idiosyncratic approach did not easily fit into any genre. Long gaps between albums, as well as marketing challenges stemming from her unique sound, hindered Osborne's career after "One of Us." Still, she remained a challenging performer unafraid to take musical chances.
Born in Kentucky in 1962, Osborne did not entertain thoughts of singing professionally until the early 1990s, after moving to New York to study film. Visiting a blues bar with an open mic for amateur performers, she was prompted after a few drinks to sing a rendition of jazz vocalist Billie Holiday's classic "God Bless the Child." Overcoming nerves, she began appearing at open mic events around town, writing songs and developing her unique hybrid of blues, soul, and rock. After recording two albums for her own label, Womanly Hips, she signed with Mercury Records and released her 1995 breakthrough work, Relish. Singing a varied collection of material, much of it written with guitarist Eric Bazilian, Osborne revealed a hard-edged vocal personality that was bracing and memorable. On the driving "Right Hand Man," she recalls the scabrous, desperate style of 1960s rock singer Janis Joplin, while the classic blues song "Help Me" is marked by her sinewy, dark-hued phrasing. Osborne's fame was secured, however, with "One of Us," a catchy song that speculates on the various human guises God might take: "What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us." Although the tone of the song is serious, even reverential, right-wing Christian groups protested its characterization of God as a "slob." The mild controversy only abetted the song's success: By 1996 it had been nominated for a Grammy Award, spurring sales of Relish past the 2 million mark.
Osborne took a long time to deliver a follow-up to Relish, focusing instead on live tours and acting as spokesperson for organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Osborne's support of the pro-choice Planned Parenthood brought her additional controversy when an anti-abortion group staged a boycott of her recordings in late 1998. Leaving Mercury, Osborne signed with Interscope Records to release the long-awaited Righteous Love in 2000. While the album features a smoother, more polished sound than its predecessor, none of its songs stand out with the hit-making charisma of "One of Us." Unfortunately Righteous Love quickly dropped from sight, a commercial disappointment. Moving to a smaller label, Compendia, Osborne switched gears by releasing How Sweet It Is (2002), a pleasing collection of covers of R&B songs from the 1960s and 1970s.
Osborne left a lasting impression on 1990s rock music, combining gritty, intense vocals with incisive songwriting. Never a prolific artist, Osborne has used her recordings to explore a broad scope of musical interests, creating highly personal work that demands appreciation on its own terms.
Soul Show (Womanly Hips, 1991); Blue Million Miles EP (Womanly Hips, 1993); Relish (Blue Gorilla/Mercury, 1995); Early Recordings (Mercury, 1996); Righteous Love (Interscope, 2000); How Sweet It Is (Compendia, 2002).
"Osborne, Joan." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/osborne-joan
"Osborne, Joan." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/osborne-joan