Singer Joan Osborne and Bob Dylan go way back, back to Osborne’s 1995 multi-platinum album, Relish, and its hit single “One of Us,” a song that propelled her to the cover of Rolling Stone. On that Grammy-nominated album, Osborne sang Dylan’s ominous “The Man in the Long Black Coat” which describes, according to Dylan, “Someone who loved life but cannot live, and it rankles his soul that other should be able to live.” On his album Oh Mercy, Dylan spits out the lyrics in short, accusatory bursts, whereas Osborne’s interpretation is both lyrical and gut-wrenching, conjuring an almost unbearable sense of loss as the mysterious “she”—who says nothing and leaves no farewell note— disappears with the man in the long black coat.
On her new album, Songs of Bob Dylan, Osborne lends her dynamic voice to 13 Dylan tunes, including such classics as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Masters of War,” as well as the recent “High Water (For Charley Patton),” with lyrics that reference the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. While Osborne has previously recorded three albums of soul and R&B covers, Songs of Bob Dylan is the first dedicated to the repertoire of a single artist, and she delivers Dylan’s bawdy and often Biblically-inspired lyrics with conviction and inventiveness, drawing on her deep love of folk, blues and American roots music, and raunchy rock 'n' roll. This Saturday, Osborne brings her Dylan project to The Heights Theater, which has become a bastion of musical healing in the wake of Harvey.
Born in Anchorage, Kentucky, Osborne grew up singing punk rock and musical theater, but relocated to New York to study filmmaking. It was there the blues came calling, and she would discover her true voice singing in cover bands and listening to such iconic African American singers as Big Mama Thornton, Etta James and Tina Turner. She talked to Houstonia about those influences, her earliest experiences with Dylan’s music, and the Dylan-esque impact she and her contemporaries have made as women who rock.
Do you remember the first time you heard Bob Dylan?
Probably not until I started to do music seriously when I was living in New York and discovered the whole blues scene that was happening. A lot of that scene was happening down in Greenwich Village, in the same places Dylan and the folk musicians of his era had played. People still performed that music every night in that neighborhood in those clubs. As I started to educate myself about blues and American roots music, you don’t dig very far without hitting Bob Dylan, and I began to understand why people hold him in such high regard, and started singing some of his songs.
I remember I was onstage in a little club the night after the Berlin Wall had come down, and we sang “We Shall Be Released.” There were some people from Germany in the audience who came up to us afterwards, and they were crying. It was such an emotionally charged moment for them. And here was one of many examples of a song Bob Dylan wrote not about a specific event, and yet it was really touching people in a poetic way and describing their emotions.
Dylan changed the way people sing popular music, much in the way that Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra did. What influence has his singing had on you as a vocalist?
I agree with you entirely that Dylan’s success was a seismic shift in popular music. Up until then, you generally had a very strict divide between the people who wrote the songs and the people who sang the songs. There were the Tin Pan Alley people whose job was to sit at the piano all day and write songs, but they were not expected to record those songs. That was a job that fell to someone else, people who were considered to have traditionally “good” or beautiful voices. Then Dylan comes along from the folk tradition where having a pretty voice is really beside the point. What’s important instead is having a lyric that has something to say. Suddenly, with Dylan’s success, it wasn’t enough to just have a lovely voice. You had to be using your voice in a personal way and make your mark as an artist and a unique human being.
I don’t know if I ever looked to Dylan as a model for how to sing, except for understanding the voice’s first job is to communicate emotion and tell a story, and you don’t have to have a beautiful voice to do that. You have to mean what you’re saying, and certainly Dylan did that very well. If there is a lesson for someone like me who is arguably considered to have a “good” voice, it’s that you can’t just rely on that.
Is there a female Bob Dylan, a woman whose music mirrors Dylan’s creative range and cultural impact?
It’s hard to say there a single female songwriter who has had an equivalent impact on the culture as Bob Dylan, but I know there are plenty of female writers who have had that impact and more on certain communities and individual artists. People like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. Lucinda Williams is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and her artistry is certainly up there with Dylan or anyone else. Maybe a band like Sleater-Kinney, or a group like Bikini Kill, because of their influence on a world that has sort of taken them on as their “voice.”
Who were some of your role models coming up, and are you conscious of being a role model yourself for women in music?
I would have to talk about the blues and soul singers that I idolized and tried to emulate. People like Etta James, Mavis Staples, Tina Turner and Ann Peebles. The people who came out of this blues tradition had a particular kind of swagger about themselves that I was really attracted to. Big Mama Thornton singing, “If you don’t like my peaches, don’t come around my tree!” and having that kind of don’t-take-no-mess attitude, for me, especially at the point in my life when I first encountered that music, it was very exciting to hear a woman singing with that kind of attitude. I wanted to be somebody who had that kind of confidence.
As far as being a role model, I don’t know if I ever would have chosen that as something I wanted to take on. But the fact is a lot of young female singers have come up to me and said they consider me a role model. But that’s okay. That’s one of the things you are doing when you are putting music out into the world, creating this authentic expression, and, sadly, we are living in a time where there is a lot of toxicity in the way people express themselves. I think it’s a positive thing to be putting something out there that can counteract that, whether it’s an authentic female voice being strong and vulnerable at the same time, or just making music that’s joyful and uplifting and can help renew people in the face of the struggles they’re dealing with.
Since you recorded Relish (1995), what changes in the recording industry have you seen over time that have been positive for women?
The thing that I do see is that the openness of the internet and the availability of less expensive technology to record, promote and sell music. That can only be a positive thing for women who have traditionally—maybe they haven’t been overtly discouraged, but there has been some subtle discouragement to consider themselves to be artists and worthy of taking up that space in the public consciousness. The DIY spirit is a positive thing, because then it comes down to your own initiative. Do you want to do this? Do you think you have something to say? No one’s gonna tell you that you can’t, and the only way for you to know if what you have to say is interesting or not is to put it out there. That’s a positive thing for women or anyone else who feels they’ve been marginalized.
Joan Osborne plus special guest Will Chaplin will perform Saturday, Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. From $20. The Heights Theater, 339 W 19th St. More info and tickets at theheightstheater.com.