Joan Osborne knows how to make a lasting musical impression. From her multi-platinum album Relish, which catapulted the singer/songwriter to worldwide fame with the song "One of Us," to later releases that delve into blues and R&B, Osborne has always put her own sonic signature on whatever material she performs.
On her latest release Songs of Bob Dylan, Osborne and keyboardist Keith Cotton dig into the venerable song catalog of a true American icon. The pair spoke to KEYBOARD about what it takes to tackle a legendary songbook.
On your latest album, you've found a great balance between paying homage to Bob Dylan and putting your own stamp on the material.
Joan Osborne: I guess that’s always the guiding principle for me when I’m doing covers. You don’t want to just imitate what the original artist has already done, and you also don’t want to turn it into like a stunt where it’s all about you. You want to really find that sweet spot where whatever you as an artist and the musicians that you’re working with, and the original material itself, meets in a way that really allows it to blossom into something new. You want to allow people to hear something fresh within the song. That to me seems like job one if you’re going to do this.
The album has a really interesting mix of material on it. There were some things I hadn’t heard in a while, and some I didn’t even know. With a catalog as deep as Dylan’s, how did you go about selecting the material?
JO: It was kind of daunting, because we certainly could have made another 10 records of Dylan material!
KC: And we still might! I remember when we first started going through it, Joan had the idea that she definitely wanted to find some more obscure things to expose, but she also wanted to touch on some of the more well-known songs to see if we could reinvent them. The idea was that doing both of those things would bring in different sectors of a potential audience for the record and of people who dig Bob Dylan. And I think the record ended up really doing that. There are some of his biggest songs on there, and there’s some real obscure stuff that frankly, some of which I didn’t even know.
JO: I didn’t know “Dark Eyes,” because it’s from the Empire Burlesque record, which I never had. He’s got such a wealth of amazing material that you don’t really need to be a scholar of his music. But one other sort of lens that that we wanted to look through, was to pick things that are from all different eras of his catalog. Certainly people are very familiar with his stuff from the ‘60s and records like Blood on the Tracks from the ‘70s. But he continued to put out great records in the ‘80s and the ‘90s and the 2000s. I wanted to make sure that we did things from a record like Oh Mercy, which is one of my favorites, and stuff from Time Out of Mind record, which is of course a brilliant, brilliant record. And I love the Love and Theft album from 2001. There are all of these different phases of his artistic output. It helped us to have these sort of guiding principles to select the material that we wanted to try.
I read that the impetus for this project came out of a series of shows you did at the Carlyle in New York City.
KC: That’s definitely how it started. We knew we were doing two weeks there, and that we had to do sets of a certain length. But we probably learned 50, maybe even 60 tunes, of which 13 show up on this record. The first Carlyle run went so well that they actually asked us back the next year for another one. It was like, “Bob Dylan Volume 2.” Jack Petruzzelli was in the trio at the Carlyle and also produced the record along with me and Joan.
JO: I think we were in the studio right after our second Carlyle run. We had done two of these two-week runs there. The whole way that we got into the Carlyle in the first place was that Keith was playing with David Johansen in a Buster Poindexter run there, and I came down to watch. The next day, the people that booked the room called and said, “Would you like to do a residency here?” I had this idea in the back of my mind for years to try to do something similar to what Ella Fitzgerald did in the ‘50s and the ‘60s by putting out a series of songbook albums.
Like Rodgers and Hart and Gershwin…
JO: Yeah and Cole Porter and all these amazing writers and writing teams. I always thought, “What a great project to do.” I wanted to try to do it with writers and artists that I feel drawn to. And I thought, “Wow, this would be the perfect way to test out that idea. You’ve got a two-week run and you can try this material out in this really intimate setting where you know instantly if it’s working or not.” The Carlyle liked the idea of picking one writer and focusing on him or her. Dylan, of course, is going to be at the top of your list when you’re looking to do something like this. So he was the first one that we chose.
The album starts with a Wurlitzer on “Tangled Up in Blue.” That brought me back to your record Relish, Joan, because there’s a lot of Wurlitzer on it. You seem to like gritty keyboard textures like Wurly and upright piano, versus shiny, happy ones.
JO: I love Wurlitzer. What can I say? It’s such a great instrument. And coming from the place that we come from - from this very rootsy, even bluesy scene of clubs and bars in New York City where I got my start and where Keith also played a lot, those are the kind of textures that you can use. On Relish, Rob Hyman played keyboards and co-wrote a lot of the material. He comes from the Hooters, which is also a very rootsy band. So it just always seemed to click with the kind of things I wanted to sing. My version of the ‘80s was not about a lot of synthesizers. It was really about discovering Muddy Watters and Etta James and Otis Redding. So that just felt real and natural to me. And when you talk about Dylan, of course people have done it a million different ways, but he also comes from this very rootsy place for his writing. So it just seems to fit.
KC: I started playing in Joan’s band about 11 years ago. Back when we were touring a lot with the band, I always had an actual Wurly, would keep a couple of them around. And then of course over the years, I used things like the Nord and whatever else. Now I'm a Hammond artist, so I use that as well. But that has always been a big part of the sound. And even some things that weren’t originally Wurly ended up on it. Guitar parts sometimes ended up on the Wurlitzer, and she seems to like it.
When I saw Dylan live a few years ago, he was playing a lot of organ on stage.
KC: We saw that tour too. He seems to go through phases apparently. Like, for one tour it was a grand piano and another tour it was organ, and more recently he’s not been playing an instrument.
JO: When we saw him at the Beacon Theatre in New York recently with Mavis Staples opening, he sat down at the piano a lot and then he would also get up and just be the crooner in front of the mic. And when I was playing with The Dead and he was the co-headliner, he didn’t play any guitar that whole time. He was all about the keyboards. He had that interesting wide legged stance and this real physicality about how he played and this very unique take on it. I guess after decades of playing acoustic guitar, you’re just like, “Well okay, what else can I do?
On the track “You Ain't Goin' Nowhere,” Keith’s piano solo sounds straight out of the Nicky Hopkins playbook.
KC: For sure. I try to steal from the best! I definitely absorbed a lot of Nicky Hopkins just listening to the Stones without even thinking about it really. It just kind of seeped-in. My parents used to put us to bed at night and then they would go downstairs and just play records. So I would always drift off to sleep listening to their record collection, and luckily, they had a really good one. You play something and think, “God, this sounds familiar.” And then you realize it is familiar because you lifted it directly from one of your heroes. But for sure, Nicky Hopkins. In terms of piano, the studio that we did a lot of the basics in - Lake House, has a beautiful little piano that we sort of tried to get all the rattles and buzzes out of. We made it as good as it could be for the sessions, and there’s a lot of the piano on the record. Honestly, there were challenges to playing it because the action was not incredibly responsive and it wasn’t like sitting down at a Yamaha C7 or something like that. I just had to work around its limitations, but in my mind, that’s what was really cool and vibey about it, and hopefully that’s what comes across.
Would you rather play a real piano in concert? Or does a digital suffice?
KC: I always prefer to have a real grand piano. I’m lucky on this gig in that the places that we play, there’s almost always a beautiful grand piano available. Sometimes we’ll have Steinway and Yamaha 9-foot grands or great old Baldwins or Mason & Hamlins. It’s “hit or miss.” But most of the time there’s a piano and it’s beautiful and unique and then I get to figure it out and play it. I’ll have a Nord in addition just to cover Wurlitzers and organs and Rhodes, and other “bells and whistles,” and then I’ll play some acoustic guitar as well. When we play duo , the thing is to try to not let it get monochromatic and to keep it interesting. And so I try to change it up as much as possible between keyboard sounds, guitar sounds, and then we use rhythm and Joan plays guitar as well and she plays some percussion. We try just to not let it be, “Here’s another song with piano and voice.”
When you play these songs as a duo, what are the challenges when you’re forced to strip things down?
JO: I’ve certainly done plenty of gigs as a duo with Keith, and also as a trio and as a full band. Each one of those situations has its own challenges, but also its own benefits. If you’re doing songs like Bob Dylan songs, the song itself is an amazing piece of work and a piece of art. So to strip it down to its bare bones, you’re going to be able to still really move people with it without a whole lot of “dressing” on it, just because of the quality of the song itself. And because I still am moved by these songs when I sing them, I think that translates to people in the audience in a very immediate way when it’s just voice and piano and maybe I’ll play acoustic guitar. There really isn’t anywhere to hide. Sometimes that’s a little scary but it also can be really mesmerizing when you’ve got a song like “You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and you can hear a pin drop in the hall, and you can tell that people are really connected. So it’s more of a challenge, but you can also get some great reward from doing it that way.
KC: I think the real test to the song is if it works in a number of different situations. It’s not reliant on production or a certain kind of approach. I think people dig the duo and the trio settings because they leave so much more space for Joan’s voice, and so it’s a more intimate kind of reading of the material. What a lot of people were saying about the Dylan stuff, in particular, is that they never understood the lyrics or they never heard the melodies as clearly, or, “We love Bob Dylan’s interpretations of the music, but when Joan sings them and sings them in these more stripped-down situations, other things are revealed about the writing.” The running joke for us as we work through material, we pick a tune and learn the changes and kind of decide on an approach or a vibe and then play through it, pick a key, and then by the end of it we just sort of sit there for a moment. And then somebody inevitably would say, “Wow that’s a great song,” like every single song. Once you get under the hood and kind of dig into it, it’s just like, “Wow.” It’s even better than you realized - the writing, the craft.
JO: There’s a reason why Bob Dylan has the stature that he has, and that’s been one of the really rewarding things about working on this record and doing these shows, is to just really get to sink your teeth into this material and live with it and allow it to sort of inhabit you. I joke about it, but I kind of feel like my IQ has gone up five or six points just from singing these songs because they’re so brilliant, and sometimes deceptively so.
Having inhabited this music for so long, has it sort of reoriented your thoughts about writing another record of original material?
JO: I feel like I’m really fortunate that I sort of get to walk on both sides of the street. I’m known as a writer as well as a singer, so I get to do that, and I also get to be just an interpreter. And it’s nice to keep crossing back and forth and doing both things. Inevitably, I think you can’t help but become a better writer by working with songs that are of such high quality. And I’m not really sure I even want to think about it too much. I think it just sort of seeps in, in a way that it kind of primes the pump for you. It maybe reorders your brain in a way to think about the lyrics and the poetry and the melodies in a way that you might not have otherwise. But I don’t want to examine it too closely, because I think it’s more of an intuitive process than something that can be explained really easily.
For more information, visit http://www.joanosborne.com