Joan Osborne on what gave her the blues

It’s been 18 years since Joan Osborne became a household name for her breakthrough hit “One of Us,” which — if you listened to FM radio at any point in the ’90s — saturated the airwaves. It was a time when women’s music was experiencing a kind of Renaissance thanks to history-making events like Lilith Fair and a steady stream of gifted female singer-songwriters testing the waters for today’s chart-toppers. Her foray into pop music also helped Osborne land on the cover of Rolling Stone.

In an interview last year with Billboard, the bluesy soul singer waxed poetically about her early days as a 20-something doing lofty covers of Otis Redding, Tina Turner and Muddy Waters. “Those were the people that I wanted to sound like,” she said. “So, having been doing this for 20 years now, I’m kind of circling back to doing that same music again, which is sort of interesting, you know. I feel like my voice has changed, grown and gotten better. I think that when I was in my 20s, I didn’t have what I have now vocally. It’s been cool to tackle this kind of material again.”

As Osborne gets ready to play the Siren Mountain Jam (June 22 at 9:30 p.m.), a celebration of women and art in Boone, N.C., she talked to us about this year’s Grammy nomination, psychedelic rock and which Motown songs she’d like to be stranded on a desert island with. You were nominated for a Grammy this year, but on your website you gave major props to jazz legend Dr. John who won in your category. Who are some of the artists who have influenced you over the years?
Joan Osborne:
There have been so many. The great blues/soul/gospel singers first and foremost, people like Etta James, Otis Redding, Ann Peebles, Howlin’ Wolf, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson. They had an expressive style that I tried to emulate. I also loved Patti Smith and Chryssie Hynde, their amazing lyrics and cool personas really bowled me over. Growing up in a small town in Kentucku, it hardly seemed possible that anyone could be that cool!

AE: Your foray into pop music yielded a huge hit. But your music really encompasses so much more – blues, soul, etc. What drives your newer music?
I’m working on an album called Love and Hate, and as the title suggests it’s all about romantic love. A lot of it is influenced stylistically by Van Morrison and Nike Drake, with lush arrangements. And lyrically, I’m at a place where I’m trying to communicate simply and directly.

AE: What inspired your most recent album Bring it on Home?
I was singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama at Lincoln Center, and some guys from their label (Saguaro Road) approached me about doing a blues album. At first I hesitated. But after thinking it over  I felt that my voice was more seasoned, with richer textures than I had when I was starting out. I felt that I could bring something to these songs that was worthy of the example of the musical heroes I learned from. This music really was a lifeline for me, and making the album reminded me of how lucky I was to find it.

AE: I asked a few fans online what they would want to know from you. One of them asked what the story or inspiration is behind “Crazy Baby.”
It was written for someone I care about who was deeply lost, couldn’t feel their own worth and was struggling to remember why life was worth living. I have been in some dark places myself, and wrote that song as a way to let my friend know it was possible to come out the other side, to regain a sense of joy and purpose.

AE: How have your Kentucky roots influenced your music? Ever get back there?
I still have family in Kentucky and visit there at least a few times a year. I don’t know if being from there is why I feel drawn to American roots music, but maybe it is in a Jungian-collective-unconscious sort of way. I think growing up with a connection to nature and a simple way of life has given me a certain calm perspective on the world that has served me well.

AE: You’ve done some incredible collaborations. What other artists would you like to work with?
I’d love to record with Emmylou Harris or Patti Smith or Bruce Springsteen. Ryan Adams is a favorite  I would jump at the chance to work with him in the studio. Of course Prince. And I’d love to work with Questlove of the Roots.

AE: Another fan was interested in knowing what inspired you to cover Jump Little Children’s “Cathedrals?”
I liked the cinematic quality of the lyrics. They have such beautiful imagery, and the melody soars up to that chorus. It’s just a great song. And it fit so well thematically with the rest of the Little Wild One album, which is so much about New York City.

AE: What are some of your favorite Motown songs?
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Tracks of My Tears.” The Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrell duets are amazing. There’s “Master Blaster” and so much of Stevie Wonder’s ’70s stuff  that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

AE: What about new artists – who’s on your playlist these days?
I’ve been listening to Shovels and Rope lately  and Blitzen Trapper. There’s a great new country artist – Sturgill Simpson. I love his debut album. My daughter turned me on to Ellie Goulding  I think she’s great. And I don’t know how new they are, but I just started listening to this psychedelic rock band called Cambodian Space Project.

AE: Are you working on any new music?
In addition to the Love and Hate album, I have a side project rock band called Trigger Hippy, and we were just in the studio last week, so we should have something to release soon. It’s kind of like a ’70s supergroup, really fun!

AE: What’s the creative process like for you?
The creative process is easier the more disciplined I am about it. When I show up for myself consistently and really focus on the writing instead of the business or my responsibilities as a mom, I get the best results. Relying on inspiration alone just doesn’t work for me. It can be tough to carve out the time, but I just force myself.

AE: Has the industry changed since you got started?
The business has changed, of course  it always does. But the essence of what musicians do and the reason it’s meaningful are the same. Music is the most powerful art form there is, it reaches people emotionally, physically and spiritually. It can ignite a party or make you feel that you are not alone in the world or ease bottomless grief or express deep joy.

AE: What kind of impact has digital music had on the way you create and connect with fans?
To the extent that the new technologies help in disseminating music, I embrace them. But when the new technologies trivialize music and treat it as just another kind of data, they lose me. Reaching out to fans is great, and having a direct connection to fans can be empowering for an artist – it’s fun and I enjoy it just as long as the Facebook posts and the tweets don’t become a hindrance to the real work.

Joan plays the Siren Mountain Jam this weekend in Boone, North Carolina.