Joan Osborne Takes On Troubadour Style

As the unpredictable winds of mainstream popularity shift more frequently than ever, Joan Osborne has been able to sustain her career through steadfast touring and well-received live performances.

As the unpredictable winds of mainstream popularity shift more frequently than ever, Joan Osborne has been able to sustain her career through steadfast touring and well-received live performances.

Osborne exploded onto the popular music scene in 1995 with the Mercury release
"Relish," propelled by the monster hit "One of Us." Relish has sold 1.9 million copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan.

Since that time, Osborne hasn't scaled those commercial heights again; even so, she maintains a heavy touring schedule that keeps her in the public eye. The artist resumes her touring cycle in support of her Interscope release "Righteous Love" -- which has sold 105,000 copies sold in the U.S., according to SoundScan -- June 22 in Hampton Beach, N.H.

For an artist who came to music indirectly (she originally pursued filmmaking at New York University), Osborne has taken to touring like a born troubadour. "Live performing is a very natural part of what I do," Osborne explains. "It's not like, 'I put out an album, therefore I tour.' Touring makes me less dependent upon the vagaries of the label or radio. It's kind of a touchstone for me."

Perhaps fittingly, the Kentucky native's musical journey began onstage, when a friend persuaded her to grab an open mike at a corner blues bar on New York's Lower East Side. "He dared me to go up and sing with the piano player," Osborne recalls. "They invited me to come back down, and I kind of made a habit of it."

A vital early-'90s blues/roots music scene in the East Village made a convert out of Osborne. "A number of bands came out of that scene, like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, and Chris Whitley," Osborne notes. "I was very drawn to that scene, going out every night to see these groups and spending all my college money on Etta James and John Lee Hooker records."

As Osborne became more comfortable with live performance, she put her own band together. "I always knew I had a good voice, and I sang in school, but this was completely different," she says. "There is something so captivating about how real and passionate this music is."

Prior to signing to Mercury in 1995, Osborne gained notoriety as a regional performer, hitting a Northeastern U.S. circuit that included such markets as Philadelphia; New Jersey; Burlington, Vt.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Rochester, N.Y.; and her home base of New York City. A live CD sold at shows helped foot the gas bill. "Step by step, I built a following," she recalls. "That's the great thing about live performing, and I love to do it."

It's a sentiment those involved with her touring career appreciate. "Joan Osborne rocks my world," says Jonathan Levine, Osborne's agent at Monterey Peninsula Artists. "She's one of the most magical and gifted artists I've ever worked with. The reason I do what I do is because of people like her."

Osborne has dates on the books through the end of August, playing a mixture of summer-type venues that includes wineries and smaller sheds, as well as such music festivals as Ben & Jerry's One World, One Heart Festival in Warren, Vt. (June 23); Milwaukee Summerfest (June 30); and Humphries Concerts by the Bay in San Diego (July 5). She's also booked in such theaters as Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio (June 26); the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa. (June 24); and the John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles (July 9).

Promoter/venue owner Mark Adler of True West promoted Osborne at his Aladdin Theatre in Portland, Ore., around the time of the "Righteous Love" release, as well as July 25 at the Woodland Park Zoo Amphitheatre in Seattle. Both dates sold out. Osborne's fans don't particularly seem to care whether she's on the radio, Adler says. "I work with a lot of artists whose popularity is a bit transient, but Joan is one of those people where record sales and radio play may go up and down, but she maintains a solid fan base. And that's good for a promoter, because we don't get much out of record sales."

Earlier this year, Osborne toured as the featured vocalist with the Chieftains, a role she relished. "I had done some recording with them," she says. "I have learned so much from them, and I love their sound. There's something so ethereal and beautiful about it."

This summer, Osborne plays some dates with artists she admires, including Hooker and Al Greene, as well as such newer acts as the Holmes Brothers -- whose debut Alligator release, "Speaking in Tongues," Osborne sang backup on and produced.

Osborne's touring band this year includes multi-instrumentalist Jack Petruzelli (Rufus Wainwright), drummer Billy Ward (Chris Whitley), guitarist Andrew Carillo, and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie).

Osborne's set includes cuts from "Relish" and "Righteous Love," as well as choice covers often geared to fit the venue. "We just did a casino in Reno, Nev., and we worked up a version of Gram Parson's 'Ooh, Las Vegas,' " she says, adding that the set changes nightly. "I can't do the same exact show night after night. If I'm not excited, I don't feel like the people that come to see me will be, either."

In addition to her touring efforts, Osborne continues to work on her Womanly Hips project, a multi-artist festival celebrating women in the arts and music tentatively set for mid-September at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., with Bill Graham Presents/SFX promoting. If the event is successful, Osborne is considering a tour and an album for later in 2001. As a side project, Osborne oversees the Web zine, where she interviews "women who are doing interesting things."

But music remains her true love, regardless of current mainstream trends. "I'm sure there are moments when [other artists] get discouraged if they're not on the radio, but I'm grateful I can go out and play music for people," she says. "This is not rocket science. I love to play music, and I get to play music -- so I'm happy."