Concert Preview: Joan Osborne Talks ‘Trouble And Strife’ Ahead Of Playhouse Set
RIDGEFIELD — Seven-time Grammy Award-nominee and acclaimed singer/songwriter Joan Osborne was in a good mood and seemed eager to chat when The Newtown Bee caught up with her by phone ahead of her return to The Ridgefield Playhouse for an intimate outdoor show also featuring special guest Stephen Kellogg.
It was just days after Osborne released her tenth studio album, Trouble and Strife, her first collection of original material in six years. Osborne said she was looking forward to showcasing some material from it with a couple of the same musicians that backed her during a brief, marathon recording session at her home-based Brooklyn, New York studio.
She said the new project emerged from a similarly brief creative lock down where Osborne knocked out the lyrics and demos for around a dozen songs in just a few days before unveiling them to her collaborators.
Osborne’s Ridgefield performance will be under a tent on the field next to the Playhouse on Saturday, October 17, at 7:30 pm.She said she considers Trouble and Strife a deeply engaging collection of new songs about “the crazy, chaotic times we’re living in.”
Osborne has seen plenty through the 25 years since her multi-platinum album Relish had fans and radio listeners mesmerized by its touchstone mega-smash “One of Us.”
Since then she has gone on to explore a diverse range of genres: pop, rock, R&B, blues, roots, gospel, funk and country, all of which can be heard flavoring her new project.She also promised that her Ridgefield audience will enjoy a full representation of her hits, likely a few inspired covers, and of course a tribute or two from her landmark Dylanology project.
The Bee's exclusive chat with the artist began by referring to the busy but entertaining cover of Osborne's new album — and an image on it that likely drives many writers to activate their spell checker:
The Newtown Bee: The moment I saw your new album cover it brought me joy - and I imagined a scenario where the designers were in their final stages showing you some proofs, and you turned to them and said something like, '...ok, now take it away and don't come back until you've included a Pterodactyl.'
Joan Osborne: (laughing) I actually drove the design team crazy with this cover. There was a particular guy down in Nashville, and I had made all these collages for the cover - and I just kept coming back at him with changes. By the end of the process I'm sure he was pretty sick of me. But I just had so much fun doing it. I was going for something bright and colorful and energetic because I felt that reflected what the music is.
The Bee: What is the story behind that cover art?
Osborne: It was less about my life and reality and more about this shared reality we're all living through right now. Portraying [a bunch of] mythological creatures, to me, was a comment on this crazy time. You see the physical objects from our past like a first-generation iMac, and people are actually picking through landfills to harvest the tiny parts and metal that is valuable. That is one of the by-products of our collective tech addiction. It ends up being somebody else's ecological disaster that we've just exported onto them, but we never see it.
The Bee: So I've listened through Trouble and Strife a half-dozen times since Monday and I'm continually struck by how loose and freewheeling it sounds. It leaves me with the impression you and at least some of the musicians were all in the same room when you were recording - was that the case?
Osborne: That was absolutely the case - this was made with all the musicians gathered in my home studio in Brooklyn (NY) and it was all done pre-COVID, so we were really packed in there pretty tightly. We had a great producer named Matt Shane, and an amazing group of musicians. I really liked that feeling of being, like, down in this sweaty basement really getting into the funk, and feeling the groove. I feel like there's a particular sound and a particular energy the record has because of that.
The Bee: For the most part it sounds like it's really driven by guitars and drums, with some tasty keyboard flavoring but not much other instrumentation. How did you go about presenting your original inspirations to the musicians that eventually became the finished product?
Osborne: I had these very raw demos that I put together from this really concentrated period of songwriting. I had booked the players for the sessions and I did not know until about four days in advance what we were going to do. I had procrastinated thinking about the project before this, which was the Dylan record. People were really responding to that, so I was wondering if I should just do songs of Dylan part two. Or pick another songwriter like Lou Reed or Paul Simon. I was driving myself nuts. So about four days ahead of the sessions, I just settled in to see what I could come up with as far as songs go, I locked myself in a room and wrote 13 songs. That's mostly what you here on this album. And since I'm not a great instrumentalist, the band really took those demos and elevated them to something much greater than I could have done, and really made the record into something special.
The Bee: I'm wondering what is the voice saying in Spanish leading into 'What's That You Say'?
Osborne: That's Anna Maria Rea who is speaking at the beginning and in all the interludes of that song. She is telling about her journey coming to the United States. After her father was kidnapped in Mexico and eventually returned, her family felt they weren't safe anymore and decided to come to the United States. Her parents just came to her one day and said she had to say goodbye to her grandmother, her friends, and her teachers because she may never see them again. It was very emotional. And she talks about living in the US, always feeling like an outsider, and eventually becoming a person who has given so much back to her community and society. And she's now facing the future without fear, empowered by the fact that she has the power to contribute to America. For me, that's the story of what most immigrants bring when they come here- they bring their energy and a desire to contribute to our society.
The Bee: The title track is about my favorite. Was it inspired a little or a lot by people or relationships you have known?
Osborne: It was inspired by some relationships and people I have known, but also very much inspired by the deep dive I did into Bob Dylan's material. I think some of that rubbed off on me in terms of his ability to create these vignettes that have this dark humor to them and these weird characters who sound like they could be commenting on what's going on in the world right now — or something that happened a hundred years ago. So I tried to take a page from his songwriting method and created that song.
The Bee: 'Never Get Tired' perfectly captures that nostalgic pop/R&B feel of so many '70s mid-tempo disco numbers. Were you going for that as you were imagining that number?
Osborne: We absolutely set out to bring the song into that world of '70s pop-soul groups like The Spinners or the Chi-Lites. I love that era of soul music and grew up on it in the '70s listening to it on the radio. I think the whole record has this kind of '70s AM hit radio feel to it. Keith Cotton, who plays keyboard, brought a lot to that song
The Bee: 'Boy Dontcha Know' leaves me guessing - is it framed from someone's casual imagining, or from someone who is actually coming to grips with their own gender preference?
Osborne: It is about someone struggling with their gender identity, absolutely. I know from experience that this generation of teens are very much open about their struggle with that and their decisions. My daughter has friends, and even she is doing that a little bit as well. I was inspired by an article I read in Scotland about a school administrator who was saying a lot of the middle schoolkids she had were questioning their own gender identity or desire to change genders - and that she wanted to support these kids as they worked through it. But we also need to look at it in a larger social context.
If a young girl is looking at what it means to be an adult woman in our world, there might be more than one reason she has decided to refuse that. On one hand, she's being told she can be and do anything, but on the other hand she is facing these subtle messages that she is not welcome to be or do anything. Like, you won't be supported if you are the victim of a crime, and you won't make as much money for the same work as your male counterparts even though you are just as qualified and experienced. There's these double standards. So I wonder if there is a part of this desire on the part of girls to refuse an identity of a grown woman because they're looking at what it means to be a grown woman these days — and simply saying 'I don't want that.'
The Bee: This show at RPH is probably one of the handful you'll do all year - are you playing it solo or bringing along some musical support?
Osborne: I'm bringing in a couple of guys from the record, Keith Cotton on keyboard and Jack Petruzelli on guitar. If people attended my Ben's Lighthouse concert in Newtown last year, they will know them from that show.
The Bee: While 2020 as generally sucked for so many reasons, it is the 25th anniversary of 'Relish,' the album that sort of introduced you to a global audience. You're always great to include the hits, but will you be diving into any of the deeper cuts from that one during our Ridgefield show?
Osborne: It is the 25th Anniversary, and there were a lot of plans in the works to celebrate it. But it's not going to be possible in the current situation. We do, however, have some stuff in our set off of Relish — and not just the obvious one — we're going to give a nod to that record during this 25th Anniversary year.
The Bee: So then I guess it's no sleep 'til the 26th anniversary?
Osborne: That's right... (laughing)
The nonprofit Ridgefield Playhouse has allowed for socially distanced seating, with all patrons are seated by ushers on a first-come, first-served basis. Concessions and bar fare can be ordered via the Playhouse’s mobile site for pickup on the way in, or patrons can be notification when orders are ready to pick up.
For more information or to purchase print-at-home tickets ($52 all seats), visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org, visit the theater at 80 East Ridge, or call 203-438-5795.
Check out Joan Osborne performing "St. Teresa" in the Bing Lounge at KINK-FM in Portland:
Joan Osborne rocks the title track of her new album, 'Trouble And Strife, at New York's City Winery on July 31, 2019: