Trouble and Strife is the NYC singer-songwriter’s first new LP in six years.
Calling from her Brooklyn home, Joan Osborne explains why she felt compelled to write and record Trouble and Strife, her first album of original material in six years. “It’s very much a response to the state of the world that we’re living in right now,” she says. “It’s a more political record than any that I’ve ever done. Each one of the songs feels like it has a purpose.
“Of course, the work [on this album] began before coronavirus,” Osborne continues, “but there certainly has been enough going on over the past handful of years to make me feel that as an artist, I had a responsibility to let my music reflect my understanding of the situation that we’re all in. I think that’s one of the jobs that music has to do right now, is to be a part of the discussion that we all should be having as to what the problems are and what we need to do about them.”
The pandemic makes it impossible for Osborne to tour to support Trouble and Strife. That is a particularly big loss for Osborne – not just because she misses performing, but also because she believes live music provides an opportunity to help bridge the divide between people. “I know that I have fans from all across the political spectrum,” she says. But at her concerts, those fans would find themselves “sitting next to each other and enjoying this communal experience and looking at each other as fellow music fans and fellow human beings, instead of sitting at home insulting each other over social media.”
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Osborne has performed live streamed shows instead, though she admits that this is far from ideal. “It’s not the same as being in a room with everyone sharing the experience,” she says. “It really brings home to you how much the audience is such an essential part of what a live show means. It’s not just the people onstage. It’s the whole experience of everyone being in that space together.”
Osborne admits she wasn’t always so at ease onstage, however. She began singing in school choirs while growing up in Kentucky – but only really learned performance skills after moving to New York City, where she attended New York University by day and played the open mic circuit at night. “I was really, really nervous,” she says of those early days in her musical career. “It’s a very exposed place to be. I was not necessarily the most confident person in the world when I was in my early twenties. It’s a real risk to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and feel that they’re all judging you.”
But Osborne soon realized that singing also offered an exhilarating upside. “There’s also a sense of freedom that the music gives you, where after a certain point, you’re able to forget about that self-consciousness and you’re able to allow the music to take you over.” It wasn’t long before she gave up her college film studies and pursued a professional music career instead.
That career choice was quickly validated when her 1995 debut album, Relish, earned her three Grammy award nominations, for “Album of the Year, “Best New Artist,” and “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.” Her first single off that album, “One of Us,” was written by Eric Bazilian (who had found fame in the 1980s as a member of The Hooters), but Osborne made his song her own, singing it with an earnest expressiveness that captivated listeners around the world “One of Us” hit the charts in the U.S. and almost two dozen other countries.
Osborne knows that this massive success means that she’ll be expected to sing “One of Us” at every concert she does from now on, but she says she doesn’t mind “because when I go to see a concert, if that person has some hit songs, those might be my favorite songs. I might have been waiting for years to hear that person sing that song live. So of course I’m going to do it.”
Osborne could have replicated Relish’s folk-rock format forevermore – but instead, on each of her subsequent albums (Trouble and Strife will be her tenth release), she has chosen a more daring path, exploring a wide range of styles, from R&B to country rock. She has established herself as a respected songwriter, but also continues to demonstrate her talent for interpreting others’ songs, as she did on her 2017 release, Songs of Bob Dylan.
“I love all different kinds of music, and I like to write songs that have all these different stylistic foundations,” Osborne says of her desire to remain musically diverse. But one thing always remains constant across all of her work: her remarkable voice, which gives her sound cohesion, no matter which genre she chooses to play. She says she grew up admiring singers like Etta James, Mavis Staples, and Otis Redding – and these influences show in her own warm, soulful singing style across all of her work.
That doesn’t mean singing comes effortlessly for Osborne, though. “It’s not easy!” she says. “I think people have this popular image of what it is to be a singer and tour around: a lot of late nights and bars and taking drugs and not sleeping. As a singer, you can’t do any of that or you’ll trash your voice.” She says she takes care of herself because “the worst feeling in the world is to feel like you can’t really sing those songs as well as you want to, and you’re standing in front of hundreds of people. The disappointment and the humiliation is such a horrible feeling that it’s definitely worth it to do whatever you have to do to avoid that.”
Even with the hard work that goes into being a professional singer, Osborne says she can’t imagine doing anything else. “Music is such a huge part of the way that I connect to the world. Music is very physical and very spiritual. I think since I have become a musician, I’m so much more connected to those parts of myself, and so much more able to express those parts of myself.”
Osborne’s obvious love for music and its uplifting qualities is obvious on Trouble and Strife, even though the album addresses serious topics – and she says this was a deliberate decision when she created these songs. “I talk about it being a more political record than any that I’ve done before, but I also wanted to really infuse it with a sense of energy and joy and hope,” she says. “What I’d like to get across about the record is, even though it deals with some heavy subjects, it’s not like you’re sitting down to listen to a lecture. It was really, really fun to make and I hope people have fun listening to it.”