Joan Osborne became infamous for the song One of Us, the seminal ’90s hit that contemplated god’s vulnerability and suffering at the hands of human indifference over a melancholy folksy pop track. The song, though pivotal for the singer’s career, was something of a departure from Osborne’s roots; the Kentucky native began her career singing blues and soul songs in New York City in the ’80s. Osborne’s latest release, her Grammy Award-nominated 2012 album Bring It On Home was a trip down memory lane for the singer. A music industry veteran in her 40s with years of touring and collaborating under her belt, Osborne paused from working on original material to create the album, a study of the soul songbook that she felt her voice was ready to explore again. Osborne comes to Miami as part of Festival Miami this Thursday and chats with us before the show.
The song that put you on the map was One of Us, which was a huge hit in the ’90s. How hard is it to get out from underneath such a big song?
I don’t look at it as having to get out from underneath. I feel the song uplifted me and allowed a lot of people to get into the other songs on that record. I kept on working and kept on putting out records. I felt like that was a fortunate thing that happened and it enabled me to have the long career I’ve had.
Who did you get more grief from – secularists who were mad that a song about God was such a hit or religious people who thought you were humanizing God too much?
The people who took exception to it were the ones who thought it was sacrilegious. But it never tells people what they are supposed to think. I feel like the song was like an open question. I got a lot of people who wrote letters and said they had a really good discussion about the song at their church or during a sermon. For the most part the comments were positive, but it got pretty ridiculous. I got death threats from some people. They conflated it with the fact that I was fairly outspoken about being pro choice.
What made you want to do a record like “Bring It on Home,” a cover of vintage blues and R&B songs?
As the title suggests, I learned how to sing by trying to emulate great blues singers like Etta James, Otis Redding and Al Green. I started my career singing in blues bars in New York, I did that for many years before I got a record deal. That was the first music that I fell in love with. It was a return to a genre I really love, and a chance to revisit those songs at this point in my life as an artist. I feel like that time when I started out, I had a lot of enthusiasm but I don’t feel like my voice had the richness that it has now. I have this instrument that I didn’t have at the time. I feel like I have more to work with, aside from just the voice itself, you refine your approach over the years.
You have collaborated with a lot of artists – Luciano Pavarotti, Patti Smith, Stevie Wonder. Who do you dream of working with in the future?
It depends on the day. There are so many amazing people I would love to work with. I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager.
What artists that are up and coming do you identify with?
I have a daughter who is eight and she is into pop radio, so I do that with her sometimes and I get a little more of a window on Top 40 music than I ever had in my life. She loves Flo Rida, but I have to check it and make sure it’s appropriate. The song that has the Etta James sample (Good Feeling) for me was fun to hear! I love Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine.
The cast of Glee performed One of Us on an episode. Was that a thrill?
It wasn’t so much of a thrill for me, but my college age nieces were thrilled. I certainly like the show, but I don’t watch a lot of TV, but for them that was a big deal. The song has really had a life beyond my version of it. It was on The Voice, the song itself has a lot of legs. Because it has that open-ended question it continues to connect with people.
You are performing in Miami as part of the 30th anniversary of UM Frost School of Music’s Festival Miami, a program that tries to teach students about music as art but also music as a business. What are your words of advice for music students?
It’s a very interesting time to be an artist now in one way because there is so much more access than you had when I was coming up. On the one hand there’s a lot of power musicians have to carve their own path and create a relationship with their fans. But I would advise anyone to do as much for yourself as you possibly can, do not wait to get discovered, do not just rely on people. You’re going to be so much better off if you can do so much for yourself, because you will get farther and you will develop confidence and a relationship to your audience to let you understand what you are capable of. To know how your work affects people is very empowering.
What should Miami audiences expect from your show this Thursday?
This going to be a duo show. It’s myself and Kevin Cotton, an amazing pianist and we will be doing a lot of songs from the album. It will be an intimate show with new material that hasn’t been released yet from my upcoming album, plus songs from my blues album that came out last year, a mixed bag.