Building Her Canon 

Joan Osborne gets back to work with two albums in six months.

Organized chaos is the best scenario you can hope for when you're a parent, much less a singer-songwriter mom with a two-year-old daughter. Joan Osborne found just enough time for a quick chat after a recent jam-packed two-week stint that included jaunts to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, an ASCAP benefit in DC honoring Stevie Wonder, and a BBC-sponsored performance at a Scottish castle. She topped that with having to book tour dates in support of her new album Breakfast in Bed, a return to her R&B roots that mixes originals with '60s and '70s covers.

"It's a weird time in the business, but I am just so grateful and lucky that I can still do this in a way that's interesting and still make a living and pay the mortgage," she said in a recent interview from her Brooklyn home. For the casual music fan, Osborne is the curly-haired chanteuse whose 1995 release Relish yielded the Top 5 smash "One of Us." Her ubiquitous presence on the radio and MTV as well as the Lilith Fair tour got her lumped in with that decade's Women in Rock movement. And while the constraints of being known for one song and getting pigeonholed by her gender might rankle some, Osborne takes it all in stride.

"It's not a bad thing to have a big hit," she said. "I think it's been really, really helpful to me. In the grand scheme of things, it's a good thing. It was cool being part of the whole Lilith Fair experience, [and] it was definitely a great thing to see a lot of old preconceptions about women not being able to sell concert tickets fall by the wayside."

Although poor sales of Osborne's follow-up albums found the Kentucky native on a nomadic recording path, she's kept busy in the four years that preceded the release of last November's Pretty Little Stranger. With a sound that has firm Americana-flavored roots in soul, rock, and blues, Osborne cast a wide net for the projects she became involved with. In addition to appearing in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the label's unsung studio musicians the Funk Brothers, she spent much of her time on the road. From being part of the subsequent tour that evolved from the film's success, she jumped right into opening for the Dixie Chicks' Top of the World tour before joining the surviving members of the Grateful Dead under the moniker the Dead.

One of Osborne's most cherished experiences was going to an Indian monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas to perform for the Dalai Lama at a benefit for Tibetan refugees. "[It] was just an incredible experience to get to know that culture in that place and to sing for the Dalai Lama," she recalled, "and to be part of something that was raising funds for them and the incredibly worthy cause that is the Tibetan situation."

That the 44-year-old singer-songwriter would get involved with such a socially conscious cause comes as no surprise. Osborne is a board member of Planned Parenthood and has made a point of lending her name to organizations involved with human rights, ending world hunger, and environmental causes. And although time constraints prevent her from getting involved every time she's asked, green issues are a favored choice. Most recently, Osborne played the Concert for Mother Earth, a Long Island benefit for nonprofit Grassroots Environmental, which she says is "doing some really great work in studying the impact of all these different environmental toxins and all the different things that our children are up against. And of course as a new mother, that just goes to the heart of what my big concerns are in the world right now."

But for the immediate future, Osborne is refocusing her efforts on building up a canon that has yielded just four studio albums in a nearly-two-decade career. "When I started feeling like I could get back to work again [after having my daughter], I sat down and took stock of everything that I had done so far," she said. "And I really felt that as long as I've been doing this, I really don't have a recorded body of work to show for it. So that became my mission; to do as much writing and recording as I could and just try to get that out there into the world and make up for that in a way."

Stranger has a country theme, with its Kris Kristofferson and Rodney Crowell covers. It's a latter-day stylistic shift that seems rather delayed, given her Southern roots. "[Country music] was something that I've had an ear for and always been a fan of, and I guess I've always felt that if you were a country musician, that's what you were and you had to kind of make that choice for life," she said. "But I don't really see it that way anymore. Maybe country radio sees it that way, and I don't expect that my record is going to get a whole lot of country airplay. If it does, I'll be really excited, but I'm not exactly Kenny Chesney."


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