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Joan Osborne reflects on years of abortion rights activism, the joyous misery at the heart of American pop before performance at The Egg

Joan Osborne.
Joan Osborne
Joan Osborne.

Tonight, singer-songwriter Joan Osborne is bringing her tour to The Egg in Albany. Best known for her 90s hit "One of Us,” Osborne has proven herself a versatile interpreter of American musical institutions ranging from Motown and Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead and the blues. Her latest album is “Radio Waves.” WAMC caught up with Osborne before the show to talk about her many years of abortion access activism and more:

OSBORNE: I think the overturning of Roe v. Wade has motivated some people, and I think you can kind of see that reflected in some of these election results across the country. Everybody was sort of talking about, oh, there's going to be a huge red wave, it's going to be a huge conservative takeover. And it doesn't seem to have done that. I feel just from my personal perspective that the pro-abortion and the abortion rights votes, those voters have come out, because it's important to them. They believe that abortion is health care for themselves, for their families, for their daughters, for their sisters, for their wives, for themselves. And they're coming out and putting their money where their mouth is and voting in that way.

WAMC: I was looking back on some of your history of political activism, like getting banned from a venue in Houston back in the late 90s for talking about Planned Parenthood. If you could tell yourself back in 1997 that that same fight would be continuing possibly in a much larger stage than it was then with the Supreme Court ruling. what would you say to yourself?

Well, I think I would say to myself, that the work is valid. I feel like that issue, the issue of abortion rights, is one that very conservative politicians see as a way to manipulate voters so that they can retain power. I feel like it's a way of keeping women and especially women of color, keeping them always defending this basic right so that they cannot come out and connect in public life in other ways. If you have to continually fight just for your own bodily autonomy, you can't turn your attention to these other things. So, I feel like it's a very cynical ploy to manipulate people in order to just retain power. I do believe that there are people, I know that there are people who, you know, in their hearts are anti-choice and that they do have those beliefs, whether it's religious beliefs or personal beliefs, and I respect those people. But I feel like they have been manipulated by people who are just trying to retain power, and that's what it looks like to me.

I was looking at the performance of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” with the Funk Brothers from the movie “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” released 20 years ago this year. I wanted to ask you about tapping into the Motown songbook and playing with these guys who provided the backdrop to some of the most colorful and exciting American pop music ever. When you look back 20 years ago on that performance with the Funk Brothers, what comes to mind?

Well, the first thing I remember is meeting them the first time and they really had no idea who I was. They thought that I was the makeup girl because I came into the makeup trailer to meet them at first. So that was kind of- That was interesting. But the next scene that we did was a scene in the movie where they are kind of deconstructing the groove to the song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Marvin Gaye version, and they sort of went through by banging on, you know, with spoons on tables and napkin holders, how they had constructed that groove and put it together. And as it came together, I felt it and I was so excited that I started singing the song. And they all looked at me, and it was just this moment of like recognition and joy of like, oh, wow, this is going to be so much fun. And from that time on, we were fast friends. And it was so wonderful to not only to meet them and to hear all the stories they were telling, but then to get on stage with them and to have them sound just like they sounded on those records, if not better. They were such great musicians, they had everything that they had ever had, if not more so, and that was just so exciting to be a performer and to be singing in front of those guys. I just felt lifted up to the stratosphere.

The song itself “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”- It's an absolutely devastating lyric. And of course, in the Motown tradition, it's a devastating lyric accompanied by like the catchiest hooks and grooves you've ever heard. Can you tell me a little bit about what it means to interpret some of these iconic pieces of American pop music that are so rooted in this kind of spiritual agony?

Well, I think it all comes back to gospel music in a way, because gospel music comes from this place of acknowledging how hard life is, and acknowledging that we are on this earth and we experience pain, but that there is this ultimate uplift in being connected to something larger than yourself. And whether that's your religion, whether it's God, or whether it's music and your humanity of your fellow human beings, that there is something that, even though you acknowledge that there is pain, that there is joy to be found through that.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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