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On the heels of "Radio Waves," Joan Osborne to perform, speak at "We Got The Beat" summit

Joan Osborne
Joan Osborne
Joan Osborne

Later this month, several of music’s brightest lights will gather for a weekend conference at the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock for the “We Got The Beat: Women in Music Summit.” The gathering runs March 25, 26 and 27, and features panels, performances and much more. My colleague Sarah LaDuke is hosting one of the panels.

On March 27 at 6, Joan Osborne will sit for a conversation before a concert at 8. It all comes as she celebrates the release of her latest album “Radio Waves,” which features archival radio performances from Osborne’s long career.

Before we talk about your new album, tell me about this conference that you're a part of. I imagine it's going to be pretty exciting to have everyone under the same roof.

Yeah, I was so excited to get the invitation. I love playing the Bearsville Theater up in Woodstock. It's got so much history, and it's such a cool event to be part of. You know, it's a lot of women getting together and talking about their particular experiences in the music business and also performing and also doing workshops. And, you know, I'm hoping to be able to stay the whole weekend so I can go to all these cool things and not just not just do my show and leave, you know.

Is that where you're used to as a touring musician? A lot of ‘get out of Dodge’ kind of scheduling?

Yeah, a unfortunately, they're not pleasure trips, you're there to work. And you really have to sort of, do your job, get in and get out so you can get to the next town and maximize, you know, the just the economy of it. Especially these days. You can't just linger, but because this is so close to where I live, I can go up and spend a few days and really soak it all in. So I'm excited about that.

You know, what do you think the state of women in music is today?

I mean, I'm sure that it's different for everybody. I'm sure everybody would give you a different answer. You know, I was just talking to somebody the other day about the Lilith Fair, and they were asking me do you think the Lilith Fair has left a legacy? And, you know, I think it's kind of an open question.

I mean, at the time, Lilith was this very groundbreaking, all-female music festival. And, you know, it was the hottest ticket of the summer. And it sort of blew up this preconceived notion that the promoters had that you couldn't have more than one woman on a bill and still sell tickets. So I feel like, at least in the touring universe, that assumption kind of went away after Lilith Fair. And, you know, I don't know that it's come back again, you know, I'm not really sure. For me, I think it was probably, you know, helpful in creating this kind of an audience that has stayed with me for a long, long time. So, you know, it's hard to say what the state of women in music is. I can say what the state of me in music is. And that is that, you know, the touring aspect of what I do has become sort of supremely important. You know, I still love to make records, and I still love to be in the studio. As most people have said, it's not really a way that you can make a living anymore. So you have to really go out and meet your audience where they are and do performing. But, you know, for me, that was always what I loved about it the most anyway. So I think that there's still an opportunity to do that. And I think it's even more important than it ever was.

A lot of artists have been speaking out about the challenges of the streaming era. Do you regret that music has moved in that direction?

It's great for fans. You can stream whatever you want to stream and you know, not everything is on the streaming services but a lot of stuff is and you don't have to pay very much money for it and if you're a fan, I think it's wonderful. If you're an artist trying to support yourself and feed your family then no, it's terrible. I think a lot of people have talked about what's the alternative? I don't think the onus should be on the artists to fix the system, I think the onus should be on maybe legislation that's being proposed, I think the onus should be on the fans pressuring these sort of monolithic corporations, and saying, hey, you know, we, we want to be able to help these artists survive, we want to listen to their music, but we also want them to be able to survive so let's try to change this system.

I don't know how likely it is that that's going to happen. You know, we seem to be living in this era when power and money concentrates in these very, very, very few hands. And the rest of the people are sort of, you know, the 99 plus percent are kind of left to fend for yourself. So. So I don't know, if there's a lot of change in the wind, but, but that's the reality of what's happening today. Personally, I feel bad for the people who are coming up now, the younger artists. They never had an opportunity, except for in rare in rare cases, they didn't have much of an opportunity to make money from their recorded music, and they seem to have this whole different mindset of it's not really about the money. But, you know, that can last for a while, but you do have to make a living at some point.

What kind of advice do you give younger artists who are starting out, you know, looking back on your own path and what you've gone through. When you talk to them, what do you say?

Because I came from a scene in New York City, in the 80s and the early 90s, where there was a lot of great music going on, and you could go out to the clubs every single night and see five or six different things. And, you know, the live music scene in a place like New York is really amazing, I would say try to play as much as you can in front of an audience. And you know, not only are you going to get better at what you do, but just the act of doing that itself is an amazing thing. It's a magical thing. And even if you can only do music for a little while, and then you end up going into some other career or whatever, you will have had that experience of participating in that magical thing, of hopefully being part of a larger community of musicians. You can meet friends, you can make connections, it's something that will be a wonderful part of your life. And if you do get comfortable doing live performance, that is an economic model that can sustain you for a while if you build an audience and you can tour and you can go out and do concerts and make money doing that, then that's a way to make a living in music.

In your own career, was there a moment in performance or in songwriting where you felt confident that you were on strong ground, that you had “made it” or you felt good about your place in the music world?

I mean, there have been many moments like that. I grew up in a very small town in Kentucky, and I moved to New York not to do music, but to go to college. So it was sort of an accident that I became part of this music scene. So even from the very, very beginning, when I was doing my very first gigs in these blues bars, for me, that was a moment of like, oh my god, I'm on stage in New York City and people have paid to come see me sing, and wow, this is amazing.

You know, that felt like a real moment of like, I've not that I've made it, but like, this is my real life starting here. I'm not just preparing for it and waiting for it, this is really happening. So you know, I think that was a moment that felt like that to me. And, you know, the moment where I could quit the other jobs that I was doing to try to support myself and only support myself making music because I was playing so often. That was another moment of saying, Wow, this thing is for real and I'm building a following. And people really like what I'm doing. So I could do this, let me see how far I can take this. You know, the other moments of getting nominated for Grammys and you know singing with my heroes and all of that, you know, those are certainly important, but I feel like the earlier moments, just the foundational things, the building blocks of ‘I can do a concert and I can work with these great musicians and people are coming to see it and they're having a wonderful experience and I'm having a wonderful experience.’ Even if it's at a very small scale, just being able to do that felt so real and so right that I think that was maybe more important of a wow, I've made it moment than some of these later things where, you know, I got to sing on a microphone with Bob Dylan or this or that. I think having that early experience of this is real was maybe even more important for me.

You obviously have spent a lot of time with a Dylan catalog. You're a great interpreter of his. Was he the one for you when you were younger? Was that sort of your north start?

Um, I wouldn't say that he was you know my idol. I idolized people like Etta James and Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner and Otis Redding. And, you know, BB King, those people were the ones to me who were just, you know, on Mount Olympus. And certainly I knew about Bob Dylan and knew a lot of his songs and knew what an amazing songwriter he was. I think there was a certain, I guess, even malice in some of his songwriting that kind of put me off in the beginning. You know, here's this guy who's this huge rock star, and yet he's writing this very bitter song that's directed maybe towards an ex-girlfriend or something. And it just, it seemed like he was punching down.

But as I discovered more about him, and as I got deeper and deeper into his catalogue, I realized that there's just so much there. There are so many different kinds of songs, there's beautiful, tender, love songs, there's political songs, there's songs that have surrealist poetry that are funny and dry. And it's just so many different kinds of songs. And there's so much to find in there. And I think as I, you know, get older as a person the songs affect me in different ways and more deeply. So I feel like that's the mark of an excellent song is that you can come back to it again and again over the years, and discover something new about it. So when we decided to do this thing at the Cafe Carlyle, we had a residency in New York City, I didn't feel like I could do a cabaret set of singing Cole Porter stuff. But I wanted to do a tribute to a singular songwriter. And so that's why we chose Bob Dylan, just because of the depth of the catalog, and there was so much there.

Well, this gives me an opportunity to transition to your new album ‘Radio Waves,’ which does feature one Bob Dylan song on it. And my understanding is you kind of had the same experience a lot of us did during COVID, where it was a good time to look in some old boxes. How did this come about?

Yeah, I mean, exactly. I was stuck at home during COVID. Like so many people, we, you know, we saw all of our concert bookings disappear over a few days in March it all sort of went away. And so I just looked around and said, Well, what can I do and I started deep cleaning my house, and I saw the back of some closets that I hadn't seen the back of in maybe seven or eight years and I started opening these boxes. These were boxes that I probably had taken with me from one move to the next over decades, like it's there, you have those boxes that you tape up, and you move them from one house to the other and you just never open them again.

So I found all of these CDs and, and cassettes and files and all of this material for recordings of songs that I had done and just totally forgotten about. And many of them were from radio stations that I had visited over the many, many years, you know, when you have a new record, you go around and you do your tour and every town that you go to you visit the local radio station and you talk about your show that night and you play a few songs on the air. And a lot of times, I would leave that radio station and the engineer would come up to me and hand me a CD or something and say, Hey, here's what you did today. And you know, I would promptly put it in my bag and sort of forget that I had it and you know, eventually it would migrate to this pink box. And so I had hundreds and hundreds of songs from over the course of the decades of doing this.

There's a real variety in the material on this album. And I think for people who have followed you, some of it will be eye opening. You know, we heard a little of ‘Dream A Little Dream’ on the way in. How did you pick what to feature on this record?

I think the job of deciding what goes on a record is kind of the same no matter what you're doing. Like for me, I want to make sure that it works together as a whole. So if you're writing songs for a record, you don't just throw every single song that you could come up with. And you know, OK, I wrote these 12 songs and that's it, you try to make sure that you have a lot of extra things so that you can pick the ones that really work together. And that was sort of the same guiding principle of putting together this album. I had all these hundreds of things and I tried to pull out the ones that I thought were good and then also create something similar to a concert experience where you want people to feel a lot of different things, and you want to have a lot of different kinds of material. So it was kind of like that. I just wanted to make something that hung together as a whole. So that's why we have a lot of different kinds of songs on this on this album.

What was it like hearing yourself? Some of these songs are from 20 years ago or even longer than that. I have to imagine maybe you approached it with a bit of trepidation.

Oh, yeah, I hate listening to myself. On playback, whether it's in the studio, or listening to old live tapes. I'm really generally my own worst critic. So I tend to only hear the things that I think are mistakes. But you talk about some of these recordings being from decades ago, and I think there's a certain maybe softening of that comes with the passage of time. I liken it to looking at pictures of yourself from your high school yearbook or something, you know, at the time, you thought, Oh, I'm so awkward, and I don't like my nose and my hair is terrible and this and that. And then you look back on it years later, and you're like, Oh, my God, I was so cute. What was my problem? You can really appreciate the things about yourself that are beautiful. So I think for me, it was a similar thing of going back and listening to these things from 25-30 years ago and really seeing the beauty in them. So I think I was allowing myself to really appreciate them in a way that I wasn't able to at the time that I did the recordings.

Your voice remains just a gorgeous instrument to this day. Do you do things differently now to keep it that way?

Oh, yeah, it's a bit of more of a discipline these days. I mean, it used to be that I was singing so much. Tt was kind of like being an athlete, where you're training all the time, I was singing all the time. So my voice was very strong. And as long as I didn't overdo it, I was able to really sing a lot and have a lot of power and a lot of strength. And these days, because I'm older, singing is a very physical thing. So it's about keeping myself in shape. And if I knew I'm going to be going on the road, a few weeks in advance, I'll start working out, I'll start doing a lot of yoga, I'll start warming up every day, and exercising my voice every day. You know, stop eating sugar, no drinking, all that kind of stuff and really kind of going into training. Because it is not just the singing itself is really hard physically, but also just the travel that you have to do, it's not like it was when I was 25. So I really have to take good care of it.

Just lastly, I've been speaking with a lot of performing artists as we're coming out of COVID, knock on wood, and many of them like you had to cancel tours and postpone releases, and so on and so forth. And I've asked a version of this question to some other people too, comedians. Did your self-identity change at all, without having the outlet of getting on a stage in different venues?

That's a really good question. Yeah, I think it was a moment where, you know, like, so many other people, I was so used to just doing things all the time and rushing around and having to accomplish things and, you know, I'm a mother too, so having to be a parent and all this stuff. And it's just, it's a lot of things to do all day long. And your mind is constantly going and going. And because of COVID it just sort of forced me to stop. The gerbil has to come down off the wheel. And suddenly you have all of this space that was filled with, Oh, I got to do this, I got to do that. That opens up again. And you kind of get this different perspective on your life and yourself. And, yeah, there's a moment of sort of asking, Well, who am I if I don't do this, and what have I been doing all these years and, and it's a real opportunity, I think, for taking stock and for self-examination. And I mean, for me, I felt like it gave me a perspective to really be extra grateful about having been able to do music for so many years and have a long career. Not everybody gets to do that. And really grateful for the fans who have stuck with me all these years and for the experience of being able to do this magical thing, you know, it's not an easy job. But it's a wonderful thing to do in your life.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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