She became a household name in 1995 by asking, “What if God was one of us?”
On Thursday, Joan Osborne performs live at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I definitely have a long history of playing The Birchmere, I think it goes back to before I had a record deal,” Osborne told WTOP. “I love the way the sound system is. It’s just a very comfortable place, you step out on stage and it’s one of those rooms that pulls the music out of you, you don’t have to work super hard to feel like you’re reaching people.”
She’ll perform songs she discovered while home during the pandemic.
“Like a lot of people, I was stuck at home,” Osborne said. “I actually did a lot of cleaning and I found some things in my closets like old CDs, old cassettes, old files and I started going through them and eventually was able to put together a new release from this ‘back from the vault’s kind of stuff. It’s out on CD, we don’t have vinyl yet, called ‘Radio Waves.'”
Born in 1962, Osborne grew up in Anchorage, Kentucky, just outside of Louisville.
“It was a very small town,” Osborne said. “It was one of those places where you never locked your doors and you kind of knew everybody. I’m one of six kids, so the six of us felt like we could run around in the woods, build forts and climb trees. There wasn’t a whole lot of sense of being restricted, it was a very free way to grow up, so I’m really grateful.”
She sang in school productions and even toured the region at age 12.
“I did sing when I was in school growing up and had a great music teacher named Carolyn Browning who really challenged the choir in school,” Osborne said. “We would do these really complicated five and six-part harmonies and we did English madrigals at Christmastime and we even traveled to Colonial Williamsburg and sang in churches.”
She moved to the Big Apple to attend film school at New York University in the late ’80s.
“I gravitated toward documentary because the characters and situations are so unique,” Osborne said. “I loved Errol Morris, I loved Barbara Kopple, who did ‘Harlan County, USA,’ an incredible film about the war between the coal miners and coal companies erupting in this small, rural area in Kentucky. … It was an accident that I even ended up doing music.”
She got pulled into an open-mic night to perform “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday.
“I went out for a drink one night with a friend and he dared me to go up and sing,” Osborne said. “It’s not like there was a big producer in the audience who said, ‘I’m going to make you a star,’ but it was an introduction to this musical milieu and I slowly but surely got drawn into it to the point where I was playing shows myself in New York City.”
Before long, she had founded her own independent label called Womanly Hips to release the live album, “Soul Show: Live at Delta 88,” before signing with Mercury Records.
Her first studio album, “Relish” (1994), was a smash, going triple platinum and reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Album Charts off the strength of its massive hit “One of Us.”
“It was written by a guy named Eric Brazilian,” Osborne said. “It reminded me of one of those questions a little kid would tug on your sleeve and ask that you don’t necessarily have an answer for. When my daughter was very young, she asked me, ‘Mommy, when did time start.’ It’s that kind of thing! You can’t really answer that … but it makes you think.”
The song was ranked No. 54 on VH1’s Top 100 Songs of the ’90s and earned three Grammy nominations: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal.
“The reason that it connects with people is not that it denies God is this infinite being, but also that He also is the person next to you on the bus and also is the ordinary thing in your day,” Osborne said. “If you can see the sacred in the ordinary, that’s a valuable thing.”
Since then, Osborne has explored a number of genres, from performing with the Funk Brothers in the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002) to touring with The Dixie Chicks in 2003, and even performing live at the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.
Just when you thought she couldn’t master any other musical styles, her acclaimed blues album “Bring it On Home” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album.
“I’ve done 10 studio records at this point, so it’s kind of like asking what your favorite child is,” Osborne said. “If you really liked the ‘Relish’ album, then there’s a record called ‘Little Wild One’ that came out about 10 years after and it was a lot of the same people on the team that made ‘Relish,’ so it’s kind of like a sister album to the ‘Relish’ album.”
But first, pick up a copy of “Radio Waves” and catch her live at The Birchmere.
“I’m so grateful to be able to do music for my living,” Osborne said. “I know what a privilege it is and the only reason I can still be out here after 30 years is because of the fans that I have and the people who come out and support live music. I don’t take them for granted and every time I come out I try and give 110%. I hope I can do this for years to come.”