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Joan Osborne: The 'Indomitable Spirit' Of NYC

It's impossible to squeeze Joan Osborne into a single musical style. The singer-songwriter exploded onto the scene in 1995 with her debut album, Relish, which sold 5 million copies worldwide, yielded six Grammy nominations and spawned the hit single "One of Us." Since then, she's built a kaleidoscopic career that runs the gamut from pop to soul to country. She says her latest album, Little Wild One, is very consciously set in New York City.

Osborne explains that she wanted Little Wild One to evoke the city she loves.

"I certainly don't want to exclude people who don't live in New York or know New York," she says. "But it's like reading a novel that's set in a particular place, where you can get the flavor of it and maybe fall in love with that place and say, 'Oh, yeah, that was the part in that song or in that chapter where this thing happened.'"

One song on the album, "Cathedrals," actually came from a band called Jump, Little Children. Osborne says that one of her producers brought it in.

"It seemed like it had been written for the record, thematically, the way it evokes New York City," she says. "I heard it once and thought, 'We have to do that.'"

"I really like the way it evokes that physical space with the surveillance cameras and the canyons of buildings and all that," Osborne adds. "It gives you a sense of being just this tiny little person in the midst of this huge structure and how... you find your identity in the middle of all that."

A Professional Identity

Osborne's professional identity began in New York, even though she was born in Kentucky. She came to the city in the '80s to go to film school at New York University but ended up in the Abilene Café, singing "God Bless the Child." Osborne says that the process of filmmaking is a long one, and she was captivated by the immediacy of music.

The emotion in Osborne's vocals on Little Wild One seems tangible, as does the level of her immersion in her work. She says that the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks gave her a new appreciation for her adopted city, gave her new inspiration for the album she wanted to write and inspired her to read works like Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry for solace.

"I was not somebody who could sit down and write an album's worth of material after Sept. 11, because it was so overwhelming to me; I couldn't think what to say about it," Osborne says. "But what filtered down to me was an appreciation of what the city was and is — an indomitable spirit it has, and also the spiritual nature of all these people living on top of each other from different countries and different faiths and different mindsets and different everything, yet we are able to coexist relatively peacefully."

A Return To Roots

For this album, Osborne reconnected with her team from Relish: Rick Chertoff, Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. Osborne says she wanted to return to pop after a series of what she calls "genre exercises," like her country album Pretty Little Stranger.

After touring with the likes of The Dixie Chicks and members of The Grateful Dead, Osborne is launching her own tour to promote Little Wild One. The title track was written collectively by Osborne, Hyman and Bazilian, but she says the song resonates with her as a mother.

"For me, it's very much about my daughter and my feelings about my daughter and having her in my life," she says. "It's very simple — almost like a haiku in the way the language is very simple."

As for new material, the Rolling Stone-appointed "busiest woman in rock 'n' roll" says she's delving into finding an intersection between '60s era folk and classical music. And who knows what's next? Osborne jokes that she's always wanted to write a rock musical.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 22, 2008 at 4:30 PM EDT
Previous versions of this story incorrectly referred to Jump, Little Children as a "Delaware band." The group actually was formed in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is now based in Charleston, S.C.
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Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.