Joan Osborne Dials Up an A.M. Radio Sound with A Modern Message

September 25, 2020
Marty Halpern

Joan Osborne ; photo: Jeff Fasano

When Joan Osborne started kicking around ideas for her new album, she contemplated taking it in a couple of directions. First, a follow up to the Bob Dylan tribute album she released in 2017. After a few other thoughts and ideas didn’t materialize, Osborne gathered her group of longstanding backup vocalists and musicians and headed to the studio to record an album of new material.

The result is “Trouble and Strife,” a robust group of songs covering the sounds you may have heard while perusing an A.M. radio dial during the 1970’s. While the music runs the gamut from the Chi Lites to Willie Nelson to the Rolling Stones, the lyrics behind the music are Osborne’s in your face take on the world today.

Osborne begins with her trouble and strife about having enough material ready for the studio. “All these songs on the record came in a big rush,” Osborne states. “I had booked studio time with musicians I’ve been working with for many, many years. I kept going back and forth on what we’re going to do.

“About four days before the session was supposed to happen, I said ‘I have all these song ideas I’ve been collecting and haven’t done anything with them,’” she continues. “Let me see what I can put together in time for this session. So, I locked myself in a room for three or four days writing songs, and I came up with 13.”

Osborne explains “Most of the songs you hear on this record are from that big push of writing. The thing about writing under that deadline pressure, I’ve never really done it before. It forced me to be very direct and really shoot from the hip.

“It turns out what’s been on my mind is what’s been happening in our country and in our world. The songs are really a response to this moment in time and that’s about as much of a plan as there was.”

The album opener, “Take It Any Way I Can Get It,” is a nod to the upbeat gospel/southern rock sound Osborne has covered plenty in the past decade. “What’s That You Say” adds a Spanish vibe and rap mixed with a funky groove to keep the pace of the album rolling along. The lyrics for the first two songs begin a theme of standing up and being proud of yourself while striving for your goals.

Musically, Osborne turned things over to her musicians to find the proper balance between the lyrics and sound of the song.

“I’ve been able to work with these guys a lot. It comes from knowing what they’re capable of and listening to them in the studio,” Osborne plainly states.

“When I presented these guys the demos, they were pretty rough. For the most part these guys came in and transformed these very rough demos I had, and made these incredible tracks on them. Sometimes I would say I’m done singing and let these guys take it for a while cause what they will do will be great.”

While Osborne’s objective was to make a statement with her lyrics, she was equally focused on making sure the new songs musically would provide her listeners a chance to step back and take a breath from the challenging times we are facing.

“I knew it was going to be a political record when I was writing these songs. I didn’t want it to feel like you were sitting listening to a lecture. I wanted the record to have a lot of joy and energy for people to be able to move and dance to.

Joan Osborne ; photo: Jeff Fasano
Joan Osborne – photo: Jeff Fasano

“I feel music has a really important role to play in this current moment. We’re at this time where things aren’t certain and people need to have music in their lives or feel discouraged,” says Osborne. “You can use music to lift yourself up or communicate ideas and be part of the conversation. Music is a way to bring people together and give them a sense of community in a time we are divided as a country.”

 “Hands off” has a stadium rock beat that morphs into an alternative country guitar sound from Wilco’s Nels Kline, and it has some pointed lyrics – “Well the devil’s on the riser. He got the microphone. He’s an old scandalizer. He smells the meat on the bone. Do you ever miss the days when you were young and true? Hands off of things that don’t belong to you.”

Osborne adds, “This is a heavy moment. I’m a grown up and have responsibilities as a person who lives in a democracy, and as an artist who has a platform. I don’t fault anyone else who decides to do something different with their time and talents, that’s really up to them. For me, this is an all hands-on deck moment. I need to be a responsible adult and contribute in a positive way. Frankly, I’m angry about the corruption and abuse of power I see going on in the world. I think it’s important to talk about this and let people know we see this.”

Next up, the A.M. radio dial turns to 70’s funk with “Never Get Tired.” A great synthesizer sound kicks off a catchy groove that lasts throughout.

For Osborne, it was a chance to express the concerns she has for her teenage daughter and the world that awaits her. “This is not a future scenario. This is a right now scenario. The lyric ‘if the truth should turn to fiction’…to me, that refers to all of the disinformation being pumped out into our discourse and our landscape which is so destructive.

The title track is a serious saloon rocker, Osborne’s vocals finding a wonderful Chrissie Hynde sound matched with some Dylan-eque attitude and storytelling.

“The Dylan influence, you can definitely see that in ‘Trouble and Strife.’ I was trying to use the techniques he’s perfected of unfolding the stories with these characters who are almost like mythical characters. The way Dylan does it and the way I was trying to do it, you don’t have to make the story feel universal. That way it can relate to a lot of different moments.”

“Whole Wide World” is the only slow song on the album, and it lets Osborne show off her incredible vocal abilities. The song is a nod to visualizing the future and doing what you can to make that vision become a reality. 

“Meat and Potatoes” is a collaboration with Osborne and her old Trigger Hippy friends – especially bassist and chef Nick Govrik – for a unique take on a cooking song that’s filled with many suggestive double meanings, with lyrics like, “Dip your biscuit all up in the gravy. Picking up the scent like a hound.”

Osborne adds, “There’s a greasiness about that song. Nick brought in this cool groove and cool guitar part. To me it sounded like one of those great James Brown songs, you know (imitating James Brown)…‘neckbones and candied yams.’ Nick is a chef, so there was a lot of talk about food in those sessions. I was like, ‘oh I know what these lyrics need to be,’ and ran off in the corner and started scribbling madly. I think the lyrics to that song came along in a couple of hours.”

Once again, there’s a Hynde vibe and sound in “Boy Dontcha Know,” followed by another in your face country rocker, “That Was A Lie,” which is about as direct as you can get.

According to Osborne, “The lyrics are about these airbrushed, slick people who come up to a podium and just lie to your face. I’m so tired of that. I’m also tired of the way people who report on these things say that was a misstatement or misconstrued. I’m like ‘no, it wasn’t. That was just a lie.’”

The album wraps up with the funky tongue and cheek “Panama,” about a character with an immediate need for a change of scenery. 

“Trouble and Strife” is a statement album for Joan Osborne. It’s filled with poignant lyrics mixed with a vibrant musical energy. The sound is fresh and very current. Osborne could have put out an album showcasing her unique vocal range, or a tribute to another musician who has influenced her, but that’s not where she is right now.

“For songs like this, you don’t need to sing 50 notes in three seconds and do a whole lot of vocal pyrotechnics,” she states.

“They’re about the message and things that people can sing along too and have in their minds that way. It’s not about the pyrotechnics. It’s about getting the meaning across.”

‘Trouble and Strife’ release 9/18/20 Womanly Hips records

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