The Great Joan Osborne Takes Time to Reflect 

September 8, 2023
Marty Halpern

Joan Osborne has been riding a wave of creativity the last few years. She’s quite aware of this and has no intention of hopping off her musical surfboard anytime soon. Osborne’s latest release Nobody Owns You (her third since 2020) makes an incredibly strong case as a career best. A three decade plus long career as one of the finest vocalists around.  

Osborne dons many hats throughout the album. Her first collaboration with producer and co-writer Ben Rice. There’s the reflective Osborne looking back on her career in Should’ve Danced More, So Many Airports, and Great American Cities. The motherly Osborne comes out in the title track Nobody Owns You and Women’s Work. Time of the Gun and Dig a Little Ditch offer Osborne’s realistic take on current events. The album peaks with her role as a daughter in the super personal Secret Wine and The Smallest Trees. 

Osborne’s vocals are as on point as they’ve been throughout her career. However, it’s the lyrics and music behind the vocals which set this album apart from her others. Both are as simple and direct as can be. There’s no preaching and complaining. Just Osborne reflecting on the same life events her longtime listeners are undoubtedly going through. Sending a daughter to college and into the real world. Watching a parent’s mental and physical decline. The end of a long-term relationship or simply looking back on the long road you’ve traveled with no regrets.  

SlideandBanjo caught up with Osborne to discuss her latest release. She begins by noting the difference between this record and the others from her storied career. “This record came out of a time of a lot of personal upheaval. That left me emotionally raw. It’s not great, but it allows you access to your emotions and deep feelings. I used that to write these personal songs. This record is the most personal I’ve ever done. It’s partly in response to turning 60 last year. That’s a moment when you take stock of your life and ask yourself, if I only have “x” years left on the planet, what am I going to do with that time? What needs to be done that I need to stop waiting to do? There’s a directness in the songwriting that comes from that desire to get to the heart of the matter. I’m an admirer of people who write that way. From Hank Williams Jr. to Lucinda Williams or Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Writers who cut to the meaning and say things in simple language.   

Osborne says she and Rice were in a similar mental headspace making the album. That led to a unique connection that flows throughout the album. “It was great working with Ben. He was interested in all the different poems, lyric ideas, and songs I brought him. It may have been connecting with him on a personal level. His father passed and he was experiencing this loss in his life when we were working together. He was enthusiastic about all my ideas. His thorough way of working really allowed the songs to blossom quickly. If we were working on lyrics and the song needed another verse. I felt I could go in a room for half an hour and come back with two or three options. It became obvious what I was trying to say. That’s a good position to be in as a writer. You say it a couple of ways. The one that’s the best becomes clear to everyone.” 

As Osborne explains, her life and musical experiences gave her the confidence to be as direct as possible throughout the album, “I wanted to write songs that are unique to me. This is what my life is like now. I’ve written songs in different ways before. Short stories with characters. But I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to be straightforward and say what’s on my mind in a simple way. I’m not sure if anyone is paying attention to what I’m doing. I have my fans and am so grateful for them. As far as larger music business, it’s not like my name is on everyone’s lips. That can be liberating because if no one is watching, you can do what you want. Not be worried about what others think. It was a permission to be straightforward and personal. I ended up feeling really good about writing songs like this at this point in my career. I’m not bored with this. I have things I didn’t have years and decades ago I can dig into. It’s a rich time for me as an artist and I am happy to tap into those things.” 

The highlight of the album is the song Secret Wine. Written for her mother who is starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s, Osborne’s simplistic tale of fear and hope will hit you deep in your soul. “I don’t want to let her go. But if I must, I must. Please take her hand and comfort her and show her who to trust.” According to Osborne, the song was originally a prayer, but was converted into a song thanks to her in-studio collaboration with Rice. “My mother is beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s. She’s losing bits of herself. That’s difficult to watch. The song Secret Wine is about that. Hoping she can replace the things she’s losing with something positive and wonderful. There are negative things about her slipping away. But she also has a childlike energy which is a beautiful thing to see. It’s like she’s stepping back into this more innocent time. The song is a wish for protection for her.”  

She continues, “I wrote this after talking with my sisters about the things that were happening with my mom. I brought it to Ben in the studio. He and I worked on the music. His father just passed, and he was going through his own time of dealing with loss. We were so appreciative to have the studio to come to and bring all these emotions. We needed that sanctuary to work through all the stuff going on in our lives. Otherwise, we’d just be going nuts.” 

Smallest Trees, an homage to the innocence of being a child is another highpoint of the album. Osborne channels some Bob Dylan like imagery with the lines, “Oh the smallest trees hold the most beautiful birds, and the smallest mouths speak the most beautiful words.” She reflects on her memories of that special time in her life. “That’s from thinking what it was like to be a small child. Remembering the moments I felt so much love for my family and my mother especially. It was like that love had replaced every cell of my body and that’s all I was. As we get older, we can lose touch with that feeling. I have a young nephew. When his mom or I walk into a room, he explodes with happiness and launches himself at you. To feel that kind of love is a beautiful and ephemeral thing. It doesn’t last forever your capacity to do that. Maybe we get back to it as we get older. I’m hoping that happens to me. But it’s there in childhood. I don’t think there are many songs about that.” 

Osborne tries to impart some motherly words of wisdom in the title track Nobody Owns You. “You’re as free as the wind in the street and it’s time to stand up on your feet. Darling, you’re complete. Nobody owns you.” While her daughter may not be ready to listen to these pearls of wisdom, Osborne is confident others will. “My daughter is eighteen and done with me for now (laughs). That’s very natural and I don’t take it personally. I feel these are still words of wisdom worth saying. So instead of talking to a wall, I put those thoughts into a song. Hopefully, at some point she’ll listen. Until she does, it’s out there for anyone who needs it. It’s a message young women can stand to hear. As far as we’ve come in supporting them and telling them they can be whatever they want to be. There’s another cultural undercurrent that makes them feel everyone has to like them. Nobody can be mad at them. They have to look a certain way. Act a certain way.  You can’t step out of line. Can’t make mistakes. I think it leaves them open to being manipulated by people who don’t have their best interest at heart. I wanted to say it in a simple way that you don’t have to give yourself to people who aren’t on your side.” 

Albeit more tongue and cheek, the theme of knowing your true value continues in Women’s Work. “This is for the women with full time careers while raising kids with their partners. They also have that second shift at home.” Osborne muses. “Often, do more than an equal share of the work at home. Their male partners believe and are totally convinced they do half as much. And it’s just not true. (Laughs). The song is leavened with a bit of humor. But it’s a song that if women stepped out and went on strike, this whole place would fall apart.” 

Current events are front and center in Time of the Gun and Dig a Little Ditch. Instead of preaching and looking for solutions to a never ending problem, Osborne uses both offerings as a way of accepting the times and navigating through them as unscathed as possible. “It seems like this era we’re living in is defined by the number of tragedies and mass shootings. Guns have usurped our communal lives as Americans. Whether you want to deal with it or not, it’s around you all the time. You hear about an awful shooting and then you send your kid off to school and wonder if it’s going to happen to them. We’re all living with this right now. That’s where the title came from. We’re living in a time of the gun. I hate that, but I can’t turn away from it. I should understand it and face up to it. Figure out what it means in my life. What am I going to do about it and what is everyone going to do about it?” 

She continues, “With Dig A Little Ditch I came up with the line, ‘Dig a little ditch and push the devil in.’ I thought there are devils all around us. You don’t have to look far to find them. It’s a very simple message of what you can do. You have to dig a little ditch and put the devil in. That’s the work we’re doing right now. I tried to put it in a simple poetic language.” 

Riding high from another album that dazzles from start to finish, Osborne is focused on keeping her current wave of momentum alive. Her perspective on the world has changed. That’s natural. Everyone’s does as they get older. What hasn’t changed is Osborne’s steadfast focus on her lyrics and vocals. According to Osborne, it never will. “I’m always trying to make the lyrics as good as possible. As a singer that’s one of the main things I have to work with. I need to connect with those lyrics. Even if they’re fun, party lyrics. I need to feel them while I’m singing. I put a lot of time and energy into the lyrics. Wanting them to be something I can authentically perform and connect with.” 

“I’m so lucky to have work that I still want to do. Hopefully, I can keep doing it for a little while longer. I’m excited by being able to write songs like these at this point in my career. I feel like there’s another chapter to dig into about what can happen next. Ben and I had such a great time working on the record. Hopefully we’ll get together and write some songs soon. I’m still in that high of being in that zone of creating stuff. I don’t want to step out of it yet.” 

Joan Osborne Nobody Owns You 

Womanly Hips Music 2023 

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