Born July 8, 1962, in Anchorage, KY; daughter of Jerry (a general contractor) and Ruth (an interior decorator; maiden name, Yunker) Osborne. Education: Attended film school at New York University, mid 1980s. Addresses: Record Company--Mercury Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

When Joan Osborne sauntered onto the music scene in 1995 with her major label debut Relish, she commanded notice. With her big bluesy voice, unconventional sex appeal, and smart feminist attitude, critics and fans could not help but like her. Entertainment Weekly named her double platinum Relish the number one album of 1995, and it garnered seven Grammy nominations. It is not where Osborne once expected to end up, but now that she has arrived, she has made herself right at home.

Joan Elizabeth Osborne was born the second oldest of six children in the small town of Anchorage, Kentucky, not far from Louisville. She was a feisty and arty kid and not a backwoods hick, as she likes to point out. Called Elizabeth until first grade, she promptly came home one day and told the family her name was Joan and that is what they were to call her. She has always been socially conscious and always a natural performer.

In high school, Osborne got into punk rock music and musical theater. Her mom proudly encouraged Osborne. She was also an excellent student, causing hopes in the family that she might be a doctor. She herself never could imagine a performer's life. "Where I'm from," she told Rolling Stone's Ann Powers, "the notion of becoming a professional artist is looked upon as being unrealistic and sort of conceited."

Apparently though, when this lapsed Catholic first "fell from grace"--her mother found out she was having sex at 17--she was asked to leave. She graduated high school in 1980, then went to Louisville and began studying theater arts at the state university, but left school after 18 months. She had been singing in musicals and even worked briefly at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida.

In the mid 1980s, Osborne received a small scholarship to go to film school at New York University. But after three years her money simply ran out. Letters from Anchorage encouraged her to come home and be sensible. Although she felt lost in New York and was quickly losing her sense of self worth, Osborne stuck it out. She happened to wander into a cool club one night in Greenwich Village and found a scene in which she felt welcome. One drunken night at a place called the Abilene Cafe, with all her friends were rooting her on, Osborne climbed up on the stage and belted out the gospel standard "God Bless the Child." They asked her back for their weekly jam session. As Powers wrote, "Sitting in with these [local] bands, Osborne quickly realized that the Janis Joplin-inspired balls-out blues queen was one persona that could accommodate her gifts."

Osborne quickly immersed herself in R&B greats like Otis Redding, as well as the Library of Congress's recordings of singing cotton field hands and Appalachian backwoods types. Osborne was hooked. Pretty soon she had a band and was playing gigs five nights a week. A few things worried her though: Would she be considered a pretender singing the blues? Would mainstream America accept an average-looking woman as opposed to some fashion model? But the singing just felt right, and, as she remarked to Out's Tom Donghy regarding some of her R&B and soul influences including Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Mavis Staples, "Those women were unabashedly sexual, but in that was a sense of humor, strength, and real humanness." And to Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly, "[They] seemed to be almost like this feminist ideal. You could be sexual and strong and funny, but you didn't have to look airbrushed. It seemed a more accurate reflection of the way I feel about sexuality than anything I generally see in the media."

In 1991, Osborne released a live album, Soul Show, on her own Womanly Hips Music label. Two years later she released the album Blue Million Miles. Although the first record was in strict Janis Joplin mode, the album had a bit more of a rock flavor. Meanwhile, Osborne was waiting for the right deal. In 1993, producer Rick Chertoff needed talent for his new label, Blue Gorilla. A friend, Rob Hyman, with whom Chertoff had worked in the band the Hooters back in the 1980s, proposed Osborne. Chertoff loved her work and suggested she collaborate with him, Hyman, and another former member of the Hooters, Eric Bazalian. Osborne was hesitant, but "within four or five hours of meeting for the first time we'd written 'Dracula Moon,'" she told Q's Phil Sutcliffe. "Ideas flow out of them like water."

The eventual result was 1995's Relish. The single "One of Us," about imagining God as just a regular person, worried Osborne. Bazalian had written this one by himself and Osborne was not sure it was true to the rest of the album. It became a huge hit, however, and if people were thrown off by the rest of Osborne's work, few complained.

Rolling Stone wrote in their four star review, "Osborne astutely conflates the sacred and profane, and over inventive alterna-cool arrangements ... lets her strong, bluesy vocals rip.... What's especially winning about the woman is her range: Sexy and earnest, her voice, all on its own, conveys whole choirs of feeling." And Jon Pareles wrote of her live show in the New York Times, "The songs acknowledge both lust and disillusion without cynicism, and Ms. Osborne's voice teases out every undertone of her smart, subtle lyrics."

Although her work was nominated for seven Grammys, Osborne did not receive any. She did not particularly care, though. Joan Osborne is exactly where she wants to be and she is doing it on her own terms. A long time friend Kirsten Ames told Rolling Stone's Powers, "there was always this peace with Joan. She knew everything was going to happen. She's a great example of someone who had to play the game for a while and then reached the moment she'd been waiting for. I think she's going to get what she wants out of this."

by Joanna Rubiner

Joan Osborne's Career

Singer and songwriter. Began singing at blues clubs around New York City, late 1980s; released Soul Show on her own Womanly Hips Music label, 1991; major label debut, Relish, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…