Iowa Arts Festival: Joan Osborne
Downtown Iowa City — Friday, June 1 at 9 p.m.
Among an excellently curated set of local gems and national talent, the Iowa Arts Festival’s featured performer for Friday night, June 1 is Joan Osborne, who claimed notoriety with her 1995 song “One of Us.” The biggest single off her album Relish, “One of Us” also served as the theme to Joan of Arcadia and hit heavy rotations on MTV and pretty much any contemporary rock station.
The song, written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, quickly became a sonic staple for the 15-to-35-year-old set and propelled Relish to triple platinum status, peaking at number nine on the Billboard charts. The Grammy-nominated album resonated with the alt-contemporary style of the time, with soft-voiced chanteuses singing over the slight sounds of guitars — a genre that remains a fixture at coffee houses today.
In a recent interview, Osborne said that Relish’s success put her in the spotlight in a way she “didn’t anticipate.”
“It was amazing — I became known in countries I’d never been to and I had all these people who were interested in what I was doing, and I had invitations to do interesting things and work with my heroes,” she said. “On the other hand, there were aspects that I wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t comfortable with: doing tons of interviews, being recognized on the street, feeling like I couldn’t have much privacy or take time to myself.”
Overall, though, she credits her long career in part to Relish and the people who “bought the album, saw it wasn’t the one song and have been fans since.”
One element that positioned Relish apart from some of its peers was a deeper relationship to religion in its lyrics. The song “One of Us” raised the ire of Christian culture critics who betrayed their impoverished theology by arguing that the hypothetical of the chorus — “What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home” — was somehow blasphemous instead of seeing how the chorus balanced the criticism of God’s infinitude found in the opening lines (“If God had a name what would it be?/And would you call it to his face?/If you were faced with it”). Beyond this, the album contains an opening track paying homage to a reimagined St. Theresa and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat,” an apocalyptic song that plays implicitly on the themes of “One of Us.”
Osborne’s religious sensitivities were forged in her Kentucky Catholic upbringing, although she did not stay long in the church. Her sense now is that “the sacred is everywhere around us — not just in churches and not just in sacred texts.” This vision underlies much of Osborne’s approach to music.
“Music is one of the tools we have that lets us get closer to God, to the sacred,” she said. “There’s something magic about what it does to people, whether you look at the physical nature of how the vibrations affect us or in terms of soul or emotions, in ways that other everyday things can’t. It’s a gift, or a tool to have that connection.”
In addition to Catholicism and Buddhism, she credits Walt Whitman, whom she calls “one of the great poets who recognizes the sacred in the ordinary” and someone who can take “an ordinary moment and seeing a lens to the infinite” as part of what has sharpened her approach to music.
Part of her long career since Relish has been based in becoming deeply immersed and embedded in the American songbook. This ability to inhabit a number of musical truths is incarnated in her musical corpus; her albums often include at least one cover, and she’s put out a series of albums that are exclusively her interpretations of other work.
“I’ve loved covers since I started singing — then, it was in the school choir,” Osborne said. “I reserve the right to try out a song and, if I’m not doing anything interesting, to not let anyone else hear it.”
Her most recent album is the appropriately named The Songs of Bob Dylan (2017), which encapsulates a fascination with the poet laureate that has been present throughout her career (including covers of his “The Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Make You Feel My Love”). Osborne says that by the time she started hearing music, “he’d already had an incredible impact on culture,” and she was immersed in Dylan “on the radio, or when a nun would play his song on the guitar.”
She recalls being struck, in particular, by “Masters of War” and the song’s ability to still speak to our moment despite being 50 years old. Her hope is to continue to develop a series of cover recordings, following a tradition started by Ella Fitzgerald (who did eight or nine albums of covers), and perhaps moving into other artists she sees as great, including Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Nick Cave and the Grateful Dead.
Osborne’s connection to the Dead runs deep: She had a stint performing with them, which strengthened her working knowledge of songcraft.
“For me, it was a steep learning curve — they have hundreds of songs and change the set list completely from one night to the next … it was a bootcamp in this kind of American songwriting,” she said. “It was great — the songs were of such high quality.”
She was also impressed by their audiences, which she describes as “welcoming,” and notes that, as a group, they emerge “not just to hear the music, but also to connect with the community.” This sentiment seems particularly appropriate for the Iowa Arts Festival, which continues to provide the eastern Iowa community with an excuse to gather together and find something sacred in the midst of everyday life.
Dan Boscaljon is a freelance inquisitor based in Iowa City. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 243.