There was a little surge in interest in songs about God and spirituality in the midst of the otherwise grungy-’90s. A few days back we mentioned Dishwalla and their hit “Counting Blue Cars” that rubbed some people the wrong way. Today we wish a happy birthday to a singer who had a big hit around the same time that also dealt with God…and rubbed some people the wrong way. Joan Osborne turns 60 today.
Joan is widely considered a ’90s “one hit wonder”, and commercially that’s entirely true. But there’s more to her than “One of Us.” She was born near Louisville in a very Catholic household (hence the interest in God, perhaps) and at one time wanted to be a priest. When she found out Catholic rules against women in clergy and some of their other practices which clearly favored men, she left that church but she still considers herself “deeply spiritual” and drawing on both Christian and Buddhist influences.
She moved to the Big Apple to study film at NYU, but somehow found herself singing at a lot of bar open nights and coffee shops. Soon that overtook her interest in film-making and she devoted herself to music full-time, playing guitar and singing and before long opening for bands like Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler in New York.
In 1991 she started her own record company, Womanly Hips (which her two most recent albums have come out on) but she somehow fell in with the band The Hooters. They helped her get signed to Mercury Records for her debut album, 1995’s Relish and helped her along on making it. Rick Chertoff, a producer who was friends with that band and had produced Cyndi Lauper records produced her album and got Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian from it to play on it (as well as bassist Mark Egan from the Pat Metheny Band.) Bazilian was a particularly useful contact for her. He’d written the song “One of Us” to impress his girlfriend (who soon became his wife) and had recorded it but not released it. Osborne liked it and decided to do it herself
And that made all the difference for Joan and her career. The song described by allmusic as “ a simple, direct statement of faith, honest and unadorned, one framed in a near-perfect chorus and delectable Neil Young-ish guitar riff” (played by Bazilian on a vintage Les Paul guitar.) But needless to say, that didn’t impress some. Lyrics about what if God was “a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus” irked some no end, although unlike the Dishwalla song there seemed to at least be no threats on her life as a result!
What did result was her making a big splash on her arrival on the scene. The song hit #1 in Australia and Canada and #4 in the U.S., where it went gold. It almost single-handedly made Relish one of the season’s most in-demand tasty ear treats, going top 10 in most Western countries and selling triple-platinum at home. The follow-up single, “St. Theresa” made the UK top 40 but elsewhere, “One of Us” was all she wrote when it came to Osborne on radio or TV. That was enough though, one would think. It got her nominated for five Grammys including Best New Artist (which she lost to Hootie and the Blowfish) and Record of the Year (which she lost to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.”)
It also helped her be a headliner for the 1997 and ’98 Lilith Fair tours. What it didn’t do was prompt her to go back to the studio; five years passed before she put out an album of new material, 2000’s well-reviewed Righteous Love, which had her cover of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” as a single. Sales however, were far from righteous and soon she’d be recording on her own label, or other equally small indie ones. Which seemed to suit her fine; in an appearance on Austin City Limits around that time she said she was “happy to have gotten out of the limelight.”
She’s kept busy since, recording eight more studio albums (including one of Bob Dylan covers) as well as dueting at times with the likes of Stevie Wonder and even Luciano Pavarotti. As well she’s produced records for the respected Gospel/Soul act The Holmes Brothers and toured with Motown’s great session players, The Funk Brothers. In 2015, she toured with Mavis Staples.
Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her partner and 17 year-old daughter, and just put out an album called Radio Waves, consisting of live performances she’s done on radio including KROQ in L.A. and a version of ‘One of Us” done on Dutch radio. That follows hot on the heels of the more political Trouble and Strife, an album Rolling Stone picked as one of “18 great albums you might have missed” in 2020. She’ll be touring late this summer and fall, largely in the Northeast and Colorado. One place she won’t show up at will apparently be Houston’s Woodlands Ampitheater. That venue allegedly banned her after she talked about and promoted Planned Parenthood at a show there. Which makes one wonder if God was “one of us” if he wouldn’t tell us all to calm down a little and be more tolerant of different beliefs?