Interview with Joan Osborne
Berkeley, CA
Fri, August 29th, 1997
By Aimee Spanier

Joan Osborne is a brave woman. In the current political climate, it'd be professional suicide for an artist to loudly proclaim her support for and devotion to Planned Parenthood, an organization that is at the heart of one of the most virulent moral battles of the moment. Osborne, however, isn't put off. Not only does she stage a one-woman boycott of a venue that wouldn't allow Planned Parenthood to set up a booth at a Lilith Fair show (the venue eventually backed down, due in no small part to Osborne's ban), but she sits on the organization's advisory board (though it's "only symbolic", she admits) and explains on the record that they've helped her out, too.

Joan and Eric

Osborne was thrust into the spotlight when her debut album, Relish became a surprise hit in 1995. Suddenly everyone was watching her, criticizing her dress and her manners, and expecting her to write another "One of Us" (which, incidentally, is the only song from Relish she didn't write). All of this is enough to pressure someone into doing what's expected of them, lest they disappoint their fans or bosses. But not Joan. After working briefly with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, she says she's taking what she learned from him onto her upcoming album. She recently finished recording with the Reverend Bethenia Rouse, a gospel singer and woman of the cloth whose voice moved her. And she's not going to let anyone bully her into doing what they want, on stage or off.

Fembot: You've been very publicly involved with Planned Parenthood and other women's organizations. Why are you so active in this arena?

Joan Osborne: I've been helped out by Planned Parenthood in the past, and I feel like it's incumbent upon all of us as human beings to take some action. And this is where I choose to do that. I want to support them and do my part.

Fembot: Why Planned Parenthood in particular?

JO: Because it has a broad based approach to women's health. It's not just about abortions and contraceptives. It's about healthcare for people who need it.

Fembot: What does your position on the advisory board mean?

JO: It's a symbolic position. I show up at events and publicly show my support for them. For some reason, fame has a certain attraction for some people. They are more likely to show up at fundraisers if there's a celebrity there. They want to rub shoulders with them, I guess. But if it helps, I'm happy to do it.

Fembot: You recently threatened to boycott a venue in Houston for its attitude towards the organization. What's the story behind that?

JO: Planned Parenthood had been setting up tables at the shows on the Lilith Fair tour. In Houston, Planned Parenthood was denied access to the festival. This seemed hypocritical to me, like the venue wanted to reap the profits without dirtying their hands. I said at a press conference that I would play this date but wouldn't play there again. Fortunately they decided to let Planned Parenthood set up their booth. But because I wore a Planned Parenthood T-shirt onstage that night, [the venue management] announced that they had decided to ban me. I guess they they thought I was being confrontational.

Fembot: It seems that too many people focus on the more politically inflammatory things Planned Parenthood does, and ignore the good they do.

JO: Planned Parenthood has prevented more abortions and unwanted pregnancies than all the pro-life groups combined. No one likes abortion. No one thinks it's the thing to do. But it's an important part of women's health, it's necessary.

Fembot: Has your vocal support for these issues hurt you at all? You work in a male-dominated industry; do you find people are less sensitive to these subjects?

JO: I don't think people don't like that I'm supportive of these things. And I think my fans appreciate that I am willing to be myself. They probably respect me more because I express my opinions. And a lot might appreciate it more when someone is willing to take a stand. I didn't get into this just to be an entertainer. I like to play music that people can dance to, but my songs have a point of view and I have a point of view. Sure, I've taken some flak for it, but it's an occupational hazard.

Fembot: You're a fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who passed away recently. How has his life - and his death - affected you and your music?

JO: His death affected me deeply as a person. I was very upset. I was lucky enough to take a couple of lessons from him. He was going to be my teacher, and we'd planned to go through a blessing ceremony together, a traditional Pakistani ceremony where the teacher blesses the voice of the student, and that didn't happen. His voice was a product of a lifetime of song, and it's important in this day and age to have someone around like that. His death is a tragedy, but it's not like the death of Jeff Buckley, where everyone mourned the work he had ahead of him. [Nusrat] had already accomplished so much with his life.

Fembot: Will you pay tribute to him on your next album?

JO: Yes, but not just because of his death. His work and life had a great influence on me, and a lot of the songs on my new album show that, and show the Qwaali influence.

Fembot: How is the new album coming?

JO: I've been writing new songs and working on it since November of last year. It's been a little difficult, but one of the benefits of having a successful album is that I can take the time I need to make it right.

Fembot: Does having a hit album under your belt put more pressure on you?

JO: Certainly there's a bit more pressure to sell well. I just have to try to ignore what those around me are saying and make music that moves me.

Fembot: I've always thought that if Relish had been a movie, all the ads would say "The sleeper hit of the year". Were you shocked by its success?

JO: I wouldn't say shocked. I thought it was a pretty good record. But I was surprised a little bit. I was most surprised by the resultant change in my world. That was a little shocking. It's kind of like going through adolescence again. Everyone's looking at you, judging you, taking pictures of you and saying you're dressing all wrong. It makes you very self-conscious.

Fembot: The first single from Relish - and the biggest hit - was "One of Us", the only song on the album you didn't write. Did that bother you at all?

JO: [smiling wryly] The song in itself was sort of a phenomenon, and I am glad to be part of that phenomenon. I'm certainly not unhappy that it was successful. It was difficult, though, because I had to try to work against what that song presented of me as an artist. It was an uphill battle in that way, and also because some will dismiss you because you sing a pop song. That doesn't mean I dismiss myself by any means. And those that like the pop song aren't prepared to hear the other stuff. But I've had people write to me and say that they bought Relish for "One of Us" but their favorite song is "St. Teresa" or "Ladder" or "Spiderweb".

Fembot: You've been working with a gospel singer, the Reverend Bethenia Rouse. How did that come about?

JO: I was playing an outdoor festival in Schenectady, New York, and she was performing with group from her church. I saw her on stage and thought she was incredible, so I got her number and we kept in touch. After I finished Relish I called her and did a record with her. Hopefully it will be out by the end of the year. There's a very raw quality to her voice. She's not like Aretha Franklin, who's technically clean. It's as real as you get. We did some traditional gospel songs, some songs she wrote and some really obscure things - we don't know who wrote them. But it's different from other gospel singers, like Whitney Houston. It's just really raw.

Fembot: Do you see yourself getting back to your gospel roots in the future?

JO: On the new album, there's not a lot of overt gospel, but that's how I learned to sing, so it's always going to be there.

Fembot: You've done a few of netcasts now. Is it something you're interested in?

JO: Well, I have a website, like everyone and their mother, but I'm not someone who's up on the latest stuff, and I don't surf the web. Eventually, though, not being computer literate will be like not having a driver's license. What I think is interesting is the direct delivery of music from artists to listeners. That's where the revolution is happening. It'll be interesting to see how it comes down politically, how those who have all the control play it out. Being able to deal with listeners's too good to be true.

Match Joan's support of Planned Parenthood with your donation!

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