Picasso, Shakespeare, and Dylan. That’s a grouping that makes sense to Joan Osborne.
“I don't think it's hyperbole to speak about Bob Dylan being an artist at the same level as Pablo Picasso or William Shakespeare,” says Osborne, who released Songs of Bob Dylan in September and recently completed a tour performing Dylan songs.
Dylan’s influence on American culture and society “is hard to overstate,” Osborne says. “Before he came along, songs were usually written by professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters and performed by singers or groups who did not write for themselves. Dylan's impact on popular music was so deep that suddenly no one wanted to hear people sing songs unless they had written them themselves.
“Suddenly, songwriting was considered a personal art form and a unique personal expression, not just an entertainment. Every other music artist of the day was influenced by Bob Dylan, and they changed what they were doing to follow his example. The larger culture changed as well, and music became an engine for political involvement and societal change. Bob Dylan was not the only person responsible for this shift, but his influence was the most powerful. You could make a case that James Brown was just as important —someone who gave expression to the lives and concerns of black Americans in a way that had not been possible before he came along. There is an argument to be made that his contribution will ultimately be more important than Bob Dylan's. History will have to be the judge.”
Is it passé to create a Dylan covers album after so many artists have done so?
“Every artist has something unique to bring to an interpretation of a song, whether it's their own song or someone else’s,” Osborne says. “I tried to look for the sweet spot where the Dylan song and my voice intersected in a way that allowed people to hear something fresh about it.”
Osborne and her co-producers, Keith Cotton and Jack Petruzzelli, spent about 1 1/2 years working on Songs of Bob Dylan.
“The entire process has been pretty gratifying.” she says. “I could certainly sing Bob Dylan songs before, and I've even had the honor and privilege to sing with him, but I had never done such a deep dive into his catalog. So many amazing songs, so much depth, beauty, humor, cruelty, and tenderness. It makes me feel like an actor must feel when doing Shakespeare. The best parts of the process were sitting around in the studio — working on ideas, testing things out, and just having fun with the songs — and the moments during the live shows when the audiences have responded to the songs and the unique arrangements that we created. Honestly, there haven't been many struggles, and the whole thing has been really joyful.”
A series of albums Ella Fitzgerald recorded in the 1950s and 1960s inspired Osborne to record a Dylan covers album.
“It's now called the Songbook Series, and each album focuses on the work of a single writer or writing team, like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, or Rogers and Hart. I always thought it would be interesting to do my own updated version of the songbook series, covering the writers that I love. So this Bob Dylan record is hopefully the first of many.”
Osborne believes the first time she sang with Dylan was in 1998. She was rerecording “Chimes of Freedom" for a TV show about the 1960s.
“I got to the studio early and was sitting with my back to the door talking with some of the guys in his band, but I knew instantly when Dylan entered the room, because it was like suddenly the weather changed inside the studio. Everyone, very subtly, shifted their focus on to him to try to read his mood. It was an unspoken thing. As we continued to work, Dylan would change his mind very quickly. He seemed to have a very restless intelligence, and I realized that, if people did not pay strict attention to him, they would be left behind. This turned out to be a good thing for me, because he and I actually sang on the same microphone, so my face was just a few inches away from his when we were doing takes. If I hadn't had to focus so completely in order to match his vocal phrasing, I'm sure I would've been much more nervous than I was.”
Osborne says there have been other memorable times she has watched Dylan perform while attending his concerts, opening for him and singing with him.
“He invited me to sing ‘Tears of Rage’ with him in 2003,” Osborne recalls. “He got this huge smile on his face when we hit the first harmony together, so that was pretty special.”
I ask Joan which songs that she covered live were her all-time favorites.
“That's a tough one,” she responds. “There have been so many. ‘Stella Blue’ at Red Rocks (in Morrison, Colorado) with the Dead on my birthday was a pretty special moment. Singing ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ with Stevie Wonder to induct Gladys Knight into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was brilliant. I always loved doing ‘Tupelo Honey.’ I sang ‘Power to the People’ at a John Lennon tribute in 2015 and had the whole audience on its feet and singing.”
Prince at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the last 1990s was the best concert Osborne ever attended.
“He was totally in control and magnetic,” she says. “He was perfection as a singer and dancer and musician and star. It was thrilling.”
The live performances that influenced her most as a musician, though, were at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the late 1980s. It was her first visit to the Jazz Fest.
“It gave me a sense of a global community of musicians and fans — something enormous and worldwide that I could be a member of. It felt like I had found a true home.”