September 1st, sees the release of Joan Osborne‘s ninth studio album ‘Songs of Bob Dylan‘ via Womanly Hips Records.
Songs Of Bob Dylan details Joan’s own takes on a number of Dylan’s most loved tracks, spanning his early ’60s and ’70s standards such as ‘Masters of War’ and his blues classic, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ through to his later material, such as 1997’s ‘High Water’. Enabled by the prowess of her collaborators, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli (Patti Smith, The Fab Faux) and keyboardist Keith Cotton (Idina Menzel, Chris Cornell), Osborne works Dylan’s tracks into fresh configurations – unconstrained by any notions to imitate or replicate. Osborne performed her interpretations as part of two critically acclaimed two-week stints at New York’s Cafe Carlyle in March 2016 and March 2017 which were described as ‘Magic’ by The Huffington Post and ‘No-nonsense Dylan’ by The New York Times.
Below, in a special Folk Radio UK exclusive you can listen in full to the album and read Joan’s own in-depth track by track guide to her album which looks at her thoughts behind those song choices and more.
Pre-order it here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/joanosborne2
Joan Osborne on Songs of Bob Dylan
Tangled Up in Blue
Well Tangled Up in Blue is one that we tried a couple of different ways…the way that I liked [it] best was when we had given [it] a bit of soul flavor. Like a Memphis kind of groove…we did that in rehearsal with the full band and tried to do it in the studio. Ya know, I always felt like we didn’t quite get it in the studio, so we were going to abandon that soul version and go with a more straight-forward-like acoustic guitar kind of version. But we went to Europe to do some shows and we were in Denmark…it just so happened that the local promoter…is also a musician and he made it a point in the contract that if we did a show for him that he and his band would be our pickup band for the show and so I was like oh okay, that sounds cool. So we got to Denmark, and I must admit I think I was a little bit arrogant cause I was going in thinking “Oh yeah these Danish musicians will try to get the American feel and I’m sure they’re very nice people. It’ll be sweet” and then when we were rehearsing with them I looked over at Keith who was in the band and was like uh “these guys are pretty good.” As we were rehearsing on the stage that we were going to be playing on the next day, I said, “Would it be possible for us to record this?” And they were like “uh yeah we have it all set up.” So we recorded the soundcheck in Denmark with the Danish musicians and with Keith Cotton on keyboards and Jim Boggia on guitar, and that ended up being the version of the song that is on the album. They had really studied the rehearsal tapes that I had sent them, and they got that sort of Memphis soul feel. It really gives the tune a sexy…I guess maybe more of a female energy. A little bit more laid back, a little but more slinky and they nailed it. So we ended up using that version of the record.
Rainy Day Women
Rain Day Women, number 12 and 35, this was one that I felt like [doing] because everyone knows the Dylan version. It is I believe the highest charting single. At first, I wasn’t interested in doing it because I thought I don’t want to go for the obvious tunes, I want to dig a bit deeper into the catalogue. But I came up with an idea to sort of remake the song and put a different spin on it. We tested it out in rehearsal, we tested it out at the residency in Carlisle, and it seemed to work. So we almost sort of spun it into a smoky jazz club kind of vibe. We added this sort of sung malatic hook throughout the song. And it actually is one of the songs that when we perform it live that people are a little confused at first like they don’t know what song it is and then we start in with the verse lyrics, and everybody is like “ahh”, [we] get this big reaction from [them] like they get it. I feel like that is maybe more one of the successful examples of taking one of the songs and rearranging it and allowing people to hear it in a fresh way.
Buckets of Rain
So Buckets of Rain, I think maybe that’s one of the songs that we felt like we know (sic), we didn’t have to do a lot to change it…to switch up the arrangement, because I think just my voice is obviously very different than Bob Dylan’s. So uh singing a straight forward version of it and just allowing the lyric to really come to the core and the tenderness and the beauty of this lovely delicate love song. It was really moving to me, in fact, it was one of the ones…when I was in the studio that [I] kept having to stop and start again. Just because the beauty of the lyrics would sort of break my heart and I would get choked up and have to stop and start again as I was recording the vocal. Ya know, I think it’s a testament to Dylan’s range as a writer that he can create something so, so tender and so gentle when you also know that he’s able to write these songs which are you know, blasting people and are cynical. In particular, in his most recent years, a lot of his writing is very cynical. And yet, you reach back in that time when Blood on the Tracks came out and he was able to create this song that’s like, it’s like a butterfly that’s floating across the room. It’s so beautiful and delicate.
Highways 61 is one of those I enjoy performing live most. I was trying to find a way into the song to do a different version of it. But I didn’t want it to be just a stunt, [I] respected the song and respected the lyrics. So, I really delved into the lyrics, and ya know a lot of the song uses biblical imagery. So [I] thought “why don’t we take that as a starting point and try to draw on some of the musical traditions that come out of that part of the world, the Middle East.” So we tried to put a different rhythm to the song, and I think it ended up really meshing with the lyric in a way that was very cool. It’s got this propulsive energy to it that makes it very exciting to sing live. Ya know the lyrics are so poetic and so interesting it almost makes me feel like a rapper or something when I’m performing it because you’re sort of slinging these lyrics up against this propulsive beat. And ya know every phrase is brilliant and it’s just so cool to be able to do it live and that kind of Middle Eastern flavor gives it this really interesting angle on the lyrics.
Quinn the Eskimo
Yeah, of course, this is a song that has been covered by Manfred Mann and they had a huge hit with it in the 1960s. So I was a little bit weary of it. I thought “Well, ya know, someone has already taken this and had a big hit with it. What am I gonna do it with that’s going to be any different than that?” Umm, but ya know my co-producer Jack Petruzzelli had this idea to kind of ramp up the gospel feel of it. It’s got a bit of a gospel flavor to it in the Manfred Man version and even the Dylan version to a lesser extent. We sort of tinkered around with it and Jack came up with the idea of changing just one chord in the song and it really gave it that lift and really emphasized that gospel flavor. As the band was playing it, that just in turned lifted me and allowed me to kind of come from a different place with my vocal performance and make it more of this celebratory thing. You know the lyrics could be about a lot of different things but it kind of gives, I think, this expectant and joyous quality to the lyrics and that touch of meaning when you put in that kind of gospel arena.
Trying to get to Heaven
Yeah, Trying to get to Heaven is a song from the Time Out of Mind record which Dylan put out in the late 90s. You know I think there are certainly fans of Dylan who are scholars that know every single record and every single song but I think a lot of people know his classic 1960s, 1970s period of work and they don’t know too much more after that. Part of my concept for the album was to dig into less [of] these well known records and a song like Trying to get to Heaven I think is an example of that kind of guiding us to a song that I don’t know if I would’ve chosen it just off the top of my head. As I dug further and further into his later period records and that song just sort kept rising to the top. Also, we had been at this outdoor festival in Texas and another one of my favorite writers was also on the bill, Lucinda Williams. She did a version of this song and kind of stopped my breathing. It was just so insightful and I thought “Wow I really want to sing that song too.” You know, our version is a bit different from Lucinda’s but I guess I was inspired by what she was able to do with the song. That’s the other thing about doing a record of Bob Dylan songs. Many, many other artists have covered Bob Dylan material; this is well tread ground. And I feel like in a way, rather than being something that would make me shy away from it. In a way it sort of gives you permission to kind of take these songs and really make the your own and really do something unique with them. You know so many people have had such great results doing that so it kind of gives you this freedom of like “yeah try it.” The songs themselves are so sturdy and so well made it can be hard to mess them up. There’s a lot they can withstand as far as different arrangements and different styles. I think that is something that emboldened me.
Spanish Harlem Incident
Spanish Harlem Incident is from an early album of Dylan’s from a record called Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was one that [I] didn’t know that well, at least I didn’t know the Dylan version that well. I learned the song from an artist named Chris Whitley who was a brilliant guitarist and singer and writer who was kind of coming up in the New York City bar and club city at about the same time when I was and that Keith Cotton and Jack Petruzzelli were. We would get to see him in these tiny little places, and he would just be sitting there and be stomping on a board and be playing these incredible sorts of modern blues licks and rhythms, and he was brilliant, brilliant guy. So I knew his version of the song before I knew the Dylan version. And yet, the Chris Whitely version has this sort dark, bruising quality to it. But I kind of felt like there was maybe an untapped way to do the song almost like a pop song and in a way that had a very sort of positive and uplifting energy. As if you were walking down the street in the summer and you see this person that kind of captivates you and that was what I was trying to bring to the song. A sunny atmosphere and this kind of fascination that you happen to see up in Harlem.
Dark Eyes is from a fairly obscured Dylan record called Empire Burlesque which came out at the end of the 80s. In that moment, I think in that moment Dylan was perceived to be either in a lengthy slump or someone who sort of had his day and was done. I think a lot of people didn’t really pay attention to that record when it came out and I didn’t know it at all. I was talking to Patty Smith, Jack Petruzzelli works with her a lot and has been in her live band for a little bit. So I was at one of their shows and got a chance to speak to Patty and was telling her about this project of the Dylan songs and she said “Oh, do you know this song, Dark Eyes”, and I didn’t and she said, “You should give it a listen.” So I, of course, immediately rush to find this song. If Patty Smith tells you to go check something out, you’re gonna go do it. I was really sort of captivated by this beautiful almost like Elizabethan melody it has and it kind of brought me back my childhood of singing these kind of madrigal songs when I was a kid in junior high school. In our chorus, we would sing these Elizabethan madrigal songs and it had that sort of stately delicacy to it and beauty. I thought I know how to sing this kind of song. Yet, of course, the lyrics are completely Dylan-esque in that they are very mysterious and you don’t exactly know what is going on. It might be a story, or it might be a dream, or it might be about someone that you know and understand or might be about three or four people. It has that kind of a mystery to it which a lot of the classic Dylan material has. Where It makes you feel things, and you’ll understand it on an emotional level, but it’s very hard to follow intellectually. It has that sort of enigmatic quality that a lot of great Dylan songs have where you don’t understand it in an intellectual way it connects with you in an emotional way.
High water is a song from the 2001 album, Love and Theft, which is like a late period masterpiece. I have to say it is one of my favorite Dylan records. It’s got such great writing on it, such a great playing; his road band is playing on it. I immediately connected to the song because I felt like, whether it’s intentional, it’s a bit of comment about you know current thoughts about global warming and climate change. It’s kind of looking at that phenomenon through this lense of an old blues songs where people talk about the levy is going to break, and the flood is rising, and people are losing their home. I felt like the metaphors that he’s using which come out of this sort of language of the Mississippi delta and American blues in his hands become this sort of commentary on, not specifically climate change but also on this feeling that there is some imminent catastrophe and people are going to be affected by this and people are going to be washed away by this. I think a lot of people have that feeling about the world that we live in now. There is this sort of sense of impending dread and what are we going to do and what can do as a society, as a country, as the world to stave off this thing that is come. I think Dylan really nails that feeling of there is this dark cloud coming and what are we going to do.
You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome
You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome is another one of those delicate and tender songs. It’s from the Blood on the Tracks record which I feel is one of Dylan’s greatest records. If you read the biographical information, this was something that was written in the wake of his divorce from his wife Sarah and the emotional power and heaviness of it is very much present in all of the songs. But there’s something about You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome that I found particularly moving because it’s almost got an acceptance of the fact that this person is leaving this singers life and there is not anything you can do about it. But you can celebrate this thing that you had, and you can celebrate this person and talk about what it’s going to be like sort of walking around the world without them again. This was another one that I just found it difficult to get through any complete takes of doing the vocal because of stopping and starting. I’ve had to say goodbye to some people in my life that I wish I didn’t have to, recently. I kept connecting with it in that way and in a just very direct and emotional way.
Masters of War
Well, Masters of War is…certainly one of Dylan’s strongest political songs/political statements, and it’s maybe one of the strongest political songs ever written, really. …it’s not even really an anti-war song, it’s more of anti-war profiteering song. It’s aimed at the people who make money from building weapons. The line that really gets me the most [is] ‘I just want you to know that I can see through your mask.’ The people who make fortunes from building ammunitions are very well hidden and very well covered. But there’s that line in the song saying I know what’s going on; I can see what’s happening here. I just feel like it’s a really devastating critique in that way. Sadly, it’s a testament to Dylan’s writing and to the sort of timeless nature of it. This was a song that was written over 50 years ago, and it could’ve been written yesterday. Because it’s speaking very directly to something that was happening then and it’s also speaking to something that is happening in the present day about something that we are all dealing with. You know he wrote songs that were political songs back in the 1960s and yet he wrote them in such a way that they had this universal quality to them and this timeless quality to them. Speaking about larger issues not in terms of a specific person or specific event but in terms of how the way human beings are and I think, that’s a great achievement on his part. To write songs that are directed at – to be able to write songs that can speak so eloquently to a particular time and can be revisited years or decades later and still have the same power.
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
You Ain’t Going Nowhere, you know, of course, Dylan…is a Noble Prize winner for literature, he is a great poet and [he is] acknowledged [as] a brilliant lyricist but you know not every one of his songs, if you look at the lyrics on paper, comes across as being super deep poetry. This is one of those songs that kind of feels like he and the guys in the band we’re trying to make each other laugh and they were sitting around on an afternoon up in Woodstock and just tossing this off. Yet, there is something so solid about it and so sturdy that this is a song that has been passed around. I’ve personally heard this song on a rooftop in Switzerland and backstage in Japan and in the parking lot of a bluegrass festival. We were recently in Australia, and there was a guy out in front of the venue with his guitar case open, busking, and he was playing this song. It’s one of those songs that can be handed around and shared among friends and it’s just got that solid quality about it. I feel like it kind of really lifts the mood of the record in that moment when it arrives. I’m always glad to hear it and glad to see it in the set list and to feel like, here’s the next song, can’t wait to get to this one.
Ring them Bells
Ring them Bells is a song from [a] brilliant kind of mid-career record of Dylan’s called, Oh Mercy, which is one of my favorite records of his. Again, I think this is one of his not most well-known records. It might be because it came at a point in his career when certain people had stopped paying attention to what he was doing and it kind of slipped out and came and went. I was actually in Europe at the time. I was singing in the street and busking in Paris, Geneva and this record came out and I saw it advertised in a record store window and went and got it and really fell in love with it and was amazed by just the beauty of the song writing. It was by Daniel Lanois who is one of my favorite producers, and I think his collaborations with Dylan are among the most beautiful of Dylan’s records. So I fell in love with this record and played it all day every [day], [I] knew it chapter and verse. When I came back to the states people didn’t seem to know about it and I was sort of aghast so I tried to turn everyone on to it. But one of the songs that really stayed with from the record was Ring Them Bells. I first sang it at a series of benefits that I did after 9/11 here in New York City. There was series of benefits for firefighters, families, firefighters who had lost their lives in the twin towers. There was something about the song which I think crystalized this feeling of sorrow and yet [there is a] sort of a dignity in sorrow of looking at the situation and feeling like we are all going to move forward together. We honor the people that have made this sacrifice, and yet we hold our heads up to continue to go on. I felt like there was something about Ring them Bells that really expressed that. We are living in a time right now that is a very intense time in the history of our country. I think that’s something important to be able to do is to connect with that feeling of yes you’re sorrowful, yes you feel sorrow for things that are lost and gone, and yet you can have a dignity in that sorrow and hold your head up and move forward to do what you need to do.
Pre-order Songs of Bob Dylan here http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/joanosborne2