"There's a guy here in Brooklyn," starts Joan Osborne, "who sells mix CDs on a street corner. Every time he plays 70s soul groups, everyone within earshot gets a big grin on their face, starts singing along under their breath and the whole atmosphere around him just changes. A lot of the impetus for this record came from those blithe moments on the street. And, yes, I bought more than a few CDs from him," she laughs.
On her latest album, Breakfast in Bed, Osborne got the chance to make her very own mix, a collection of soul classics and new songs she wrote to fit in seamlessly alongside them. "I love this music and these songs," Osborne explains wistfully. "When I first started singing with any kind of seriousness, I was involved with the roots music scene in NYC and got a real education in soul, rhythm and blues. Etta James, Howlin' Wolf â€¦ it was the same for me back then as it is now. I try to emulate the emotional rawness of their music and wanted to revisit the simplicity of the lyrics and direct style of songwriting."
Breakfast in Bed isn't the first time Osborne has channeled classic soul singers. In 2002, she recorded How Sweet It Is, an album entirely made up of R&B covers and later that year she appeared in the award-winning film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. What drew her back to the classics was the challenge to write new songs in the style of the legends, new songs that would end up fitting so flawlessly beside the old that even the engineers in the recording studio couldn't tell them apart.
"The writing process was kind of liberating," she confesses. "Up until my last couple of albums, I had always kind of given myself free reign to write, which is sometimes overwhelming and easy to get lost in. If I tell myself I can write anything, then what do I do and where do I start? With soul, I know it so very well and felt right at home and found it was really more comfortable than almost anything I've ever done before." "When writing songs in soul and R&B," Osborne continues, "a lot of it is about love and relationships and you have to go into your own relationship to make the writing ring true. I drew on a lot of personal experience for Breakfast in Bed, probably more than ever before."
Breakfast in Bed comes quickly on the heels of Pretty Little Stranger, a country-tinged record Osborne released in late 2006. The trek from country to soul might seem a long and winding road to some, but not Osborne, who has spent her life experimenting in different worlds. Her musical pilgrimage has taken her to India where she studied with Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn then later returned to perform for the Dalai Lama, the deep south to uncover the roots of the blues and into concert halls in every corner of the world to perform with artists whose names would never otherwise be uttered in the same sentence: Taj Mahal, Luciano Pavarotti, Spearhead, Bob Dylan, The Dead, The Dixie Chicks. "It wasn't a deliberate decision," Osborne explains. "I've always been curious about different kinds of music. If you dig deeply enough into any genre you find they cross over, like that the roots of Moroccan music are familiar to the roots of Irish."
A refreshingly creative path for someone whose major label debut stormed the charts with the runaway smash "(What If God Was) One of Us." The whirlwind that followed included a Top 5 hit, multi-platinum album sales, five Grammy nominations and a second life a decade later when the song was tapped for the critically acclaimed CBS series Joan of Arcadia. Her brilliant follow up album, Righteous Love was released in 2000, and her R&B covers album, How Sweet it Is, came in 2002. Along the way, Osborne was asked to sit in on lead vocals with The Dead (formerly the Grateful Dead), opened for the Dixie Chicks, performed at the Grand Ol' Opry and traveled the world seeking out her musical muses.
When her journey brings Joan back home to the Brooklyn street corner that brought us Breakfast in Bed, there should be no surprise when she catches herself singing along to the sound of her own voice coming from the mix man's stereo.