Thursday, 21 September 2017
Joan Osborne does Bob Dylan...
Joan Osborne boldly takes on 'Songs of Bob Dylan'
30 August 2017
Unlike almost everything in today’s popular music and in the great standards of years past, the songs of Bob Dylan can be savored in multiple ways. The finest among them are elusive and accessible, puzzling and informative, all at the same time.
None of this intimidates Joan Osborne. In fact, that’s why she dedicates her new album entirely to his works. More than a tribute to his legacy, Songs Of Bob Dylan, releasing Sept. 1, also captures Osborne at her best as a vocal interpreter. Much of this stems from the insight she’s gained into his intentions as a writer.
“One of the great lessons of Dylan’s writing is that his songs are obviously about something or someone very specific to him,” says Osborne, 55. “And yet he uses this poetic language that allows it to be about many other things. This makes them all the more powerful because you want the listener, even more than the singer, to take in that story in a way that means something to them.”
This repertoire has fascinated Osborne since her earliest years. She drew from it onstage in Greenwich Village nightclubs and bars after moving east from her home state of Kentucky. As her reputation spread nationally in the wake of her hit single One of Us, Dylan himself took note. And in 1998, he sent her an unexpected invitation to join him on a duet version of his elegiac Chimes Of Freedom, to be featured on the 1999 NBC mini-series The ‘60s.
“We recorded on the same microphone,” she recalls. “My face was literally inches from his face. We did Chimes Of Freedom three times. Each one was very different from the others. Because Dylan has this very restless intelligence, he can change his approach very quickly from one moment to the next. So I had to really lock onto his phrasing and basically stare at his lips so that I could match what he was doing with my harmony. It was actually a positive thing for me because I had to concentrate fully, so I didn’t have any mental energy left over to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on the microphone with Bob Dylan!’”
The decision to tackle this project stems from Osborne’s two-week residencies in 2016 and 2017 at New York’s Cafe Carlyle, each one featuring Dylan’s songs exclusively. For those engagements, she fashioned many of them into personal statements that honored his spontaneity as well as his writing. Many of these turn up on Songs Of Bob Dylan, including Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 transformed into dreamy shuffle and Ring Them Bells as a cascade of piano chords, tumbling like a carillon sounding the hour.
Just one track, Masters Of War, pushed Osborne to focus on the literal rather than figurative qualities of the lyric. There’s nothing obscure about its scorn for war profiteers, a message that was well understood in the 1960s and relevant to current events as well.
“The thing that connected with me is the line in the first verse: ‘I want you to know I can see through your mask,’ ” she says. “That’s very direct, this concept of speaking truth to power, not just saying it in a general way but addressing it directly to a person. As a mother, the verse about fearing to bring children in the world also resonates with me. This is a frightening time to be alive. And it’s this kind of moment when our great artists and poets are most needed. We need songs like this more than ever to crystallize our passion and to express what we’re feeling.”