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Joan Osborne Has a Job to Do

Like many an impassioned singer/songwriter before her, Joan Osborne loves to confront injustice head-on with her music. To that end, all ten songs on Trouble and Strife (Womanly Hips/Thirty Tigers), her tenth studio album, tackle the ills of the day in a style that’s more inviting than it is didactic. Whether it’s the echo-laden prime directive of “Hands Off,” the smoldering downhome shuffle of the title track, or the seductively sly singalong rebuke of “That Was a Lie,” Trouble and Strife puts you in the room right next to the musicians as they add all the right sonic spices to Osborne’s topic-driven song recipes. And that was the artist’s precise intention from the get-go.

Now 25 years beyond her stellar 1995 breakthrough debut album Relish (featuring the ubiquitous deity equalizer “One of Us” and the not-so-holy travails of “St. Teresa”), Osborne continues to mine an aurally rich Americana-meets-AM-radio vein. Given the deeply personal nature of Trouble and Strife, recording the album in an intimate setting was of paramount concern to the Kentucky-bred vocalist/producer. Prior to the pandemic, Osborne gathered longtime bandmates and fellow collaborators alike in her basement home-recording studio—the aptly dubbed Window Well Studios in Brooklyn, New York—in order to capture the pure essence of the subject matter at hand.

“There was a sound this room brought to the record, and I really felt like it complemented the shoot-from-the-hip feeling all the songs had,” Osborne explains. “I didn’t feel like it needed a ton of synthesizers or other things like loops all over it. We were all sitting in the same room with some isolation. A guitar amp would be in a closet, and the drums were mostly close-miked with baffles around them. But I wanted everybody to be able to see each other, because there’s something intangible about that kind of setup that allows people to mesh together musically. It was all very immediate, and it captured the visceral feeling I wanted the record to have.”

Osborne’s penchant for harnessing instantly hummable melodies and sweet vocal harmonies stem from her Kentucky youth, when she would incessantly listen to the 1965 RCA Victor Sound of Music film soundtrack LP on her parents’ old-school console. “The console stereo was right next to a kitchen cabinet, and the cabinet door would open in such a way that made this little box around me where the stereo speaker was right next to my ear,” she explains. “I could close myself in while listening, and each time I played the record, I would play a different character and sing a different part. That was an amazing training ground for learning how to sing harmonies.”

A key influence on her writing style continues to be Bob Dylan, whom Osborne paid great homage to with her intimate 2017 covers project, Songs of Bob Dylan, and its ensuing tour. “The lesson I learned from him was how to write a song that can have political relevance in the moment you’re living in—but that it could also be about something that happened 50 years ago or 50 years hence,” she clarifies. “That’s part of Dylan’s genius. Because I had been so steeped in his music, I was able to borrow a little bit of that idea from him in writing some of these songs. If you can learn how to write something that has that sense of being particular but can also be universal, then that’s a great thing to be able to do.” (Just connect the chilling lyric “ain’t no difference ’tween a mask and your face” in the aforementioned “That Was a Lie” with the stark mask-related lines in Dylan’s “Masters of War” and “Man in the Long Black Coat,” and you’ll see exactly what she means.)

If anything, the overall close-knit feel of Trouble and Strife achieves Osborne’s goal of inclusionary universality. “Particularly in a time like this, music has a job to do,” she concludes. “Music has these particular characteristics that allow it to express ideas and give people a voice to add to the dialog of the moment. But it also has the ability to lift us up and keep us connected to a sense of energy and hopefulness. If you can keep this idea in mind—that there is a brighter day ahead—you can stay connected to the joy that music feeds. And then you have the energy and the ability to create the kind of changes we need to make.” And that’s just the kind of good Trouble we can all get behind.

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