An Interview with Joan Osborne for the upcoming Sing Out for Seva Benefit Concert

Joan Osborne (Photo: Jeff Fasano)
Joan Osborne (Photo: Jeff Fasano)'s (SFBAC) Kate Haley had a chance to interview Joan Osborne last week in advance of the 40th anniversary of the Sing Out for Seva benefit concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland on January 12th (tickets here.) Hosted by Wavy Gravy, the concert features 7-time GRAMMY nominated blues artist Joan Osborne, 7-time GRAMMY nominated & Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jackson Browne, 10-time GRAMMY award-winner & Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bonnie Raitt, Mickey Hart and Friends, and Pura Fe & Cary Morin. This benefit is for the Seva Foundation, which is committed to restoring sight to people with avoidable blindness, worldwide. You can find the full interview below and be sure to start off the new year with what will undoubtedly be a fantastic show.

SFBAC: Sing Out for Seva's coming up which I’m really excited to be covering. Is this your first year doing the annual benefit for Seva?

Joan Osborne: I believe it is, unless I did it many years ago. I feel like maybe I did it many years ago, but it's been a while if it's not my first time.

SFBAC: With Mickey Hart performing and Bob Weir being on the advisory role at Seva, it’s wonderful to see another Grateful Dead member on board this year. I’ve seen you quoted as saying that you didn’t tour around in a VW Bus and sell grilled cheese sandwiches at Grateful Dead shows.

Joan Osborne: Yeah, when I tell people that I toured with the Dead, some people will be like, "Oh yeah, I did that too, from such and so to such and so." Well, except I was actually playing music for them and I was in the group. So I say that the thing about not selling grilled cheese sandwiches to differentiate from other people's experience of touring with the Dead.

SFBAC: Well I was definitely one of those people in their VW bus, hawking grilled cheese, and doing hair wraps. Do you think that you are more likely to be hit with the assumption that you were in the parking lot, as opposed to on the stage, because you're female?

Joan Osborne: That's a good question. I think maybe it's that, but I think it's mostly just that it's an outrageous thing to say that you toured with the Dead and were actually on stage with them. It's a pretty small group of people who can say that they've done that. So likely as not, you would've been in the parking lot and in the audience and not on the stage. But I guess there haven't been that many women who've worked with them, so maybe that makes it even less likely that someone would automatically assume that I was in the band.

SFBAC: Yeah, I think you're number three if I'm not mistaken, as far significant contributors go.

Joan Osborne: Yeah. Donna Jean (Godchaux) and Susan Tedeschi, right? I think that Tedeschi was just on for one summer.

SFBAC: You’ve definitely continued on with a lot of the associated acts. I've seen you do a lot with Phil Lesh. How did that come to be?

Joan Osborne: Every once in a while, I'll get a call from Phil's people. He continued to do the Phil Lesh and Friends thing and rotates different performers and different artists in and out of the lineup. So whenever I do it, it's always for a fairly brief amount of time, and then I won't hear from them for a little while. And of course I have a lot of other things of my own that I'm doing, and that's mostly what I do is my own tours; I'm not always available when they do call, so it's really just an occasional thing that I'm able to do. I do like singing that music, and the catalog is so deep with so many great songs, and I really enjoy performing that stuff. I also like touching base again with that audience, and that particular community of fans, because it is very unique in music, that community of fans. It's nice to go back and say hello and visit every now and again.

SFBAC: That makes a lot of sense and we’re lucky when you do, as strong roots in blues adds so much to the mix. Any hints as to whether or not you might be with Dead and Company in the future?

Joan Osborne: I don't know. I don't see Dead and Company as a similar thing where they have a lot of guests rotating in and out, unless I'm wrong. It seems like that's a pretty solid lineup and they do what they do. So I haven't connected with Dead and Company.

Once in a while I'll reach out to Bobby (Weir) or (Bill) Kreutzmann or we will run into each other or something, but there haven't been any invites for me to go hang out with Dead and Company. It would be fun to do it, but I don't know if Dead and Company is a similar thing where they have a lot of guests, unless I'm wrong about that. I haven't seen any of those shows.

I went to the Soldier Field final show of all the last four guys and saw that. And for me, that was a nice, good dose for me for the time being, and having been so busy, I haven't been able to go out and see any of the Dead and Company shows yet. Have you?

SFBAC: Yep. I go every chance I get, either as a deadhead, or as a deadhead that’s covering the show. I've been very curious about how Dead and Company will evolve. I believe it was Bobby who gave an interview in which he hinted at a vision of a legacy going forward with younger musicians, like John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge, sharing the helm as appropriate.

Your joining the Dead, in such a tumultuous time, is fascinating. I was talking with the Dead's historian and former publicist, Dennis McNally, who mentioned that after Jerry passed away, there was a collective feel of “what do we do now?” with the surviving members. [Ed. note: you can read Kate's full interview with Dennis here.] I can vouch for that being universal amongst the fans as well. When I heard that you were on board in 2003 it gave me hope again; thanks for that.

Joan Osborne: You're welcome. I think it's very interesting this concept of the music of bands like the Dead, or people like Bob Dylan as almost akin to a classical music repertoire where different musicians can pick up the mantle and carry it for a little while and continue to allow these songs to live and breathe in live performance settings.

I think it's interesting the way that that's been happening. And for me as somebody who, I really enjoy writing and performing my own music, but I also like coming at it from the angle of a jazz singer and interpreting other people's stuff. It’s very interesting to take on these big catalogs of other people's music, and see what I can do to continue to allow the music to live and breathe as a live performance thing.

And as you were saying, as Bobby implied, they're not going to live forever and they probably are interested in setting up something so that the music and the legacy continues even after they're not performing anymore.

SFBAC: Dennis also described it as the music of the people now, and Dylan absolutely falls into that camp. Which brings me to your new Songs of Bob Dylan album (iTunes). How did that come about?

Joan Osborne: Well, interestingly enough, it came about because I'd always been fascinated with this thing that Ella Fitzgerald did in the 1950s; she did this whole series of albums, and each one was dedicated to a particular songwriter. She did a Cole Porter album, she did a Duke Ellington album, and all these additional American songbook writers, these classic writers.

I think she did a series of maybe eight or nine albums. And I always thought that was such a cool idea and it would be interesting to try to do that myself, but with writers that I'm more closely associated with, or bands that I have worked with, or otherwise more contemporary writers.

We got a call to do a residency at this place called The Café Carlyle in New York City which is this storied cabaret room. I thought, "I'd love to play this room, but I'm not really a cabaret singer and I don't want to go in there and do a bunch of cabaret music, because that's not really what I do, and I also don't want to just do my regular show, because it's a very unique venue. So what can I do to create something that is going to fit and really honor the tradition of the room, but still be true to myself? And I thought, well, this is the perfect place to try out this songbook idea.

So, we did a whole two week residency, and it was nothing but Bob Dylan songs. We weren't really sure if people were going to be interested or not, or if people were going to like it or get it, but we got such great responses from not only the fans and the critics, but also from each other exploring this music and really working on arrangements and trying to put our own particular spin on these songs.

It was so much fun, and it was so rewarding, because the material is. Dylan's writing is just so rich and so multi-layered with so many different kinds of songs, and he has hundreds of them. And it was just a great, fun project.

So when we did that and we saw that people were really reacting positively, we thought, "Well, we have to put this record out." So we did that, and it's possible that it could be the first in a series. I'm not sure who the next writer or what the next band would be that we would tackle. Right now we're working on some original music and we have an original record that's about three quarters of the way finished, so that's the focus right now. But it's possible that I'll come back and do another album of a songbook series right after that. [Ed. note: you can pre-order Joan's new untitled album here on Pledge Music.]

SFBAC: That would be incredibly cool. I'm well aware of Ella's work there; it's impressive and gutsy which I think both of you would fall into that camp as far as approach goes. Have you gotten any feedback from Dylan?

Joan Osborne: Yes, actually. We talked to Jeff Rosen, the really nice guy that runs his publishing company, and we told him about this in the beginning of the project. This was before we even did the Carlyle dates, and he spoke to Bob about it and they were both very much on board and very supportive. He said, "If there's anything that you need from us…."

When the record came out, Bob Dylan put a really nice thing on his Facebook page about it. And so that's been really wonderful to get any acknowledgement at all, because we really didn't expect any. It's not like Bob Dylan doesn't have a lot of other things to do. So we were very excited to get even that acknowledgement from him.

SFBAC: Yeah, I do not picture him as somebody that's out there stumping.

Joan Osborne: No, no I guess he's not really known to be particularly effusive either, so it was very nice of him to come out of his, I don't know, that more isolated stance that he normally has, and to give us a stamp of approval. It was very generous of him.

SFBAC: Well that's exciting. So tell me about the 40th anniversary of the Sing Out for Seva benefit concert. Did you get involved because of your relationship with Bobby and Micky?

Joan Osborne: Yeah, I think so. And Wavy Gravy, he's been around. Certainly the Dead, and I met him when I was working with the Dead and I feel like I had met him before. He does get out and about a lot and I think when the Relish record (iTunes) was out is maybe when I first met him and have done a lot of benefits and charity work and stuff.

So I'm sure I ran into him at that point. But it was over the summer, this past summer, when we did his festival up in California and he came by and we talked a little bit about the Seva Foundation, and we were like, "Yeah. We'd love to do some more." So I think that was the impetus for him to call us again.

SFBAC: That's fantastic. He's always been so larger than life and a lot of fun.

Joan Osborne: Very interesting character.

SFBAC: Who’s had the most impact on your style you've worked with over the years?

Joan Osborne: I guess I have to keep reaching back to the great soul and blues singers that really influenced me when I was first starting out and learning how to sing. People like Etta James, Otis Redding, Al Greene, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and all these great singers, Mavis Staples in particular and also Bonnie Raitt. All of these people who had this real expressive quality to their singing. That soulful nature of the singing was what really captivated me, and it's what I have come to realize is the job of any singer, and is to really put your heart and soul completely into whatever style of music you're doing. Whether it's jazz or country or rock or bluegrass, or whatever you're doing, to bring out the soulfulness of it and to allow your soul to be released through the music.

And so I, when people ask me, "Well, what kind of music do you do?" I say, "Well, I'm a soul singer”. Even though I wouldn't say that that's the only kind of music that I do, but that feels to me like my job of what I'm supposed to do is connect with that soul and allow other people to have that ignite them as well.

SFBAC: Is there anything else you’d like to get out there with this interview?

Joan Osborne: Above all, I always want to thank the fans and the audience. I've been doing this for 30 years now, and I know that not everybody gets to have a long career, and I feel really blessed and really grateful. And I know that doing music for your livelihood is a great privilege and I would not be here unless I had fans who were still supporting the music and still coming to see the concerts and buying the albums.

And I want everybody to know that I don't take that for granted, and that we try to bring 100% every time we step out on stage and every time we make a record, every time we meet somebody, meet a fan. So that's what I really want people to know, is that we understand that it's a real privilege, and we treat it as such and we don't take our audience for granted.

SFBAC: Duly noted. Thanks for spending this time with us and helping to get the word out about Sing Out for Seva.

Joan Osborne: Happy to do it.

SFBAC: We’ll keep an eye out for your new album release as well.

Joan Osborne: Yeah, please. We're hoping to have it out in the Spring of next year.

SFBAC: Fantastic.

About the Seva Foundation:
Since 1978, the Seva Foundation has worked to eliminate avoidable blindness with the help of medical professionals, activists, and musicians. Over the past 40 years, Sing Out for Seva concerts have raised millions of dollars, contributing to restoring eyesight for more than five million people worldwide.

Headquartered in Berkeley, California, Seva is rated a Four-Star Charity by Charity Navigator, holds a Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar, and is a top-rated organization with Charity Watch. By expanding access to eye care in developing nations, Seva is leading the global charge to eliminate avoidable blindness within our lifetime. For Sing Out for Seva tickets and more information visit

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