These days it seems that all you hear in the news is about how America is divided. Understandably many see nothing but doom at the end of the road, but singer/songwriter Joan Osborne can’t help but choose hope. In Trouble and Strife, her first album of new material in six years, she celebrates American music genres by highlighting the richness of forms like country, blues, and rock and roll. With her lyrics that tell stories about inequality, immigration, and violence, she invites listeners to meditate on how both the beauty and the horror make up the country. This dichotomy is what Osborne uses as the canvas to paint her soul-stirring work.
Listening to Trouble and Strife, one almost has the impression of being on a road trip. Each song transports the listener to a new story and genre. In the upbeat “Whole Wide World”, she cherishes optimistic pop as she sings, “Lookin’ past the sorrow and the tears / Let me take you to the better place / Let me put that smile back on your face” — and one can’t help but accept her invitation.
Osborne’s previous album was a collection of Bob Dylan covers called Songs of Bob Dylan, but seeing the US’ state led her to write an Americana collection. The powerful “What’s That You Say” has her share the stage with a Mexican immigrant who tells the harrowing story of her arrival in America in her native language. Osborne marries the Spanish words with a catchy rock melody complete with a chorus that repeats the song title. America’s inhumane immigration policies and the indifference of its citizens who should know better, in song form.
Osborne has been exploring social themes in her work for over two decades, but Trouble and Strife finds her at her most political. She chronicles what she sees and challenges listeners to take action. We spoke to Osborne from her home in Brooklyn on the eve of the album’s release. She talked candidly about her dismay given the current political climate, how her film education influences her songwriting and making music during a global pandemic.
You have spent a lot of time on the road. How has quarantine been for you?
Yeah, it’s the first time in decades that I’ve been able to be at home as much as I have been in the last five or six months. Part of that is frustrating because, of course, I miss playing live shows. But I’m trying to take it for what it is and enjoy the things about it that are good. I do like that I’m able to spend all this time with my daughter. She’s doing school from home, and so I don’t have to leave her behind. And you can sort of be a bit of a homebody, which is my nature by nature.
I think I’m probably more of a homebody than a touring musician maybe should be. So I like that aspect of it. And you know, I’m able to plant a garden which I’ve never been able to do and my partner, and I are fixing up the house. So we’re just being homebodies. It’s not much, but we’re trying to do what we can to do a handful of streaming shows and then, of course, talking to people like you to try to get the word out about the new record.
Guitar-Fender-Pink by rahu (Pixabay)
In your song “What’s That You Say”, I was struck by how powerful the contrast is. Your lyrics are placed against a real-life immigrant telling her story about coming to America. How did you decide to incorporate her story into the song?
The idea for the song came about because I’ve been listening to this debate or conversation, if you will, about immigration that has been raging in our country for the last few years. I mean, it’s been a long time. But in the last several years, it’s really started to become this issue that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds. And I’m just dismayed by the fact that anyone would say that immigration to the United States is a negative thing. Because the way I see it when immigrants come here to this country, they bring the best of themselves. They bring their energy, and they bring their enterprise, and they bring their cultural traditions. Particularly for me as an artist, I think, what a boring place America would be if we didn’t have all these immigrants coming, bringing their cultural traditions, their music, their fashion style, their storytelling, and then all those different traditions mixing together to create these new forms.
You know, that’s what American art and American culture are all about.
So I am very confused and dismayed that anyone would think this is a negative thing. I wanted to write a song about a character who comes to the US as an immigrant and brings the best of themselves and makes this place better because of being here. And so I had this imaginary character in my mind of this young woman who immigrates as a little girl. And there would be spaces once the song was recorded, and then there will be spaces in the track. There were these musical interludes, and I kept hearing some spoken word thing going on in there.
I could have done something myself, but I felt like it was an opportunity to sort of turn the mic over to someone who has actually lived this experience and who was actually like this character that the song is about. That’s another one of the things that really makes me crazy about this conversation around immigration is that we talk about immigrants a lot, but we don’t seem to talk to them or listen to them very much. So that just makes me nuts. And so I thought, well, here’s my chance to use whatever platform I have and allow someone to tell their own story about living this experience.
I had been a fan of the work of this group Raices, they’re this organization that helps people who are coming to the US through the southern border, and it helps them to navigate this really horrendous and dehumanizing system that’s in place that has just gotten worse in the last four years. So I’ve been a big fan of their work. And I reached out to them and asked them if they knew of anybody who would be interested in telling their story as part of the song. And that’s when they connected me with this woman, Ana Maria, who you hear on the track. She agreed to be interviewed by me, and so we had a very long conversation, about a three-hour conversation. She was at a recording studio in Texas, and I was at home in New York. And it was a very, very moving conversation.
I think you hear some of that in the part that we edited down to put in the song. Her life, as she says, has not been an easy one. She told me about how her father had been kidnapped when she was a little girl. Even though he was eventually returned to the family, they never felt safe again in Mexico, and they decided to come to the US. Her parents just told her they were leaving, and they were moving away. You have to say goodbye to your grandmother and to your cousins and to your favorite teachers, and you may never see them again. We talked for hours, and what you hear on the record is sort of the edited down version of her. Just, you know, telling about what her life has been like.’
That must’ve been incredible.
Yeah, we were both in tears at many, many points during the conversation.
I really loved that you continue pursuing intersectionality in this album and I kept going like, heck yeah, Joan. I loved “Meat and Potatoes” because you take a common saying and turn it on its head. I wonder what other sayings that are so reductive about women specifically have you found yourself questioning more and more as you grow as a songwriter and as an artist?
I mean, I don’t know if there are any particular phrases related to women in particular that strike me as being absurd and wanting to write a song about. But we are living in a time when certain things that I grew up assuming about what women could be and what they could do and how they were going to be treated in the world. I grew up in the midst of the feminist wave of the 1970s. And you know, a lot of that progress was made. I sort of took for granted, but I’m also the mother of a teenage daughter now, and I think it’s a different moment.
On the one hand, men can, to a certain extent, choose any career path that they want. They can earn a living and raise families on their own, and they don’t need a husband or a man to complete them, and they can have a life of their own. On the other hand, we tell them, oh, you can do anything, you can be anything, but there’s plenty of examples in the larger culture of how women are not treated as equals and how they are subject to a lot of abuse. You look at the Kavanaugh trial and see that people who mistreat women are not taken to account for their actions. They are able to succeed and will have people violently defending their actions and blaming the woman for being the victim. So I think it’s a schizophrenic time, you know, to think about being a woman and being a female in this culture and the world. This is not just an American thing; you look at places like India where the problem of rape is horrible, and you know about bride burnings and horrible things like this. I mean, it’s all over the world that this sort of thing is happening.
Absolutely. This felt like a protest album, and I don’t hear that phrase often nowadays. Did you feel that your album was a protest album?
Well, you could call it that. For me, this is the most political record I’ve ever put out, and it very much was purposely a response to the things that are happening in the world. I didn’t want to make it like you’re sitting down and being lectured. I wanted it to have a lot of joy and a lot of energy as well. But I also wanted to tackle some of the issues and the subject that we are trying to deal with, as a country and as a world. This is a moment where a lot of our actions will impact the future of our planet, the future of our children and our grandchildren. So I wanted to use the platform that I have to try to be part of the conversation. I also tried to use music to lift people in a frightening time, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I think music is a great tool at this moment to allow people to stay connected to their energy and their joy.
Where are you finding hope these days?
I’m finding hope in the Black Lives Matter protests that have been happening since the death of George Floyd in particular. And I’m finding hope in the response of the nation. It’s not a universal response, but for the most part, the people who are protesting this injustice are doing so peacefully, and they are doing so in huge numbers. They’re changing the conversation around racism and policing. People are educating themselves instead of just being like, “oh, well, if you’re against the police, then you must be for criminals”. It’s a much more nuanced subject than that, and people are educating themselves. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
I’m trying to read a lot about the history of policing and where we might go in the future to have a better system that is more just. I get positive hope from that. There are so many people who very much want and very much need to be engaged in this moment and are doing so peacefully and are doing so intelligently and are actually driving some positive change.
I couldn’t help but think a lot about your iconic “One of Us”, which helped me navigate through the weeks after George Floyd’s death in many ways. It’s as if Floyd was Jesus, Breonna Taylor was Jesus, Ahmaud Arbery was Jesus. He keeps coming back, and we keep killing him over and over again.
Oh my God, wow. I was having a conversation this morning with my partner, and he was saying, “You know, Jesus should come back right now.” And I’m like, “Well, what would happen? He would be murdered.” This message of revolutionary love and acceptance doesn’t seem to be one that entrenched powers want to hear because it threatens their power. I think that’s a very interesting way to put it, that Jesus keeps coming back again, and again keeps getting killed. I mean, a horrible thought. But what an interesting way to put it.
I think that’s part of what drives all the mass disinformation efforts that are going on right now in our country and all around the world. There are people who have seen that a way to retain their power is to divide us as a nation and to make sure that we can’t agree on anything and can’t come together to find solutions to all the problems that we’re facing.
I think that message of universal love and acceptance is one that really threatens a lot of people, and even people who consider themselves or say that they are Christians seem to be threatened by this message of universal love and equality. That’s something we need to address as a nation.
Related to that, the title track has you telling a story about violence that comes out of nowhere but that we keep feeding and repeating. The song felt very much like a traditional country song in terms of storytelling and, in many ways, feels like a song that could go on forever because you keep adding layers to the tale. How did you know when it was done?
I think it was about not wanting to overstay your welcome. I think about guests, it’s great to have them, but after about four days, you really want them to be gone. I had just done an album of Bob Dylan covers and was really immersed in his work at the time, and I think I borrowed a lot, especially from his recent work, to make that song. It uses a similar technique that he uses to tell the story like a traditional American form, like country blues, and then you put these sorts of surreal stories to that music. Bob Dylan could have 15 verses, but I guess I didn’t feel like I wanted to risk people starting to have their eyes glaze over and want to skip to the next track. And also, I felt like I had made my point after verse five or whatever.
How dies your background in documentary film contribute to your songwriting?
Well, that’s interesting. I do feel like the fiction films that I studied when I was in college and the directors that I really loved, people like Fellini and Truffaut, I took a few lessons from the way that they would edit films together in the way that I tried to write songs at that time. Instead of explaining things, I tried to unfold pictures, if you will. The order in which the pictures unfold is the way that you get the meaning from them and the way that the story is told. So I feel like I took a page from some of these great film directors in writing songs, in particular, around like the Relish record and Little Wild One. This record, I think, has more of a documentary sort of approach where it’s talking about things that are happening right now all around us. It’s not naming names, but it’s talking about corrupt people and people who are abusing their power. You can look all around you and see examples of that right now.
I devoured Truffaut and Fellini as a teenager, so now I must know which of their works are your favorites?
Oh, gosh, I think for Truffaut, it’s Jules et Jim I think my favorite. I don’t know why, but I just love it. There’s also a lesser-known Truffaut film called Two English Girls, which I liked quite a bit. And Fellini, it’s probably got to be either La Strada, or which was the one they turned into the Broadway musical Sweet Charity?
Nights of Cabiria.
Cabiria! Yes! Thank you! I think those two.
So you’re a Masina kind of gal?
I love Giulietta Masina. Yes, absolutely.
When your Bob Dylan album came out, you talked about how you had to grapple with the misogyny in his earlier work. After doing that album, and after writing and producing Trouble and Strife, are there stories you wish you wouldn’t need to tell anymore?
I mean, yes, of course, but I think that’s maybe the wrong question. We can all wish that things had been different, and someone else had come to power, and I wish as the mother of a teenage girl that I didn’t have to worry about her physical safety and all these things. But that’s not the world we live in, and we have to accept what we have and what the world is. If there’s something that we see that we want to be different, then we need to do the work to change it.
It’s up to us wishing is not going to make it so.
You talked about the song “Whole Wide World”, and it certainly expresses this hope. I think it’s good to express hope, and it’s good to imagine what a better future can be, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of work that has to be done to get there. I wish that we didn’t have to learn these lessons over and over again and that every successive generation didn’t need to be protected from these different threats. But that’s the way it is. So what are you going to do? You’re going to roll up your sleeves, and you’re going to get working?
Right, you’re going to immerse yourself in art sometimes to try to find an escape from all that.
Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t make a record that I thought could be used as an escape because I think it’s all about the difficulties that are happening right now. But I don’t fault any artists for using their talents to make that kind of creation. I think there’s value in having a place where you can forget about all the craziness that is going on for a little while and stay connected to your humanity. I think that’s very valuable as well.
The album feels like a journey across America, and yet at the very end, you take off…
Oh, you mean “Panama”?
Yeah. You’re thinking, “Panama won’t let me down”. I grew up in that part of the world, and I don’t want to be discouraging, but you know, it’s not great down there either.
“Panama” is a little bit of a tongue in cheek song. I have sort of a sense of humor about it. I think that person who the song is about is not really me. I think it’s someone who has decided that he’s looked around, and it seems that things are messed up in this country, so he’s just going to hightail it out of here. I just thought that was a funny character and a funny idea. Not that I had thought about leaving. Oh my gosh, if things get really bad, what might we do and where might we go? I think I’m more in the camp of stay and try to help the people who are much more vulnerable than I am. If things really do get worse than they are now. I think that’s what I want to model for my kid, that when things get tough, you don’t run away, you stay, and you help the people who really need your help.
That’s really beautiful. So the last thing that I want to ask you is related to “Panama” because this character is convincing themselves that it’s this place almost over the rainbow whether they can find that safety…
You can’t really run away from climate change. Can you?
Unless you make a rocket and fly to the Moon or Mars or something.
Yeah, SpaceX and all is wonderful, but I really don’t think that humans are going to be able to colonize Mars in any meaningful way because we’ve messed up our own planet. So that seems pretty far fetched to me.
But in terms of reaching places like Panama right now with streamed shows, one of the good things that have happened during the pandemic is that since artists can’t tour, access online has made access to art more democratic, not to mention no one’s going to spill beer down your back at a show. What excites you about reaching people in their homes?
You make a good point that it’s great to be able to watch your favorite artists in this very intimate way where you’re sitting in your pajamas, and they’re on the screen in front of you, and you don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t have to get a babysitter and all of that. I think there is something positive about that. But I don’t think it’s as good as being in a physical space with other people. One of the things that is really sad about this COVID situation is that music has this power to reach across these divides that we are experiencing in our country.
We need these places in our communities and in our lives where you can come out of your little shell and your little bubble, and you can rub elbows with somebody who maybe disagrees with your political opinion. If you’re at a show together with other people in the audience, you’re not thinking about that. You’re just looking at them as a fellow music fan and a fellow human being. We need a lot of a lot more of these places where that can happen in our country. And I think that’s a real shame that the Coronavirus has made that impossible, at least in the short term.
It’s like church: I miss being surrounded by sweaty people too, who am I kidding?
I mean, yeah, exactly. There’s nothing really like it. So we make do with what we have, but there’s nothing like a real live show.