"That's a totally hopeless task," says Joan Osborne, talking about the fantasy of trying to re-tweak pop music classics so that they might eclipse the power and stature of the originals. "There's just no way you can do that." It's something Osborne has wrestled with since last year, after she appeared in 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown,' a documentary about the work of the record company's legendary Detroit-based rhythm section The Funk Brothers, and subsequently began to prepare her new album, HOW SWEET IT IS, released jointly through Womanly Hips, Osborne's independent label, and Compendia Music. On this collection, Osborne revisits, in ways both comforting and startling, mid-'60s soul standards. "Once we had selected a song," she says, "we had to forget about the versions that had been done before." The result is transformative. "I was never interested in trying to out-do anyone," she continues. "I felt like there were certain songs that retained, as things have turned out, a particular resonance in this moment that we are all in now. I wanted to try to bring something of myself to these songs, something new, to let people hear these very familiar songs again, but maybe hear the meaning of the song in a fresh way."
Recorded at NEW YORK NOISE by producers John Levanthal and NYN CD Rick DePofi, HOW SWEET IT IS was made after the events of September 11 uniquely re-ordered everyone's physical and emotional worlds. "The notion of doing this sort of collection had come up before then," says Osborne, a Kentucky-born Brooklynite whose music has long been informed by local and passionate sources, both from the U. S. and abroad. "We were just starting to put the wheels into motion when 9/11 happened. This, of course, set everyone back on their heels, and nothing got done; making a record became the last thing on my mind. Yet ultimately, because I'm so fortunate to be able to make music in my life, I decided that yes, this is a way that I might be helpful, even though I'm not a doctor or a nurse or a fire-fighter, that there is something that music means to people that is necessary. After emerging from the shock of what happened, I began to think again about this project. I began to ask: 'What is about these songs that I love, and what is it about them that has some relevance to people in the world today?'"
For soul classics popularized by creative titans like Otis Redding ("These Arms of Mine"), Aretha Franklin ("Think), Jimi Hendrix ("Axis: Bold as Love"), the Spinners ("I'll Be Around") and others, Osborne and Levanthal fuse the literate intimacy of singer-songwriter rock and the dramatic vocal freedom of interpretive pop singing with the rhythmic life and harmonic luxe of soul. But in developing this approach for the black popular music of 30 years ago, Osborne first looked at the ways and means of the black popular music of right now. "I started out working up these songs in my home studio," she says, "making demos out of them. I was very interested in taking some of the lessons of a modern hip-hop record, like a Mary J. Blige or a Dr. Dre production, which is incredibly minimal compared to, say, today's rock records, or even a lot of soul records that have come before. It's very much about a beat, and the singer, and maybe just a few little instrumental things that serve as hooks. They're spare. So a lot of the cohesiveness I think we ended up with came from that. Of course, we certainly moved beyond hip-hop minimalism with some of the songs. But that's where we started: I really wanted to uncover the bones of this approach, of me singing a particular song like 'HOW SWEET IT IS'. Once you've located the structure, that sort of bone eloquence, yes, you may need to add texture to it with guitars and organs and all these other things. But we started there."
Osborne had also lately immersed herself in the vibe-filled sounds of DJ and techno culture. "There are certain clubs and places in Brooklyn that I go and check out that world," she says. "I think these musicians, who are still underground, draw a lot from classic soul records as well. I'll sit in a cafe where DJ music is playing, and for a while it's great; I¼m hypnotized by the beat. But then I'll want a song. Maybe my brain was hard-wired at a time when a song was important. But I'm also a singer, and the singing you usually hear on DJ records tends to be, like, one phrase, which will come in and happen over and over again. It's very much used as part of the overall collage." With vocals that establish her further as one of the most sensitive and mighty interpretive singers at work today, Osborne steered HOW SWEET IT IS in a different, more classic, direction. On 2000's 'Righteous Love', the follow-up to 'Relish', her multi-platinum 1995 major-label breakthrough recording that spawned her "One Of Us" hit sensation, Osborne had sung with a bit of an agenda. On HOW SWEET IT IS, that has vanished, replaced by a concentration so jealously focused on the needs and message of a particular song that Osborne's focus melts into pure soul elegance and communication.
"On my last album," she explains, "I had a little bit of a sense of mission of wanting to sing very strongly and very expressively. I guess I had felt that on 'Relish' I had missed some opportunities to really sing, and I wanted to make up for that. I was wrestling with all that when I made 'Righteous Love'. This time, I didn't care about that at all: I surprised myself in approaching these songs; a lot of times I would start out thinking, 'OK, I'm going to tear this song up, do all this acrobatic stuff.' But in the event it just didn't appeal to me. I thought it was wrong. I felt like the better thing was to be more straightforward, more intimate with the meaning of the lyric. If you had never heard this song before, had no other association with it, then you would understand it on this very basic level. Sometimes when I was singing in the studio, I would picture myself sitting on the shoulder of somebody wearing a Walkman. It's a very intimate, sort of whispering-in-their-ear kind of thing. I was less interested in displaying my singerly chops than seeing how I could present this lyric and sing this song and really mean it.
In addition to Leventhal and DePofi, who contribute a variety of different instruments to the music on HOW SWEET IT IS, Osborne was able to call on musicians like R&B legend Isaac Hayes, as well as drummer-percussionist Ahmir Thompson of the Roots and singer-songwriter-bassist Me'shell Ndegeocello, who comprise the rhythm section on the album's version of Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces." "I tried to be judicious," Osborne says. "I tried to balance the album so that it wasn't just political soul songs. I do think there are a few that have a real message, a social component. We may not live in a time when people look to music for content like that, but there have been many times when people have. Yet as interested as I was to re-do these political songs, I was just as interested in songs that had a real joyfulness to them, a sense of optimism, this community spirit and talk about brotherhood. I wanted to touch on that as well, along with the shock and the sadness of event in our recent history. We may not usually think of our civic and musical lives joined like this, but lately, the feeling has been in the air.
"How Sweet It Is " brilliantly confirms that, with altogether new and stirring richness.