In March of 1995, Joan's first major release Relish was released. The album was an immediate critical favorite, but commercial success didn't arrive until the stimulating "One of Us" became a smash hit. The song, with its memorable melody and provocative lyrics, garnered attention from not just radio, television, magazines, but also some religious groups. Many debated the song (and sometimes Joan) as pro or non religious. A staunch supporter of women's rights and reproductive freedom, Joan did not hide or lessen her involvement for Planned Parenthood and pro-choice initiatives. Nevertheless, Relish earned an astounding 8 Grammy Award nominations, including one for Album of the Year. "One of Us," "St. Teresa," and "Spider Web" were all nominated songs. Relish has sold more than three million copies to date; in 2000, Entertainment Weekly recognized Relish as one of the top 10 albums of the entire nineties. In November 1996, Mercury didn't waste time in issuing Early Recordings, which comprised selections from Joan's early independent releases, Soul Show and Blue Million Miles. Joan's success was further exclaimed as she toured for the next three years before beginning work on her follow-up album.
Joan's politics and spirituality have always remained strong and true. She sits as an honorary member on Planned Parenthood's Board of Advocates. The organization has frequently been invited to set up information booths at her concerts; additionally, Joan has recorded public services announcements on their behalf. Joan has also studied Qawwali music, a form of traditional, spiritual Indian music. World-revered Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan honored Joan with an invitation to study with him, which she did briefly before his unexpected death.
During 1997 and 1998, Joan participated in the historic and successful Lilith Fair tour and was featured alongside tour-founder Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and Fiona Apple on a cover of Entertainment Weekly. Joan continued working, contributing to soundtracks, compilations, and guest albums. In 2000, Joan produced Speaking In Tongues for The Holmes Brothers, which received rave reviews, especially for Joan's production. Despite Joan's success and collaborations, her own project Curds & Whey was being heavily scrutinized and delayed by Mercury who were uneasy trusting Joan's artistic license and harder rocking tunes. Forcing her into a tense stalemate, Mercury ultimately released Joan from contract at the very end of 1999. Undaunted, Joan self-financed and co-produced Righteous Love with Mitchell Froom. Joan's follow-up to Relish was finally released by Interscope Records in September of 2000. The album was met with glowing reviews and a strong concert tour, but did not generate huge sales.
In 2002, Joan signed with indie label Compendia Music Group, revitalizing her own Womanly Hips moniker in the deal. Indie spirit in hand, Joan released the soul covers album How Sweet It Is in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The collection drew inspiration from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Initial inspiration, however, came from The Funk Brothers, the previously unsung Motown studio musicians showcased in the hit film documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown. Backed by The Funk Brothers in the film, Joan's "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" has been praised as the "showstopping highlight" that "brings tears to one's eyes" in this "soaring" rendition.
Not long thereafter, Joan was invited to open for the Dixie Chicks on their record-breaking Top Of The World tour in Spring 2003. Remaining Grateful Dead members also sought Joan out when they regrouped as The Dead. Joan toured with the band on their monstrous Summer Getaway 2003 tour, which marked the band's return to performing. Joan's contribution was magical as she earned yet more praise from both critics and always-scrutinizing "deadheads." all of whom welcomed Joan's inclusion as a full-status member of The Dead.