"This one feels a little different," Joan Osborne says of her new release Love and Hate. In addition to being the beloved singer-songwriter and seven-time Grammy nominee's eighth studio album and her eOne debut, the 12-song set is one of the most personally-charged, creatively ambitious efforts of her two-decades-plus recording career.
While Osborne has already earned a reputation as both a commanding, passionate performer and a frank, emotionally evocative songwriter, her soulful songcraft reaches a new level of musical and lyrical resonance on Love and Hate. Such insightful, emotionally complex new compositions as "Where We Start," "Work On Me," "Kitten's Got Claws," "Keep It Underground" and the pointed title track survey some of the more complicated terrain of romantic relationships, in a manner that's rarely been attempted in popular music, while the album's intimate, stripped-down sound marks a stylistic departure from the gritty blues-based rock for which Osborne is best known.
"I feel like each song on this album talks about a different aspect of love," she says. "Love isn't just one thing; it encompasses faith, passion, power struggles, humor, anguish, spirituality, lust, anger, everything on that spectrum. The people we love can bring out the very best and the absolute worst in us, because the leap that you make in trusting another person makes you vulnerable. When the endorphin rush of falling in love stops, that's when the difficult work comes in. So I tried to come up with songs that were about different aspects of this continuum.
"These songs," she continues, "were very influenced by things outside of the music world—poetry, film, short stories—that I felt had nailed truths about romantic love that I hadn't heard a lot in popular music. The depictions of romantic love in blues and soul and pop music are usually either about the high of falling in love, the pain of being abandoned, or the power politics of breaking up with someone and kicking them to the curb. But in adult lives we seldom have the luxury of just saying 'Alright, this isn't working for me so I'm out of here.' Most people's situations lie somewhere between those extremes, and the challenge of navigating and surviving these situations is something that I wanted to reflect in these songs."
Love and Hate is the product of an extended birth cycle that spanned no less than seven years—a period during which Osborne released two other albums and worked on an assortment of other musical projects. She and co-producer/guitarist Jack Petruzzelli—with whom she also recorded 2012's Bring It On Home, which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Blues Album category—had initially intended to make a lush, pastoral album in the mold of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or Nick Drake's Pink Moon. But as she continued to write songs for the project, Osborne found herself drawn towards more personal subject matter.
"Jack brought me some pieces of music," she explains, "and as I started putting lyrics and melodies to them, the lyrics that I was coming up with started to present a theme. It seemed very clear to me that these songs wanted to be a record about romantic love, so I didn't fight it."
The resulting album—which, in addition to Osborne's sublimely expressive vocals and Petruzzelli's stellar guitar work, features instrumental contributions from Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess, and backup vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey, Catherine Russell and Ollabelle member Amy Helm—more than justifies the amount of time and energy that went into its creation.
"I feel like this record is like the novel that sat in the author's drawer for 50 years," Osborne notes. "More than any record I've ever done, it felt like it needed the time to change and evolve and become what it was supposed to be. Whenever you make a record, there's always an element of uncertainty, of not knowing how people are going to receive it, and that was really amplified in this case because of the time element. But I felt like I had to keep going, so we just kept taking the next step and kept moving until it arrived at the place it had to be."
The same creative dedication that spawned Love and Hate has been a hallmark of Joan Osborne's work from the start. Although the Kentucky native grew up with a passion for music, when she arrived in New York City in the late 1980s, it was to attend New York University's prestigious film school. But she couldn't resist the pull of the city's live music scene for long, and soon she was performing her own songs in downtown rock clubs and emerging as a popular presence in a vibrant scene of rootsy new acts that included such then-unknowns as Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors. In 1992, Osborne launched her own indie label, Womanly Hips, and released the live Soul Show: Live at Delta 88 and the studio EP Blue Million Miles.
Osborne's regional success led to a major-label deal and the release of her 1995 multi-platinum breakthrough album Relish, which included her Number One single "One of Us." That song, along with a well-received run on 1997's inaugural Lilith Fair tour, introduced her to a wide audience. But Osborne quickly made it clear that she was more interested in musical integrity and creative longevity than transient pop success, and she made that point repeatedly with such subsequent albums as 2000's Righteous Love, 2002's How Sweet It Is, 2005’s Christmas Means Love, 2006's Pretty Little Stranger, 2007's Breakfast in Bed, 2008's Little Wild One and 2012's Bring It On Home.
Osborne's talents have also made her a sought-after collaborator and guest performer. She joined forces with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead when they regrouped to tour in 2003 as The Dead, sang with Motown's legendary Funk Brothers in the acclaimed 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and produced two albums for the great blues trio the Holmes Brothers. She's shared stages with a wide range of performers, including Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Patti Smith, Melissa Etheridge, Taj Mahal, Luciano Pavarotti and the Chieftains. More recently, Osborne has toured and recorded as a member of Trigger Hippy, which also includes rising Americana star Jackie Greene and Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman.
Love and Hate shows Joan Osborne's creative iconoclasm, and her determination to make music on her own terms, to be as strong as ever.
"The experience of coming up playing in clubs," she says, "made me understand that this is about communicating with other human beings, and that music has this incredible power to communicate and to uplift people. That's the thing that keeps me feeling good about giving my life to this. As difficult as any of the other stuff gets, I can still look out into the audience and still have that sense that whatever I'm doing in that moment is reaching people and that it has meaning for them.
"I'm getting better at what I do," Osborne concludes. "I can look at the songs on Love and Hate and realize that it's better than I could have done 15 or 20 years ago. I have an audience that I've built up over time, and I feel like they're with me. And because of that, I don't feel any pressure to fit myself into anyone else's idea of what I should be doing. So I feel like I can write my own rules at this point. That can be scary, but it's also liberating, and it's an exciting place to be."