Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Joan Osborne spoke to DR in January 2018 following the release of her album Songs of Bob Dylan.
DR: Regarding Dylan’s Nobel Prize, do you view it as a valuable attempt to include songwriters in the literature category? Is it opening up a valuable interdisciplinary question?
JO: I don’t know the motivation of the Nobel Committee. If a poet can win, why not a songwriter? When talking about someone like Dylan, his songs are poetry. It’s hard to overstate his impact on culture.
DR: In an interview during your promotion of Songs of Bob Dylan, you said that one thing that draws you to him is his ability to “find the universal in the particular,” that even his “political” songs are not “tied to a particular era.” Could you, perhaps, elaborate on a particular image, moment, or lyric in a Dylan song that becomes universal, that you see speaking to all of us?
JO: If you hear a political song about a particular issue, the song will have power for as long as the issue lasts. “Masters of War” is about people profiting from war. Fortunes are made on weapons designed simply to kill people. Dylan is cutting to the chase, raises ethical questions: “I can see what you’re doing” He’s speaking about it in such a way that goes to the heart of the ethical dilemma. He is directly addressing the universal impact on humanity.
DR: You mention wanting to do something similar with this Dylan album (and through your performances of it) that Ella Fitzgerald did with her nine-album “Songbooks” series in which she honored various songwriters and lyricists. Indeed, Dylan himself has been doing the very same thing with his recent albums of standards and his tributes to singers like Frank Sinatra. This might seem an obvious question (what with five-decades of songs and hundreds of artists covering his work), but what is it that is important to translate and capture in Dylan’s songwriting?
JO: When covering any song, it’s the same regardless of the songwriter. The song lives through you. It takes possession of you. It lives in a way it never has. Each version is a different incarnation allowing the songs to live in a new way for another day.
DR: Why did you choose to cover those particular songs on your album Songs of Bob Dylan?
JO: We wanted to choose things from all different eras, songs from across the catalogue. Some of the songs are familiar to people, some are instantly recognizable. We wanted also to bring out material not as well-known such as “Dark Eyes”. We asked ourselves, do we have a way to play/arrange the songs in a fresh way, a way to bring something unique to them, make them blossom, open up in a different way.
DR: In speaking of your recording a version of “Chimes of Freedom” with Dylan, you’ve spoken of experiencing his “restless intelligence”, his continual desire to try different phrasings or approaches to a song. Your “restless intelligence” phrase being such a ripe, expressive one (especially with its echoes of Dylan’s famous “Restless Farewell”), we wonder if you might revisit that collaborative moment and talk about how Dylan has inspired you in your musicianship, in your singing?
JO: Dylan’s restlessness is a good thing. We did not rehearse before recording. Because Dylan changes the phrasing in a song every time he sings, I focused on his lips. We shared the same microphone. When dealing with restless brilliance, your job is to support him.
DR: In your recording of “Tangled Up In Blue”, you sing “Then she opened up a book of poems, And handed it to me, Written by an Italian poet, From the fifteenth century” not “thirteenth century”. Are you thinking about a particular fifteenth-century poet?
JO: No poet in mind. The song expresses an intimacy between two characters. The narrator is invited into her home to have an intimate moment, but he is connecting to a person he is not with. She only makes him think of the other person more. It is an example of the universal in an incredibly particular moment of opening a book of poems.
DR: You made a comment during your show at Roy’s Hall expressing the thought that Dylan’s music is so important now. Can you elaborate on that?
JO: His political songwriting is not dated. “Masters of War” is useful now – for society, the country, the world. Profiting on weapons designed to kill people. A song like that is a way to understand what’s fundamentally human: is it OK with us, OK with me? A song like “What Good Am I” – What will I do when faced with someone who needs help? Sometimes it takes a poetic moment, a song to clear away what’s bombarding us (we’re being bombarded in life).