By Lynne Margolis
Like most Americans, Joan Osborne has been experiencing plenty of anxiety. On her latest album, Trouble and Strife, she addresses what’s on her mind — and what’s on everyone’s mind today: the direction of our nation.
In a pointed lyric video filled with images of protesters hoisting signs in front of the White House and in countless marches demanding an end to oppression, environmental exploitation, police brutality and other woes plaguing our country and world, she sings, Our time is wastin’/Your time’s about through/hands off of things/that don’t belong to you.
With guitarist Jack Petruzzelli’s rock-hard licks exploding around her bluesy vocals, the song expresses the “we’re not gonna take it” anger that finally boiled over in 2020. We’re in a bad place right now, she says, and it doesn’t help to pretend otherwise.
“My problem is with people who are corrupt, and I don’t care what party you’re involved in or where you fall on the political spectrum,” she adds during a recent conversation about the album. “I have a problem with people who abuse their power.”
In another pointed song, “That was a Lie,” she calls out the mouthpieces who speak for corrupt officials.
“It makes me angry when I sit here and watch these made-up, well lit, slickly dressed, airbrushed spokespeople get up in front of a podium and just flat out lie, and do it again and again and again,” she says. “And it makes me angry when the people who are covering these events don’t call a lie a lie.”
The album isn’t a total diatribe, however. Recorded before the pandemic hit, it actually contains a lot of upbeat energy and positive messages. That was also intentional; she says her main goal is to spread joy and impart hope for the future. But Osborne, who wrote or cowrote all 10 tracks and produced all but one, chose to title it after a song about, well, trouble and strife, because of its weighty themes.
That twang-rocker features fiery guitar solos by Wilco’s Nels Cline along with Petruzzelli’s slide work. Cline also adds his chops to “That was a Lie,” “Panama” and “What’s That You Say,” a funky tune with a ’70s vibe that tells the story of a refugee in America. Its Spanish spoken-word passages are by Austin, Texas, resident Ana Maria Rea, who immigrated from Mexico after her father was kidnapped.
Osborne says it’s a response to negative attitudes regarding immigration. “America is a nation of immigrants and the vast majority of people who come here bring the best of themselves, and bring their energy and their enterprise,” she explains. “They bring their cultural traditions and their cuisine and their fashion sense. And all of these things, when mixed together, end up creating American culture in all its many forms.
“You wouldn’t have these things that are considered quintessentially American without this mixing of cultures,” she notes. “You don’t have bluegrass music without the banjo that comes from Africa mixing with the music from the British Isles. You don’t have Gene Kelly tap dancing and singing to ‘Singing in the Rain’ without African dancing and Irish step-dancing mixing together and combining with songwriting from Tin Pan Alley, which is a lot of Jewish Americans. You don’t have these great moments of American artistic prowess without this cultural mixing. For me, it seems obvious that immigration to this country is a great and positive thing, and makes us who we are.”
The song’s protagonist comes to America as a child and blossoms into a person who “makes this country better for being here.”
After recording the track, she sensed it needed something more. “I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I turn the mic over to someone who has actually lived this experience?’” Osborne says. “We talk a lot about immigrants, but I don’t think we spend very much time listening to them.”
She contacted RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. They put her in touch with Rea. During their emotional conversation, Rea revealed that even though her father had been returned to the family, they no longer felt safe in Mexico and decided to leave. As a young child, Rea had to say goodbye to her grandparents, cousins, teachers and others, unsure she’d ever see them again.
“It just was a really wrenching experience, and she talked about living in the United States and always feeling like an outsider, and always being looked at as someone who was trying to take something that didn’t belong to them,” Osborne says. “But in fact, she has given back to her community and to our country and has become this real shining light of a person.”
Rea sought citizenship after volunteering for AmeriCorps. “But it was not an easy thing,” Osborne says, “In fact, I think she ended up not being able to really achieve full citizenship until she married a U.S. citizen.”
Osborne’s singular mix of soul, gospel and blues influences permeate the album, but there’s a definite ’70s vibe this time. That’s partly because she wanted it to be fun, energizing and uplifting, instead of sounding like a lecture. She also attributes it to the music she heard as a kid.
“That was a time when pop music meant whatever was popular,” she recalls fondly. “You could turn on the AM pop top-40 station and you’d hear the Rolling Stones, and then the next song would be Charlie Rich singing a country ballad, And then the next song would be the Spinners or the Chi-Lites doing a great soul tune.”
Her Dylan influence also shows up, most notably in the title song’s lyrics. Osborne’s last album was 2017’s Songs of Bob Dylan. She also hosted Dylanology nights, playing his music with guests such as Robert Randolph or her former Trigger Hippy bandmate Jackie Green sitting in. (Both have since left the band.)
“He uses these mythical characters and surreal language,” she says. “The stories that he’s telling could be about something that’s happening right now, or it could be about something that happened 50 years ago, or it could be about something that happened a thousand years ago or a thousand years hence. There’s something very universal about it.”
The same could be said of Trouble and Strife — which was a fun record to make despite it’s sometimes dour subject matter, Osborne says. It even ends with a spontaneous round of applause — a happy note that suggests optimism can shine through even in the toughest of times.
View Joan Osborne’s “Hands Off” lyric video below.