Joan Osborne Offers Wisdom on ‘Nobody Owns You’

As the summer winds down, Joan Osborne has been helping her daughter move away to start college. Once that’s done, Osborne will focus on her singer-songwriter career again as she releases her eleventh studio album, Nobody Owns You, on September 8. Motherhood and making music may seem like disparate aspects of her life, but she sees a strong correlation between them.

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“You can’t control what happens to this person that you’ve raised out in the world; they’re on their own—and you also can’t control what happens with this music that you put out into the world,” Osborne says, calling from her New York City home. “You don’t know how people are going to accept it, and you don’t know who’s going to be interested.”

Regardless of what happens with Nobody Owns You, though, it’s clear that is an important and cathartic album for Osborne herself. It was, she says, “Certainly the most personal record that I’ve ever made, absolutely. I wrote [these songs] in the wake of a lot of really seismic changes in my world.”

First among those changes is, of course, her shifting role as a mother: “Watching my daughter growing up and becoming a young woman and wanting to give her advice and wisdom that I feel could help her—and her being completely uninterested in hearing any of that—is all totally normal and fine.”

Instead, Osborne poured her advice into “Nobody Owns You,” which in turn became the album’s title track. “I’m able to put it in a song, and at some point [my daughter] will listen to it. Until then, it’s out there for anybody who might need it.”

Another key inspiration for this album was, Osborne says, “being in a very raw place emotionally from ending a fifteen-year romantic relationship and being on my own again. It’s [also] seeing my mother really start to experience the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease—I’m starting to see that parts of her are disappearing. The song “Secret Woman” is very much about that: a wish for, ‘If she’s losing something, maybe she’s also gaining something in its place, and maybe there’s a childlike energy or a mindset that she’s returning to that can be a beautiful thing.’”

Despite addressing these topics head-on, Osborne also believes that an indirect approach to songwriting has always served her well. “I find that the best ideas that I get are the ones that are sort of in my peripheral vision,” she says. “I’ll have a thought where I’ll overhear somebody say something, or I’ll be having a conversation with someone. The things that lodge in my brain, even though I’m not sitting down and trying to think about writing a song, tend to be these lovely little nuggets that have real staying power.”

To capture those thoughts, “I’ll try to write whatever associations I have with that thought as it lands on me,” she says. “I make these big piles of ideas, whether they’re lyric ideas or melody ideas that come to me and I’m jumping out of the shower, dripping wet, to sing it into my phone, [or] whether I’m sitting down saying, ‘I’m going to take two hours and put the guitar in my hands, and whatever comes out, I’ll collect that.’ I try to be a real magpie. Then, when I sit down with a collaborator or on my own to finish it, I have all these lovely things to pull out of the piles and to combine in different ways.

“Even though the ideas themselves may be about very heavy things, like confronting your parent’s dementia, it’s a process that you can enjoy and do in sort of a very lighthearted and playful way,” she continues. “It’s more like taking these building blocks that you already have and putting them together in different ways, in the way that a little kid will take a set of blocks: ‘Now I’m going to build a castle; now I’m going to build a zoo; now I’m going to build a house’—recombining them in different ways. It’s more fun that way, and a lighter process.”

Photo by Laure Crosta / All Eyes Media

Musically, Osborne has explored a wide variety of styles across her career, from blues to soul to pop, but Nobody Owns You finds her exploring a rootsy vibe that fits well with her introspective lyrics. But, as with all her other albums, Osborne says she didn’t deliberately choose a particular genre as she created this material. “The songs themselves will dictate what they want to be—that’s not something that I consciously do much about. If you don’t try to dominate it and you allow it to blossom, it will tell you what’s working and it will show you where it wants to go,” she says.

She also credits Ben Rice, who produced Nobody Owns You and co-wrote several of the tracks with her, for helping her define her current musical vision this time. “I wanted to work with somebody different [and] do something different than I had ever done before,” she says. “He brought his sensibility, which certainly comes from a roots place but also comes from a pop place. He’s worked with The National and Meghan Trainor and people that are a little bit outside of the straight-up singer-songwriter world, so he brought some interesting ideas, as well.”

She says that Rice reminds her of Rick Chertoff, the producer who helped her create her 1995 debut album, Relish. She notes that Rice and Chertoff both have “a certain very calm demeanor and very thorough way of thinking about things.”

Relish made Osborne internationally famous thanks to the hit single “One of Us,” which reached the charts in a dozen countries (including the Top 10 in the U.S.), earned multiple Grammy nominations, and was used as the theme song for the hit television series Joan of Arcadia. Since then, Osborne has maintained a loyal fan following, continues to earn critical praise, and frequently tours the world.

Though Osborne is pleased with how her career has turned out, she makes it clear that she’s also happy to let things unfold as they will when Nobody Owns You is released. “I’ve learned to not put any sort of expectations on what will happen with the record because as they say, ‘An expectation is just a disappointment waiting to happen’—no matter what you think it’s going to be, it’ll be different than that, for better or worse,” she says. “I just feel like my job is to remember what it was that I was trying to convey, and what the work was that went into creating it, and being satisfied that I did the best that I could and really put a lot of effort into it.”

In truth, though, Osborne has always seemed to roll with the flow, which has invariably worked out well for her. She admits that she never actually intended to pursue a music career—instead, she’d moved from her native Kentucky to New York City to study film at NYU. Her unexpected career trajectory began when, on a dare, she jumped onstage at a local bar and sang a Billie Holiday song, which went so well that she began seeking out open mic nights around the city. That, in turn, led to forming her own band, which was soon successful enough that she dropped out of college to pursue a music career full-time.

“I was like, ‘If I don’t pursue this just to see where it goes, I’ll always regret it. School will always be there, but if I don’t follow this and see where it leads me, I think on my death bed I will be very sad that I didn’t do that,’” she recalls about that pivotal time in her life.

Clearly, that risk paid off, and she says she’s grateful that fans have remained loyal to her so that she’s able to create an album like Nobody Owns You now: “I’m very happy that I feel like I was able to write songs with this record that I would never have been capable of writing before in my life—that I’m able to be the person that I am now, at the age that I am now, and having lived the experiences that I have now, and put that into the music in a way that I personally find satisfying, that’s really meant a lot to me. To be able to continue to grow as an artist, just for my own satisfaction, has been really exciting.”

Photo by Laure Crosta / All Eyes Media

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