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[whitespace] Tough girl: Back with a new album and a fresh outlook--of sorts.

Photograph by Elfie Semotin

Righteous Babe

Joan Osborne: What feminist roots?

By Greg Cahill

JOAN OSBORNE has heard this question before, and it's obvious that the singer/songwriter--possessor of a powerful set of pipes and a politically correct poster child for the feminist Lilith Fair generation--is a bit queasy. Namely, how's it feel after newly landing on Interscope Records for the purveyor of all those strong-woman lyrics to be a label mate of bad-boy rapper Eminem, the clown prince of misogyny, incest, and homophobia, the guy who fantasizes on record about sleeping with his mom and killing his now ex-wife?

"It's not like I'm hanging out with him," she demurs during a phone interview, with a hint of annoyance that this isn't one of those scripted moments manufactured by the record company's spin machine. "I, ah, haven't even met the guy yet. I mean, I think he's very talented actually. Certainly the substance of what he's saying is not my thing to hear, but he's incredibly talented."

But surely the misogyny is, uh, disturbing.

"Well, I can't get behind that, but whatever."

Obviously, Osborne doesn't want to be pressed on the subject, but she leaps back in.

"Look, I don't spend a lot of time at Interscope, and when I have been up there I haven't seen him," she adds, stifling her annoyance with a chuckle. "But I'll let you know if the Joan/ Eminem summit happens."

Fair enough.

On another note, Osborne has a new recording, Righteous Love (Interscope). It's her first full-length CD in five years--since the hugely successful Relish (Mercury). That triple-platinum disc spawned the odd hit "One of Us," which posed the existential question "What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us?"

The new disc is far funkier, thanks to the rock sensibilities and subtle '70s funk and rock production (check out the T-Rex influence of "Grand Illusion") of former Petaluma resident Mitchell Froom (who in recent years has contributed his studio talents to Los Lobos and Richard Thompson). There's also a hint of Osborne's studies with qawwli vocal master Nasrat Fateh Ali, who invited the singer to India before his death. The new disc features a fistful of memorable originals delving into the affairs of the heart, as well as covers of Gary Wright's "My Love Is Alive" and Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love."

But most notable is the disc's lack of any overt feminist slant--this from the woman who penned a powerful feminist ode to one-night stands. Even during the interview, Osborne seems determined to distance herself from the feminist message of the earlier work.

"On the one hand, I had a lot of fun," she says of her appearance on the Lilith Fair tours. "It was great to be part of something that gave the lie to the prevailing notion that women couldn't sell as many concert tickets as men. It was nice to smash that old stereotype, but I think it also tended to lump all the artists who were on Lilith Fair together under some kind of folk music label, as if it was trendy to be a woman singer/songwriter, and now that that trend has passed, women singer/songwriters also have outlived their usefulness.

"So it's part of a double-edged sword to be part of something that's so popular, because people tend to judge you just for that."

BUT SURELY it's rewarding to draw an audience that is seeking a woman with a strong personal viewpoint? Long pause. "I am a woman, so obviously my songs represent a woman's perspective if I write from an autobiographical viewpoint," she explains, choosing her words carefully. "But I also write songs that are a journey into someone else's consciousness, and that includes male characters, so I certainly don't make my music just for women, nor do I think that gender is the primary thing I draw on when making my music.

"I have a woman's point of view because I am a woman, but I do not pretend to speak for all women."

Still, women's issues are a major focus, even if the record company marketing machine is downplaying them. Osborne recently started her own Internet publication (www.heroinemag.com), a women's arts and culture site that showcases inspiring females--albeit with a celebrity slant. The first issue features stories about actress and activist Susan Sarandon and about the Indigo Girls discussing the ways that their political and social activism mixes with their creative endeavors and their personal lives.

And then there's Osborne's ongoing commitment to Planned Parenthood, an organization for which she has worked as an abortion clinic escort and still serves as a spokesperson. "For me, it's a twofold thing," Osborne offers. "As a human, there are things that I care about and support. I think everyone has a responsibility to do that, whether or not they are famous and have a visible platform. On the other hand, it's also good to be able to use this celebrity that I have--which sometimes is very uncomfortable for me to deal with as a person because I'm someone who enjoys being the center of attention all the time--and it's a good way to deflect some of that attention to something that I feel is more important than me."

But for now, Osborne is gearing up to be "a road dog" again, preparing for her first major tour in nearly three years, making in-store appearances, visiting radio stations, and, oh yeah, fielding annoying questions from the press. "It's kind of like being a politician," she says of the hype. "You shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of babies and make nice with everybody. It becomes sort of a full-time job in itself. I don't mind it that much, though, since you get to talk a lot about music, but the performances are definitely my favorite part."

But don't look for any Eminem duets anytime soon.


Joan Osborne performs Thursday, Sept. 14, at 8:30 p.m. at the Mystic Theater, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $20. 765-2121.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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