Unlike almost everything in today’s popular music and in the great standards of years past, the songs of Bob Dylan can be savored in multiple ways. The finest among them are elusive and accessible, puzzling and informative, all at the same time.
None of this intimidates Joan Osborne. In fact, that’s why she dedicates her new album entirely to his works. More than a tribute to his legacy, Songs Of Bob Dylan, releasing Sept. 1, also captures Osborne at her best as a vocal interpreter. Much of this stems from the insight she’s gained into his intentions as a writer.
“One of the great lessons of Dylan’s writing is that his songs are obviously about something or someone very specific to him,” says Osborne, 55. “And yet he uses this poetic language that allows it to be about many other things. This makes them all the more powerful because you want the listener, even more than the singer, to take in that story in a way that means something to them.”
This repertoire has fascinated Osborne since her earliest years. She drew from it onstage in Greenwich Village nightclubs and bars after moving east from her home state of Kentucky. As her reputation spread nationally in the wake of her hit single One of Us, Dylan himself took note. And in 1998, he sent her an unexpected invitation to join him on a duet version of his elegiac Chimes Of Freedom, to be featured on the 1999 NBC mini-series The ‘60s.
“We recorded on the same microphone,” she recalls. “My face was literally inches from his face. We did Chimes Of Freedom three times. Each one was very different from the others. Because Dylan has this very restless intelligence, he can change his approach very quickly from one moment to the next. So I had to really lock onto his phrasing and basically stare at his lips so that I could match what he was doing with my harmony. It was actually a positive thing for me because I had to concentrate fully, so I didn’t have any mental energy left over to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on the microphone with Bob Dylan!’”
The decision to tackle this project stems from Osborne’s two-week residencies in 2016 and 2017 at New York’s Cafe Carlyle, each one…