Joan Osborne

With her new CD, Osborne falls under spell of NYC

By Naila Francis

Walt Whitman called it human and heroic, referring to New York City in his autobiographical prose collection, “Specimen Days & Collect,” as the “grandest physical habitat and surroundings of land and water the globe affords” — a place, he noted, where the daily rapport with its citizens served as the soul’s best medicine.

Joan Osborne can identify.

Though a Kentucky native, born in suburban Anchorage, The Big City has been her home for the last 20 years. And while she admits there are times when she has taken it for granted, its spectacular vitality and ever-shifting contrasts of grit and glamour becoming more of a backdrop for life’s everyday unfolding, these days, Osborne has a renewed gratitude for its embrace.

It’s an appreciation that deliberately seeps into the singer-songwriter’s recent release, “Little Wild One,” an evocative ode to New York that fittingly spans her artistic range. The album’s 11 songs, much like New York’s oscillating cultural landscape, stack lustrous pop against plaintive folk, soaring roots-rock against trance-dance exuberance, with a country flourish and even a bluesy, foot-stomping swagger injected into the eclectic milieu.

“A lot of the stuff I started writing about when I was writing the record just seemed to have a strong sense of place, of New York City,” says Osborne, who comes to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Sunday. “A lot took place in the years after 9/11.

“That was such an overwhelming event that I don’t think I could ever write about that event specifically. It wasn’t that New York was going to be wiped off the face of the earth but in the aftermath of 9/11, the affection I had for the city really came barreling back to me. I think that was something I was left with, a sense of what an amazing place it is and what an incredible life it has on so many different levels. “

The writings of Whitman, who famously chronicled his experience of the city in all its gaudy raucousness and teeming possibility, proved potent inspiration, with one song from the album, “Sweeter than the Rest,” actually drawing directly upon his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Osborne was also moved by the works of Allen Ginsberg, himself a Whitman devotee in his youth, and an iconic poet, one whom she would occasionally see riding his bike down Second Avenue in the East Village.

“This notion of the city as a very spiritual place is something that really infused their poetry and something that I feel like I can relate to as I walk the streets,” she says. “You see people of every different race, creed, culture, faith living together and building the city and creating this life of the city of New York together. And maybe because I grew up in a small town, that’s something that has floored me ever since I came here.”

From the anthemic opener, “Hallelujah in the City,” which finds her celebrating her renewed passion for New York with an almost redemptive fervor, to the wistful closer, “Bury Me on the Battery,” which lulls with an old-timey gospel sway, Osborne pays tribute to this transformative sense of place. Specific references such as Riverside Drive, Morningside Heights, the churches of Brooklyn and the lights of Chelsea bring the city alive on the lead track, while the nostalgic “Daddy-O” pays vivid homage to Coney Island’s heyday. The album’s only cover, a soaring rendition of Jump Little Children’s “Cathedrals,” captures the city in all its immensity while nonetheless celebrating the possibilities for discovering oneself, as well as a sense of belonging, in such a cavernous space.

While the references may not have been as overt in the past, her adopted hometown has served as a creative fount from the moment she arrived, with even her major-label debut “Relish” — with its seismic hit, “One of Us,” that skyrocketed her to fame — bearing its inspirational imprint.

” ‘St. Teresa’ off the ‘Relish’ album was very much taken from looking out my window and walking down the street observing a particular person I used to see all the time in my neighborhood,” says Osborne, 46. “That’s the great thing about New York, is that you can just get out and walk and see the life of the street and see the energy of the people right there in front of you. It’s not hidden like in L.A. where maybe everybody is in their car.

“And it’s a great way of getting inspiration because you can notice a person and your imagination can go off on a tangent of what their life is like and what their family is like and what are they thinking right now, and you can do that because people are living their life much more openly in New York.”

But Osborne’s affections span much further than her environment on the disc. The sultry title track, “Little Wild One,” is actually an ode to her daughter, now 3, with whom she became pregnant while recording the disc.

“In the first part of the writing process, I was very much longing to have a child and I think a particular song like ‘Little Wild One,’ in the chorus where I go ‘I need you like the air that I breathe,’ those feelings were surfacing in writing in those moments,” says Osborne, who wrote and recorded most of the songs prior to releasing her last two albums, the country-tinged “Pretty Little Stranger” and the Motown-flavored “Breakfast in Bed.”

The song was co-written with Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, who along with Rick Chertoff served as the album’s producers, marking a reunion of the team that helmed “Relish,” her Grammy-nominated breakthrough.

If “Little Wild One” speaks to Osborne’s wide-ranging musical identity, nothing less should be expected from the woman who has toured with the likes of The Dixie Chicks and as a lead vocalist with The Dead. She also hit the road with the legendary Funk Brothers following her appearance with them in the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

“I just love so many different kinds of music and if you get called up by The Dead and they say, ‘We want you to come sing with us,’ what do you say? ‘No?’ I’m really lucky that I’ve been called on to do a wide variety of things and I appreciate that,” says Osborne. “I just try to follow whatever it is I’m interested in in the moment and whatever I’m feeling passionate about.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer