Given how famously idiosyncratic his songs are, it’s remarkable how well Bob Dylan translates to cover versions. That’s been clear since the ’60s, when performances by Joan Baez, the Mamas & the Papas, the Byrds, Judy Collins, and other artists helped make the mercurial singer-songwriter a household name.
The latest artist to put her stamp on the Dylan songbook is Joan Osborne, whose new album Songs of Bob Dylan features her soulful takes on 13 songs ranging from 1963’s “Masters of War” to 2001’s “High Water (For Charley Patton).” Tonight she’ll be at the O’Shaughnessy, and this afternoon she’s giving a free talk at McNally Smith.
Earlier this week we spoke by phone about her past collaborations with Dylan, her approach to recording his songs, and the time she met Prince.
Let’s start by talking about your experiences with Bob Dylan himself — you’ve recorded and performed with him.
Yes. Actually, the first time I met with him was, I believe, in 1997. We did a recording session together to do a duet version of his song “Chimes of Freedom.” It was for a TV special about the 1960s, and he had requested me as a duet partner. I showed up at the studio, and he had not arrived yet but I know some of the guys in his band, so we were kind of chatting and I actually had my back turned to the door when Dylan walked in the room. I could tell instantly that he had walked in, because it was like the weather in the room changed very quickly. Everyone subtly, without even looking at him, shifted their focus to him and to gauging what his mood was — watching him very intently.
I realized, as we continued to work, that he changes his mind very quickly and he has this very restless intelligence. You really have to focus on him, or you’re going to get left behind. He and I went through this song a few times, and we were actually on the same microphone — so my face was literally inches away from him. I think I would have been very nervous if I hadn’t focused so intently…I was actually just watching his lips very intently so that I could match his phrasing as we were singing together. I think that was actually kind of a blessing, because I was concentrating so hard that I wasn’t able to get to nervous.
Then you encountered him again years later?
When I was working with the Dead, we did a big long tour in the summer of 2003. Bob Dylan was one of the co-headliners on that tour, so I would see him backstage, and we did some rehearsing together for some of the songs that he came out and did with the Dead during our part of the show. Then I also came out and sang with him during his part of the show, a handful of times, so that was really amazing. That’s one of those moments that I really will cherish was to go out and join him onstage. I remember him breaking into this big wide grin when we were singing together, and it was just a really great experience.
That gives you some insight that most interpreters of Dylan’s songs don’t have — that you actually know him and have worked with him as a musician. Do you think that’s affected your performances of his songs?
You know, I’ve sung with him, I’ve worked with him…I don’t know if I could say that I know him. I think he’s a very mercurial person. It’s not like we’re buddies and he confided in me or anything. So, I think I’m probably just as in the dark as anyone else when taking on his songs, but I don’t think you necessarily have to know a songwriter in order to find a way to interpret their work. The work speaks for itself — and in particular, with somebody like Dylan, his achievement is so monumental, I don’t think knowing him personally would really impact trying to approach the material in the way that an interpreter would.
For me, the exercise was about finding a way to interpret the songs that allows listeners and an audience to find something fresh about these songs. Certainly Dylan does amazing versions of his own material, but I don’t think that’s my job to go in and copy what he’s already done, because really, what’s the point? Why don’t you just go back to listen to Dylan’s version if that’s what you’re going to do? I think the job of the interpreter is to find some way for my voice to intersect in a way that allows people to understand something new about the song.
When you went to choose, how did you go about whittling down all of these hundreds of great songs?
That was certainly part of the challenge, just to decide what songs to do. I didn’t think that I was going to pick the dozen best or most definitive Bob Dylan songs, because there’s just too many songs.
My lens that I tried to view this from was, first of all, to pick things from all throughout his career. Certainly people know the stuff from the 1960s very well and they know stuff from the 1970s, usually, but even some of his fans might not know some of the songs that he put out in the ’80s or the ’90s or in the 2000s. He’s continued to be this very incredible writer and this vibrant creator, so I wanted to make sure that I touched on all these different eras of his career.
We also wanted to do things that people are familiar with — a song like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” or “Tangled Up In Blue.” We wanted to touch on those things that are people’s favorites, but we also wanted to dig into things that are a little bit more obscure. So a song like “Ring Them Bells,” or a song like “High Water,” from the Love and Theft album, even fans are not as familiar with those songs. So we wanted to have some deeper cuts in there as well.
Then, also, just to pick songs that I felt a particular connection to, or that resonated particularly for me. Those were some of the criteria that we used to whittle down the list — but of course we could put those criteria on another dozen songs, and do another Dylan record, or another five or six Dylan records. There’s just such an amazing amount of incredible material.
I thought “High Water” was an especially interesting choice, and that’s certainly a song that’s been haunting me in the last couple of weeks.
These intense weather events were not happening when we first decided to take on the song “High Water,” but of course it’s become more and more topical with the hurricane slamming into the United States and the events happening in other parts of the world as well. I think it’s a little bit of a prescient thing on his part, to write a song like that.
Tell me about the process of creating the arrangements and the interpretations. I understand you worked with your co-producers Jack Petruzzelli and Keith Cotton. How did that all come together, both live and in the studio?
Jack and Keith and I had this wonderful opportunity to really dig into the material, because we did two different residencies at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City. So the process of getting the material ready for the live show was the first step in digging into the material, choosing the songs, working out the arrangements. We just sat around, did a lot of trial and error. Different people had different ideas, and we’d try things out — we’d mess with the keys and the tempos and the arrangement ideas. That was a really great thing for us to have that kind of time and that kind of process to work on the songs before we ever set foot in the studio. We had to bring them out and perform them live.
Then, of course, as you perform things live, different things will come out of the arrangements. That process also will allow you to experiment with things in front of an audience. That was something that really informed what we ended up taking into the studio.
You’re standing in the footsteps of so many that have gone before, in terms of interpreting Dylan’s songs. Barring Dylan himself, who are some of your favorite Dylan interpreters?
I guess you would have to look at the Byrds, to look at what they were able to do with his songs. They took these very stripped-down, acoustic guitar and voice, versions which he had put out, and really built up these beautiful, very rich and dense arrangements with the wonderful Roger McGuinn guitar textures and stuff. I would have to say they have been some of my favorite Dylan interpreters.
I also look to the Staple Singers, who have done a lot of Dylan songs — those amazing harmonies that they have, and Pops Staples’s guitar. Just such an iconic sound. They’ve done great versions of songs like “Masters of War,” and they’ve been incredible interpreters of his. Those are two of my favorites.
In the wake of Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize in Literature: if you could give a Nobel Prize in Literature to one more songwriter, who should be the next?
Oh, man! There’s so many great writers. Somebody like Paul Simon has such an amazing catalog of songs. You could look at somebody like Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams…they’re such great writers. Willie Dixon has all these amazing blues songs. Those would be my favorites, just off the top of my head.
I have to ask you about Prince. He covered “One of Us,” which is a song he must have learned from your hit performance. Did you ever meet Prince, and have you heard his interpretation?
Yeah, I did meet him, and I have heard his version of “One of Us.” He said some very nice things in the press about the Relish album and about “One of Us,” and he reached out to my management and invited me to a party that he was giving in New York City. Having been a Prince fan for so many years, I was just absolutely thrilled.
I went to this party, and it was just one of those moments you just read about — oh, you become famous, and this is the sort of thing that happens to you. Sheryl Crow was there, and LL Cool J was there, and Lenny Kravitz was there. There was this incredible DJ spinning great records, and, oh! It’s Questlove. It was one of those moments where you feel you’ve just sort of stepped into this dream of being famous.
The security people came over and said, “Prince would like to meet you now.” I had been dancing and dancing, and I was all sweaty and red in the face. I went over to meet Prince, and he was standing there just very calm and cool and collected. As many people have said, he’s not a large person: he’s a very diminutive figure, and yet he radiates this real presence and this charisma.
So they ushered me into this room, and he was sitting there, just him and Lenny Kravitz. They said, “Oh, Joan is here to meet you,” and I started gushing about what a great fan I was. I was all sweaty and I’d been on the dance floor and I must have looked a mess, and I said, “I just want to give you a hug!”
He said, “Well, you know, words can say a lot.”
So he totally shot down my hug impulse, and I guess I can’t blame him. [Laughs.] Probably everyone’s trying to hug him all the time…but still, it was a great thrill to meet him, and for him to say all these things about me in the press. I’ll never forget that.
Is there any music of his you’ve been going back to, anything you especially treasure?
Sure. The Purple Rain record I’ve been revisiting again and again, and the Diamonds and Pearls record I’ve been listening to a lot. He was such a giant. Also, just remembering the times that I saw him in concert.
There was a show that he did at Madison Square Garden, where it was Larry Graham opening for Chaka Khan, and then Prince coming out and doing his show. I’ll just never forget…I was sitting about midway on the floor, and as the lights went down, this white pillar emerged out of the floor and started rising up. This spotlight hit the top of the pillar, and there was Prince standing there in the spotlight in this frozen pose with a bowler hat on and a cane, and he just started doing this incredible dance routine as he was singing, and the entire place just erupted. I was a grown woman at this point, but I just started screaming like a 13-year-old girl who’s never been to a concert before. It was so exciting.
He was just such a showman, and he could do so much. He could sing and play and do all these things all at once, as if it was just the most natural thing to him, as if it was like breathing to him. He was so in command of his artistry, like no other live performer I’ve ever seen. We’re hoping to do a tour of Paisley Park when we get to Minneapolis, so I’m very excited about that.