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Joan Osborne Gets Political In 'Trouble And Strife'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In these days of social unrest and uprising, Joan Osborne is releasing her most political album, "Trouble And Strife."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOY DONTCHA KNOW")

JOAN OSBORNE: (Singing) She sees them out on the street in the morning, the hard legs in the slim headwalk.

SIMON: Transgender rights, climate change, disinformation, immigration all get a hard look from this multi-Grammy-nominated and multi-platinum-selling artist. And Joan Osborne, whose hits include "One Of Us" and "Right Hand Man," joins us now from upstate New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

OSBORNE: Oh, it's my pleasure. I'm a huge NPR geek, so I'm very, very happy to do this.

SIMON: Well, thank you. An issue certainly we want to talk about on "Trouble And Strife" is immigration - the song "What's That You Say." And it includes Spanish passages read by Ana Maria Rea. Tell us about your friend.

OSBORNE: I wrote the song, really, as a response to what I see as this very sort of confusing conversation about immigration in our country right now because I have always understood immigration to be a great, positive thing for our country and that people who come here bring, with them, you know, their enterprise and their energy and their music. And I wanted to write a song about a character who has made that journey.

And so I wrote the song. And we recorded it. And we had these big instrumental passages all throughout the song. And I just kept hearing, like, a spoken word thing that seemed to want to be in there. And I thought, well, why don't I essentially hand the mic over to someone who has actually lived this experience? So Ana Maria and I got on the phone. And I interviewed her. And what you hear in the song is her telling her story of coming here from Mexico as a little girl and coming to this place and always feeling like an outsider. And it was a really emotional experience to talk with her about it. And, you know, we were both in tears at certain points in the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S THAT YOU SAY")

ANA MARIA REA: (Speaking Spanish).

OSBORNE: (Singing) Just a young girl taken from her home. No, you never paid her no mind.

SIMON: I've read in an interview you gave to Salon where you said almost every song here was written in four days - four days? I mean, we talked to people who take four years.

OSBORNE: (Laughter).

SIMON: What happened?

OSBORNE: Yeah. That's normally my MO, is to procrastinate for as long as humanly possible. But, you know, I had a studio, and I had musicians booked. And I didn't know what we were going to do. You know, the album that I did before this was a record of Bob Dylan songs. So I was, like, well, should I do, you know, Bob Dylan songs two, or should I pick another songwriter like Lou Reed - and kept, you know, putting off the decision until it was about four days before the session. Then I said, you know what? I'm tired of singing other people's songs. I want to do something of my own.

So I basically locked myself into a room for four days and pulled out all my little notes and scraps. And what came out of it were songs that are very much about what's going on in the world and are - you know, usually, I take a long time and fuss over songs. And this was a much more of a just sort of shoot-from-the-hip, immediate, first-thought-that-comes-in-your-mind kind of thing. And I think that's why the record is so political. It's because that's what was on my mind at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN OSBORNE SONG, "HANDS OFF")

SIMON: Let's hear a bit from "Hands Off."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS OFF")

OSBORNE: (Singing) They made you clean and shiny. They stuffed your pockets full of cash. They gave you 99 servants to carry out your trash. But your soul is showing. I can see right through. Hands off of things that don't belong to you.

SIMON: Anyone in particular you hope hears the song?

OSBORNE: I mean, gosh, you know, look around. There's so many people who are corrupt and openly corrupt right now. You know, it doesn't have to be about a single person. To me, that was sort of the impetus for the song, is there's so many people who are in positions of power who are abusing that power right now. And it just infuriates me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS OFF")

OSBORNE: (Singing) Hands off of things that don't belong to you.

SIMON: Do you have strong feelings about artists responding to the times they're in? I mean maybe it's by doing music like you've done, but maybe also some artists respond to the times by pointedly doing music that's not of the times.

OSBORNE: Music - it's a way to keep yourself energized and rejuvenated in a time when it's very easy to be discouraged and depressed. And I think, you know, before COVID happened, music was one of the few things that I could see that provided us with this sense of community in a time when we're so polarized. But music is sort of an island where you can go to a live show and you can see your neighbor there. And you might disagree very much with what they think politically, but you're just experiencing this pleasure as human beings. And you're looking at each other just as fellow music fans. And I think that's a real valuable thing in this moment.

SIMON: Do you miss live audiences?

OSBORNE: I do. I really do. There's a magic in live music, for sure. You know, I've been doing this for decades now. And it's the thing that has kept me going when it's been difficult. And you get to this point where you're like, I'm too old for this. And the travel's really hard. And I don't want to be away from my kid and, you know, all these things. But then you do a show, and it's this magical moment of communion with yourself and the band and the audience. And it just makes it all worth it. So absolutely, I miss it. Yes.

SIMON: Joan Osborne - her new album "Trouble And Strife" - thanks very much for being with us.

OSBORNE: It was a great pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER GET TIRED (OF LOVING YOU)")

OSBORNE: (Singing) Boy, if the truth should turn to fiction, if the desert should fill with snow... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.