Joan Osborne Tackles Abuse of Power, Climate Change, and Immigration on Trouble and Strife

Photo Credit: Jeff Fasano

Joan Osborne has been releasing albums since 1991, showing notable breadth as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist with music ranging from original rock and folk compositions to blues and soul covers. She’s earned seven Grammy nominations along the way, a testament to her prowess. Her tenth studio album, Trouble and Strife (out today), shows her continued growth as an artist, incorporating multiple genres and using her platform to speak out about some of the world’s biggest injustices.

Osborne considers the album a response to the current political climate in the U.S., particularly political corruption. “It’s calling out people who are abusing their power, and it also is trying to uplift people because we all have a lot of work to do to deal with this situation,” she says. “I think it’s important to use music to energize people and to give them a positive frame of mind.”

On “Hands Off,” she simultaneously addresses powerful men who use their status to get away with sexual assault and corporations that are abusing the environment. “Hands off of the fathers/Hands off of the mothers/Hands off of the sisters/Hands off of the brothers/Hands off of the oceans/Hands off of the sky/Hands off of the children/Give them wings to fly,” she sings against pounding bass and wild electric guitar.

On “What’s That You Say,” she speaks out about the country’s treatment of immigrants, collaborating with immigrant advocate Ana Maria Rea, a Texan who came to the U.S. from Mexico to seek safety after her father was kidnapped. Rea opens the song by speaking in Spanish about her plight, then Osborne soulfully sings lyrics she wrote based on interviews with her.

“It seems like we used to celebrate the immigrants who come and work hard and make a life for themselves, and it seems like as a nation, at least a big chunk of the population has forgotten that,” she says. “So I wanted to write a song about a person who has lived that immigration experience and who has made this country better because of coming here.”

The rest of the album ranges from the bluesy, keyboard-heavy “Panama” to the hopeful ballad “Whole Wide World” to the Western-inspired “Trouble and Strife,” where Bob Dylan’s influence comes through in the quirky vignettes of various American lives. In the catchy, classic-rock-esque “Boy Dontcha Know,” she talks about feeling uncomfortable in your gender role, and in “Never Get Tired (Of Loving You),” she lightens the mood with a love song to her daughter.

The album’s depth and range, both musically and topically, belies how quickly it was written: Osborne says she wrote all the songs in three days. “I had booked some musicians to come to my home studio, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do even a week and even four days beforehand,” she remembers. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to give them to record, and I just sat down and locked myself in a room, and for three days went through my ideas and my notebooks and my recordings and came up with most of these songs in a big rush.”

She then played the musicians rough demos, and together, they transformed them into sophisticated songs. “What I wanted was for people to feel like they were in that room with these amazing players and just experience these songs in the way I experienced them after giving them to this great band and having them transform it into something so wonderful,” she says.

The album is being released through her own record label, Womanly Hips Records, which she started early in her career, believing that no one would offer her a record deal. In response to fans she met while touring who wanted to buy her music, she poured over DIY manuals and figured out how to release records herself, naming the label in the interest of celebrating her own figure. Of course, she would eventually sign to a major to release her breakout LP Relish in 1995, which features her biggest hit to date, the Eric Bazilian-penned song “One of Us.” After releasing its follow up, Righteous Love, via Interscope in 2000, she returned to indie labels, including her own, to put out her releases.

Osborne has always been an activist as well as an artist, with a history of volunteering for Planned Parenthood and raising money for the organization through her concerts; she even promoted them at the women’s music festival the Lilith Fair after being expressly forbidden to do so by the hosting venue. But she considers Trouble and Strife the album to wed her artistry and activism more than any other. “I just feel like we’re the adults in the room right now in this country, and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to try to make the future a livable place for the next generation,” she says.

She hopes that after listening to the album, people see that “it’s possible to make our country and our world a better place with their participation,” she says. “I hope it’s a message of hope and energy, and I’m not lecturing to people — the music should be entertaining and fun to listen to, and you can dance to it as well. I wanted to have music that was fun to listen to and was energizing and uplifting, so I hope that’s what people take away from it: a sense of uplift.”

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