What's Cool

Cool Blues: Joan Osborne

''Relish'' provides contemporary urban blues -- Joan Osborne's debut album reflects diverse influences

Ask Joan Osborne what's in her CD player, and her response tells why New York's preeminent female white-blues shouter isn't just another white-blues shouter. ''PJ Harvey,'' she starts, then adds, ''Björk is really cool. Some Appalachian. Gospel. [Sufi chanter] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — an incredible record. And Etta James — always Etta James.''

In one way or another, all of those influences weave their way through Osborne's rib-sticking major-label debut, Relish. With their tales of junkies, prostitutes, and potential suicides, Osborne's songs are contemporary urban blues, but her music takes in virtually every form of American music. Tying it all together is her remarkable stray-cat voice, recalling a younger, lustier Bonnie Raitt. ''I like music that's warm and has a female point of view, but also has passion and sexuality,'' Osborne says. ''Feminists have always said women should be all of those things. If you listen to Etta James or Mavis Staples, they were doing that all along.''

Osborne, 32, has worked at that blend for nine years, since moving from her native Anchorage, Ky., to New York. There followed years of playing sticky-floored blues dives, plus two indie releases on her own label. Thanks in part to the resurgence of roots-laced rock (she opened for Melissa Etheridge this spring), her years of dues-paying may be over, but Osborne's head is more level than her fretboard. ''This is a risky thing to do with your life,'' she admits. ''I got into this because I love music, not because I saw myself as a big rock star. I mean, look at what happens to rock stars.''

Originally posted Jun 30, 1995 Published in issue #281-282 Jun 30, 1995 Order article reprints