Joan Osborne and the Bria Skonberg Quartet are among the artists coming to South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in June. Shen Shellenberger spoke to both about their careers, the pandemic, and recent recordings.
Joan Osborne will perform at SOPAC on Friday, June 10 at 8:00pm. A multi-platinum selling recording artist and seven-time Grammy nominee, Joan Osborne is a soulful vocalist who has performed alongside many notable artists including Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Luciano Pavarotti, Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples, to name a few. On her tenth studio album, the masterful Trouble and Strife, Joan Osborne has issued a clarion call. With stunning vocals, a diverse range of sonics, and incisive lyrics, this deeply engaging collection of new original songs is her response to “the crazy, chaotic times we’re living in,” she says, and “a recognition of the important role music has to play in this moment. Music has a unique ability to re-energize people and allow us to continue to hang on to that sense of joy of being alive.”
Here is Shen's interview with Joan Osborne.
I know from your bio that you were born in Kentucky and moved to NY to attend film school, then got involved in the NYC music scene. What drew you away from film and toward music?
I loved film, and I still do, but there is something more immediate about the process of making music, in particular performing. From the initial idea to the finished product of a film, it takes a long, long time, and lots of money, and crews of people, and all this technology. Of course, you must prepare with music, too, but there is something much more primal about it. And with performing, it is physical, emotional, and intellectual as well. That combination of things just swept me up.
When did you start writing songs?
I was not a songwriter until I became a performer. I loved singing other people’s material, but once I started performing, I realized I had a particular point of view and something I could bring to it that was unique to me. So, I wanted to try it.
So, here is my Philadelphia question: How did you connect with Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, who worked with you on your first record, and was that as life-changing as it seems?
Yeah, it was pretty fateful. At the point that I connected with them, One night I was playing in Philadelphia and Rob Hyman happened to be in the audience. He came backstage after the show and started talking to me about his friend Rick Chertoff, who had just started his own imprint at Mercury Records and the success Chertoff had working with Cyndi Lauper and Sophie B. Hawkins. And Rob said Chertoff might be looking for new artists to sign. When I did meet with Rick, we didn’t talk that much about my music and where I might fit; we just had this great conversation and connection – talking about philosophical things like music and life. And he suggested that we do something that he’d done with Sophie and Cyndi, just get together in the studio and write with himself and Eric and Rob Hyman. That sounded good to me.
I had the opportunity to talk to Rob and Eric for a feature about The Hooters, and they are both such nice people.
They are. And I just saw Eric last weekend. We played at the Keswick (Upper Darby, PA) and he sat in and sang “One of Us” with us.
The crowd must have gone wild.
They were PRETTY excited.
Your first release was such a phenomenal success. Was that a blessing or a curse?
It was definitely a blessing. But there were things about that level of success and scrutiny that I was uncomfortable with as a person. In spite of being a performer, I am a fairly private person. Even as an artist, I am one who likes to hang back and observe. That’s how I get ideas and think about writing. And there was little chance to do that once the record became so successful. But I am sure that a big part of the reason I have a career today is because I had that kind of success with the record. It allowed me to tour around the world and opened doors for me that would not have opened otherwise. So, yes, it was a great blessing.
You have worked with such a wide variety of artists and in such a range of musical styles. How are you able to seamlessly move from one to another?
I love all kinds of music. When I was first on the New York scene, I was doing a lot of roots music, some soul music, even a little country. And when you dig into those, you get to Appalachian, and folk, and gospel. And those are the main ingredients when you talk about doing something like working with Motown guys, who came from a rootsy and jazz background. Or if you look at the Grateful Dead, they took American roots music and mixed it up with their own psychedelic magic. And because I was familiar with the roots stuff, we had a shared language. It may seem like the things I am doing are quite different from each other, but there is enough in common to allow me to easily move from one to another and be welcomed in these different worlds.
I saw you in Ocean City NJ in 2019 when you were touring in support of your “Songs of Bob Dylan” release. Why did you choose to do a record of Bob Dylan songs?
It came about when I was approached by the people at Café Carlysle, a storied cabaret club in New York, and asked to do a residency there. I wanted to do something different from my regular shows, and I’d had this idea in the back of my mind based on what Ella Fitzgerald did in the 50s and 60s with the Song Book Series. She would pick a songwriter, like Cole Porter, and do an album of their songs. I picked Bob Dylan, and we performed his songs every night for the 2-week residency. At the end, we had an album’s worth of music.
I read that you used the pandemic-driven break to pull together a collection of older live recordings for your most recent record, Radio Waves. What discoveries did you make?
It’s like looking at pictures of yourself in your high school yearbook when you’re older. At the time, you felt so awkward and so ugly. But you have such a different perspective when you look at them later, and you wonder why you didn’t see the beauty back then. Of course, I listened to the recordings when they were made, and I’m sure all I heard was what I didn’t like and the mistakes I made. Hearing them now, though, I appreciate how I was able to bring those songs to life and what was wonderful about them. It’s like getting into a time-machine.
Tell the SOPAC people that I am so glad they are back on their feet, and I am really excited to be there
The Bria Skonberg Quartet will perform at SOPAC on Saturday, June 11 at 8:00pm. Singer, trumpeter and songwriter Bria Skonberg has been described as one of the “most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” (Wall Street Journal). Bria stormed onto the Jazz scene with her smoky vocals, blistering trumpet and compelling compositions and arrangements. The Juno Award winner has sung the music of Aretha Franklin alongside Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, played with U2 at the iconic Apollo Theater, sat in with the Dave Matthews Band, was a featured guest with Jon Batiste, performed as part of The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, and sang the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden for a New York Rangers game.
Here is Shen's interview with Bria Skonberg.
The concerts scheduled at SOPAC for the next few month is called a singer-songwriter series. When did you become interested in songwriting? Why did you choose the trumpet as your instrument? Who or what inspired you?
I had written a handful of songs throughout my studies, but it wasn't until after university that I started to think more about telling stories, or specifically my stories, through songwriting. I had a wonderful mentor in Vancouver BC named Paul Airey who encouraged and coached me on that process. My father played trumpet in high school and always kept one in the house, so I discovered it when I was around 11 years old. I loved the look of it and the funny sounds I could make.
What did you do during the pandemic lockdown period(s) to keep creatively active?
Musically I pivoted very quickly to live streaming, which was a fun way to stay inspired and meet my community. Unfortunately, I couldn't play with my band, so I had to rely on my rudimentary piano and ukulele skills, but I was just happy to stay connected with others. I feel most inspired when I share music with other people.
You are active in music education projects. Why do you think that teaching about music is so important?
Music and the arts help us process the times past and present. Music can help express what we don't have the words to say. We all have a lot of healing to do in this collective experience and I believe the arts are essential in that regard. This generation of students has experienced a lot and it's important to recognize they need healthy, nurturing outlets to understand it.
How has it been for you to be playing live concerts again?
Performing with people for people makes me feel like I'm alive, like I can fly again. I released an album in November of 2019 and the music is just reaching the stage now where the band is breathing lots of great energy and fire into it. It's FUN!
What, if anything, is different post-lockdown?
Honestly, everything. I had a baby in October of 2020, so I knew things were going to change in my life before the first lockdown but had no idea what was to come! It's been a whirlwind of new experiences on top of an already disorienting time with incredible highs and some new depths as well. It's all part of the life experience and I think it's impacted my music making in a beautiful, relatable way.
Who are your personal musical favorites? If you could share a stage with anyone, who would that be?
I have my jazz stalwarts - Louis Armstrong, Anita O'Day, Roy Eldridge, Lee Morgan, Sarah Vaughan, and I have always loved artists who bend genres like Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Queen.
Who's on my dream list? Hmm. Tom Waits. Harry Connick Jr, Gwen Stefani, Bobby McFerrin, David Byrne – that’s a good snapshot into my brain right now.