Joan Osborne: Finding a Spiritual Space in an Ordinary World
Interview by Dena Ross
Unless you're a dedicated fan, you probably know Joan Osborne's radio-friendly 1995 hit, "One of Us" more than you know her name or face. The song, which questions how we think about and relate to God, has lyrics like, "What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us." Now do you remember?
The Grammy-nominated artist, now out with a new album, "Little Wild One," recently spoke to Beliefnet about how her spiritual upbringing shaped her current spiritual life, how she nurtures her daughter's spirituality, and whether or not she now hates the song that made her famous.
Dena Ross is Beliefnet's entertainment editor.
Were You Always Such a Spiritual Person?
I remember very vividly being taken to church when I was young. I was raised Catholic until I was about 8-years-old, and was very captured by the ritual of it—the smells of the incense in the church and the very somber rituals. I kept thinking that I saw Jesus walking around behind the altar and kept looking for him and thinking that he was hiding back there.
I remember telling my parents that I wanted to become a priest, and they told me I couldn't because I was girl. I remember being taken aback by that and very impressed with a sense of injustice, as some little kids definitely have that sense of injustice. I think that might have been the first crack in the foundation of my Catholicism right there.
But I was always swept away by the feeling of the spiritual space inside the church and by all of the trappings—the beautiful clothing and the lovely stained glass windows, and being very much a marker [that] this is a special space inside this church. This is where we come to do something different than we do in the outside world.
Do You Still Consider Yourself a Catholic Now?
Oh, no. I definitely lapsed out of Catholicism a long time ago. I educated myself about the history of the Catholic Church and was very put off by the history of it— just the Church's involvement in so many temporal things and political things. But, I think there is something that I retained from that,. I try to have that sense of a spiritual space inside myself and try to find that in the everyday world and in the ordinary world.
The readings that I've done in Buddhism have really affected me very strongly. [I] try to keep that mindfulness of ourselves as living in a spiritual space. It doesn't have to exist inside of a church and it can be brought to our minds and to our attention at any point and any place. To say that I'm a practicing Buddhist and sit and meditate every day, it's not true. But, when I do feel the need for that kind of solace, that a religion or a spiritual tradition can bring, that is the tradition that I turn to and those are the readings and writings that I turn to.
Now That You're a Mother, How Do You Nurture Your Daughter Spiritually?
That's something that I really struggled with when she was first born. I thought, we could join one of the churches around here in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Again, there was something about stepping back to that place that I had been as a practicing Catholic. It felt very restrictive to me. I didn't think that I wanted to bring her up in any sort of Western church.
But at the same time, if you want to teach your children about Buddhism, so much of it is about patience and about the things that a 3-and-a-half-year-old just has very little experience in, it's tough.
I think my interim solution has been to build upon the things that come naturally to her, which is definitely living in the moment, [which] is completely what a child's mind is like. At this point, we do work with trying to help her to understand how to be in control of her own emotions instead of letting them control her. That's something that Buddhism is about, a way to mental clarity, to not allow yourself to be just tossed around by your own emotions and try to get a handle on them. So, I just try to work, in a very simple way, with the things that she deals with on a day-to-day basis, instead of trying to introduce these larger concepts to her, which I think would just go in one ear and out the other.
What Inspired You About New York City to Write an Entire Album About It?
I've lived here for close to 25 years now, and in the aftermath of 9-11 I got a renewed appreciation for the city. You don't really think about something until you're in danger of losing it or until you feel that there's a danger it might slip away from you.
[I'd started doing] some of the things I use to do when I first moved here: [I'd] take long walks and observe the street life and what the city has that few other places have, and tried to appreciate that again. I think a lot of the writings came from those walks and from thoughts that I was having on those walks. Also, I was sent back to one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman. He was not only a wonderful poet of nature and of the city, but of this notion of the physical world and the spiritual world not being separate.
A lot of [what] traditional religions talk about is that you have the earthly plane and the spiritual plane, and the two are very different and you should strive for the spiritual plane and try to leave the things of the earthly plane behind. His work is very much about seeing the spiritual nature of the physical world, whether it's body or whether it's just people interacting with each other on the streets of the city—that has a spiritual dimension to it as well, and I think that's something that I've always particularly appreciated about his work.
What's Your Favorite Spot in New York City?
I would say that one of those places would have to be The Cloisters, which is up in Fort Tryon Park in the northwest corner of Manhattan. There's a beautiful park there and a beautiful garden. But, also there's a museum there that was brought over from Europe, basically piece by piece. They took monasteries that had been demolished or damaged, and took pieces of them and brought them over to this park and rebuilt this beautiful museum— which is like a cloister, where monks would have lived or nuns would have lived and has a beautiful collection of medieval art in it. I just think that's one of the more peaceful places in New York.
It's funny, because you do think of New York just as a concrete jungle, but there are these big slices of nature that have been preserved. That one in particular is very dramatic because you're right on the Hudson River and you have these beautiful views over the cliffs down into the river, and this lovely park.
What's Your Relationship to Your Hit Song 'One of Us'? Do You Hate That Some People Only Associate You with That One Song?
I don't. I definitely have had moments where I've struggled with the notion that most people— people who are not my big fans, which I certainly have enough of and I'm really grateful for that—only know me from that song. When I stop and think about it, I think probably the reason that I have the fans that I do is because they were attracted to my work through that song." And then, they got to hear the rest of the album and then they were intrigued and bought subsequent albums.
I've been able to have a pretty lengthy career in a time where not a lot of people are able to do that. I think part of it is due to that song, and to the impact that it had, and the fact that it was a success all over the world.
Do You Believe in God?
Well, define God.
How you defined it in your song.
It's hard not to think that there was some kind of a Creator. It's difficult to believe that what we have on this earth just was an accident, for me anyways. It's tough for me to believe that this is some crazy accident that happened. So, in that sense, I think that there perhaps was some sort of Creator, but I don't know that I have this notion of God as the old guy with the white beard who you pray to and He intercedes on your behalf if you're a good person and all that sort of stuff.
I think my notions of what is larger than ourselves and holy is probably a little bit closer to what Carl Jung use to talk about— that the collective unconscious and the collective energy of our spiritual natures does have some kind of an existence and a power unto itself.
That's kind of vague, but I don't know that we have the capacity to define it any more specifically than that.