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Osborne steers clear of pigeonholes


People were talking about Joan Osborne even before her new album, "Relish," began earning her a reputation as one of the most promising songwriters on the scene. Trouble was, the word-of-mouth reports -- though invariably positive -- sometimes gave the wrong impression about the kind of music she made.

For instance, there were those who pegged her as a folkie, mostly because she was female and played guitar. "It's kind of that reductive sort of thing," she says, acknowledging the "logic" behind that rumor. "Actually, I don't play that much guitar, and for a long time, because I was singing in blues bars, people considered me a blues singer.

"So there are a lot of different labels that people try to put on you."

Osborne, though, would prefer to steer clear of pigeonholes. "I try to avoid classifying it in every possible way," she says, over the phone from her record company's New York offices. "I think if I had to call it something, I'd call it soul music -- just because I try to keep in mind that soul has got to be the main ingredient, no matter what you're doing.

"But it certainly doesn't fall neatly into the soul music category as people define it, so I try not to make too much of that."

Sit down with "Relish," and it quickly becomes clear just how broad Osborne's sense of soul is. Sure, there are songs that draw from the R&B; side of soul, from the plaintive, bluesy strains of "Man in the Long Black Coat" to the dark, swampy cadences of "Spider Web." But you could also apply the spiritual facet of the word in theologically inclined tunes like "St. Teresa" or "One of Us."

Either way, what comes through is a strong sense of Osborne's gifts as a singer/songwriter. Not in the confessional, "I don't need an analyst because I'm telling all you people this stuff" sense of the term ("I hate that stuff," laughs Osborne), but in the intimate, storytelling aspect of singer/songwriting.

"I had this picture in my head of sitting on someone's shoulder and whispering in their ear," she says of the album. "As opposed to a live show, where you're trying to make people dance, rock them out and stuff."

Moreover, there's a genuine sense of intelligence in Osborne's work. It isn't just that her ideas are thought-provoking and insightful; she also seems to give her listeners credit for having a certain amount of gray matter on hand.

"It always annoyed me, both as a music listener and as an artist who's trying to communicate something, that record companies seem to think that audiences are not very smart and need to be told what to like," she says. "Audiences have always listened to a broad range of things, and don't think of themselves in these marketing-strategy ways that record companies and people like that think about them.

"And that was really what kept me going," she adds. "That it was real from the beginning. I was singing songs in front of people and communicating something to them. I don't mean to say that people were clapping for me, and that stroked my ego; it wasn't about that. It was about seeing that these songs meant something to people, and after a while, people started to sing along with them, and that it was a real thing. Even if it was on a smaller scale than, like, Madonna or something."

Joan Osborne

When: Monday. Oct. 23, 8 p.m.

Where: Hammerjacks

Tickets: $16.50

PD Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410) 659-7625 for information

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