Joan Osborne should have been a much bigger star.
Relish, her 1995 major-label debut, sold more than 3 million copies, spurred by the No.1 smash "One of Us." The video for the controversial song - whose chorus asked, "What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us ... " - was a constant on MTV. Osborne was also a hit on the Lilith Fair tour that year.
But four years passed before she released Righteous Love, the proper follow-up to Relish. The album flopped. Osborne and her label, Mercury, parted company. And she more or less vanished from the mainstream pop radar.
Since then, the Kentucky-born, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter has been busy touring and making mostly solid but overlooked albums that comfortably hop genres. In 2006, she released a country album called Pretty Little Stranger. But on her latest CD, Breakfast in Bed, she reinterprets such soul classics as "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers and "Midnight Train to Georgia" by Gladys Knight & the Pips. She also sings self-penned tunes that sit well alongside the soul evergreens.
"Singing those songs helped me as a songwriter," says Osborne, who headlines at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., tonight. "It helped me with my craft. Those are not easy songs to sing, so they strengthened my instrument too."
Breakfast in Bed - released last year in conjunction with Time Life Music and Osborne's label, Womanly Hips - is a slickly produced affair where the artist always sounds convincing. Whether belting or crooning, Osborne uses her dusky vocals in a way that best serves the tune. In singing songs so closely associated with the original artists, Osborne challenged herself to find something new in the classics.
"There's no way you can replace the original," she says. "With 'Midnight Train to Georgia,' the story is talking about someone who ultimately failed at being a star and returns home. I was looking to embrace the newness of returning home a different person. I was trying to bring a sunnier approach to a fresh start."
"Heat Wave" and "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" - Osborne's two glorious performances from Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 documentary about the Funk Brothers - are smartly tacked onto the end of Breakfast in Bed. Aside from some compressed-sounding production here and there, the album is one of Osborne's best efforts. But to follow it up, the pop chameleon will jump genres again. Her next album, tentatively titled Little Wild One, is due out Sept. 9. It's a return to the folk-suffused pop of Relish.
"Everybody who worked on Relish was available now," Osborne says. "We got the group together, and it felt right.."
In concert these days, the artist dips generously into the varied musical bags of her career - from folk to rock, from country to soul. Although she never repeated the commercial success of Relish, Osborne says she has no regrets about the way her career has unfolded.
"I feel like I'm in a lucky position," she says. "I get enough interest from different places to work. I don't feel like I have to have hit singles all over the place to have an interesting career or an interesting life as an artist. The old models for making music obviously aren't reaching the same people the same way. It's all in flux now. But as long as the change is good for the music, I don't care."
See Joan Osborne at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $35 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.