Joan Osborne has dipped into the Motown songbook for her new album, she tells Andrew Cowen.
Joan Osborne never takes the simple road. For her latest album, Breakfast In Bed, which is out in May, she embarked on a verge of rediscovery, mixing in several Tamla Motown standards.
It's a potent mixture, Osborne's stunning voice ripping into the songs with gusto, her tight band discovering new nuances in familiar material.
She's coming to England now, booked into the intimate living room hush of the Glee Club. For someone more accustomed to sharing a stage with the likes of the Grateful Dead, this makes a welcome change for Joan.
"I like playing all different size places, but smaller clubs are fun because you can be so spontaneous," she says. "There is more room to throw in a song that the crowd has requested, more leeway for stretching out the arrangements, and you know for sure if people are with you or not.
"I learned how to sing by playing small clubs and it makes you very resourceful in keeping your audience under your spell."
With such a mountain of classic material to choose from, Joan must have been like a child in a sweet shop. How, I asked her, did she make the final choice for the album?
"Obviously the producer and I wanted to find songs that fit my voice, and we both came in with ideas as did the label reps," she told me.
"My main criteria in choosing a well-known song is that I can find a way to bring out things in it that have not been touched before, like a jazz singer tries to do with classic material."
Breakfast In Bed sees Joan astutely delivering blue-eyed soul through covers of legendary tracks such as Sara Smile and Ain't No Sunshine - a fabulous tune that's wonderfully mastered by the musical veteran.
Most well known for her writing and recording of (What if God Were) One of Us, which still receives mammoth radio air play almost two decades after its release, Joan Osborne is one of those rare singer songwriters who isn't afraid to leap genre boundaries.
Stemming from the same school as Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, Joan is equally comfortable steeped in country, blues and folk as she is when she's submerged in pure Motown Soul and R&B.
Born in Louiseville, Kentucky, Joan moved to New York in the late 1980s where she formed her own record label, Womanly Hips, only to be quickly snapped up by Mercury Records who released her first major label album, Relish.
The whirlwind which followed included a top five hit, five Grammy nominations and multi-platinum album sales.
Joan later featured in the 2002 documentary film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown as well as notching up some mighty live tours alongside the likes of the Funk Brothers, The Dixie Chicks and veteran jam-rockers The Grateful Dead.
For Joan Osborne, life is a musical pilgrimage of experimentation, which has taken her to the depths of discovery in India, to performances for the Dalai Lama and right down to the gritty roots of the deep south to uncover the roots of blues.
She does a good job on Breakfast In Bed. The playing is tight but has a looseness that shows the musicians have been playing together for a while. Joan confirms that the recording sessions were good-natured.
"It's a combination of preparation and spontaneity," she says. "You don't want to waste time in the studio figuring out what you're trying to do, but there are always happy accidents that are better than what you had planned beforehand.
"For instance, Ivan Neville on keyboards and vocals brought a great feel to this material that influenced the way we did a number of songs."
On stage, with her well-honed band, things should really cook.
"Performing live is my favourite thing, and I don't do it as much as I used to because the travel is tough to do with my daughter in tow, but I still go out several times a year, not months at a time but shorter trips. I'd go crazy without it," she says.
American songwriters are often known as perfectionists and Joan admits that she was for a while. However, things change.
"I used to think of myself as a perfectionist, but that can be a dead end creatively," she says.
"Mistakes will take you places that can breathe life into a stale approach, and sometimes perfection is just about your ego and not about the song."
* Joan Osborne plays at the Glee Club, Birmingham, tomorrow.