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Joan Osborne's 'interesting journey' to a new sound

Joan Osborne performs at the YMCA Boulton Center

Joan Osborne performs at the YMCA Boulton Center in Bay Shore in 2011. Credit: Steven Sandick

Some 20 years ago, after touring nonstop for seven or eight months, singer Joan Osborne decided to use a bit of the savings she'd built up for a trip to India. She was so intense about studying qawwali, a type of Sufi religious music, that she smuggled a high-tech recorder into temples to capture local singers. But in the middle of the night, her manager called: She and her album "Relish" had just been nominated for multiple Grammy awards. Her picture was in every newspaper. She had to return home immediately.

"I was like, 'Whoa,' " Osborne recalls. "I remember waking up the next day and it took me a minute to realize that had not been a dream I was having."

The dream continues for Osborne, who comes to Staller Center for the Arts in Stony Brook on Oct. 30 as part of the "Solid Soul" tour with R&B singer Mavis Staples. Born in Kentucky, Osborne, 53, spent the early '90s honing her gigantic blues voice into a precision weapon via three-hour shows at Mondo Cane, Mondo Perso, Delta 88 and other New York clubs. After putting out a few albums on her own, she signed with Mercury Records and released "Relish" in 1995. It took months, but Osborne's what-if-God ballad "One of Us" built into a smash, drawing CD buyers to gems like the sexual anthem "Right Hand Man" and the spiritual street-corner travelogue "St. Teresa."

Osborne has been touring and recording steadily since then -- her 2014 album "Love and Hate" downshifts her powerful voice into something more subtle and pretty, on heavily orchestrated songs. But most pop music fans still remember her for "Relish," a 20th anniversary version of which arrives at the end of this month, including a rickety demo of "One of Us" and a harmonica-heavy reggae version of "Pensacola."

"I forgot about almost all of that stuff, it had been so long," says Osborne, who lives in New York but calls for a 20-minute interview from a Houston tour stop. "The engineers went back into the vaults and pulled out the 2-inch tapes and transferred them to digital and sent them to me. I was like, 'What is this?' I did not remember more than 10 percent."

Over the years, Osborne has recorded with the Funk Brothers, Motown's renowned backup studio band, and collaborated regularly with members of the Grateful Dead, in addition to raising her daughter, now 10. She returned to blues with 2012's "Bring It On Home," then moved in the opposite direction on the heavily produced "Love and Hate." She and her longtime collaborator, producer Jack Petruzzelli, had been working on "Love and Hate" first, for seven years.

"We were looking to do something in the same terrain as 'Astral Weeks' by Van Morrison or 'Pink Moon' by Nick Drake, something that had that lush, beautiful sensuousness about it," she recalls. "The 'Bring It On Home' record was more of a reaction to the 'Love and Hate' record as opposed to the other way around . . . like, 'All right, we've been in the studio with this original project for so long, let's just do a blues record.' "

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For "Solid Soul," Osborne performs with Staples' backup trio. They strip down Osborne's "Where We Start," from "Love and Hate," replacing the layers of strings on her album with a more simplistic, build-to-a-crescendo arrangement.

"You have this interesting journey you go on without having a ton of these other instruments. We're sort of feeling our way through the tunes and have gotten into a really interesting place with it," she says. "Although I miss my band guys, I have to say. I miss hanging out with them."

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Oct. 30, Staller Center for the Performing Arts, Stony Brook University

INFO $48; 631-632-2787;


Mavis Staples' milestones

Joining Joan Osborne at the Staller Center for the Arts in Stony Brook will be R&B and gospel music legend Mavis Staples. Here are some great moments from Staples' career:

1948: Mavis, 8, hears Ella and Buddy Johnson's blues classic "Since I Fell for You" on a jukebox en route to school, prompting her to sing it at a variety show. Her uncle yanks her offstage and drags her to her grandmother, who, according to Greg Kot's 2014 biography "I'll Take You There," whips her and declares, "In this family you sing church songs!"

1948: The first incarnation of the Staple Singers -- bandleader Pops and his daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne -- sing "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again" at Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago. "The congregation clapped uproariously," Kot reports.

1963: After roughly a decade of performing as a family group, the Staple Singers meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Montgomery, Alabama, concert and decide to focus their songs on the civil rights movement, including "March Up Freedom's Highway."

1972: After signing to the hallowed Memphis soul-music label Stax Records, the Staple Singers record their immortal, gospel-infused hit "I'll Take You There."

2004: Although Staples had spent much of her career trying to make it as a solo star, she didn't fully take off until recording "Have a Little Faith" in 2004, four years after her father, Pops, died from injuries related to a fall. Staples has since recorded several superb albums on the Anti- label.

2015: Staples steals Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," if not the entire show, from the debut episode of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." She appeared to miss her cue entirely, but made up for it with the force of her personality, overwhelming fellow guests Aloe Blacc, Buddy Guy and Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, and even host Colbert.


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