When guitarist Jack Petruzzelli was asked about Joan Osborne, with whom he has played for 30 years, he chuckled. “There’s no one like Joan Osborne,” Petruzzelli said. “She’s an original.”
Interesting description since the veteran singer is better known for her covers than her originals. Osborne made her initial splash with a version of Eric Bazilian’s “One of Us” in 1995.
“I write my own songs, but I have no problem singing a song someone else wrote,” Osborne said by phone from her Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. “That’s particularly so if that person is a great songwriter.”
As far as rock songwriters go, none is more lionized than Bob Dylan. Osborne tips her cap to the iconic bard with her latest album, “Songs of Bob Dylan.” Osborne offers versions of 13 Dylan songs, which range from the popular to the obscure.
“It was incredibly difficult narrowing it down,” Osborne said. “We wanted to combine the songs that everybody knows with the rarities. Osborne impresses with a revamped take on the relatively unknown gem “Dark Eyes.”
“I didn’t even know that song until Patti Smith mentioned it to me,” Osborne said. “Everybody wants to do Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ but there is so much more in his canon. No matter what I do with a Dylan song, I put a new spin on it.”
It’s just what Dylan does, who is known for often playing nearly unidentifiable versions of his own tunes.
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“It’s true,” Osborne said with a laugh. “Sometimes when you see him, it takes a minute or two to figure out what song of his he’s doing.”
Osborne was surprised to receive any feedback from Dylan’s camp. “His publishing company was very supportive,” she said. “When the record came out, Dylan posted something nice on his Facebook, which was probably as close as you’re going to get to him.”
A second volume of Dylan songs could be in Osborne’s future. She’s also considering recording an album of Neil Young or Paul Simon songs.
“There are so many recording artists that I would like to cover,” she said. “Give me a great song and I’ll sing it. That’s how it was with ‘One of Us.’ I loved it immediately.”
“One of Us,” which Prince covered and raved about, is an unusual hit. It’s uncommon for a provocative song about a deity to hit the charts. “Not many pop songs tackle that subject,” Osborne said. “Pop songs are about falling in love or telling somebody off. The other unique thing about ‘One of Us’ is that it’s not telling anyone what they should believe in. It’s more interesting than spiritual songs that are didactic.”
Expect Osborne to deliver “One of Us” and a number of Dylan covers when she performs Friday (6/1) at the Iowa Arts Festival in downtown Iowa City. Pieta Brown opens at 7 p.m., followed by Osborne at 9 p.m. Saturday night’s headliners are Parker Millsap from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and Trampled by Turtles from 9 to 10:30 p.m. The Main Stage will be located by the Pentacrest.
Osborne admitted that she bought into the Iowa stereotype when she visited for the first time, nearly a quarter century ago.
“I was surprised how hip it is in Iowa,” Osborne said. “There is a heavy literary tradition in Iowa. I hate to admit that I thought it was going to be a giant cornfield before I played my first show there. I was pleasantly surprised. I apologize for my ignorance. I grew up in Kentucky and people think I grew up barefoot living on the side of a mountain. That’s obviously not the case. I’m looking forward to dipping my toes back into the waters of Iowa.”
Osborne may slip in an album of originals sooner than later.
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“People might forget that I write but I do write songs,” Osborne said. “I have some that are ready to go. I love expressing myself through song. I’ll record another album of my own material soon, but I do get distracted by all of the great songs that are already written. I can’t help but gravitate toward songs I hear that Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams recorded.
“In the future you’ll hear new songs from me, but I’ll also be dusting off some old ones. That works best for me.”