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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's impossible to squeeze Joan Osborne into a single musical style. She made her name with a debut album called "Relish" and its impossible-to-avoid single, "One of Us."

(Soundbite of song "One of Us")

Ms. JOAN OSBORNE (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah. What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us...

SEABROOK: Since then, Joan Osborne has built a kaleidoscopic career that runs from pop to soul to country. She set her latest album, "Little Wild One," very consciously in New York City. That's where NPR's Allison Keyes caught up with her.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) In a gypsy cab on the Brooklyn bridge, it's sunrise...

KEYES: Sunglasses shading her eyes, Joan Osborne stalks gracefully along the tree-lined sidewalks she loves. She hunkers down on the steps of a historic brownstone right off of the Brooklyn promenade and explains that she wanted "Little Wild One" to evoke the city she loves.

Ms. OSBORNE: I certainly don't want to exclude people who don't live in New York or know New York City. But it's - you know, I guess it's like reading a novel that's set in a particular place where you can get the flavor of it, and you can maybe fall in love with that place. And then you'll go and, you know, visit it and say oh, yeah, that was part of that song. And that was a part of that chapter where this thing happened.

(Soundbite of song "Cathedrals")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) In the shadows of tall buildings. Of fallen angels on the ceilings. Oily feathers and bronzen concrete...

KEYES: That song, "Cathedrals," actually came from a Delaware area band called Jump Little Children. Osborne says one of her producers brought it in.

(Soundbite of song "Cathedrals")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) In the Cathedrals of New York and Rome. There is a feeling that you should just go home. And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is...

Ms. OSBORNE: It seemed like it had been written for the record, you know, just thematically, the way it evokes New York City. And it really - I really like the way that it evokes that physical space, that sense of being in a big city with the surveillance cameras and the canyons of buildings, and all of that. It gives you that sense of being just this tiny little person in the midst of this huge structure. And, you know, how do you find your identity in the midst of all that?

KEYES: Osborne's professional identity began in New York, even though she was born in Kentucky. She came here in the '80s to go to film school at New York University, but ended up in the Abilene Cafe on 21st Street and 2nd Avenue singing "God Bless the Child" on a dare. Osborne says the process of filmmaking is a long one, and she was captivated by the immediacy of music.

Ms. OSBORNE: It's something that comes from your body, and you carry it with you all the time. And it's - there was something about that that was really just captivating to me. It was something where I felt like I could use not just my brain, but my heart, and soul, and body as well.

(Soundbite of song "Daddy-O")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) Daddy-O, Daddy-O when I close my eyes. There's a cyclone there, and I want to ride, An electric train to a long, lost world, To the land of a thousand dancing girls...

KEYES: The emotion in Osborne's vocals seems tangible, as is the level of her immersion in her work. She says things bubbled to the surface on the new album that she wanted to write after the 9/11 terror attacks and a new appreciation she felt for her adopted city. Osborne says she read works like Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" for solace.

Ms. OSBORNE: I was not somebody who could sit down and write an album's worth of material in the days after 9/11 because it just was such an overwhelming event to me that I didn't know what to think or say about it. But I think some of what eventually filtered down to me was an appreciation of what the city was and is, and an indomitable spirit that it has, and also the spiritual nature of just all these people living on top of each other from different countries, and different faiths, and different, you know, mindsets, and different everything, yet we're all able to coexist relatively peacefully.

KEYES: For this album, Osborne reconnected with her team from "Relish," Rick Chertoff, Rob Hyman, and Eric Bazilian. The collaboration between four people with completely different notions of what something should be yields things one could never get working alone. She says she wanted to return to pop after a series of what she calls genre exercises, like her country album "Pretty Little Stranger."

(Soundbite of song "Pretty Little Stranger")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) I think I'm getting over him. The sap is risin' in the tree. The blood is runnin' in my heart, Brings desire back to me. I wonder who...

KEYES: Osborne also has made several forays into the soul music she loves so much, like this cut from her album of soul classics, "Breakfast In Bed."

(Soundbite of song "Sara Smile")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) It's you and me forever. Sara, smile. Won't you smile a while for me, Sara?

KEYES: Osborne has also toured with everyone, from The Dead to The Dixie Chicks.

Ms. OSBORNE: Maybe I keep saying yes to all these tours because I'm afraid nobody will ask me anymore if I say no.

KEYES: But now, she's launching her own tour to promote this new album. The title track, "Little Wild One," was written collectively by Osborne, Hyman, and Bazilian, but it's very personal to her, especially as a mom.

(Soundbite of song "Little Wild One")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) I need you like the air that I breathe. I need you like the sky and the trees. I need you like you wouldn't believe. I need you like the sun, little wild one...

Ms. OSBORNE: For me, it's very much about, you know, my daughter and the feelings I have about her being in my life. And it's very simple, almost like a haiku in the way that the language is very simple. And I appreciate that about it.

KEYES: Osborne is still the busiest woman in rock and roll, as Rolling Stone once described her. As she steps into the street to hail a cab to pick up her three and a half year old daughter, she takes one last second to talk about her new material. This time, she says, she's delving into finding an intersection between '60s-era folk music and classical. And who knows what's next? Osborne jokes that she's always wanted to write a rock musical. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Little Wild One")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) I need you like the air that I breathe. I need you like the sky and the trees...

SEABROOK: There's a video and songs from Joan Osborne's new CD in the music section of npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Little Wild One")

Ms. OSBORNE: (Singing) I need you like the sun, little wild one. I need you like the heavens above. I need you like the one that I love...

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