New York photographer Harold Feinstein was walking home in the rain when he heard a voice. It was sweet and heavenly, so he stopped to listen. He was mesmerized by Susan Osborn, a young singer from the midwest, who performed on street corners to make her living.
Feinstein was so moved that he became a patron of Osborn’s, giving her half of his earnings from every photograph he sold, with the promise that she would write more material. His support helped her launch a 40-year career in the music industry that has included touring across the world and releasing more than 12 records.
“People honoring my gift has been the thread that runs through my life,” Osborn said. “I didn’t believe in me. It’s taken me a long time to separate ego, and that success was not tied to numbers. My success now is sharing my music.”
Her newest projects reflect that spirit of support: digitizing her very first recording made in 1979 and creating a brand new album of original music. She’s been fundraising online to help offset the costs.
“At 66 years old, these projects are a little like bookends to my career,” she said.
After playing in bands in her home state of South Dakota, Osborn came to New York in the late 1970s, sharing an apartment with Lucinda Williams. After meeting Feinstein, she wrote non-stop for two months, creating enough material for an album. While playing bar gigs during a visit back home, she met a man who offered to pay $10,000 to produce her first record. She laughed it off, but after telling Feinstein the story, he urged her to contact him.
Soon after, she and a full band were recording the folk-rock album “You Gotta Believe” during a live recording session in Iowa. Her parents and close friends were in the audience. Also in attendance was the brother of one of the producers. It was a life-changing experience for him, inspiring a career in the music business. The power of Osborn’s recordings stayed with him for decades, and he reached out to her a few years ago to suggest digitizing it.
The two-inch, 16-track DBX tapes had been in storage for decades and there was only one place in the U.S. that could do the transfer. Miraculously, the sound is clear as a bell, and Osborn is now remixing all the tracks. The remastered album will be available on CD and for downloading next fall.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s like sitting in a time machine and hearing my 29-year-old self,” Osborn said. “It’s been a revelation.”
At the time, she didn’t think she would live a long life, saying she got her education at the “school of hard knocks.”
“But I decided to not be Janis Joplin. I watched people in my business burn hard and fast,” Osborn said. “I’m alive because I didn’t let the music business get me.”
Around the time of her first album, Osborn started performing with the Paul Winter Consort, staying with the group until 1985. In 1991, she started a long association with Japan, singing for commercials, television and film.
She has performed at the United Nations, the Berlin Wall, the Nagano Winter Olympics and numerous memorial and peace ceremonies at Hiroshima and Post-9/11 New York. As a long-time islander, Osborn is known on Orcas for her Victorian Valley Chapel Christmas concert series.
Her newest project, Makin’ the Two One, will showcase 14 original songs written over the past few years. They tackle subjects like gun violence, power and love.
“They address things that I passionately care about,” she said. “This is the best music I’ve ever written. I write cliches. I write songs that are familiar to people so they can sing them.”
The album will be dedicated to Feinstein, who passed away in 2015. And like her first recording, Osborn plans to do it live and with an audience.
“I’ve never really been a recording artist. I like the audience experience,” she said. “It’s not about how many copies will sell. It’s about getting music to the people who need it, and honoring the many, many people who have supported me. This is my legacy.”
How to donate to Osborn’s projects
Visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/susan-osborn-the-latest-and-the-first#/. She is at $2,400 towards her goal of $15,000. The deadline to donate is April 26.