JOAN IN THE ZONE
Joan Wasser does not believe in resting on her laurels. The artist known as Joan as Police Woman speaks to
JOAN Wasser likes to push the music envelope. One of her latest projects, for example, is to explore the nuances of Central Africa’s pygmy flute singing, a collaboration she has spent six months working on with her friend, composer Benjamin Lazar Davis.
“It sounds like it would be esoteric,” she says, “but it’s actually really poppy. We have an album almost ready to go and I can’t wait to hear it.”
It’s unlikely we’ll hear examples of this side project when Wasser, better known as Joan as Police Woman, gets here for a national tour later this month, but we can expect to see an artist who doesn’t rest on her laurels.
The singer’s new album, The Classic, has elements of Marvin Gaye/Al Green-type soul that were a feature of her last effort, 2011’s The Deep Field, but amid the soul, pop and rock there are traces of reggae and, on the single Holy City, an unexpected divergence into doo-wop.
“I’ve had the same three women singing backups on the last two records,” she explains. “None of them had ever sung doo-wop before. At first I sang it on the piano and out came the song. I didn’t want to do it at first because it was a text book rock ’n’ roll song. Then I decided I wanted to do it all with voices.
“Living in New York City, doo-wop is inescapable. There are still quartets who come on the subway who are incredible.
“Anyway, we tried it out. Not only did it sound great, but it sounded so much more like doo-wop than I expected.”
The song’s video clip shows Wasser and her colleagues walking around Manhattan, but she was inspired to write it after touring Israel with her band a few years ago.
“We played in Tel Aviv and I stayed in Israel for an extra week and toured around with my friend,” she says. “That was an extraordinary trip for a lot of reasons. My friend was studying to be a rabbi so we got the best tour you could imagine. We went to the Western Wall and I observed a lot of people in a state of ecstasy.
“While I can’t relate to that style of religion, I can relate in terms of love and music and connection with people. So I used that as the start for a love song.”
Wasser also took herself out of her recording comfort zone for this new album. Having worked previously with producer Bryce Goggin in the same Brooklyn studio, this time she collaborated with musician and producer Tyler Wood in a number of recording facilities.
“I wanted to change it up a bit and get a less polished sound,” she says. “I wanted it to capture the energy and excitement of the live sound. And I made a conscious decision to allow any song I began writing to be finished. Often, before, I’d start writing a song and immediately decide I couldn’t sing it. This time I decided we could throw it out after we finished it.”
Wasser’s love affair with music began at the age of six. Growing up in Connecticut, she played piano and violin. After school her skills took her to study music at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, and she went on to play in the university symphony orchestra.
Classical music wasn’t for her, she decided, and Wasser changed tack completely, joining a number of local punk bands before becoming a crucial element of the Dambusters, where Wasser went from being a violinist to becoming a guitarist and songwriter. Singing, however, wasn’t yet part of her portfolio.
In 1997 Wasser’s boyfriend, American singer Jeff Buckley, drowned in Memphis, Tennessee, a tragedy that affected her personally but also had an impact on her career. Afterwards she formed Black Beetle with Buckley’s band and contemplated the idea of singing in public for the first time. A Black Beetle album was recorded but never released; Wasser’s career, however, continued to find traction.
She spent a few years as a member of Antony and the Johnsons, featuring the distinctive falsetto of Antony Hegarty, but in 2002 the compulsion to write and perform her own material was too great and a fledgling Joan as Police Woman, a name purloined from an American TV series featuring Angie Dickinson, began.
Simultaneously she was still in demand as a hired gun and joined Rufus Wainwright for a tour on which she also did the support slot, winning fans along the way. By the time her debut Joan as Police Woman album, Real Life, was released in 2006, Wasser was happy to be front and centre at last — but not yet totally confident about her abilities.
“When I made my first record I had found a love for singing,” she says, “but I was not what you would say comfortable singing. I wanted to be, but you can’t push that. You just have to wait until it happens.”
She was anxious, also, that she was 34 when that first album came out, making her a late starter on a solo path. “I hadn’t been singing for very long and I didn’t start singing until quite late,” she says. “It took me a long time to sing in public and to think that I could even be a singer. I’ve been surrounded with some pretty spectacular singers. I could compare and despair with anybody. Oh,” she says in a mocking tone, “I don’t immediately sound like Nina Simone? I’m doomed!”
Today her voice exudes the same confidence that comes across in her personality. She’s an engaging stage presence and a good talker. Consistent touring, including several visits to Australia, has aided her ambition.
“Doing a lot of touring is the best way to work out what’s comfortable with your voice and to strengthen it,” she says. “Like anything, practice makes you better. I feel comfortable singing now. I feel like it’s going to be an entire life of getting more comfortable.”
Australia is the next stage on adventure.
Joan Wasser hones her skills via live performances, below