JOAN IN THE ZONE

Joan Wasser does not be­lieve in rest­ing on her lau­rels. The artist known as Joan as Po­lice Woman speaks to

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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.

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great

Joan Wasser hones her skills via live per­for­mances, be­low

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