Joan As Police Woman: 'I was going to die if I didn't have some way to express myself' -
Joan Wasser – aka Joan as Police Woman – is known as a sophisticated songwriter and a pretty groovy person. But most of all it’s her gorgeously warm voice that's earned her a cult following. Over seven albums her angst-ridden vocals have explored heartache and compulsion with a blend of soul and indie-rock. Damned Devotion, her latest LP, has been particularly well received, earning mainly four-star reviews. Her UK tour starts next week in Glasgow.
Wasser was not always a singer. She started off her musical career playing violin in various youth orchestras, and later with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. Wasser soon found playing orchestral music creatively stifling and started offering her violin skills to local punk bands.
During much of the Nineties Wasser played with the Dambuilders, a grunge-influenced band with whom she developed her electric-violin technique. Her life changed in 1997 when her boyfriend, the singer Jeff Buckley, accidentally drowned in Memphis. Overcome with grief she created a band, Black Beetle, with the remaining members of Buckley’s band. In 1999 Wasser joined Anthony and the Johnsons and played viola on the Mercury Prize-winning I am a Bird Now. In 2002 she created her own band Joan As Police Women, the name being a reference to the TV show Police Woman featuring Angie Dickinson.
I meet Wasser in a bar-cum-music-venue in the heart of London’s West End. She has been over in London for a few days promoting her new album and walks in wearing a faux fur jacket with a guitar strapped to her back. She looks every inch a Bohemian. She also looks totally exhausted. Today, she tells me, she has done 4 slots for the BBC including Lauren Laverne and 5 Live.
A large group sit next to us and Wasser asks if we can move to a quieter seat as she's sensitive to distractions. Somehow, I’d always imagined her to be more formidable. She always looks so feisty in her videos. But, in person, she turns out to be very charming and courteous. And whilst she is very self-assured, there’s also a sense of great vulnerability.
Russ Coffey: The songs on Damned Devotion seem a little sadder and wiser than on last two albums. Are these your sentiments, characters or both?
Joan Wasser: Oh no it’s me. I mean can you really write from any other perspective? Because when you’re being someone else isn’t that you anyway? Maybe in the future, I will try writing as another character but now my lyrics are all pieces of me.
The album sounds very cathartic. Was it cathartic to produce?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what I would be like if I didn’t have music to throw all these feelings into. I’m just glad I do, because it gets them out. It doesn’t change them, but it gets them out in a way that allows me to proceed with my life. It’s helpful.
And do you feel like you are in a good place now?
Oh yeah, but ‘good’ means something different from what it used to. Do I have a perfect situation in my life? No, but that’s fine. I’ve experienced so many good situations and they are always going to change. I feel glad that I feel alright with whatever is going on.
When you wrote The Deep Field, you said that was about coming to term with being 40. Do you still feel comfortable with the ageing process?
Definitely – I’m thankful I wasn’t writing songs any younger than my mid-thirties because it might have been very embarrassing. Yeah, more experience begets more wisdom. That’s for sure.
Your hometown of Brooklyn seems a great place for an artist to be inspired. What’s your daily routine there?
I don’t have a set routine where I work on music say between 10 and 6 and then go out and have dinner. I wait until the music calls me to make it. Just because it hasn’t let me down yet. What do I do other than that? I ride my bike around in Brooklyn, that’s really fun. What do I do? [thinks for a bit] I guess I do do a lot of writing. It’s just part of my day …it doesn’t feel like “now I’m working”.
Talking of locations, I was always intrigued by the videos you made for "The Magic" and "Chemmie". They look like they were set deep in the British suburbs.
I’ll tell you how that came about: First of all, I hate making videos because I don’t want to put an image with the music. It really bums me out 'cos I want the listener to make their own images. So I look for the unusual. I want something weird and not obvious, and creative. A lot of the treatments I got for the first single from that record were where Joan is on top of a mountain with a dress on and it is flowing in the wind and she has a magic wand. I was like just “Oh no”.
And then I got the treatment by a young man named Ben Reed who was from Cardiff as were all of his people – his DP and all the people who made videos with him. So I did it there. It suited the song. It’s probably my favourite video. Ben Reed gave me hope that you could make images for a song that didn’t crush the song. The video allows you to make up your own story because it’s so specific and weird.
Your singing has a very particular quality. Do you think of yourself as a soul singer?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know whether I would have been able to say that a few years ago but yes. I did not sing when I was a kid – then it was just the violin. In retrospect, I think it was the death of my boyfriend [Jeff Buckley] that forced me to sing. It was so painful and I had nowhere to put it. The pain was too great.
I was literally in a place where I was going to die if I didn’t have some other way to express myself. And you know I never really sang. It always scared me. It felt way too revealing. I wasn’t ready for that. And then it just happened. Mostly in private. And my voice was so small. It felt so tiny and so afraid. But it felt right as the way to usher the sort of feelings that I had out of me.
Do you listen to specific records to get ideas about how to sing?
I love listening to music, but the way I learnt to sing was just by doing it. By rehearsing and going on tour and seeing what worked and what didn’t work and noting that. You have to be an observer of your own playing for it to work.
What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?
I am enjoying Madlib. And I really like Nick Hakim and Bridget Kearney’s records. Benjamin Lazar Davis, my really good friend and collaborator on my last record, has just finished a new solo record – that’s amazing. But what I listen to is mainly Madlib and J Dilla and stuff. If I’m going to be listening to music it’s such a concentrated space, so I won't listen and do anything else at the same time.
And what about from the past?
Bill Withers is an incredible source of inspiration always and Al Green and Marvin Gay and Roberta Flack and Ann Peebles and that song “I’m a Ram” by Al Green. That song I actually listen to in light of this record.
The record you did with Benjamin Lazar Davis was quite experimental – with the emphasis on beats and use of Pygmy music – is it true that this helped inspire a new style of writing for you?
Yeah. I love making beats but I did not know if it would ever work for Joan As Police Woman, because my records are based mostly in very organic instruments. But making that record with Ben, we got so obsessive about everything, and I just got more used to making beats and thinking of it as an actual organic instrument itself.
A lot of the songs on this new record were really experiments with writing to beats that I had made, not knowing if it was going to work at all. And a lot of it happened at night because it’s when I get really creative. When everyone goes to sleep and it's quiet.
Was this in your own home studio? Just you and the drum machine, and a keyboard?
Yeah. I also have a piano and a Wurlitzer and an organ in my house. My house is just full of instruments, but I can’t play a lot of them late at night because of the volume…
When the other musicians came in to finish the record, it seems you were careful to add just what was needed?
That’s right. Parker [Kindred – dummer] played over a lot of it. I love that mix of programmed beats and live drums. A lot of the beats I used were from recordings I had made of actual drumming, so the inception of the sound is real. But I didn’t add all that much because I wanted to retain that feeling.
You are seen by many as a strong female role model. Do you identify with #metoo and do you think it’s helping improve things?
It certainly isn’t making anything worse. I imagine it’s making things a lot better. I mean just the fact that there is now much more of an open platform for people to talk about what’s happened to them is only a good thing. This stuff has been going on forever and it’s talked about amongst friends. So, to have it get respect from a larger part of the culture is helpful.
“The Silence” features a recording of chanting from a women’s march. Did you have the current political climate in mind when you wrote it?
That song started as a song about interpersonal communication but the more I was working on it, and also because if what was happening in my country, it also became about the larger picture. And yeah I put audio from the women’s march in there.
Talking of what’s happening in your country, do you think the whole Trump thing is getting any better? Do you think people are getting a handle on things or is everything as disorientating as it was a year or so ago?
Honestly, I’m still in a state of shock about what’s going on. It’s so disgraceful and you know us in New York City are so in the dark about what’s happening in our country. We don’t see all the middle of the country. There was not one person in NYC that thought Trump was going to win. That wasn’t even a thought. So, the alarm is still there.
The thing that scares me is the audaciously wrong behaviour starts to get more and more normal. The daily insults to humanity. I don’t know how they would get checked but they don’t feel like they are. That’s what scares me. I don’t know what’s going on. I feel that so much of the reason why he was elected was just people wanting to point the finger at someone and something else for not having the kind of life they feel they ought to have.
Jean Genet, a famous outsider, is referenced in one of the new songs. Do you feel like an outsider?
Yeah, I knew I didn’t want to have kids when I was 8. I just want to make music and be creative and thankfully I have the opportunity to do that.
What do you think you might be doing if you weren’t making music?
Oh, I have no idea. Something else creative but I mean…I make clothing too. Really badly. But I mean I might be doing that. I don’t know what I would be doing. I am glad that I have music because I think it might be kinda ugly otherwise.
Your tour starts on April 17th. Can you give a little flavour of what people might expect?
Yes. It’s the biggest band I have ever toured with. It’s 4 other people. And I have an electric bass player which is something I haven’t had for many records. I had a Moog bass player. So that’s really exciting because just having that the drums and bass thing is great to play with. And I have two keyboard players and I’m playing keys as well. And I’m playing guitar, and everyone sings. The backing vocals are really really important on this record. I have four other really great singers.
The setlist will be all of the new record, and then selected songs from the back catalogue which we’ve been reworking to sort of suit the feeling of the rest of the material which is so fun for me to do – I love reworking songs.