America would do worse than to elect Joan as Policewoman to call the shots, but dreams die hard, and so we shall have to be satisfied with Joan, Statue of Liberty (as referenced in the music video for Eternal Flame, taken from debut LP Real Life). Remaining true to her art and voice, is something that Brooklyn based Joan Wasser is not afraid of.
With a musical legacy spanning some 25 years, having worked with the Dambuilders, formed in 1991, Joan as Policewoman has definitely gone through some radical changes of self-transformation, and shows us how vital it is to keep pushing our own boundaries and capacities. Born in Maine, and raised in Connecticut, Joan Wasser received unconditional support in pursuing her music from an early age, but ultimately it was deep within her own unfathomable energy that Joan found the courage to follow this path. Learning Hendrix on her violin as a teenager, she went on to study music at Boston University, during which time she toured with her band the Dambuilders before joining Those Bastard Souls formed by David Shouse of The Grifters in the mid nineties.
This year sees Joan Wasser and Okkervil River’s Benjamin Lazar Davis collaborate for Joan as Policewoman’s sixth album, titled Let It Be You. The musicians met while in Africa (Joan was working with Damon Albarn on his project Africa Express) and both discovered a rejuvenated energy, drawing on their new found influences of traditional West African music and the music of the Ba-Benzele Pygmy people they encountered while on their travels.
This dynamic interplay between the two artists can be witnessed in Joan Wasser’s latest work, and too, in the role-play throughout the music video for ‘Broke Me In Two’ (as featured on the new record, and starring Portlandia’s very own Fred Armisen and former drummer with Those Bastard Souls) – a testament to Joan’s tendency to challenge convention and re-write the rules.
“Videos often happen months after the songs are written,” Joan explains. “The video is as much the art of the director or animator, but sometimes it’s more collaborative as was the case with ‘Overloaded’ and ‘Broke Me In Two’. Fred Armisen and I have been friends for years. When Ben and I were making the videos for this record I knew I had to ask Fred. He was perfect and very generous with his time. Fred plays a mechanic in the local garage for ‘Broke Me In Two’ and for ‘Overloaded’ Ben and I are the mechanics, swapping roles.” She continues.
‘Broke Me In Two’ was written via the wonders of technology and the internet, while Joan was on tour in Amsterdam. Ben sent her a piano-driven track featuring those aforementioned Pygmy rhythms, and Joan worked on it from afar.
Evolving as both a songwriter and performer throughout the six studio albums recorded since her debut in 2006, Joan Wasser’s art is driven by the intrinsic need to dust off the layers of falsities that can shroud us from living true to life, and getting at the essence of who she is, both as an artist and a person on a journey through time. You need not look far into her back catalogue to see just how the trajectory of her work spans from simplicity to complexity to high drama and then back to a natural vulnerability, as can be seen in the sparse music video for the beautiful ‘Start of my Heart’, released in 2008, and taken from her second record, To Survive.
“This record was written and recorded at a time when a lot was happening in life. My mother was dying, my band was taking off and I was falling in love. I was dealing with all those emotions and writing songs about it all. For me, performing is a way to communicate in ways that are impossible in any other forum.” Joan comments.
Classically trained in violin since the age of eight, Joan has been invited to perform alongside musical legends including PP Arnold, Rufus Wainwright, Tanya Donelly (Joan played strings on a live recording of Tanya’s LP This Hungry Life in 2004 from Bellows Falls) and David Sylvian, known for his work in 1970s synth-pop, New Romantics electronica band Japan. Not to mention, Joan’s own hero, Lou Reed:
“Over the last fifteen years, through recording sessions and group shows, I became friends with Lou Reed. I had no expectations of getting close to Lou because he had such a reputation of keeping people away. The person I knew was such an incredible and generous human being; a mentor of sorts. He ended up having me open the shows and sing and play on his set on his final tour. I feel I can only learn from being in the presence of musical heroes like Lou. He pushed me to be a better and more confident, more chance-taking performer. I am forever thankful to him for that.” Joan remembers the late, great Lou Reed.
Joan grew up listening to the likes of Black Flag and the Bad Brains, as well as Diana Ross which can be heard in Joan’s own leanings towards soul music. Joni Mitchell, Cass McCombs and Stevie Wonder also played a key part in Joan’s musical education, when carving out her own unique vocal style, something she admits didn’t happen overnight. Having the courage and maturity to play Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony as a 14 year old, showed Joan that she was destined for a life in music – it was not only the emotional resonance that brooded within her as a young musician, but also the incredible energy growing as an artist discovering who she is:
“I imagine it would be impossible for the music I love to not become part of my own musical vocabulary but I’m honestly not interested in trying to trace it. I feel like I’ve been influenced by every song and every artist I ever loved. Most of the time spent on writing is focused on finding what feels the most natural, the most authentic, the most truly me.” Joan says.
“I feel like I’ve been influenced by every song and every artist I ever loved”
A young Joan Wasser took these tools to discover her own voice, through the moments that inspired her and pushed her forwards to realise the person she could be. Having been a part of several bands prior to stepping out as Joan as Policewoman, Joan played with Black Beetle, formed in 1997, and ironically, the band created a record that would ultimately never see the light of day. When asked about making and sharing her music with the world, Joan replied:
“Well there is no hidden vault. What I believe to be the good music comes out and the sketches remain in my studio. I have no interest in keeping anything for myself. I am always trying to get closer to what is true for me. Not further from it, not shrouding it or hiding it away.”
In 2012, Joan contributed to a project dedicated to breathing new life into the lost songs of Sandy Denny, who sadly passed away before these songs could be released. It is a wonder just how much creativity remains in the shadows, but in being a part of this musical collaboration, Joan was able to bring new meaning to the songs, and in turn, create new pathways for her own art, as a result:
“Before the tour I didn’t know that much about Sandy Denny, only that I loved her singing. Performing on tour and singing Sandy’s songs and exploring the folk scene I was not a part of was interesting. You can’t help but be influenced by a new experience like that. I got to play with some great musicians: Green from Scriti Politti and Blair Dunlop. By the Time It Gets Dark is a little known song that is just amazing.” Joan says.
Having recently presented a show on BBC Radio 6 Music gave Joan the chance to re-discover music that once moved her as a teenager and perhaps set her on her own musical journey.
“I definitely get stopped in my tracks when I hear music that moves me. I’m still a kid and always will be. When I was a teenager, I’d listen to a radio program that happened late Sunday nights that featured music that wasn’t getting played anywhere else. I would tape the shows onto a cassette and listen to them over and over. The Birthday Party, and Siouxsie Sioux. Then I could go to the record store and know to buy the album.” Joan recalls.
“These days I can get immersed in writing my own music and forget to take time to listen. It’s been a thrill to play music on the radio this month and I hope to do more. I love that someone listening might hear something and it resonate with them.” She continues.
Joan as Policewoman tours the UK this month, before heading to Europe and finishing up in Copenhagen on 7 December. Residing, ordinarily (when not on tour) in one of the most creatively inspired cities of the world, Brooklyn, Joan doesn’t have any shortage of musical stimulus when returning to solid ground:
“Where I live in Brooklyn, I’m very fortunate to have an incredible view of the New York skyline from my apartment and my rooftop. This city has never lost magic for me. Brooklyn has so many great independent stores and arts spaces. I see so much live music when I’m not on tour. There is as much or as little as I ever need or want to do in Brooklyn but the travel with my music takes me to amazing places each year. Something I am thankful for.” Joan says.
And we, too, are thankful, for sure. We can’t wait to catch you on tour, Joan. We’re not sure we can fulfil your dinner date wish, though (but give us some time, and we can work miracles). Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Gloria Steinem – are you out there, in the great beyond? Joan Wasser has a table booked for 7pm.
Catch Joan as Policewoman at Thekla on 20th November. Check out the video for ‘Overloaded’ below.