On the beat
Joan Wasser is such a haunting, dulcet-toned songwriter that, the first time you meet her, the dirty, braying laugh and kooky gregariousness can come as a shock.
"Bedroom eyes... woo hoo!" she hoots, upon being read a line from a recent review of her sultry new album, The Deep Field, in which it was suggested that the 40-year-old New Yorker is engaged in the musical equivalent of throwing suggestive glances at the listener.
"When you make a record,you never know what people are going to think of it. All you can be sure of is what you personally feel towards it. The rest is a mystery. So I'm really glad people are liking it... Grreeat!" She says the last in a sort of overwrought cackle, her voice preternaturally husky. Switch the lights down and you could be talking to Courtney Love's marginally calmer younger sister.
The soulful, self-assured Wasser crooning her way, Billie Holiday-style, through The Deep Field didn't fall from the clear blue sky. A songwriter with a lot of baggage, it's taken a while for her to get here. She was Jeff Buckley's long-term girlfriend when he drowned in 1997, aged 30. Subsequent romantic entanglements have, by her own admission, veered from the messy to the disastrous to the tragi-comic (she thought she had at last found love in 2008 -- it turned out she hadn't). Then, three years ago, her mother suffered a drawn-out death from cancer (inspiring Wasser's appropriately funereal LP To Survive).
You could say she's been in the wars.
"The more time I spend on this world, the more times I get hurt or do something really awful, the more I learn about myself. In the long run, that makes me a happier person," she says slightly mysteriously. "I think I've grown a little bit through the years. I've learned to digest my experience and to take love and life for what they are and that's what the new record is about."
Classically trained Wasser adopted the stage name 'Joan as Police Woman' after being likened to 70s movie star Angie Dickinson at a fancy-dress party. She was in her early 30s by the time she got around to a solo career, having already spent more than a decade as a jobbing guitarist and string player (contrary to urban myth, she didn't have a cameo on Nirvana Unplugged).
A watershed moment was her friendship with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. In the years after Buckley's death, Joan went through a bit of a wilderness period, unsure who she really was and what she wanted from life. Not to get too tree-hugger about things, but Antony helped her to find inner peace and channel her pain through music.
"Antony was there for me in a hard time in my life, which of course brought on the ability to be more creative," she recalls. "I was having a difficult time emotionally. He was a caring, sensitive person and he was at my side at a point where I really wasn't able to trust anyone. I had sort of lost faith, in a way, in people's humanity, including my own. He got me past that, which, in turn, helped me express some of the music inside me. I'll be forever grateful to him."
She has long since made peace with Buckley's death. However, her mother's passing was such a raw wound that, until very recently, she worried whether she would ever come to terms with it and move on creatively. "When you live through a difficult time, especially anything connected with death... you go through a lot of feelings. When you get through that, suddenly, your eyes open and you kind of get rewarded and you feel ready to live your life again in a way. That's what this album is about. It is coming from a happy place in my life."
An emotional reawakening was obviously the best thing that could have happened to Wasser. Nonetheless, it forced her into some hard choices. Wasser had already written half a record's worth of material. However, the bleak tone didn't sit with where she was at in her personal life. So she made the difficult decision to ditch the entire batch of songs.
"My head hadn't caught up with my heart. The songs were quite brooding and dark, which wasn't what I was feeling any more, she says. "When I started again, it was the most relaxed I'd ever been in the studio. It was a very pleasurable experience, actually. I think I'm more confident because I've made a couple of records. While I still feel I'm really a novice each time I write a song, I definitely think I'm on steadier ground now. I made choices I wouldn't make in the past. On this LP, I'm living more in the soul music tradition, which I love so much. In the past, maybe I wouldn't have thought I was worthy enough to operate in that vein. That's all changed now."
Wasser is a difficult artist to pin down. One moment, she's hooting and swearing like a docker. The next she's waxing fantastical about her spiritual life and the inter connectedness of all things. On stage, the juxtapositions feel particularly stark. Giggling into her mug of tea, she can come across as eccentrically giddy. But when she sits at her piano, throws her head back and sings, it's hard to keep goose-bumps at bay. Perhaps that's what makes her such a fascinating songwriter. Unlike peers such as Hegarty, Wasser is always capable of surprising you. On the heels of the funereal To Survive, for instance, who would imagine she'd return with a steamy soul record?
In the period after her mother passed, one of the people she turned to for solace was her close friend Rufus Wainwright. Like her, the Canadian songwriter was mourning a mother lost to cancer -- and like her, he penned an entire album about it. "There's a song on my last record about both our moms having cancer," she reports. "I wrote it for him. Of course, it was something we talked about. I'm having brunch with him tomorrow as it so happens."
She is also on very close terms with the weather-beaten bard of downtown New York, Lou Reed. At the concert in Vancouver marking the opening of the Winter Olympics, Reed actually played in Wasser's band. As anyone who has followed his career knows, Reed has a reputation for not suffering idiots. How on earth did Wasser convince him to strap on a guitar and sing backup?
"Lou Reed to me... from the experiences I've had with him, has been absolutely lovely," she says. "I have heard he can be cranky at times to journalists. Personally, I have not experienced that. He is actually an extremely sensitive person. He is very honest. He really does say what is on his mind. People aren't used to that. Usually, that's not how we communicate as human beings. so often it is shrouded in some niceties that are supposed to make the situation smoother. He doesn't do that. Ultimately, it's a pretty fantastic way to communicate. One thing's for sure -- you always know what he's feeling!"
The Deep Field is released today. Joan as Policewoman plays Tripod, Dublin, on Thursday February 10
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