Joan Wasser is a law unto herself

Joan Wasser, who records as Joan As Policewoman, is going her own way with a new, groovy, soulful sound, says Ed Power.

Joan Wasser is a law unto herself

Joan Wasser loves the open road. “We’ve been touring five weeks now and are ready to see our homes. But we’ve been having an amazing time,” says the New York songwriter, who records as Joan As Policewoman. “My new material is pretty upbeat, so that’s good. Not that it truly matters. It’s fun playing, regardless.”

Wasser is promoting her fourth studio album, a soulful collection called, with justifiable confidence, The Classic. It showcases a different side to Wasser: influences include Memphis funk and storied labels such as Stax and Motown. She’s getting her groove on. Many fans believe it is her finest work to date. “People have called it a soul record,” she says. “I wasn’t really going for any sound, in particular. I just write the songs I feel like writing. That is the long and the short of it.”

But Wasser was clear about one thing. She wanted the album to be her least polished. It’s nice to let the rough edges shine through, she says. It makes the music vibrant and accessible. Poise can be a defence mechanism. She was eager to let her guard down. “When I was touring earlier records, people would come up to me and say ‘there’s so much energy in your live show — it’s so different from your recordings’. I thought about that,” Wasser says. She understood what they meant. On her first two LPs, Wasser inhabited the role of melancholic chanteuse: just her and a piano, upholstered, perhaps, by a tasteful cello. They were beautiful and moving and yielded her biggest hit, the torch song ‘Eternal Flame’ (nothing to do with the Bangles). But she didn’t want to stay frozen in the moment.

“That was the aesthetic I was chasing at the time. Of course, one attribute of soul music is that it is less polished. I have loved soul my whole life. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘okay, so this is going to be a soul record’. However, I think I let my influences come out more in my writing,” she says.

Wasser is 43 and came late to her solo career. Raised in a small Connecticut town in the New York commuter belt, she studied classically and spent her 20s in indie bands in Manhattan. She was in a relationship with the cult singer Jeff Buckley when he drowned in a tributary of the Mississippi in 1997. She doesn’t talk about that, but not long afterwards she started writing — Joan as Policewoman was born.

The stage name came from a fancy-dress party she attended dressed as Angie Dickinson, star of a late 1970s cop show, Police Woman. Outwardly confident, deep down Wasser was still unsure of her abilities. One of the key motivators was her friend, Antony Hegarty, of Anthony and the Johnsons. He encouraged her to express her feelings — all that pain swirling around her head — through music. Where she might have given up, he kept pushing her forward.

“I picked up a guitar in my mid-20s. That is when I started quietly singing and writing songs. I wasn’t very comfortable with my voice — I didn’t immediately sound like Nina Simone, and so assumed I sounded horrible. It took me a long time to get used to my voice,” she says.

Wasser grew slowly into songwriting. It was not something at which she initially excelled. She had to work at it. “There was a lot of trial and error. It came late to me. Which was fun — it’s nice to play with others. I bided my time until I felt I had something to contribute,” she says.

Wasser has lived in New York through her career and has seen the city change. “Rents go up and neighbourhoods become different,” she says. “But I would never leave. It’s such a huge place — everyone talks about ‘Brooklyn’ as if it is one or two streets around Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It’s goes far far beyond that. You can find places where the rents are reasonable, if you look.”

Grief has played a part through her career. Her debut album, Real Life, was clearly informed by the experience of losing Buckley. The follow-up, To Survive, is a meditation on the death of her mother.

“There were some difficult times. It was easy to make music amidst it all — it was an enormous help getting through that period [her mother’s passing],” Wasser says. While recording The Classic, there was a further blow, as her friend Lou Reed died. The loss still feels raw to her. “Lou was a mentor to me,” says Wasser, a lump in her throat. “He encouraged me hugely — gave me a lot of confidence. He was one of the most honest people you will ever meet.”

Four records in, you wonder if Wasser has to find new ways of staying interested. At this point in their careers, many artists would start running out of things to say. She feels as if she’s just getting started.

“Every time I write a song, it feels like the first I’ve written. I don’t really have a formula. It’s constantly exciting. Writing is always going to be compelling to me. You are creating something from the ground up. One day it’s not there, the next it exists. It’s a very thrilling process,” she says.

The Classic is out now.

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