After various incarnations, Joan Wasser is now where she wants to be, writes
As with all the best stories, Joan Wasser’s is in many ways a tale of triumph over adversity.
Classically trained and a musical prodigy since childhood, the cult singer-songwriter spent her young adulthood playing violin in various alternative bands around Boston and New York.
This gave rise to the (completely untrue) urban myth that she was the string accompanist on Nirvana’s Unplugged.
She suffered a terrible loss in 1997 when her boyfriend, the troubadour Jeff Buckley, drowned swimming in a tributary of the Mississippi.
A few years later the group of which she was a member broke up. Everything she had worked towards had fallen to pieces.
So she did something she never previously contemplated.
She put away her violin, stepped up to the mic and started to sing. Joan Wasser had become Joan As Police Woman. In a low-key sense, a star was born.
“It [singing] became something I had to do at a certain point,” she says.
I wasn’t surprised to find it therapeutic. It felt like what I had to do to stay alive. It was the thing that was absolutely necessary for my continuing to breathe at a certain point.
Her debut album, Real Life, came out in June 12 2006. She was in her 30s — a point in a musician’s career when they are perceived as having already settled on their identity.
Since then, she has carved a fascinating life in pop as torch singer, soul musician, and chronicler of inner and universal turmoil.
Now, for the first time, she is stopping to look back, with a “best of” album, Joanthology, and a tie-in tour visiting Cork, Dublin, Waterford, and Letterkenny this month.
“I was doing what I had the power to do,” she says of her early adventures in confessional rock.
“Which was to make the best record I could. Beyond that, I didn’t have much control over anything. I didn’t really have expectations in any way.
"I figured my family and friends would hear the record. Beyond that, it was all extra slices of pie.”
As with the grunge generation with which she came of age, Wasser’s music is extraordinarily cathartic.
“Singing is very revealing,” she says. “The voice… has nowhere to hide. As long as I’m not drenching it in reverb… it’s very there. That took a little bit of getting used to.”
Wasser took her stage name from the 70s cop show Police Woman, starring Angie Dickinson.
She has said that, though her music is serious, she wanted her name to be funny because she liked “to laugh at tragedy”.
She grew up on Norwalk, Connecticut, a wealthy New York commuter town — the median family income is $103,032 — that is home to the HQ of the Xerox Corporation.
Her love affair with performance started at age six, when she began piano lessons.
She studied music at the University of Fine Arts in Boston, playing with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. But she found the classical world unsatisfying, and so joined a local punk band.
She eventually found her way to New York and became a member of the Dambuilders, who signed a major-label deal in 1991, received MTV airplay and were even championed by Radiohead.
Buckley’s death after they had been together three years was, of course, hugely traumatising. Theremaining members of Buckley’s group founded their own band, Black Beetle, which Wasser joined.
They broke up without releasing an album. Wasser, now in her 30s, suddenly had a lot to get off her chest. Her previous ambition was to incorporate violin into alternative rock. Now she wanted to sing her sorrows away.
Her singer-songwriter career received early support from two of her musical heroes: Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright.
“Antony asked me to open one of the Antony and the Johnsons’ shows, covering [Antony torch song] ‘Twilight’ on guitar… It gave me a little more confidence.
Rufus was having me open shows. All of that impacted on how I felt. That these people were saying ‘yes’ — it was huge for me.
Wasser generally doesn’t talk about Buckley.
In a previous interview, with the UK Arts Desk website, she stated that it was the death of her boyfriend that made her want to sing.
You can hear that rawness, in particular, on Real Life and follow-up, To Survive. Both are strikingly stripped down: often it’s just Wasser and a heart brimming with sorrow.
But she has refused to repeat herself or to reduce her music to a formula. Fans were surprised and thrilled when she introduced a lulling soul element with 2011’s The Deep Field.
Wasser would go on to pour her love of Motown into its 2014 follow-up The Classic and to inject a bluesy stomp into last year’s Damned Devotion. She will absolutely not be pinned down.
“The fact is... when I approach writing a song now, it feels pretty similar to how I approached writing a song then,” she says.
“I don’t have a road map. I just go in without expectation and without thinking: ‘Oh well, I should go this way or that way’. I let the music take me where it wants to go. That may sound a little ‘woo-woo’. It does feel that way.”
Joanthology is a fantastic overview of her career. It climbs from the emotional troughs of the early torch songs to the big, swirling arrangements of later material.
Often “best-ofs” are at the instigation of the record label. Joanthology is all Wasser’s idea.
The time had come to take stock. And also to give back to the fans.
“I often get asked to do solo shows. I love playing with my band. The solo shows are more intimate.
People like that side of me. It’s a very different animal than the band. I figured I would do a world solo tour and wanted to sing songs from the whole catalogue.
"I haven’t done a proper solo tour since 2006. So in a way I am revisiting the last 13 years.”
Joan as Police Woman plays Liberty Hall, Dublin, July 13; An Grianan, Letterkenny, July 14; Live at St Luke’s Cork, July 16, Theatre Royal, Waterford, July 17.