The former girlfriend of doomed singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley and a 15-year veteran of the music industry, she knew people swallowed by fame. By the time success arrived, she was jaundiced and didn’t let it go to her head.
“I’ve been playing in bands since I was 20, 21,” she says. “I have watched a great many individuals not make it in the music industry. And I have watched a great many make it and observed the different ways in which it affected them. When I started making my own music I’d experienced a lot.”
Early in her career, Wasser, who records as Joan As Policeman, was a heartfelt torch singer in the tradition of Rufus Wainwright and Antony and the Johnsons (both of whom are friends and have guested on her albums). Her first album, 2006’s Real Life, was a searingly heartfelt eulogy for Buckley, who drowned while swimming near Memphis in 1997. It was gorgeous but often claustrophobic and bleak.
The 2008 follow-up, To Survive, was darker. Recorded during her mother’s losing battle with terminal cancer, the album felt like a musical wake. The songs were so personal there was a sense of eavesdropping on someone who’d been up all night sobbing.
Wasser has shifted emphasis dramatically with her recent third album, The Deep Field (the name refers to a section of the star constellation Ursa Major). Written while she was involved in a tempestuous romance (since ended), the album is soulful and sensual, a world removed from the banshee intensity that was a Wasser hallmark. She hasn’t so much turned over a new musical leaf as ripped up the manual and started from scratch.
Wasser always wanted to make a soul album, she says. But, as a middle-class musician with a background in rock’n’roll, giving voice to her love for what largely remains an Africa-American idiom required a leap of faith she did not feel herself capable of until now.
“It’s a genre I’ve been interested in investigating for a long time,” says Wasser. “At last, I have permitted myself to comfortably do that. This music has been part of my life since I was a kid. At the present, I am in a place where I felt able to let it in. I’ve been in a much happier, freer place. The more free I feel the happier I am. Which is a good thing. It means I’m not insane.”
From a well-to-do part of Connecticut, Wasser studied classical music as a teenager. In her 20s she passed through a succession of obscure independent bands (but, contrary to rumour, she did not play viola on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance). The ‘Joan As Policewoman’ moniker came about when she turned up at a fancy-dress party looking like 1970s actress Angie Dickinson — someone told her she was dressed ‘as a policewoman’ and she decided it would make for a perfect stage-name.
Still, her solo career wasn’t leading anywhere until she became friends with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. At the time, she was going through a lot of emotional turmoil, much of it related to Buckley’s death.
A transgender man from a religious family, Hegarty knew all about facing down demons, and, with his encouragement, Wasser learned to put her pain into her song-writing, rather than carrying it around with her.
From that moment on, everything suddenly appeared more straightforward.
If you only know Wasser from her music it would be easy to form the idea that she is intense and a bit imperious. In conversation, she couldn’t be further from the diva stereotype. She laughs — and swears — like a docker, and is thoroughly grounded in the everyday. “I am not a poser,” she says. “I am who I am. When people see me for the first time, I think maybe they expect someone shyer or more delicate. I an neither of those things, you know. Not in the least.”
Wasser says she had doubts embarking on The Deep Field. Were the fans who adored her stark, early work ready for a new, soulful Wasser?
Then she reminded herself that, as an artist, it was her solemn duty not to fret about such trivialities.
“I had to let myself go and stop thinking, ‘how will this be perceived?’. If you worry about silly things, they can hold you back. Tons of people make soul music. Van Morrison being one of them. You can’t get more soulful than that,” she says.
* The Deep Field is out now. Joan as Policewoman plays Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Laois next Sunday