STEALING BEAUTY Joan As Police Woman

For Joan Wasser,
life’s to be lived embracing both extremes.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

 

“Rock has been done,” proclaims Joan Wasser, who leads the
band Joan as Police Woman. 

 

And who could argue? Just look at Mick Jagger, prancing
around in his ‘60s after once saying he’d rather die than still be singing
“Satisfaction” at 45. After watching Jagger and other classic rockers fail to
grow old gracefully, it’s no wonder aging punk rockers and Gen-Xers are finding
new avenues to mine. David Byrne threw himself into world music, Elvis Costello
tried his hand at classical composition, and Tommy Ramone turned to bluegrass. It
doesn’t always work, but it sure beats turning into a self-parody.

 

Wasser, who had some success on the early ‘90s alternative
scene as a member of the Dambuilders and then later in the decade with Those
Bastard Souls, left rock music behind for an old-fashioned blend of piano-based
jazz, R&B and cabaret. She says looking to the past allowed her to find
something new under the sun.

 

“I know there will be amazing rock bands forever, but
returning to older forms is a way to innovate,” she explains. “You can make the
old form your own and present it in your own time.”

 

Despite the fact that she’s done with three-chord bashers
and “1-2-3-4” count-offs, Wasser, who is also a classically-trained violinist, claims
to be just as punk now as she ever was. In fact, her band’s slogan is “Beauty
is the New Punk Rock.”

 

“I love any music that speaks true emotion and punk rock is
one of those,” she says. “But I don’t see so much of a rub between classical
and punk rock. We’re so used to seeing classical music as this staid art form,
but there was rioting after the premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’ When
you’re not used to hearing certain sounds, it scares people. That’s how potent
music is.”

 

And Wasser’s music is plenty potent. At first listen, her
piano ballads seem tailor-made for Starbucks. But when people listen closer,
they realize she’s doing much more than simply creating a nice atmosphere so
they can sip a latte. Joan’s emotional tales of love and loss made her debut
album Real Life a critical favorite.
And her follow up, To Survive, shows
her becoming even better as a songwriter and more confident frontwoman.

 

Yet Wasser almost never sang at all, spending most of her
career as a backup musician for a wide array of artists that are rarely
mentioned in the same sentence, including Sheryl Crow, Nick
Cave, Scissor Sisters, Sebadoh, Antony & the Johnsons
and Rufus Wainwright. She’s also one of the few people that can say they’ve
played with both Lou Reed and Elton John.

 

“What can I say about them?” she says. “Those two people are
motherfuckers. Lou has a terrible reputation, but he’s always been an absolute
sweetheart to me. I just watched Elton perform ‘Crocodile Rock’ on The Muppet
Show and he was wearing the most beautiful outfit of rainbow feathers. At the
end, he falls into the water where crocodiles are singing with him. I call for The
Muppet Show to come back. I’d be first in line to perform on it.”

 

It’s an odd request, since Muppets and rainbows aren’t the
first things that come to mind when fans think of Joan as Police Woman. In
fact, Joan is more often associated with tragedy. After all, Wasser was Jeff
Buckley’s girlfriend when he died, and toured with the late Elliot Smith, to
whom she dedicated the final track on Real
Life
, “We Don’t Own It.”

 

“I wasn’t writing when I was with Jeff,” she remembers. “But
we did a lot of finding music together, sharing a lot of music and turning each
other on to stuff the other one hadn’t known about. He’s someone who, like a
lot of the great artists, played every note as if it were his last. Watching
him be that way had a massive impact on me.”

 

But being a part of the male-dominated ‘90s rock scene
wasn’t easy. Wasser always considered herself a tough girl, and she had to use
every ounce of it while she spent her twenties crammed into vans and tour buses
with gangs of guys.

 

“I had such a chip on my shoulder,” she says with a laugh.
“Like, ‘I can carry that amp!’ I had a lot of questions about what it meant to
be female in a band and I had absolutely no vocabulary with which to express my
fears so I pretended I had none.”

 

Only when she began writing her own songs, says Wasser, did
her emotions start to pour out. “When I started singing, I realized I was one
of the most terrified people that existed. I allowed myself to be vulnerable
for the first time through my voice. I maintain some of the toughness, but I
feel like such a softie these days.”

 

Before getting to the point where she could express her
vulnerabilities, Wasser had a few obstacles to overcome. For one thing, her
toughness threatened to derail her career when she promised herself that she
wouldn’t let anyone tell her how to record.

 

“When I decided to do my own music, I was only going to work
with people I felt really good about and wasn’t going to compromise,” she
remembers. “It drove me a little crazy because it meant I might wait forever
for that to happen and never release my music. But I decided that if that’s
what happens, it would be OK. I’d still feel good about it.”

 

She added an additional degree of difficulty by constantly
asking herself how someone who never sang before could compete with golden
voices like those of Antony
and Rufus Wainwright.

 

“Being surrounded by such outrageously gifted singers was a
combination of very positive and very terrifying,” she says. “At first, I
thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to sound like them.’ What you learn is you
don’t want to sound like them, you want to sound like you.”

 

In fact, her voice proved to be a perfect complement to her former
bosses. One of the highlights of her debut album was a duet with Antony called “I Defy.”
And To Survive closes with a duet
with Wainwright entitled “To America.”

 

Perhaps the most important thing Wasser, Wainwright and Antony share is an
amazing ability to deliver a sad song without sounding like they’re
manipulating your emotions. If the tragedies in Wasser’s life provide added weight
to her music, they’ve also given her a perspective that keeps her from giving
into bathos.

 

“I think there’s sadness in my music because life is sad,”
Wasser explains. “It’s overwhelmingly joyful, but you can’t have that joy without
sorrow. You appreciate joy in a way you couldn’t if you didn’t feel sorrow.”

 

Much of To Survive was inspired by another more recent tragedy, the death of Wasser’s mother from
cancer last year. Yet, she managed to turn even that experience into something
positive. “I’d love it if my mom was still here, but you have to accept that
kind of thing. And learning to accept is a great gift that you can give to
yourself. If you can do it, it affects every other part of your life in such a
positive way.”

 

To Survive’s most
emotional moment comes in the title track, as Wasser tells a story of her
mother singing her to sleep: “The song is about her coming in and soothing my
childhood fears, then she leaves the room after I fall asleep and has the same
fears I do. Your fears don’t change throughout your life, you just learn how to
deal with them. It’s about being alone and the neutrality of that rather than
the negativity of that and ultimately the freedom you can feel when you accept
that.”

 

In the end, that freedom is what Wasser’s life and music
have always been about. She embraced punk music as a way to rebel, rebelled
again by turning her back on it, wouldn’t work with anyone she wasn’t happy
with — even if it meant her music would never see the light of day — and
ultimately refused to give in to harrowing life experiences that would have
knocked weaker spirits permanently off course.

 

“I have been someone that strives for the extreme in all
situations,” she says. “And that has allowed me to remain optimistic and live
inside a lot of joy because I know I have dragged myself through the dirt.”

  

 

***

 

POLICE ACADEMY

 

 

From playing with Boston
bar bands to sharing the stage with Elton John, Joan Wasser has gotten around
in her career. Here are some highlights from the days before she joined the
force and became Joan as Police Woman.

 

The Dambuilders, Encendedor, 1994: The major label debut
from the Boston
indie darlings found Wasser’s violin playing a bigger role than ever. The album
featured the minor hit “Shrine.” And long before Sufjan thought of it, the
Dambuilders set out to write a song for each state. “Delaware”
and “Idaho”
are on this one.

 

Mind Science of the
Mind
, s/t, 1996: Known as a side project of Shudder to Think’s Nathan
Larson, Mind Science’s one and only album also featured Wasser and Helium’s
Mary Timony. Jeff Buckley served as the band’s touring bassist.

 

Those Bastard Souls,
Twentieth Century Chemical, 1996; Debt and Departure, 1999: Wasser teamed
with members of The Grifters and Red Red Meat to make two albums that combined
powerful alt-rock with offbeat pop. Fun fact: Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen
drummed for the band during a 1997 tour opening for Sebadoh.

 

Sheryl Crow, C’mon C’mon, 2002: Although it contains
“Soak up the Sun,” one of Crow’s best singles, this summery album, which
features Wasser on violin, offers no hint whatsoever of Joan’s future path.

 

Scissor Sisters,
s/t, 2004: Wasser did the string arrangements for the debut album by these ‘70s
throwbacks who are best known for their disco cover of “Comfortably Numb” and
the Elton John-style single “Take Your Mama”.

 

Antony & the
Johnsons
, I Am a Bird Now, 2005:
An out-of-left field critical smash, Wasser’s violin added atmosphere to Antony’s dark, bluesy
cabaret. In case Wasser isn’t enough for you, the album also features guest
appearances by Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Boy George and Devendra Banhart.

 

 

***

 

 

SURVIVAL TACTICS      

 

 

With its stories of love, death and hope, Joan as Police
Woman’s To Survive is the kind of
album that seems tailor made to help people through dark times. We asked the
resilient singer what songs she turns to when times get tough.

 

“Hot Fun in the
Summertime” by Sly & the Family Stone

“There is nothing like the feel of this song. If you’re
feeling down, this song will change that.”

 

“On the Beach” by Neil
Young

“Hope and despair if you need to cry”

 

“Idioteche” by
Radiohead

“Sonically alone, this song is healing. And you may actually
be dancing by the end.”

 

“How I Got Over” by
Mahalia Jackson

“If you want to contact God…”

 

“There Is a Light that
Never Goes Out” by The Smiths

“If you want to be reminded that you are not the only
hopeless romantic on earth.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Dennis Kleiman]

 

 

 

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