Entertainment » Music

Arresting ’Joan As Police Woman’ hits the road

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Apr 21, 2011

Music is not just a means of creative expression for singer-songwriter Joan Wasser, who under the moniker Joan As Police Woman just this month released her fourth studio album "The Deep Field" in the U.S. Music pours through her pores and has for an early age for the now-40-year-old musical prodigy.

At the age of 6, Wasser began piano lessons, with violin lessons to follow two years later. While an undergrad at Boston University, she joined her first band and from there she went on to collaborate with some of the most renowned figures in the music industry, including Lou Reed, Elton John, the Scissor Sisters, Sheryl Crow and toured with both Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. She, freely admits she has never had a "plan B" to her creative pursuit.

"Oh, God. Hot air balloonist? Shit, I don't know!" Wasser said, when asked what career she would have pursued had "the musician thing" not worked out in a recent interview with EDGE.

"I'm glad I don't have to answer it in real life because I don't have an answer," she continued. "I don't know. I'd probably just be, like, sort of wandering the world because that's kind of what I do now, except with a very rigorous schedule."

Wasser doesn't have a plan B because she's never needed one. Best known in the industry, perhaps, for having dated Jeff Buckley at the time of his sudden death in 1997, any sole focus on that factoid is an insult to her tremendous talent. Her music is filled with soul and, though some of her previous work has bordered on dirge territory, her latest effort has an uplifting tone -- "This is the time for you to stop and ask me to dance" -- even when the lyrical subject matter takes a turn for a dark -- "Paint me jet black, paint me jet black." Hers are the torch songs from a true free spirit.

On the precipice of her cross-country headlining tour, Wasser opened up about her new album, her musical inspirations and why she loves Prince.

Back in the USA

EDGE: How are you feeling heading into the U.S. leg of your tour, which kicks off in New York?

Joan Wasser: I feel great about it. We just came off two months of playing in Europe and it was the most fun I’ve had on tour so far, which is saying quite a lot because I like touring. I’m really looking forward to it. We haven’t played New York since the summer in Prospect Park.

EDGE: I’m loving the new album. It feels much more optimistic and free in a way. How is it to play these songs compared to some of your previous work, which could be described as somewhat more introspective?

JW: It’s really fun to play the new record. It’s really up and it just feels good to play that music. Of course, the guys I’m playing with are incredible -- Parker Kindred and Tyler Wood. So it’s really fun. We make it new every night because we do a lot of touring and it feels really light and fun. Though some of the music isn’t always light and some of it is really pretty heavy, it just feels really great to play.

EDGE: It seems as though your fans connect very deeply and emotionally with your music in general, so it must feel nice to create something that is mood-lifting. How does it feel to you that your music could have that impact on those who hear it?

JW: Well, that would be wonderful of course. I know that for myself I listen to music when I’m feeling all different kinds of emotions. I listen to music when I’m feeling happy to sort of feel more of the emotions and to sort of highlight my mood. It’s something that I look forward to all the time, listening to music, so if my music can have that impact for my listeners as well, I mean, then I’m definitely doing my job.

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Watch the video for Joan As Police Woman’s video for "The Magic":

Favorite musicians

EDGE: Who are some of your favorite musicians to listen to? It’s a lot of older stuff, right? Is any newer stuff working its way into the mix for you lately?

JW: I primarily listen to older music. I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone and a lot of old gospel music. As far as what I’ve been listening to that’s new? It’s not new but the Jay Electronica EP is really awesome. There’s just five songs on it and I don’t know that’s put anything else out but it’s called Exhibit A or C. It’s really great and takes from old music but it’s hip-hop so it’s really nice.

I’m bad with current stuff. I find stuff I like and listen to it. I’ll always check out the new Cass McCombs record and the new Sufjan Stevens. Both of these were fantastic. You know? Tell me what to listen to. People tell me, "This is fantastic, check it out!" and then I just don’t feel it for some reason, but I love music and love new stuff. What should I listen to?

EDGE: You caught me off guard! The new Adele album is pretty fantastic, and you both have a soulful musical root I would say. I’ve also really been wearing out the new Destroyer and James Blake record. Very wintry or early springish music.

JW: Oh, definitely Adele. I’ll have to check that out.

EDGE: So back to your music, I think it’s interesting you mentioned gospel music. One of the stand-out tracks from the new record is "The Magic," which has this beautiful organ sound underlying the melody. Tell me more about the feel you were going for with that song.

JW: I really love the old keyboard and organ sound. There’s nothing that sounds as good as that for me. On that song, I had a keyboard genius by the name of Chris Brown -- a Canadian! -- play and he’s a really inspired player. That song came from my entanglement with trying to deal with my crazy head, my spinning and obsessive thinking head. I’m always trying to figure out a way to soothe my brain and that song is really all about that. It’s about just asking for the magic formula to keep my head from spinning and then potentially doing something self-destructive to make it stop.

In the bridge when I say, "I want to be bad, but my shadow must find the window on the wall." I just have to figure out a way into some sort of clarity or calmness. For me a lot of times that just means leaving my house and getting on my bike. A lot of times I don’t even remember that I can do that. So that song is a little bit of a humorous take on the fact that I’m being driven crazy by my own sort of spinning thoughts.

About that video

EDGE: The video for that song is pretty incredible too -- I had to ask, though, what inspired the imagery of muscle-bound guys, fish and the rap video-esque car shots? I also heard a rumor that you recruited the guys from gay sex ads?

JW: No, that rumor is not true! I haven’t heard that one. I cannot take credit for the idea of that video, which was created by a Welsh gentleman by the name of Ben Reed who sent me a bunch of treatments for that video and I really don’t think there’s a reason to make a video unless it’s extraordinarily beautiful or funny. I’m really a proponent of humor really saving our lives in a certain way. So when I read that one and it was just so absurd to me there wasn’t any question about which one I was going to do. I just loved it.

When I asked him how he came up with it he said he was just listening to the song and those were the images that came into his head. I mean, I can’t really answer for that except for that fact that I loved it. The whole role reversal of scantily clad men was always funny to me also and, as far as the car, it has kind of a hip-hop beat that’s very funky for lack of a better word.

EDGE: I read that you worked out details of some of the songs for this album on the road. What impact did playing some of the songs live have on how they eventually turned out in the end product?

JW: I definitely trust my public. If I get a good response to a song, I’m going to really feel like it’s worth recording but in a more specific way even watching the crowd react throughout a song can show me where areas need help or maybe the energy dipped out too much or the chorus isn’t long enough at the end. It’s really helpful for me to sort of watch the crowd when the songs are going along and that’s really fun for me.

The fact is I’m a real perfectionist so the song won’t get heard if I don’t think it’s completely done but then I may revise my idea of what "completely done" means or I’ll write a slightly different ending or something. But it’s not like I play songs that I don’t feel could be the final version because I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.

EDGE: The album you released just before this last one was an album of covers. Who would you most like to see take on one of your songs?

JW: Prince, obviously.

EDGE: Why is that?

JW: Because he is the great living performer. I think that he is a genius and when he covers other peoples’ songs they sound great. He is just a master of entertaining and creating great music.

Joan As Police Woman plays Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, in Chicago on Sunday, April 24. Remaining cities on her U.S. tour are 4/26, Minneapolis, MN; 4/27, Kansas City, MO; 4/29, Dallas, TX; 4/30, Austin, TX; 5/2, Atlanta, GA; 5/4, Vienna, VA; 5/20, Seattle, WA 5/21, Portland, OR; 5/25, San Francisco, CA; 5/27, Los Angeles, CA.. Visit her website for tickets or more information.

Watch the video for Joan As Police Woman’s video for "To Be Loved":

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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