Why Joan As Police Woman won't be laying down law
A Recent live review of a Joan As Police Woman gig reads: "Joan Wasser seems to spend this set either laughing edgily or blinking back the tears." If that mixed assessment, together with her stunning yet haunted publicity photos and angst-ridden discography gives the impression Wasser will be a nervy interview subject, the reality proves to be quite different.
When I call, the Maine-born star (who performs with a backing band as Joan As Police Woman) is in the middle of a heavy UK press run in support of her new soul-influenced album, The Classic. It would be fully understandable if she was feeling drained; however, she is immediately and unexpectedly enthusiastic about her media duties.
"A lot of people ask me if the press ride is hell, and I wish I could say it's horrible, but it's really not," she laughs affably. "Journalists would seem to be picking my brains, but usually I get to find out about things I didn't know before and generally have a very pleasant time."
The musical progression of Wasser, who brings her trio to The Limelight 2 in Belfast on May 1, has, according to the singer herself, mirrored the development of her everyday disposition. If the beauty of her 2006 debut record Real Life came from its storminess, The Classic is an altogether smoother and more upbeat affair. Wasser, in her own words, has gradually learnt how to "let things go" and be "comfortable being vulnerable". The darkness of her earlier work apparently came from holding back the emotions rather than letting them pour forth, and her overall mood has improved by "expressing true emotion".
"For so long when I was younger I pretended I had no emotions and nothing could touch me," she explains.
"What was actually true, though, and I didn't even really know this at the time, was that I was terribly fearful of the world and my feelings. I did everything to suppress them. These emotions had to go somewhere, but all I did was quash them and I ended up acting like a total weirdo because of it. I think holding things back makes me become a total nightmare. So now I just let it out. People have told me that they appreciate that about me. There may be many people that don't talk to me because of it, but oh well ... what can I do?"
In the run-up to the release of The Classic, Wasser has been keen to highlight the influence of Stevie Wonder. The positivity radiated by the soul legend's music has evidently had an impact on Wasser's sonic stylings (The Classic has been dubbed 'retro-soul' and has also garnered comparisons with Amy Winehouse's work) and outlook.
"I always come back to that music, people like Stevie and Sly And The Family Stone who pull off that happy feeling," she enthuses, before asserting that "it's a little more difficult to be upbeat".
"I feel like making music that is really bummed-out is really easy for me at this point," she adds, alluding to her troubled early material. "I feel that now I'm challenging myself to make music that isn't overly dramatic and wallowing in the depths of sorrow.
"For instance, on the new record I wanted to write a song about shame; but how lame would it be if it was all totally bummed out?" Wasser produces a drawn-out guttural grunt to display her disdain for that idea. "So I decided to write a song that was more poking fun at the issue; presenting things that are difficult to deal with in a way that feels good to sing."
Wasser is motivated to move away from sadder sounds partly because she is clearly in a happy state of mind currently, but also because she has known great grief in her life.
The death of her boyfriend, iconic musician Jeff Buckley, by accidental drowning in 1997, turned her world upside down. Years later, Wasser would label Buckley's passing as a "traumatic experience of loss" for her. "I needed to grieve but I didn't know how," she said.
She continued to play music, some of which came about through collaborations with Buckley's old band members. Wasser would go on to portray the anguish of losing her beloved in her first albums as Joan As Policewoman, but before that she required a helping hand from two distinguished figures of contemporary pop.
First, Anthony Hegarty (of Mercury Prize-winning band Anthony & The Johnsons) invited Wasser to play violin, an instrument she is classically trained in, for his group. She soon became a full-time member, a moment of "renaissance" in her life and a crucial point in her attempts to regroup after Buckley's death.
Then, in 2004, orchestral-pop icon Rufus Wainwright asked Wasser to join his touring band and, if that weren't enough, to also open for him every night with the new material she'd been working on. Thus, the fledgling Joan As Police Woman project received a huge confidence boost.
"Rufus told me my songs would work, which was really helpful," says Wasser. "Rufus was so unbelievably self-assured and when you work with him he passes that on. You start to think, 'Hey I can do this too!' He and Anthony are very confident, so I feel lucky I got to work with them both."
Wasser also says that she has been inspired by the "enriching spectrum of music" she's dabbled in over her career. As a violinist, she's played in a traditional Haitian band and a "really out-there jazz group, even though I'm not a traditional jazz player". Wasser doesn't usually play violin on stage with Joan As Police Woman, but promises to try and make an exception at her Belfast show.
I ask her whether the crowd at The Limelight can expect to be smiling one moment and almost crying the next, contrasting emotions that Wasser herself reportedly displays in quick succession on stage.
"Well clearly I put myself through the sentimental wringer!" she laughs. "My audiences aren't always either in tears or beaming, I promise you. They're comfortable with being emotional in public, though."
Pondering the reaction of her fans to her music leads Wasser back to thinking about her own mindset.
"Nobody is jumping for joy at every single moment," she muses. "But life is life and you have to live on life's terms." And, as if to emphasise this contented new chapter in her life, she finally declares with a smile: "How I personally relate to those terms has changed an enormous amount for the better, and I'm grateful for that."
THE IMPORTANT MEN IN JOAN'S LIFE...
Jeff Buckley — Wasser’s one-time partner died in 1997, three years after his only studio album Grace, which dazzled critics. Rolling Stone magazine has listed him as one of the greatest singers of all time
Rufus Wainwright — the star’s parents, singers Kate McGarrigle (who died in 2010) and Loudon Wainwright III, are both famous in the music world, as is his sister Martha. He is known for incorporating operatic stylings into a pop framework
Antony Hegarty — the English-born San Francisco-raised singer, composer and visual artist is the brains behind the indie band Antony & The Johnsons
Joan As Police Woman plays Belfast's Limelight on May1. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com