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Joan As Police Woman feels the fear and does it anyway

13 May 2019, 14:15

At first, there’s a solid black screen with a splash of orange text. Then, a swell in music as a white swirl spirals out into a world of crime and retribution.

It’s a world where The Avengers are still Properly British and Charlie has Farrah Fawcett and Jacklyn Smith’s wispy waves on his Rolodex. The world of disco and spinning platforms, cop procedurals and theme tunes. It’s a time of appointment television and Angie Dickinson’s Sgt. ‘Pepper’ Anderson, the beautifully badass star of Police Woman, the show from which Joan Wasser’s musical moniker gets its name.

For the last fifteen years, Wasser has been writing and performing as Joan As Police Woman. It’s been an epic ride for a once-screaming electric violinist who wanted to make more out of her childhood instrument; to make it more rhythmic rather than, she says, an instrument that just plays fluffy top lines. “For a long time, I had no interest in writing songs or singing,” she says. “I just wanted to make the violin cool.”

As well as combatting huge losses weaved into the music of seven studio albums, the upcoming album, Joanthology, is kind of a revisitation of decades on the road. Wasser has been touring since she was 20. After studying at Boston University’s College of Arts and playing with their symphony orchestra, she came to the realisation that playing classical music just wasn’t her calling. It had been done many times before and will be again until the end of time.

Instead, Wasser found her stage footing playing with the Boston-based indie-no-wave band, The Dambuilders. Running the instrument through heavy distortion pedals at maximum overdrive. With The Dambuilders, she was the fearless, eye-catching violinist with a Roguish flash of silver in her hair, making sounds an Aria could only wish for. A violinist with a ‘tough girl’ air about her, which at the time, she was indeed going for: bulletproof, indestructible, and with a couldn’t-give-two-shits attitude about anything besides music.

Gigging with bands full of men inevitably led to situations that frustrated Wasser, misconceptions that happen all-too-often to artists judged by their gender; when those working at the venue would assume she was a band girlfriend rather than in the band. Tough demeanour, swagger, leather jacket, or nought. "The way I reacted to it was by trying to prove myself," she says. "Like, 'I can carry that million-pound amp up twelve flights of stairs by myself!'"

Perhaps like Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson, the undercover cop who nobody suspects to be the law because, well, she’s Angie Dickinson, Wasser fought the misconceptions to her own detriment. Although she’s never posed as a streetwalker or an air stewardess, there’s only so much carting of amps up and down steep, narrow staircases anybody can handle without letting go, no matter your gender.

Dickinson’s character might have been pushed to the side in order for her male co-stars to take care of the action, but who is it, from Police Woman that people remember? Since the admittedly angry days of her youth, Wasser found through a flurry of painful, personal experiences that, as terrifying as it was—and still is—vulnerability was a much more powerful emotion to embrace. Furthermore, that anger was, she admits, “a cover for fear and a cover for feeling.”

"I spend my life sort of attempting to be bulletproof. And I think you get to a point where you're like, 'Well shit, this isn't working. I'm just angry. It only goes so far before it doesn't work anymore," Wasser continues, open enough to propel herself headfirst into any depths ahead of her. It's admirable. "At a certain point in my life, I got an extremely intense awakening when I lost the person closest to me. The feelings and the pain were so much, I couldn't deny the level of fear that I had." It was at that point, sometime after 29th May 1997, she started writing songs and singing them. “My circumstances got to a point where I didn't have anywhere else to go but my voice."

The person closest to Wasser at that fateful time was her boyfriend, Jeff Buckley. The pair were still together, though in separate places, on the night a riverboat on the Wolf River took him away. Wasser and Buckley forged a bond on their shared love of music, on its power and their individual obsessions with it. It was his death that ultimately led to the birth of Joan As Police Woman and the songs of love and loss we’ve come to hear over the past 15 years, those that make up the tracklist of Joanthology and beyond.

"Letting go doesn't make shit happen less, in fact, it makes shit happen more: learning to let go gives you so much more space to be creative with"

Wasser moved to Brooklyn in 1996, a year before The Dambuilders disbanded. Her playstyle had earned the attention of some of New York’s musicians which offered more opportunities as a session musician with artists from Lou Reed to Nick Cave and Sparklehorse to the Scissor Sisters. Playing with a variety of artists meant expanding her musical language, harking back to her time in orchestras and chamber choirs without, she said once, its stuffiness. She toured with Those Bastard Souls, a band started by The Grifters’ David Shouse, whose final mainstream album, Debt & Departure was a direct response to Buckley’s passing.

As well as Those Bastard Souls, Wasser formed Black Beetle with the remaining members of Buckley’s band. Although Black Beetle’s debut album never got to see the light of day due to creative differences between its chief songwriters, it was also a result of the band that Wasser took to lyrics, pen-in-hand, and heart-on-paper. Black Beetle was also when she started singing, yet another aspect of the world that has its foundations in breaking down emotional walls.

"I’ve spent a lot of time learning to be comfortable with saying I have fear in all the various ways you do," Wasser says. "That's absolutely my songwriting and my life. Letting go doesn't make shit happen less, in fact, it makes shit happen more. Learning to let go, which isn't easy, gives you so much more space to be creative with.” How it’s inspired her art? “By just getting rid of that basic, existential, free-floating fear, you can do all sorts of amazing things I probably wouldn't have done if I hadn't."

In 1999, Wasser stepped in as a stand-in on violin for a recording session with Antony and the Johnsons. By the end of the session, she’d formally been inducted into the band. Antony & the Johnsons were formed in 1995 by Anohni, Julia Yasuda, and Johanna Constantine with whom Anohni created the Blacklips Performance Cult. This arthouse-drag conglomerate arguably formed the stepping stones for the band that welcomed Wasser with open arms. Wasser also appears on the Mercury Prize-winning album, I Am a Bird Now.

Anohni also became one of Wasser’s most trusted, spiritual confidants. During her short time with the Antony and the Johnsons, she was, in many ways, still grieving. It was Anohni who encouraged her to use all of the pain she felt and put it into her music. Another gentle push came from Rufus Wainwright who, after inviting her on tour to be in his band, also gave her the opportunity to play her own music every night. Wainwright told her the songs she had were worthy, which felt like a nod of assurance from the self-assured oscine.

"I mean, a lot of people say, 'Oh yeah, I don't care what anybody else thinks about my music. I do it for myself,'" says Wasser, a hint of scoff in her voice. "Yeah, I totally do it for myself too, but I would never say I don't care what anyone thinks because that would be a lie. I care very much about what people think, especially the people I respect." Thus dispelling the rockstar myth of tight trousers and a hefty shrug of the shoulders? "When my musician friends tell me, 'Yeah, keep going. You're doing something good.' That really, really helps."

In Police Woman, there’s a much-scorned episode called "Flowers of Evil" in which a group of lesbians overtake an old folks’ home. Slowly, one-by-one, they start doing away with old people. Sgt. Pepper Anderson is ready to go undercover as a nurse to figure out what’s going on when her partner while slicing some cucumber for no real-if-not-phallic reason, tells her there’s no way she’ll fit in. Why? 'One of them looks like she should be driving a diesel truck,' he remarks. Fortunately, for the old folks, she does, equal parts feminine and boyish at the same time an inspiration for Wasser, whose extroverted spirit even shines over a transatlantic phone line.

On releasing her debut, Real Life, in 2006, Wasser did so on the assumption that only family and close friends would hear it. It wasn’t to be the case. The wider public heard it and it resonated. "When people I didn't know and weren't required to listen responded positively to it, it made me feel less alone," she says. "It gave me a level of confidence I didn’t have because I hadn't been writing songs my whole life. I'd been obsessed with music my whole life, but it hadn't been focused on the craft of writing songs."

Obviously, Wasser adds with gusto, the songwriting had been part of her learning process. “But learning how songs work and stuff wasn't a conscious thing,” she explains. “So the fact that people were responding positively to my music gave me this softness I didn't have. Like if people related to this kind of sensitivity then I was safer in the world somehow." That's a huge thing, she says. "The world can feel unsafe in a lot of ways and I spent a lot of my life feeling unsafe in it."

"I just really like human beings," Wasser goes on to say, affirmingly. "I know that's not very hip but I really enjoy people." Coming from a family that included a scientific father and a particularly worrisome mother, this facet of Young Joan’s personality—which remains largely unchanged—was eye-opening. "My mom passed on a lot of her worries to me," she says. "No matter how much you rebel against it, it gets passed on no matter what. So a lot of that was relieved [when the music was enjoyed]."

"Every record I feel like I'm just trying to peel away more; say it plainer and clearer"

As a teenager, Joan Wasser was the ‘weird-girl’ violinist with a peroxide blonde mohawk. Naturally rebellious and outgoing, her fascination with people enabled a certain fearlessness. "It's probably part of the reason my mom worried so much," she clarifies. "I was really fearless with people. I would talk to anyone and she was like, 'Oh God, my daughter is going to get herself into trouble. She should be more guarded.'" That, she says, never really went with her personality. "When I started making my own music and learned to express myself more, I realized the way I naturally am isn't wrong."

It was a relief. Not only that the feelings she had were acceptable, rather they were accepted. "I think it allowed me to keep going to the place where I was getting feelings across in my songs that I never would've thought I could do in the past," Wasser explains. "Every record I feel like I'm just trying to peel away more; say it plainer and clearer. That has a lot to do with how safe you feel."

Another episode of the primetime Police Woman sits Pepper Anderson beside a skeezy bloke in a Saturday Night Fever-shirt. Today she’s an air stewardess that’s heard about a big shipment of "junk" that’s ready to be brought over. Boldly, she straight up asks him what he knows about the shipment. She’s also wearing the kind of '70s baker boy hat Sybil from Fawlty Towers would die for; a cross between a synchronised swimmer and a shower cap. Not only does she look good, she gets the bad guy because she knows she’s safe. After all, her team is there to back her up.

Wasser lost her mother, Pauline, to cancer in 2007, inspiring the album To Survive. Although adopted at birth, she considers her adopted parents her parents, but met both of her birth parents and has referred to them in the past as friends. Feeling lucky to have had not just two parents but four, with the passing of her father Dick and her birth father occurring between records, 2018’s Damned Devotion—the former being The Classic—dealt with the fact that of the four, only three remain. After her mother’s death, she grew closer to her father, whose influence is heavily present on one track in particular.

"What Was it Like" has a refrain that stops people in their tracks: "I can never see what passing judgment on anybody else could ever do for me" It’s poignant, unfaulty, and it’s not hard to see how hearing this inspired a tribute to the father who said it and to the continuance of living in sorrow and in joy. "I love that line so much," says Wasser, unprompted. "He said it a long time ago, and I repeated it a number of times before I wrote the song."

Following the refrain are six words: "You showed me how to live". Did he? "He really did. He was a very quiet person. He didn't say a lot of things in general, so when he'd say something like that, I remembered."

Wasser’s father was a research chemist. "He was a scientist," she affirms. “Because of that, he saw the world in a way that was very pure.” Perhaps the way to a quiet mind isn’t to have a creative brain, but a scientific one? Though Joan As Police Woman, the music, does a lot to dispel such a myth. “That quote happened when I was thanking him for being the way he was,” she expands. “He was very nonjudgmental, which I think a lot of people think they are but aren’t."

Yes, she includes herself in that. "It's hard to be nonjudgmental. I mean, it's impossible to be nonjudgmental," she says, emphatically, then laughs out loud. "We wouldn't stay alive if we weren't making judgments all the time; about our safety and sanity and stuff. But he did lack a lot of the preconceptions that people grow up with because he didn't interact with that part of life."

"It felt like he had an in on the world that was clear, so a lot of things he said were profound and said very plainly," continues Wasser. "Just very humbly and without fanfare. He wasn't trying to prove anything to anyone." We should all be so lucky. "I’ve never met anyone that had that availability to clarity in the way he did."

Death, like love, is a recurring theme on Joan As Police Woman albums, with the two sometimes even going hand-in-hand. On top of her parents and lover, Wasser also lost close friends such as Elliott Smith and Lou Reed. To counter what’s become such a hushed topic in this day and age, in spite of inevitability, the music is also filled with optimism. A feeling that seems rare in music these days yet harks to the kind of music that has inspired her throughout her life: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Al Green, Nina Simone; kind of like every Motown song sounds like a party even when you know what happened behind the scenes.

"All we have is caring...we've gotta hold on to our sensitivity and love for humanity because that's all we got"

Put simply, Joan Wasser cares. She cares about people, the world, and life. "All we have is caring," she says, bluntly. "We live in such a strange world where there are people living on the street because there's no money for proper mental health care. We're given a lot of mixed messages. We've gotta hold on to our sensitivity and love for humanity because that's all we got. We're all the same person, we all came from the same relative."

She cares about feelings and making people feel through the medium of her music - fifteen years worth of it. “We're actually not all that much different from each other,” Wasser adds. Culturally we're different, that's for sure. If we're taught what's true and what's false, we'll spend our lives thinking like that. Change takes a lot of effort. But we're all basically the same; we feel the same feelings, even if what we do with those feelings can be very different."

Wasser uses hers to make music and she has no active plans to stop. And why should she? She has a lot more music to write, she says. From tracks like "Christobel" to "Valid Jagger" and "I Defy", creating music has given her reason after reason to keep on going. Like another half, she can’t see, but can certainly feel. "I'm just gonna keep trying to make a song that connects to the deepest part of people and allows them to feel," she confesses. "I've used music so much to learn how I feel, so I'm trying to do that myself; to create a space where it feels safe enough to do the things that feel scary." She cackles. “God, that sounds like therapy, I’m sorry.”

Since music is therapy, she’s not wrong. Joanthology is a collection of the art Wasser has created up to this point. From beginning to end, it takes you on the same ride she’s been on, quashing fifteen years into three discs. Therapy in motion. Would she say she has it together? Probably not. Does she care whether or not she does? I’d wager no.

While the majority of us struggle with that now and again, it’s all part of being here. “We're taught to be fearful from very early on," Wasser says, of living, of dying; the human condition. "But you can only learn that you don't need to be fearful by taking chances over and over. 99% of the time, you’ll see you don't need to be [fearful]. That's a good percentage."

Wasser takes the chance no matter what. In fact, she always has. Her advice? “Say to yourself, ‘I’m gonna be alive after I take this chance.’

A bleach blonde is standing in the middle of a room, dressed like a throwback to a time of Studio 54, dance floors, and rollerskates. She’s commanding of it, the lynchpin. There’s a magnetism about her that has to go unsaid. An outgoing, extraverted, caring and vulnerable woman with a knack for writing songs that teeter between chamber-pop and the barrels of soul. One of her friends turns to her and says, "You’re really channelling Angie Dickinson in Police Woman right now."

It was then that Joan became Police Woman.

Joanthology is released on 24 May
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