Arts feature

The sound of a hunch coming good

Graeme Thomson talks to the cult singer Joan Wasser about the robotic nature of pop, finding salvation in songwriting and Tony Allen

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

Joan Wasser is New York loud. Her resting register is CAPS LOCK, rising to flashing neon when roused to laughter or, occasionally, indignation. ‘I was born a very expressive person,’ says the singer. ‘I was always talking to people in the street that I didn’t know. I’m not super afraid of expressing how I feel, and I take chances very quickly.’

Bold spontaneity has served her well. The Solution is Restless, Wasser’s latest album as her artistic alter ego, Joan As Police Woman, is the sound of a hunch coming good. The record stems from a single day spent extemporising with her friend David Okumu and the late and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen.

She and Allen were introduced in 2019 by their mutual friend Damon Albarn, who played with Allen in the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Later that year, during a solo tour, Wasser built a free day into her schedule in Paris, Allen’s home city. She booked a studio, sent the drummer a few text messages and hoped it would all work out. ‘Right off the bat it was not a regular session,’ she says. ‘I purposely prepared nothing, didn’t write anything, I just wanted to play freely. I asked the engineers to never stop recording and we played for two hours, had a huge meal, then did a little more. I was surprised how excited Tony was. He always wanted to be doing something new.’

Wasser returned to New York and used Covid-19 downtime to ‘profusely edit’ and shape those Paris jams into songs. Early in this process, at the end of April last year, Allen died, aged 79, of an aortic aneurysm. She was working on the album when she got the call. ‘It definitely infused the writing with a little more urgency and many layers of… I was going to say heaviness, but that’s not all that it was. It was an acknowledgment of the fact that life is precious and our time is fleeting. It’s certainly rather consumed with the idea of life and death, and the very thin membrane between the two, and what we do when we are here.’

Wasser released her first album, Real Life, in 2006, when she was 35. She is glad she bided her time, not least because ‘by then I had something to say’. Born in Maine, she was adopted at birth, played violin from the age of eight and studied classical music at Boston University, where she performed with the college symphony. Disillusioned with that world, she joined an indie-rock band and decamped to New York, where she still lives. In 1997, Jeff Buckley, her boyfriend of three years, drowned in the Mississippi. Two years later Wasser joined Antony and the Johnsons, playing on their acclaimed album I Am a Bird Now. In 2004 she became part of Rufus Wainwright’s live band.

Solo songwriting, when it finally asserted itself, ‘came as a way to stay alive. It was: I have to get those feelings out, they are way too much to bear. I never thought about it as something that might appeal to anyone but me. I never grew up thinking I was going to write songs that would change people’s lives.’

This sounds almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wasser’s music isn’t inaccessible, but her blend of soul, folk, funk, jazz, pop and contemporary classical can be tough to pin down. ‘I feel like I started in a place where nobody could place me, and I continue to be in a place where the outside world doesn’t really know what to make of me, or where to put me. That’s been my life since I was born. I was adopted and grew up in a family where none of us looked alike. I never fit in. It’s not uncomfortable for me. I do what I do.’

I wonder whether being sui generis doesn’t get a little, well, tiring. She laughs. ‘Well, it doesn’t make dinner parties easy! “Oh, so what genre are you?” It’s like, “So you want to hear about my entire life, every show I’ve ever seen and every record I’ve been obsessed with?” I understand it’s confusing. Human beings, myself included, our brains are set up to put things in boxes to make sense of the world. When that doesn’t work, it leaves a hole.’

Another thing about being a late starter, says Wasser, is that ‘I never had to worry about being super pop-tart sexualised. I skipped over that, because I was already too old — which I feel very grateful for.’ Not that she escaped unscathed. ‘Of course I’ve been harassed so many times, and been in really uncomfortable situations. I just blew it off, in many cases.’

The first, and best, song on The Solution is Restless is called ‘The Barbarian’. It’s a conversation with the persona Wasser cultivated to protect — and project — herself as a woman making her way in the music industry. ‘I’ve been tangling with this creature in me that I’ve named the barbarian,’ she says. ‘I started touring in 1990. Now we see women in every part of the industry, but back then people often did assume I was a girlfriend and not in the band. It definitely created a lot of anger and angst in me. I responded by telling everybody that I could carry this bass cabinet by myself, thank you, and I could drink anybody under the table. That’s the character I assumed. It was easy for me, because of who I was, but that’s definitely how I responded to all that misogyny and sexism.

‘That song is my present self, having a conversation with a part of me that was really on the defensive, that was a brawler and felt like she had to present as bulletproof. That part kept me alive at that time, and certainly there are still parts of it that help me survive, but there are also parts that feel very worn out and entangle me in ways I’m not fond of. I spent a long time shaming that part, in a very cruel way. I needed to begin a dialogue with it that was much more caring. It’s like, how am I going to live the rest of this life?’

Wasser has kudos to spare. A serial collaborator, she was worked with, among others, Albarn, Lou Reed, Beck, Laurie Anderson, Sufjan Stevens and John Cale. Does she ever covet the simple affirmation of a hit single? She’s not averse, she says, but reckons it’s largely a matter of chance. ‘If you try to write a song for the radio, most of the time you fail. Pop music has been turned into this robotic thing that’s ultimately incredibly boring. Having the right answer is boring. If there are numerous right answers, you have something exciting. That’s the whole idea of playing with other people: you will always be changed. The notion that there isn’t just one solution to anything is a hopeful idea to me.’ In other words, the solution is restless? ‘YES!!’

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