The French have a word for it. Dilettante. In the past the British would sometimes sneer at the mention of a dilettante. Possibly because it is a French word (there are many here who will never quite understand or see eye-to-eye with our cousins across the water) but also to them, it suggests ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Now, we generally embrace one who has a well-rounded portfolio of skills and abilities, that can often inform and enhance each other. Someone like Joan Wasser. Someone who can not only play a mean violin, but also guitars and piano. She can write songs, too, can sing like a veritable bird, and knows her way around a studio to the extent that she produced Scottish folk band Lau’s album of 2015, The Bell That Never Rang. That part of her CV should tell you everything. Not in the least known for playing folk music, Wasser nevertheless has, throughout her musical life, embraced a keen musical curiosity, that allied to a seemingly insatiable lust for life, has seen her form countless collaborations, try out new things, and test the overlapping waters of musical genres and cross-fertilisations.
Indeed, she started out as a classical performer, picking up the piano and violin at an early age, eventually going to Boston University to study music, and performing with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. “I was very interested in studying classically”, explains Wasser. "I love the music and needed to see if I could really excel. Excel I did but I wasn’t interested in making classical music all my life. I learned that while in school. It felt very limiting. I was never the student who wanted to learn the Beethoven concerto, I was the one who wanted to play the chamber music that had just been written by the composition students at my school; I wanted to play the new stuff, not pieces that have, in my opinion, already been perfected by the masters. When I was in school I took every gig I could and began making pop music, playing with all kinds of ensembles, improvising. I started playing in bands and with artists that I would learn so much from and play with for years like Mary Timony (who now fronts Ex-Hex) and The Dambuilders.” In short, Wasser wanted to “bridge the gap between the guitar and the bass and play the violin really loud.”
Joining The Dambuilders in 1991 she played on three of their albums, in the process developing her songwriting and singing. And on the basis of her skill as a violin player plus the fact she fitted in easily with the ‘alt-rock’ crowd, she started getting calls to play with name bands and artists. Over the years she has played and collaborated with the likes of Elton John, Anthony and The Johnsons, Lou Reed (she sang on his last tour), John Cale, RZA, Rufus Wainwright, Sparklehorse, David Sylvian, Lloyd Cole, Placebo’s Brian Molko, and Elvis Costello.
“When I began playing in bands, the instrument I knew how to play was the violin. I created a space for myself by learning how to make it work in pop music with effects pedals and extended technique. Once I picked up the guitar, I realised why I had not been able to write songs previously; I needed to learn how to play a chordal instrument to write songs and had up until then only been playing a melodic instrument.” Singing was also something that she came to later in life, “Singing was definitely something I shied away from. I had been surrounded by so many truly unique and genius singers in my life and couldn’t imagine what I would have to offer. It was only until I suffered the loss of my boyfriend (Jeff Buckley) that I felt like I had nowhere else to go than to sing. The violin was just not cutting it any longer. I felt like I had way too much emotion to express and had to let it out through singing.”
It was in May 1997 that Buckley tragically drowned whilst swimming in the Mississippi river. She found it "such a traumatic experience of loss. I needed to grieve but I didn't know how,” and ended up forming a band with the remaining members of Buckley’s band, Black Beetle, finishing an album that was never released. But this was the first project where she was writing as well as fronting a band. She "found singing terrifying at first. I didn't know about the boundaries of my voice and I had no idea what words I wanted to say. The violin had been my voice for so long.”
Whilst fronting Black Beetle, Wasser joined with Anthony and The Johnsons, eventually becoming a full-time member and contributing to their Mercury-winning album Free As A Bird, whilst continuing to develop her own songs and singing; songs which she described as sounding like “old Al Green records.” In 2002 she finally took the plunge, forming a duo with drummer Ben Perowsky before roping in bassist Rainy Ortega to form Joan As Police Woman (JAPW). To UK eyes, JAPW is perplexing. Can you explain the background to the name? “During the mid-70s Angie Dickinson played an undercover cop in a show called Police Woman. When I was looking for a band name, I happened to bump into my friend when I was wearing a pale blue polyester pantsuit; my friend told me ‘Hey Joan, you are channelling Angie Dickinson.’ So it stuck!”
The group self-released a five-track eponymous EP in 2004, with Wasser mixing up her own band with guest stints with others, such as Rufus Wainwright, whom she eventually toured with, allowing her the opportunity to do the support slot as JAPW. It was here that British record shop owner Tom Rose stepped in. He not only profoundly changed her life forever, but his too, forming a relationship that has remained enduring to this day, “Tom saw me open for Rufus in 2005. He wrote to me on Myspace and asked if he could buy a box of the EPs I had been selling at the shows. After no time, he wanted a couple more boxes as he’d sold out. I couldn’t believe it. He ended up starting a label (Reveal Records) to release the EP and subsequently my first two albums, Real Life and To Survive, (and now the new album Let It Be You). I am so thankful to Tom for being so proactive about music he felt was worth releasing. We also just really got on and stayed friends. He’s a straight shooter. I deeply appreciate that. I think that’s one of the many reasons we’ve stayed close. Plus the fact that we are both obsessed with music!”
Whilst Tom Rose branched out into management and as a record label boss (which he continues to do, including the aforementioned Lau album) JAPW enjoyed critical plaudits, with writer Andy Gill going so far as to say about their third album, 2011’s In A Deep Field, “(it’s) everything the Adele album (21) lacks: real emotional insight, couched in genuinely soulful arrangements bristling with imagination.” And Joan’s continuing lust for new musical pastures saw her release the soul and doo-wop saturated The Classic album in 2014, an opportunity to really let her now widely admired voice to reach out beyond the torch-like intonations of her previous work.
Let It Be You is her most adventurous and free-spirited record to date. A truly collaborative effort with Benjamin Lazar Davis, a little known indie-soul singer who performs with the likes of Okkervil River, his own band Cuddle Magic, and recently released an EP along with Lake Street Dive’s Brigit Kearney. This EP contained some African inspirations, a result of his study of African traditional music, while around the same time Joan was involved with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, “I feel so lucky I got to spend time in Ethiopia. It changed my life and I no longer hear music the same way. I was lucky to hear amazing local women singing in polyphony; two voices sounding like ten. Magical and moving.
“I went to see Ben play live with his band Cuddle Magic in Brooklyn. They were opening for my friend’s group Sex Mob. I instantly loved Ben’s sense of rhythm and his band were so tight. After the show we spoke and he told me he was a fan of my music.” Ben has subsequently said of JAPW’s debut album, Real Life, “It has some of the greatest songwriting, drumming, bass playing, string playing and singing. After I met Joan I found out that on ‘Feed The Light’ she played the bass part, guitar part, vocal part, and the strings. I instantly knew I wanted to collaborate with this great talent.” Joan says, “He then suggested we write together and of course I accepted! Buttering me up always works.
“Once we started writing together, we realised we were both interested in Central African Republic Pygmy musical patterns and ended up using some of this music as inspiration for the new record. On ‘Broke Me In Two’, you can hear the influence in the staccato bit-crushed guitar line that plays throughout. Of course you could always ignore that and just take it as a pop song! The first song we wrote was ‘Magic Lamp’ from the album, then we did one of his older songs ‘Overloaded’. Ben sent me this great beat for our song ‘Broke Me In Two’ (the first single from the album) with a harmonised pygmy ostinato (a continually-repeated musical phrase or rhythm). This was whilst I was in on tour in Amsterdam. In reaction to that beat, I wrote the melody and lyrics. From there things progressed quickly and it was at this point we realised that we were going to make a full record.
“Six of the songs on the record are based on specific recordings from the Pygmy people. Once we got going in that direction we just couldn’t stop. We took these chunks of material and harmonised them and melodised them and lyricised them. The energy of these traditional musics deeply draws the music together.”
Both ‘Broke Me In Two’ and ‘Overloaded’ have accompanying, almost twin-like videos, both featuring comedy actor Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live, Anchorman). “Those songs felt like siblings. I have been friends with Fred for years, starting from when we played in a band together in the mid-90s. We decided we’d make videos where we switched roles with Fred for each. In one, we’re the mechanics, and he’s bringing in the Bentley and in the next, he’s the mechanic, and I’m bringing in the Bentley.”
Let It Be You is a record that is full of superb vocal performances, from both Wasser and Davis, but also featuring plenty of big, upfront drum beats and glitchy electronics, an air of experimentation permeating throughout. “For this record, we became consumed with the idea of running already recorded tracks through guitar amplifiers to create a rawer sound. We would run a mix of the drums through a giant vintage Fender ‘Super Six’ amp and I would adjust the EQ and the gain structure. This was part of the sound of the record from the beginning and we based the other parts of the arrangements on how the drums sounded.”
Indeed, their love of music, music making and production extends as far a showing off a couple bits of kit on the album’s cover; “The CR-78 drum machine is Ben’s. He’s had it since he was nine. We put it on when we were writing our first song together. Then we were recording the record and it made it onto a bunch of songs slyly. The electro-comp modular synth was a friend of ours and it represents the modernness of the bit-crushed guitar tones heard on the record.”
The final track on the album, ‘The Station’, sees Wasser slow things right down, via her fragile lullaby-voice and repeating electric guitar motif. You can audibly hear the long intakes of breath before each line, the song closing out with ascending strings and more, big and upfront crashing beats. It’s the only time on Let It Be You that Wasser indulges in a song continuously flowing along a groove after the ‘song’ has finished, a feature of much of her past work. “We started recording this song very late at night. I sang it probably 30 times until I was almost hallucinating from the exhaustion. Sometimes wearing myself down can leave what’s most important in the music, the sheer emotion.”
It’s that emotion, and soulfulness, that is a recurrent feature of Wasser’s work. She always gives it 110%; whether as a violinist or as a writer of her own songs, or as a singer, despite the fact she came to both singing and songwriting relatively late in life. And there’s the fact that Wasser was adopted (a result of a teenage pregnancy) as a baby. She credits her background as an adoptive child with her "very extroverted" personality and dressing up a lot. She explained that, "when you are in a situation where you're not blood-related to your family, it does become extremely obvious that you're born with your personality.” She did eventually get to know her biological mother and discovered that she, too, plays violin. “It’s one of the curiosities of nature versus nurture. My birth father played electric bass and started touring at 14 and my birth mother played violin… go figure! I am the product of my birth parents in that way. But it was the parents I grew up with, my adoptive parents, who told me I should study what I was truly interested in. I owe them so much for supporting my interests in music. I wouldn’t be making music like I am if it weren’t for them.”
For the forthcoming UK tour, Wasser and Davis will of course be diving into the new album, but also re-imagining tracks from JAPW’s back catalogue. “We have such a great band for this tour, full of strong musical personalities; Ian Chang (Son Lux) on drums, Ryan Dugre on guitar, bass, Benjamin on vocals, keys, bass. The way this band plays is perhaps more immediate than the subtle vibes of some of my previous Joan As Police Woman shows. Let It Be You is still soulful but with complex rhythms. The way we present the music from Let It Be You live, it is still super soulful but perhaps a little tougher, with even stronger rhythms. For this tour, we have created new arrangements for older JAPW songs like ‘The Magic and Holy City’. They are infused with new life!”
Read our review of their album Let It Be You here: brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1887-joan-as-policewoman-and-benjamin-lazar-davis-let-it-be-you