On The Classic, the fourth album by Joan As Policewoman, Joan Wasser’s gifts for inventive arrangement, soul-searching and emotionally candid lyrics, and sharp, R&B inflected songwriting is on full, majestic display. Having performed with the likes of Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright, and informed by influences that leapfrog genre boundaries (soul, pop and art rock) Wasser radiates assurance and confidence. On an unseasonably warm winter’s day, Wasser took a break from rehearsal to talk with Lenny Kaye about romance, artifice and doo-wop in the backyard of a café on the outskirts of Greenpoint.
Your records chart an emotional odyssey, and you seem to be in a very bright and positive place these days. Is that a fair impression of The Classic?
Yeah, definitely. Each record reflects the time since the last record, and I think I just stopped caring about things that don’t matter [laughs]…which is a glorious place to be. I’ve done a few records, and that gave me some self-confidence and calmness. It’s a good place to make music from. I used to think that I had to be really agitated and emotionally insane. I don’t think that anymore, thankfully.
Did you have a clear sense when you made The Classic of things you wanted to try or express?
I don’t really think about that much. I just kind of make the songs. I wish I had some kind of grand plan, but I never do. It’s really about my trajectory since The Deep Field. I was thrown into [this record] because I was working on a duets project with David Sylvian, and we wrote the whole record and recorded half of it, and then it got put on hold because of health stuff, and then I realized I hadn’t written anything for myself. So at the end of 2012 I just started getting in there and writing music. I did a bunch of solo shows at Rockwood [Music Hall, in Manhattan], and that pushed me to finish songs. I would just play whatever I had [at the shows], even if it wasn’t complete. That was really revealing for me. Songs I didn’t think were done I realized were whole. Songs I thought were way too complicated, people understood. And then some things didn’t work at all, which no one will ever hear again [laughs].
How does your background in classical music inform the way you write and perform?
I was playing classical music in an orchestra during my teenage life, and then also going to punk-rock clubs and seeing Black Flag and the Bad Brains. My life changed when I played Mahler’s Second when I was 14. It’s perfect for a 14-year-old — it comes from that super-emotional romantic place. I knew then I was clearly going to make music. I didn’t know how. I started playing with any situation I could.
I also hear a fair amount of rhythm and blues in these songs.
I grew up with the Jackson Five and Diana Ross on the radio before I would go to school. That was the music I heard on the radio. In my early 20s, I started delving into Motown and Stax and Hi Records. It took me a long time to get used to my voice, finding what was my voice, and not trying to sound like someone else. Of course I felt very impatient. When I started singing I detested my voice because I wasn’t instantly Nina Simone or Ann Peebles. I think on this record I got to a place where I allowed myself to sing the way I wanted to, that’s all me.
The doo-wop song, “The Classic,” is a marvelous evocation of that music. It’s also probably the only time I’ve ever heard the word “archetypal” in a song. How did that whole sense of doo-wop come to you?
I’m not sure. I just started hitting those chords on the piano. I never had a particularly doo-wop moment, but I feel for many Americans, it’s part of your heritage. I love classic form. I’m always trying to make it simpler, ’cause I think my mind tends to want to add more chords, thinking, “This isn’t interesting enough.” But actually, to cut back is the objective. With “The Classic,” we tried to make it as simple as possible. It was clear we needed to do it with all voices. We tried it with the band, but the focus was on the singers.
The emotion you connect with in that song…to me, doo-wop is one of the ultimate expressions of romance, good or bad, and you sing of love in such an uplifting way.
A lot of these songs were written at a period where I was single, for the first time in my life. I really knew that I had to spend some time not pouring energy into someone else, which I love to do. As an aside, I was with Jeff Buckley for three years before he died, and after that happened, I pretty much wasn’t ready to have any good times. Not that anyone I got involved with was super horrible, but we always wound up incompatible. I think now, it was a way for me to not lose Jeff. But what it meant was just a lot of pain for everybody. After the last relationship ended, and I could say nothing wrong about the person, I was just, like, “This has got to stop.” Because it’s killing me, and I don’t like seeing other people in pain. I think that’s also why this record sounds the way it does, because I actually set myself free from that pattern. These songs are written about someone in the future.
That’s beautiful. It sounds like you’re in love, but instead these songs offer love’s promise…
The idea of being with someone that makes sense. Because I know how that feels.
There’s that wonderful song at the close of the record, “Ask Me,” with the words “Don’t know any other way to tell you I love you.” Isn’t that the magic of putting your feelings within a song? Are there any singers you use as a role model?
When I was learning to sing, I listened to Mahalia Jackson a lot. I love Nina Simone. I listen to Joni Mitchell over and over; she’s incredible. Al Green, Marvin Gaye, those are the greatest. And for me, Stevie Wonder is the Second Coming.
I noticed sometimes that when you have a rhythm going, you enter your vocal at a strange place in the bar, almost off-kilter, against the grain…
It’s just how I feel it. I love rhythms; I’m obsessed with them. I think I’m making the most obvious pop song, and then I’ll have someone sing it with me, and they’ll look at me, like what-is-this? But it sounds natural to me.
You talk about finding your own voice in this record, and yet you seem to like playing with the element of persona. I’m thinking of the video for “Holy City,” where you assume many characters, but also your different looks…it’s an interesting contrast because these songs are as emotionally honest as can be.
I didn’t write the treatment for the video, but I do love persona in general, and certainly I’ve had every look in my lifetime that is possible. I definitely learn about myself by looking different. I’m so fascinated with human interaction, how one’s presentation affects people in different ways. I’ve been blonde, and I’ve had my natural hair color, and how that changes the way people perceive you.
Is that concept of character how you chose the name of your band, Joan As Policewoman?
I was blonde at that point and looking for a band name. I started doing solo shows under my given name, and because I’d only been a violinist, people thought I was doing violin recitals, so I thought I needed a name. One day I was wearing some sort of three-piece polyester pant-suit, and my friend Ruben saw me on the street and said I was channeling Angie from Policewoman. That was it!