Critical Writings

Interviews: MUSIC

Joan As Policewoman

With Real Life, Joan Wasser – a.k.a. Joan As Policewoman – released one of the more creditable albums of last year, and she’s back in town again (Tripod, Sunday, April 15th). Speaking to me from her hotel room in Austin, Texas, where she has just played one show the last night and is doing another one tonight, at South By South West, the “Big schmooze-fest for the industry, if you can live with that” as she puts it, she sounds remarkably chipper.

Most publicity about this lady tends to highlight her previous heavyweight connections. Apart from dating the late Jeff Buckley and singing backing vocals with Lou Reed, her glitter-covered, five-string, violin-cum-viola provided the rhythmic thrust alongside the guitars in loud serrated bands The Dambuilders, Those Bastard Souls (fronted by Grifters’ guitarist David Shouse with Joan, Steven Drozd from The Flaming Lips and Fred Armisen of Trenchmouth) and Black Beetle. Then she decided to go it alone, but her pal Antony Hegarty asked her to join his fledgling Johnsons, and she stayed for years, right up until Rufus Wainwright asked her to join his band and be the support act. A case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride?

 

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“Well, I wasn’t pining away. I was happy playing my violin, but after awhile I felt I needed to branch out, because being an accompanist wasn’t doing it for me completely anymore. So, I learned how to play guitar, which meant I could start writing songs, because you can’t write songs on a violin, because it’s essentially like the voice, a one-note melodic instrument. Then I started doing shows, to force myself to finish songs. It’s easy to start songs; it’s more difficult trying to finish them.”

So, it’s been a gradual process. Throughout the evolution, honesty has been the goal. “There’s no point in trying to sound like Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan. I mean, there’s an art to a pose, and some people do it very well, but I wanted it to come from inside me. That was scary: would there be anything there? So I had to learn to be vulnerable, emotive in front of other people. It was amazing.”

She had sung as a child, but when puberty hit she became self-conscious and stopped singing. Which is pretty strange, when you think what an amazing voice she has. But Antony and Rufus were very supportive. Perhaps the key, though, is growing confidence. As she puts it, in therapy-speak: “I like me now.”

She has described her music as a fusion of soul and punk, “Because in both you’re saying what you mean without fear of consequence. One is associated with anger, the other with love. But both are from the heart. Punk was a big influence on me, but I don’t listen to it much anymore. Soul is my favourite type of music, even though I’m not from a southern, churchy background.”

So no problem with the term Blue Eyed Soul? “None. Some of those albums are my favourite ever – like Bowie’s Young Americans.” The phrase does, after all, encompass Dusty Springfield, and Joan has been called the Dusty of the indie generation. “Oh, she’s the greatest.”

And that name? “I was a fan of Angie Dickenson in the TV series Policewoman when I was a kid. It was more real, and gritty, than Charlie’s Angels. She was a woman alone. Later, I used to dye my hair blonde, and a friend of mine said to me, ‘You’re channelling Angie’.”

She has fond memories of Crawdaddy, where last July she received a birthday cake she shared with the audience, so try to catch her at the bigger venue next door.


First published in Magill, April 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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