Assume the position! Sing like a canary

The classical violinist only recently found her voice, and what a voice it is, says Fiona Sturges

It seems odd, sitting across from Joan Wasser, that for the first 30 years of her life it never occurred to her to open her mouth and sing. After just a few minutes in her company, during which her voice emerges as a conspiratorial murmur one moment, and an intense, throaty bellow the next, you really can't imagine her doing anything else.

Over the past five years, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter who goes by the name of Joan as Police Woman has carved a reputation as a peerless practitioner of indie-soul music. She has been called "Dusty Springfield for the indie generation", though she prefers to describe her music as "the sound of wind rushing through the forest".

She is, in person, a tornado of a woman, a sight to behold in leather jodhpurs, T-shirt and a fluffy white coat, and armed with a powerfully upbeat demeanour that belies that sadness and subtlety of her music.

Singing, Wasser insists, was not in the plan. "I never thought I could do it, and when I tried, it was terrifying. I was happy playing alongside other musicians. I was simply doing what I had been preparing all my life to do."

That musical life began when she took up the violin, aged eight. For years she pursued a classical path, landing a place at Boston University to study music under Yuri Mazurkevich, and playing with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. But by the time she graduated, Wasser had become exasperated with academic life and "didn't want to play the same pieces that had been already been played for ever". So she sculpted her hair into a mohican and, armed with her violin, joined a series of "really, really loud" punk-rock bands with former members of the Flaming Lips, the Grifters, and Shudder to Think. Gradually, however, her sense of rebellion dissipated, and her penchant for punk gave way to a love of vintage soul by, among others, Isaac Hayes, Donny Hathaway and Al Green.

In 1994, she began dating the revered singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, whose life was cut short three years later when he drowned in Wolf River, Tennessee. Shortly after, Wasser started playing music with Buckley's bandmates under the monicker Black Beetle. They had moderate success – there were support slots for Morrissey and Patti Smith – though for Wasser it was an unhappy time.

"We were all really struggling," she recalls. "It was a period when we were making music just to stay alive and be together and try to make sense of a situation that didn't make sense. I think it was as a method of coping that I started writing songs. It was hard but also incredible, and it propelled me forwards."

At the same time, Wasser was cultivating a sideline as a studio session musician, playing violin for such starry names as Elton John, Lou Reed and, later, Rufus Wainwright. Much of her time was spent watching and learning as well as playing. After the rigorous discipline of her college days, this was a musical education of an entirely different kind.

It was an encounter with Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons – she was brought in for the day as a substitute violinist and then hired by Hegarty on the spot – that gave her the self-belief to go it alone. "He just blew my mind, and being around him was very inspiring," she says. "He became a great friend and really gave me courage."

Wasser tentatively began singing and gradually her confidence built. Black Beetle broke up in 2002, leaving Wasser with a pile of songs and the possibility of fronting her own band. With Hegarty's encouragement (he duetted with her on her first album), she took the plunge and formed Joan as Police Woman. The name was inspired by a Seventies TV show in which Angie Dickinson plays a tough, sexy LA cop. Oddly, Wasser doesn't own a television and hasn't for years. "Well, they don't play that show any more," she protests.

Word soon got around about her intense live performances and in 2004 Rufus Wainwright, with whom she'd already done studio sessions, asked her to support him on tour. In 2005, she signed a record deal and, a year later, released her first full-length album, Real Life.

For Wasser, music has been the medicine that has carried her through difficult times. Having emerged from the trauma of Buckley's death, Wasser later endured the suicide of her close friend Elliott Smith in 2003 and, four years later, the loss of her mother from cancer. In each case, she says, she fought the impulse to retreat alone with her grief, instead channelling her feelings into her songwriting.

Asked how she found the strength, she replies: "I think it goes back to being adopted as an infant. I had amazing parents but I was so very different from my mother that I would look at her and go 'Who are you?', and she would do the same with me. My brother and I always knew we were adopted and we had to learn to be very secure with who we were and not bury all that stuff in a box. Having all that happen to you makes you very resilient. It can also make you love life, whatever it throws at you."

Now Wasser is preparing for the release of her third album, The Deep Field, a captivating and characteristically soulful work named after a distant part of space. "I'm a little bit of a science geek, so when I learned about that idea, I found it very romantic," says Wasser.

Even with the many traumas that Wasser has been through, she says it is romance that underpins her work, a fact that is born out by the first single "The Magic", a piece of Seventies soul that could have been written by Curtis Mayfield. Elsewhere, the song "I Was Everyone" is written from the point of view of Joan of Arc and the experience of hearing a divine voice. "I'm named after her, so I always thought I might be burned alive before I was 20," says Wasser cheerfully.

Six years into her solo career, Wasser has also kept up the collaborations with fellow artists. She played violin on the Scissor Sisters' last two albums and provided vocals, violin and guitars on Lloyd Cole's latest offering Broken Record. Last February she joined Damon Albarn on a tour of Ethiopia as part of Africa Express, a project that brings together Western and African musicians.

"The practice of working with other musicians is pretty much the opposite of how I was trained when I was studying," Wasser says. "It's all about being with other people with no music in front of you, bouncing ideas off one another and just using your ears. It's about spontaneity and interchange, and you never stop learning. For me, that's a pretty cool way to make music."

'The Deep Field' is released on 24 Jan on Reveal. The single "The Magic" is out on 17 Jan

Helping police with their inquiries

Joan's collaborators

On Antony Hegarty..."After that first rehearsal we instantly clicked. His singing just killed me, and as a human being, he is just like his music: quiet, beautiful, otherworldly. He's very loving and he really helped me in my life in so many ways. I always say he's my spiritual guide. I actually think he's a real-life angel."

Rufus Wainwright..."I originally met him through Antony. He knew I played violin but he didn't know I could also play guitar and sing. Later, I opened for one of his tours and that really kicked my ass. He is really impressive when he's working. He knows exactly what he wants musically and he doesn't stop until he gets it. He's a proper classical singer. He taught me everything I know about singing."

On Damon Albarn..."He is one of my all-time heroes. His voice and his melodies just stay with you. I went on his Africa Express tour, and it was the most incredible experience I have ever had. We went to Ethiopia and saw the most off-the-wall bands in clubs. The Ethiopians were so open and interested in what we were doing, and their music had these time signatures which we have no real knowledge of. It was a revelation.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas