Joan Wassser finds her voice

Joan Wasser played violin for Lou Reed and Nick Cave, but now she's a singing star in her own right. By Charlotte Cripps
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The Independent Culture

One difficult moment for the cool New York singer/songwriter Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Police Woman) was when she had to choose between being in two bands: Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright's.

A close buddy of Antony Hegarty's, of Antony and the Johnsons, whom she describes as her "spiritual guide", she considered his band home for years, until Wainwright asked her to join his band and also be his support act, opening his world tour in 2004.

This meant she could take the solo plunge as Joan as Police Woman, the indie art rock outfit she had formed in 2002, to sing her own chamber pop soul while touring with Wainwright.

For years, Wasser, 36 - who is reclining on a lush, red sofa in a bright café boudoir in Brighton wearing white tassled cowboy boots - has hidden herself from the spotlight. While summoning her own creative courage to go it alone, she was quietly notching up a reputation inside the music industry. As a classically trained musician - she took violin lessons as a child and went to Boston University to study music - she was drafted in to studio sessions to play violin with the Scissor Sisters, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Sheryl Crow and Sparklehorse. So what has taken her so long to take the reigns of her own career?

"I had to learn how to relax. It was a strange catch-22 because when you are physically relaxed in your voice, the beauty can come through you. But the more I thought about singing, the more freaked out I felt," Wasser says. "It just takes time. The violin had been my voice for ages. You have to learn it for yourself. You can't be there until you're there."

Wasser's touring schedule as Joan as Police Woman has been relentless since last March, when she left her Brooklyn brownstone on a tree-lined street, as seen on the American TV programme The Cosby Show. She couldn't be happier with her life right now on the road, which has also included a stint touring with hot newcomers the Guillemots, in May.

Her debut album, Real Life, released last June, has a hauntingly beautiful duet with her old boss Hegarty, titled "I Defy". "I was playing piano at Antony's Manhattan apartment, when I confronted his habit of undermining himself. It was like stop putting yourself down!" she shrieks. "The song is about what we were telling each other. It happened in a few hours." Her new, hypnotic single, "The Ride", also taken from her album, is re-released on 15 January.

The grounded but manic singer, who sporadically laughs out loud and says "awesome" and "are you crazy?" a lot while trying to work out her own chronology, has certainly lived a rock 'n' roll life. From 1994 she was Jeff Buckley's partner, until he drowned while swimming in Wolf River, Tennessee, in 1997. Around this time Wasser first picked up a guitar, straying from her violin. She was in her first band, the Dambuilders from 1990 until 1997 but, after Buckley's death, she spent some time singing and learning how to write songs, for the first time, in Black Beetle. This was the band she had put together with two of Buckley's band mates - Michael Tighe and Parker Kindred - as a way to get through the ordeal, having already performed with the band Those Bastard Souls, with Grifters guitarist David Shouse, Steven Drozd from the Flaming Lips and Fred Armisen of Trenchmouth. Wasser made a record with Black Beetle, which never came out because the band split right after recording it.

"It was incredibly difficult to grieve privately for those close to him - everybody wanted a piece of him - we were a very private couple," she says. "It took a while to get through that period, honestly. I never would want it to happen any other way because the fact that I survived it has made me such a strong person. It has actually really made me more compassionate."

After Black Beetle split, Wasser formed her own band, Joan as Police Woman. She was later joined by Ben Perowsky on drums and percussion, who has played for Elysian Fields and John Cale, while Rainy Orteca on bass has played with Lloyd Cole and Lou Reed; both of them sing backing vocals for Wasser. The band self-released recordings before they were signed in December 2005 by the tiny British indie label Reveal Records, which released a seven-inch single "My Gurl", as well as re-releasing Wasser's debut EP - followed by a smattering of singles including "Eternal Flame" and "Christobel". The debut album, Real Life, was also released in Europe, Asia and Australia by the record label Play It Again Sam. "It turns out the only place my album is not available is my home country. America is just horrifying for music. That's why I did a deal in the UK." The name Joan as Police Woman was suggested by a friend, who saw a similarity in Wasser to Angie Dickinson, who played the central character of Seventies television show Police Woman.

Born in 1970, Wasser grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, with a younger brother, Dan. She was born in a home for unmarried teenager mothers and put up for adoption. She says she found solace in playing a violin. "I just always loved music. I was the girl with a mohawk playing the violin in high school. Everybody thought I was a freak. And guess what? I am."

She feels that her music is the "melding of the two styles" she loves the most: soul (Al Green, Nina Simone and Isaac Hayes) and punk (the Smiths, the Grifters and Siouxsie Sioux). She recalls that, after Buckley's death, when she first started singing, "it was terrifying" and her first bout of songwriting "was poetic and complicated". "I just kept trying to make my songs simpler and to get more to the point and be more honest. I was really trying to learn who I was as a person. I had no way of dealing with the trauma of Jeff's death and I needed to learn how to express myself. I thought if something [singing] scared me so much, I needed to learn something from it."

But to begin with, words seemed so secondary to Wasser. "For a while I just didn't know what I wanted to put out there lyrically. I had never used words before. Suddenly there was this whole new world of words. 'What have words got to do with music? Well - they are the lyrics, Joan!'" she yells, recalling when the penny dropped.

It was during Wainwright's tour that Tom Rose, of Reveal Records, asked Wasser if her debut EP could be his first release on his new record label. He had seen her singing, playing violin, electric and acoustic guitar and mandolin with Wainwright's band, as well as singing her own material. "He asked me to send him a box of 30 copies of the EP [Joan as Police Woman] that I was manufacturing myself - 30! I thought: 'Are you crazy?' Then he called me a week later. He wanted another box. Then he wanted to release it on his record label. It is what you hope will happen: that somebody real who is a lover of music wants to try to make it work with you."

Wasser's decision to go quieter, rather than loud - "I played violin through distortion pedals and huge amps" - was consolidated when she met the operatic pop diva Hegarty. "When I joined Antony's band in late 1999, I was surrounded by gentle people who became my family," she says. "Antony is very nurturing. That safety allowed me to continue making a surveillance of my life and learning who I was - ultimately becoming healthier and more able to be creative," she says.

"It reinforced the importance of making really quiet and caring music because I witnessed how Antony's music affected me. It helped me feel safe enough to heal."

She says that she gave up anger because she needed a change. "Anger is so easy," she says. "It only stems from other feelings you're not dealing with. I'm trying to get deeper. You've got to learn just to give anger up. What's going to happen is going to happen. Feel comfortable with the fact that you'll be able to deal with it, whatever it is."

Although Wasser happens to describe her own music as "the wind rushing through the forest" - there is nothing flaky about her. She sings about love and loss, as though she is born of Cat Power and Antony and the Johnsons. " I realise it is so more sexy to know yourself," she says, while her dark eyes dance beneath glittery eyeshadow. "Growing up and becoming adult is not boring. It means being responsible and connected to yourself. I learnt how to do this through music." The album Real Life, she says, " is about finding a way to be truthful with myself, after a real long time running away". It has taken her "a lot of patience to admit how I'm feeling - rather than to suppress it - until it comes out as a rage attack. This record is about learning to be real."

When Wasser finally took the solo plunge - she faced one of her worst fears, she says - "It was that nothing beautiful would come out of me and that people would throw tomatoes at me on stage." These days, the sultry Wasser who plays on Antony and the Johnsons' acclaimed album I Am a Bird Now is tipped to be the hottest new act of 2007.

Wasser has had to lay down her violin for her throaty and hauntingly beautiful voice - "because singing and playing violin, well, I've done it but it's not fun. I mean, it looks like the violin is growing out of your neck" - but she has added piano to her repertoire. To have studied classically - "I love learning discipline. It is a gift. You can use it in all areas of your life" - has helped Wasser.

But she says: "I think a lot of classical musicians do have a problem with not having the music in front of them on paper. I always had crazy shit going through my head, so improvising comes naturally to me."

Despite bouts of self-doubt along the way, she has never looked back. "I had to push myself to feel more comfortable and to not have to rely on anybody else," says Wasser. "That was the test. I had to decide to put myself first and actually give myself the opportunity to try with my own music, solely made with the purpose of being beautiful."

The single 'The Ride' is released on 15 January; the album 'Real Life' is available on Reveal Records; www.joanaspolicewoman.com

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