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The story of Joan as survivor

Joan Wasser is Joan as Policewoman, and her late-blooming solo career marks her progress since her boyfriend Jeff Buckley's death. Nick Hasted hears how she is stopping herself screaming

Bounding up to ground level from the bunker-like hotel basement where she has been cooped up too long, Joan Wasser's eyes are fearlessly direct, her wayward mane swept under a flapper's hat. As when she stands pounding the piano during the freewheeling shows as Joan As Police Woman that have made her name in Britain, she is a bundle of raw, positive energy. This wasn't always so.

Wasser, a 39-year-old New Yorker, has stayed raging in the shadows for most of her life. She has been in the bands of Antony Hegarty and Rufus Wainwright (who launched her solo career when she opened for him on his 2005 tour). More crucially, she was the revered singer Jeff Buckley's girlfriend when he drowned in Wolf River, Tennessee, in 1997.

Though mention of it is supposedly out of bounds today, this loss is at the core of what her music has become. Her first full album Real Life (2006) was exquisitely haunted by the deaths of both Buckley and Elliott Smith. Grief is at the heart of her new album To Survive, too. Wasser's mother died of cancer last year. But like the great Memphis soul singers her music so resembles, she doesn't wallow in the tough place it comes from. Instead, she transcends it.

Watch the video for Joan As Police Woman's track Eternal Flame

"Oh, cool. Thank you!" she says of the comparison. "I'm hopin'." Wasser was very different once. As a teenager, she was a trained violinist with a Mohawk. She left classical music behind, despairing of the repetition of Academy life, to play in the same sexually open New York underground scene that also spawned Hegarty and the Scissor Sisters. Leaving to play electric violin in the now forgotten grunge-era band the Dambuilders, she was prey to explosive attacks of rage. "I was very unsure about what it was to be female," she remembers. "I battled it by trying to be one of the guys. I was self-destructive, trying to be something I wasn't. I did that for a nice long time. And really found misery. I was putting a tough shell around the fact that I was terrified, and completely unable to express it."

Buckley's death remains the real beginning of Joan As Police Woman. It broke open Wasser's shell. "You know, I had a significant death in my life," she says with emphasis. "And that tore me open. I had no emotional vocabulary to deal with it. I was just wrecked. I was in so much grief. It showed me some parts of myself that were not pleasing. And it gave me extra ability to see myself. So I'm very thankful for that part. That still took years, piecing through the shambles of that that experience. But when you're in that kind of trauma situation, you do connect to some kind of infinite wisdom, that was not there previously. You can't ignore who you are at your core any longer."

Black Beetle, the band she formed with Buckley's bandmates Michael Tighe and Parker Kindred, which split up in 2002 without releasing a record, was her first response. Learning to sing, not scream as she'd previously done, tore down further walls. The difference between her debut mini-album with her own band, Joan As Police Woman (2004), redolent of New York's glam and cabaret scenes, and the sparely beautiful To Survive, suggests she is continuing to strip herself down to some emotional essence. "That's good," she decides. "I'm glad. I am getting closer to myself. As opposed to feeling horrified by it."

Seeing her mother waste away from cancer has, Wasser believes, given herself another grimly positive forward jolt. Two new songs address this obliquely. "'To Survive' is spoken from her point of view," she explains. "Part of it's a lullaby – imagining her singing to me as I'm going to sleep, and feeling regular childhood fears, of the darkness. And then 'To America' is about the relentlessness, the ruthlessness of disease. And how it has no feelings. And it just goes until it's done. I also had America represent one's mother. Because it feels like my country has a disease. And I'm looking forward to some sort of relief from that disease. I'm not expecting a miracle. Just a return to some semblance of democracy."

Does she feel under attack as an American – alienated, whenever she steps out of the liberal enclaves of New York and her own shows? "At times. I feel insulted, certainly. The fact that there has been such a complete denial of care for what the people of the country think. That's what's so frustrating – the fact that the concept of revolution is not more..." She breaks off. "There's a need for serious reaction. I believe there have been reactions, but they're being suppressed. The demonstrations in New York City when the war started weren't on the news. So people in Tulsa didn't know that anyone was upset. We're approaching fascism. And all the soldiers are kids from the poorest families."

"Furious", often a rallying cry at concerts against this state of affairs, burns with impotent disbelief on To Survive, asking: "Are you not furious?" "I mean, really," she sighs. "How do you feel about it? What is happening in you about it? It is an exorcism for me. But who else is with me on this?"

It's a fine protest song, one of many that musicians including Wainwright have offered since 2001. But, somehow, none of them seem to stick or matter as they once did. You can see why Wasser would consider revolution, when her words and music seem useless. "A lot of times you're preaching to the converted," she admits. "I'm not playing in Tulsa. I'd like to. The problem is, does Tulsa want me? Because there was so much less music in the way old days – I'm thinking about Bob Dylan – you had a wider range of opinions in one room. That happens less now. Things are very segregated. In terms of thought, and otherwise."

You can sing what you like, safely tucked in your own corner? "Yeah. But whether I'm playing a show or not, I try to connect. Of course, when Bush got in again, I wondered who these people were who'd supposedly voted for him. It felt to me like they voted against what made sense."

Wracked with half-understood terror as she has sometimes been, does Wasser feel worried herself, living in a nation seemingly at odds with her? "I don't feel fearful in America. Or most places. I have a very fearless personality. That doesn't mean I'm not scared. But I will try everything, about 11 times. Even if I hated it the first 10. I have to learn by experience."

Wasser has had limited success in her own country, joining the line of US musicians who've found acceptance in Britain instead. "I find London to be very aggressive – much more than New York City," she muses. "There's a perception that New York's extremely tough. Compared to London, it's extremely soft. It's cool – here, I actually look fairly relaxed."

"To Survive" and "America" aren't obvious songs. You'd never know one was intended as a lullaby from a dead mother, or the other about a country with cancer. "To Survive", especially, simmers with resentment, and emptiness – the sort you feel when the parent who has shielded you from the world is gone. "I know what you mean," Wasser says. "It's asking questions that are very scary. That has to do with watching my mom die from cancer. But it also has to do with the larger challenge of learning to be alone. You can be surrounded by adoring fans, but it doesn't matter. Because you are always alone. And you die alone. The perception is that that's very negative. But I don't believe that it is. We just need to tangle with it. Because ultimately, you will set yourself free. Even if there's a moment of pain."

It's a startling perspective, soon after a parent's death. But Wasser's life-affirming music seems to thrive, perversely, on intimate pain. "The fact is that I am just an optimist," she says. "I know it's not cool. It's not the flavour of the month, or the year or the century. It's my personality. I don't think it's just that I'm hoping it's positive. I think that it really is. If you can get more down with yourself, then you're going to be happier. You can feel more comfortable expressing yourself more honestly, you are going to feel more joy, and be able to take better advantage of what life has to offer."

Wasser's quirkily glamorous on-stage persona today, which often sees her breathing with erotic heaviness into her mic between songs, is a contrast to the determinedly tough girl who tried "to up the ante on insanity" in the company of wild male rockers in the Nineties, till Buckley's death brought her up short. Beauty, not toughness, is her mantra now. "Studying classical music, I had already experienced and appreciated the power of pure beauty," she says. "But I was much more interested in playing Bartók or something than doing it myself. It was in my mind, but it wasn't mine. Now, I don't bang my head any more. I'm softer on myself. I'm trying to reveal vulnerability, to put myself in situations that feel uncomfortable, where you're going to grow. The biggest problem I have is patience. I want to be able to win at this. To master it. And there is no winning."

The rough self-help manual Wasser has forged from the deaths of her two closest loved ones has become the deliberate source of her increasingly lovely music. She is trying, in a tiny way, to change the world. "For a long time, I would always look outside myself, to find the wrong in other people," she says. "Now I turn the microscope inward, so I'm able to let the music out more clearly, and to be helpful in any way I can. That's the best way for an individual to change anything."

'To Survive' is out on Monday on Reveal