Under the radar

Joan as Police Woman (aka Joan Wasser) discusses the inspirations that transformed her into one of the hidden treasures of today’s feminine-shaped musical landscape.

Joan Wasser 311  (photo credit: Courtesy of Thatcher Keats)
Joan Wasser 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Thatcher Keats)
When recording artists ranging from Elton John and Sheryl Crow to Rufus Wainwright and Antony and the Johnsons want to enhance their music with an electric violin that’s got that tightrope balance between rock & roll raunch, indie edginess and country sweetness, they turn to Joan Wasser.
Add Lou Reed, Nick Cave and The Scissor Sisters to the list, and it becomes hard to believe that the New England-bred Wasser has found the time over the last two decades to not only play an integral role in the successful 1990s Boston alternative rockers, The Dambuilders, but more recently, after switching to guitar and keyboards as instruments of choice, to establish herself in her own right with three well-received solo albums under the moniker Joan As Policewoman.
That whimsical name, an homage to the opening credits of the 1970s cops and robbers show Police Woman starring Angie Dickinson, offers ample evidence that the 41- year-old Wasser’s take on life and career are far from solemn, as she carries her hard-earned indie credentials along with her musical path. Her shows, which run the gamut from joyous rock to tender ballads, are full of impromptu banter with the audience and with her Joan As Police Woman band mates Tyler Wood on synths and Parker Kindred on drums. Fans who attend her show this week at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv on Saturday night will find that Wasser is in her element on stage.
“I feel like the live experience is really important. When I go to see a band, I want to see an amazing show,” said Wasser in a phone conversation from her Brooklyn home, a day before she was headed out for Europe for the tail end of 10-month tour in support of her latest album The Deep Field.
“Now the only way to make money is to tour – you don’t make money off of recorded music any more with royalties, at least not like you used to. And that’s a shame.
But I’m not so upset about the fact that playing live is the only way to go – I love playing live and I love the guys I play with. It’s hard on the road, I’m not going to lie, but I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. I’ll take it!” Wasser’s love affair with music began at a young age growing up in Connecticut with immersion in classical music and piano and violin lessons. Attending Boston University as an early admittance story to study under the renowned Yuri Mazurkevich, Wasser would play classical music by day and delve into the thriving indie alternative music scene in Boston by night.
“It never felt strange to me, that they were two different worlds – I saw them as part of the same world,” said Wasser.
“Growing up, I would go to the hardcore and punk shows and then go and play Mahler. They’re both very emotional kinds of music.
“Even though I was studying classical music in Boston, as soon as I arrived there, I tried to find other musical projects and took on every opportunity. For example, I answered an ad in the paper from Berkelee School of Music engineering students – they had no violin students there and needed to get experience recording strings, so I would go in and play for them.”
IN ADDITION to playing with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, she also joined a succession of indie rock bands, making a name for herself with her aggressive electric violin playing. That led to her joining The Dambuilders, a tuneful band of rockers who were signed to Atlantic Records and achieved some national success in the US with their single “Shrine” from the 1994 album Encendedor. The band eventually broke up in 1997.
“I look back with fondness on that period because I really loved the people I played with. Certainly, there were good and bad things about the ‘90s, and all the huge amount of money being spent to sign bands on major labels. Amazingly, I was able to mostly live off being in the band for a while, which is rare and pretty great,” said Wasser.
“But what went with that was this seeming incomprehension by the record label of what to do with a band like ours. They were well meaning but they had us go out on the road with these really mainstream bands and there was very little overlap with our audiences. Their fans wanted to hear the hits from their band and didn’t care very much about our music. And our fans were going, ‘what are you doing playing with this band? We don’t want to hear them.’” “But I see it now as, hey, we got to play music. A lot of people complain about how hard it is to play music for a career but you’re not going to hear it from me. It’s certainly not awful for me to be playing music.”
What was awful for Wasser was the 1997 drowning of her longtime boyfriend, singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley.
She dealt with the tragedy through music, first by recording an album with a friend of the couple, Dave Shouse, under the name of Those Bastard Souls, and later forming a band called Black Beetle with members of Buckley’s band.
“It was an attempt to survive that period and it really helped,” she said.
“Music is something that feels divine to me. It really saved me then and at other times in my life. The way I feel about music is the way people who describe as being saved by a higher power must feel.”
That feeling continued when Wasser was asked to join Antony and the Johnsons in 1999 and worked with them on their acclaimed album I Am a Bird Now. In between playing with that band and doing prolific session work for the cream of the rock world, Wasser decided in 2002 to start her own project. The first incarnation of Joan as Police Woman appeared, with an EP being released two years later. However, another lull to her budding solo career occurred when Rufus Wainwright asked her to join his band in 2004.
By the following year, Wasser was back to concentrating on her own band, enriched by the experience of playing with some of the greats of rock in the studio and on tour.
“People like Elton John and Sheryl Crow are just highly professional. There’s no messing around with them – but they’re also highly likeable,” she said.
“I didn’t have a huge amount of interaction with either of them in the studio, because it was so businesslike – they both make use of time well and know what they want. With Sheryl Crow, I was part of a larger ensemble, so I wasn’t in any position to be suggesting a change in my part or a telling her what I thought. But generally, I’ve hardly ever been in a situation when I’m working on someone’s album and the artist has not wanted my input.
Usually musicians are really excited to get other musicians in the room and hear their ideas of how to make the song better. So for me, I love seeing how other people work and seeing the leeway that they give or don’t give.
That’s the fascinating part about being a musician.”
Another plus is getting to travel the world, and Wasser is not only anticipating coming to Israel, she insisted on it.
“I actually went out of my way to set up the Israel show,” she said. “I’ve wanted to see the country for so long. When we were planning this last part of the tour, I said to my agent, ‘can we please end this tour in Israel?’” Wasser is getting her wish, and if you’re a fan of intelligent rock & roll played with spirit and humor, seeing Joan as Police Woman on Saturday night will also make your wishes come true.