Joan As Police Woman

Joan As Police Woman – Joanthology Tour

Joan Wasser is positively delightful to talk with. For someone who has no doubt seen some things in her almost thirty years of making music, there is no sense of jadedness, no hint of too-cool-for-school. She is positive and energetic, quirky and thoughtful.

Her musical pedigree is almost unmatched. Her associations and connections, vast and many, are well-documented. Mentored by Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, long-term partner to Jeff Buckley until his untimely passing, close friends with Elliott Smith until his, and musical collaborator with (including but not limited to): Elton John, Beck, Laurie Anderson, Sufjan Stevens, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Antony and the Johnsons, Sheryl Crow, Scissor Sisters and Sparklehorse.

With the name-dropping out of the way – a seemingly obligatory inclusion when writing about Joan Wasser AKA Joan As Police Woman – she is also hugely talented, critically-acclaimed, highly accomplished and, to reiterate, she is a positively delightful person.

A classically trained violinist who would play at the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, she became disillusioned with playing classical music and joined punk bands, adding to her repertoire the guitar and keyboard. She played with several bands to great acclaim until 2002, when she stepped out as a solo artist with a name partly borrowed from a TV series from the mid-seventies.

Since then, as Joan As Police Woman, she has released eight studio albums, the most recent of which is Joanthology. Used to playing with band in tow, Joan is performing several intimate solo shows around Australia, including a very special one at Tanks Arts Centre this October.

Ahead of her visit to Cairns, NQMP took a moment to chat about the tour, dirty bathtubs, Game of Thrones and politics.

NQMP: So you’re gracing Cairns on the back of releasing Joanthology, which someone somewhere called a ‘3-disc extravaganza’. It’s a very generous release. Can you tell me a little bit about planning behind it, and the decision to release it?

JAPW: To tell you truth, when it was suggested to me to do an anthology I was horrified! I thought it was a terrible idea. And I was shown these delightful examples of incredible anthologies of other artists, and how they continued their careers afterwards. I’m still not convinced but I gave in anyway because I’ve learned I have to trust others. I am very thankful that people talked me into doing it because it’s been well-received and I’m so grateful for that. But I definitely was a doubter about it from the top.

NQMP: There’s a lot to it. New tracks, old tracks, a whole live disc…

JAPW: You know, it seems that people always tell me, ‘Oh I love this record of yours’, like, one record they got really into and really homed in on. Usually the record they found me through. I can relate to that; I have that too with so many artists. Artists I love and I don’t even know their other work, so I guess I wanted to give an overview of what’s there in case anyone wanted to explore other records. And then I recorded some new stuff and put some B-sides on there.

I had an entire… I mean if I released all of it’d be three discs, only of Live at the BBC. So, I had this live stuff, which is really, really fun.

NQMP: It’s really beautiful.

JAPW: Well it’s so nice that they do it. I just wanted to honour them for doing that. You know, it’s a labour of love. Recording-wise, in a radio station, is actually not easy. So there’s the whole disc of that.

NQMP: The cover art is terrific. On the front you’re applying makeup, cool and thoughtful and badarse and there’s also a shot of you in a little blue bathtub which, if you don’t mind me saying, has the general dirtiness of almost every sharehouse bathtub I’ve seen. Can you tell me a bit about those photos and that time of life, and how they made it onto the covers of this release?

JAPW: Ha, oh yes that’s right. Well I had started my solo project… so those photos were taken within a year of me starting my solo project. And my friend Adrian Isom said, ‘I need to take some photos of you’ and she’s a friend so I thought ‘ok cool fun’. And, you know, there’s so many sexy bathtub photos of actresses. And as you said it actually was a sharehouse and I have so many fond memories of that place, but it had a tiny bathtub and, oh, it was so filthy. Even when you tried to clean it… it was uncleanable. Nothing you could do to make it clean, or even look clean. So I wanted to get a photo in that tub that was the opposite of luxurious.  You know, it was Brooklyn. When I moved to Brooklyn it wasn’t hip. Laughs. I moved there twenty-five years ago.

NQMP: Well, you helped make it hip right?

JAPW: Ha oh that’s right, everyone was like ‘I heard Joan As Policewoman is living there, let’s go!”.

So yeah, it was definitely a document of the time that was… you know what, it was pretty filthy in a lot of ways. Brooklyn was filthy, the tub was filthy, it was a messy time, I was finding my feet in a way that was definitely not perfect. At times it was awkward. I was learning how to sing, I was super uncomfortable. I was playing live, two instruments that I couldn’t play in my opinion- the keys and guitar. I studied classical violin and I could do that, you know, but then, and now, any instrument that I play, no matter how good I might get at it, I will always be (thinking I’m) awful. Back then, things were… kind of like that bathtub.

NQMP: Ha, there’s an analogy there and I like it. Your music videos are also all pretty spectacular, often combining fashion, choreography, the cinematography is always tight… they’re just all very realized pieces. How involved are you in their making?

JAPW: Well first of all thank you for noticing! You know… I’m someone… I know I’m not the norm but I never… I rarely look at music videos. I rarely look at television. If I see a movie, I’ll see it at a theatre or on the plane. I’m kind of a weirdo. People will talk about Lord of the Rings, oh wait no…

NQMP: Game of Thrones?

JAPW: Yes, Game of Thrones!

NQMP: Have you seen it?

JAPW: No, I haven’t! Have you?

NQMP: No, nor me. There has to be a couple of us.

JAPW: Ha, thank God for you! One other. There are two now.

NQMP: I have this idea that it might be like Day of the Triffids, and the handful of people on the earth that haven’t seen Game of Thrones, one day will be the only ones that can see, and everyone else has gone blind. So, you know, hold off for humanity.

JAPW: Haha yes! I will, because I just have no interest. That’s a thing though. But yeah, where was I..?

NQMP: Music videos.

JAPW: Yes, well I’m sort of a purist in that I want people to make their own images from the music, but this is not how the world works. So I have to make videos. And making videos is really fun, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve got to be funny or weird. They have to be something that I wouldn’t expect to see. When you have a woman singing in a band, often, I get a lot of treatments for every song that I’m gearing up to make a video for and it’s like – “Joan is in a long flowing dress at the top of a mountain and the wind…” *laughs* you know, and I will NEVER make that video.

But, yes, I’m very involved. I’m very rarely the person that has the concept, I am just the person that says “YES! This freak is going to make my video because they are brilliant and they are seeing something that I would never see but that I love”. I really appreciate the vision of all the people that have made videos for me because, you know, they’re the ones that have come up with these amazing concepts.

NQMP: You were in Australia earlier in the year with full band. This next run of the tour has you playing solo, keys and guitar. What is involved for you in translating the songs from their recorded, band version to solo?

JAPW: That’s really something important to me. As you’ve posed the question, inherent in that, I think, is that the way I present the song with the band is not necessarily the best way to present it solo. There’s also some songs, earlier songs, that people want to hear, that I don’t really feel that something worked, the guitar or whatever, so then I have to figure out a way to play the song, in a way that people want to hear it, and how I want to present it. So that’s actually really fun for me to have that challenge.

NQMP: How does playing solo suit you, versus with the band?

JAPW: I’ll probably take it off the instrument I recorded it on and play it on the other one and break it down and if I want to extend anything, I can float it out. I can stop in the middle and give someone a cough drop or whatever. And you know, I also don’t have to worry about embarrassing the band. I get to work into and with the arrangement and I find that really fun. It’s like covering my own songs.

Also I love communicating with other musicians on stage, it’s so much fun to part of an ensemble. And I was thinking it’d be lonely on stage by myself. But the fact is, I’m lonely anyway. It’s fine. It’s fine being lonely on stage, it’s how I am anyway

NQMP: And off stage, how does the band/solo touring compare?

JAPW: They’re really such different animals. The band I toured with for the last record was just smashing and we all got along so well. Touring, it’s really fun and it’s really hard. You’re living with these people- you’re adults living in like, summer camp. Twenty-four hours a day. So finding the right balance of people is so important. And we had that. So I was actually a bit worried about touring solo because last time we’d found this perfect equilibrium and we’d pretty much just laughed all tour, which is what you need when you haven’t slept right in three or four weeks.

Usually I tour with the same two people that I love, and it’s really mellow. And the guys, they’re great, they’re all adults, but there’s a part of me always making kind of sure they’re happy. Whereas touring solo I don’t have to do that. I guess I’m not expending as much energy off stage, which leaves more for on stage.

NQMP: In addition to your own impressive body of work, you’ve collaborated with some very notable acts. Is there a community of sorts, of these past collaborators, and do you follow each other’s work?

JAPW: Yeah, I do. I’m so thankful for my friends. I really care about always putting my energy into my friendships. I stay in touch with almost everyone I’ve worked with. And, I mean, we need to support each other as well. It’s a crazy world. The way music, the whole system, has changed over a very short period of time has been profound and confusing and alarming and amazing and wonderful. That amount of change over that small period of time can be disconcerting to musicians and music makers and composers etc. In New York City there are so many incredible musicians, many of whom don’t have names but are just outrageously talented. And, you know, they’re playing like, wind instruments, so they’re not going to get this attention. But they are making the song sound the way it does, colouring the song in a way that brings you in and makes you want to listen. So yes, it’s very important to stay in touch with all of the folks. It’s also really fun to see them grow and what they do with music and that’s all very cool.

NQMP: In your song ‘The Silence’, you sing: ‘it’s the silence that’s dulling the blade’, which as I understand it is to say that by not standing up to something, your chance to fight it is diminishing.  Like, don’t delay, speak up. How has your fighting spirit changed over the years? Once a punk always a punk?

JAPW: Well I’ve always had a distaste for authority. And that has changed. I feel like I really used to fight the wrong things, the wrong people, the wrong ideas. Not that I know what to fight for now, but I think I know more of what not to fight for. I do know that putting the fighting stuff into music is a thing that benefits not only me but other people, as a way to vocalise the feelings that we have. Certainly for me, in my country, there’s a feeling of extreme hopelessness, of feeling that you have no power. But you know, all this disdain, like this is how we feel all the time and making sure everyone knows. We’ve gotten so comfortable in that and it’s easy to be armchair liberals or whatever. It clearly doesn’t work though, does it? It fails, miserably.

I’m thankful to know people getting actually involved in politics. I mean it’s this thing (politics) that we imagined being the worst possible place to exist because it is so rancid. But what we need is the people who care to get involved. I’m grateful to those people.

NQMP: You mentioned hopelessness, which reminded me of your friend and collaborator Anohni’s first record a few years back. She was in Australia a few years ago and made the trip to Western Australia to march with a local community to protest a proposed uranium mine.

JAPW: Oh yes I know about this, she told me all about it!

NQMP: Well I guess this brings some things together. I’m curious to know your stance on the idea of leveraging celebrity, for want of a better term, and using music, to bring attention to issues that you feel are important. Is it something that, say on one end of the spectrum, is a moral obligation, or, in contrast and on the other end of the spectrum, something you think shouldn’t be done? And sorry, this was a convoluted way of asking a question and I’ve confused myself a bit.

JAPW: I mean, if you feel something, say it. Whether you’re a celebrity or not. I think it’s great to use your power to be vocal about you feel. The only thing we have is our communication with one another. It’s the only thing we have. I can’t say what’s right for anyone else. Is it someone else’s moral obligation? No. I just believe that if you feel something that you think is important, then it’s important to share that. If you have a platform or can reach a lot of people, even better.

NQMP: Well you can’t argue with that.

JAPW: *Laughs* I’m sure someone will find a way.

Jake Gries

Joan As Policewoman performs at Tanks Arts Centre on October 19th.

Tickets available through Ticketlink

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