I chat to the incomparable Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman, from her home studio in Brooklyn
She is friendly and open, and when she hears the name of this publication she lets out a huge laugh and says how excited she is to be a part of it, “because, hello, lesbians are on the loose. Yes they are!”
Tell me about your new song Dream On Me—was that recorded at home or in a studio?
I do most things both at home and in the studio. I did Dream On Me at three studios; here at my home studio, at a studio that I made many of my records at called Trout Recording, which is a really incredible studio with tonnes of amazing vintage gear.
I also recorded at Reservoir Studios at midtown Manhattan because I had my friend Thomas Bartlett play some keys on it. Like many of my tracks I did it at a bunch of different studios.
Does the place that you record change the sound and the mood of the song?
Yeah definitely! I have restrictions here. I don’t do drums here (also I’m not a drummer!) So any drums I put down will be minimal percussion or with some kind of programming. To do drums I go into Trout Recordings, so that always adds an amazing element. I had Parker Kindred who I worked with for many many years—I had him put drums down on the track. I did the vocals here at my place which is nice because it’s very relaxed and I’m by myself so it’s very comfortable and allows vocals to be very free.
I really loved the lyrics of Dream On Me, the story elements. Do you tend to write from personal experience or draw more on fiction?
I don’t know if I believe that anything is ever fiction. I do only write from personal experience, but some of that I have observed in other people. All of it my own personal life whether it’s about me or not because obviously I’m writing it, and that’s where it’s gonna ring the most true. I don’t write science fiction but I don’t know if I would know how to write anything outside of my experience.
The songs do feel very personal. Do you have boundaries in place for what you keep for yourself and what you choose to share with the world?
I take it situation by situation, but when I’m writing I don’t edit the original material. Often when I finish a song I think “this is too personal, this is gonna be really hard to sing”, mostly because it makes me feel me too vulnerable. But when I start having thoughts like that, immediately I snap into the mindset that if there’s something making me too vulnerable, that’s pretty much the most important thing that I’ll be singing about. I really try to get it all out there.
In terms of my personal life, I definitely try to keep some of that to myself. Often people feel like they know me when they’ve heard my music, and that is partially true—they do know me to a certain extent. People will assume a song is about a certain thing, and the thing that’s great about music and art, in general, is that when I’m finished and put it out there, in some ways I don’t really own it anymore. Anyone who wants to interpret my music in any way, it’s there for them.
It’s very interesting to meet people who say they had the same experience, but it will really have nothing to do with the song that I wrote… but that’s great! Because now that person owns that song for themselves.
That’s really interesting, because when I listened to one of your most popular songs, Eternal Flame, I thought of my own queer relationship, and read that it actually is about your relationship with a woman. Do you define yourself as being queer?
Is that identity something you explore in your music?
It’s part of my life so I don’t even think about it as being something I’m exploring, because it’s who I am. Like Eternal Flame, it gets explored all the time without my permission, because it’s part of me. Queerness and gender are endlessly fascinating to me, so they’ll definitely come out in the words.
Queerness and gender are especially poignant topics to explore, especially given the social politics of America right now.
Yeah and the social politics of the world. Of the US, absolutely, but it’s everywhere!
You’ve worked with a lot of queer artists like Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons, and Rufus Wainwright. What kind of impression have queer artists had on your own sound?
I have no idea! There’s so much queerness in music and art, and all around me all the time. I always loved David Bowie and Lou Reed and The Smiths and whoever else, but there’s so much queerness here in New York, and there’s so much art. Does it affect my music? I’m sure it does, but I’m not sure how. It’s impossible to place.
Can you tell me about your upcoming tour?
I was on tour all of last year for the record Damn Devotion. Actually I’m sort of finishing the Damn Devotion tour on the Australia tour. It’s really exciting because the band that I did all these recent shows with is my favourite band. And we just had so much fun, we made music that really affected me every night, so I’m very happy that I get to do it again in Australia. I was also really happy because the Melbourne shows were sold out! I added a solo show at the end and now that’s also sold out.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to in Australia?
Yes! You guys live a good life there. The crowds there are really amazing—there’s a lot of gratitude that you’ve travelled an insane amount of time to get there. There’s amazing food and amazing sites. This trip that we’re doing is really fast, so there’s not going to be that much time for me to see stuff, but it’s always a pleasure to play there. We’re all really looking forward to it.
And what are you working on at the moment?
There’s always things that I’m focusing on. I’m working on a second cover record, and I just scored a pilot for a TV show. I just played in Argentina, Buenos Aires, and I’m about to go to London to partake in Africa Express, a programme that was started by Damon Albarn from Blur and Ian Birrell who is an amazing journalist there in London. They take musicians to different parts of Africa to collaborate with musicians there. In 2010 I went to Ethiopia with them, and this time there’s a meeting in London and we’re going to hang out with some of the African population in London itself. What happens is you meet up, you collaborate, and in three days there’s a show (which is already sold out and huge!) It’s exciting because you start from nothing and then—get ready—you’re going to be on a huge stage in three days.
And then after all that, I start a huge solo tour starting at the end of May! So there’s lots of stuff going on.
Are you always this busy?
I’m pretty much always this busy. So I’m always doing different musical projects or collaborating with people writing songs. I’m always really busy but that’s how I like my life. I don’t really say no to many things because I love experiencing life.
Joan is known for her open and giving relationship with fans, and assures me she’ll be at the merch stand after all her shows. If you’re lucky enough to attend one of her gigs, go say hello and introduce yourself, you won’t regret meeting this alt-rock goddess.