Hot as a Pepper

September 12, 2008


Raised in Norwalk, Conn., and trained from age 8 as a classical violinist, 38-year-old Joan Wasser hardly followed a conventional path toward becoming one of the most buzzed-about singers and songwriters on the current rock scene. Even after she left her studies at Boston University to immerse herself in the indie-rock world of the late '80s and early '90s, she was still a long way off from making her mark as a solo artist.

For a decade and a half, Wasser was best known as an in-demand session player, recording and touring with artists such as the Dambuilders and Mary Timony in Massachusetts before moving to New York to do the same with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, and Antony and the Johnsons. In between, she dated Jeff Buckley, and it was during the period when she was recovering from his death and performing with Antony Hegarty that she finally garnered the confidence to face a new musical challenge.

On a 2005 EP and the 2006 album "Real Life," Wasser largely put the violin aside as she picked up guitar and piano and began singing her own songs under the moniker Joan As Police Woman, with a larger-than-life persona matching the larger-than-life name inspired by a friend who said she seemed to be channeling Angie Dickinson as Sgt. Pepper Anderson in the '70s TV series "Police Woman." Now, Wasser is touring in support of her second Joan As Police Woman album, "To Survive," and we spoke as she prepared to return to Chicago this weekend.

Q: You reached a lot of people with your first proper studio album, "Real Life." Did you feel the burden of expectations when you went back into the studio? What were your goals on "To Survive"?

JW: Well, when I go in to record something, I try to have no expectations. I didn't have any specific ideas; I just wanted to make a record that moved on from my last record, and I really wanted to allow the music to find its way there rather than me trying to control where it was going. I made this one all at one time, which was the opposite of how I made "Real Life," which I made in pieces while coming off the road. I was looking forward to not having any time to reflect this time; I just had to make decisions right then, in the moment.

Q: Does the fact that you've worked with so many other musicians in so many different settings make it easier for you to be more open to whatever contributions people might make to your records?

JW: I just chose my favorite people to work with, and then I had a lot of them play on a lot of songs without allowing them to hear the songs beforehand, so they would just respond. A lot of times, it would take them a few takes because there aren't the most obvious chord changes and stuff, but then we just did a lot of editing where we would keep little tiny pieces of what they played, and often the first thing they played was best.

Q: You're a prolific songwriter. How do you know when you've written a keeper?

JW: I'm one of those people where if I've written a song, then I play it the next day at the show, even if I have to read the lyrics off a piece of paper and mess up the piano part or whatever. I'm just desperate to get it out. I like to see if it affects people and see what happens in the moment of the performance, which can really be different than what you expected or what happened with the door closed in your room. A lot of times, it was the songs that people responded to the most that made it to the album, but then I also really rely on my producer, Bryce Goggin, who I trust so much.

Q: Goggin has worked with artists ranging from Pavement to Sean Lennon and from Sebadoh to Phish. How did you link up with him?

JW: I was playing in a band called Those Bastard Souls that Dave Shouse from the Grifters put together. We were making the second record, "Debt and Departure," and we had Bryce mix it, and I really liked the way he worked -- he made decisions really quickly, which was very easy and unlike any other producer I had worked with. So I played him a little bit of the stuff that I had started working on, and I was very unsure of my songwriting at that point and very scared. He said, "Well, this stuff sounds great; when you're ready to make your solo record, come do it with me."

Q: You talk about being unsure of your songwriting in the beginning, but I think a lot of fans are surprised by that, given your self-confidence onstage.

JW: I am very confident, but having confidence doesn't mean that you have good self-esteem. I definitely felt very comfortable playing violin; it was something I studied seriously and was very disciplined with. Completely changing instruments, learning how to sing and writing your own songs was another story. I had been around a lot of pretty exceptional singers and songwriters, and I think a lot of times I would compare, and that's the worst thing for any artist, though you really can't help doing it in the beginning. So I would say, "Oh, this is not a Neil Young song." Eventually, you get to a point where you say, "No, it's not, but it is my song." You do it when you're ready to do it, and I was not ready to do it earlier than I did.