Joan Wasser likes to feel uncomfortable. This might not be obvious when listening to the Brooklyn-based musician for the first time, with her love of 70s soul and sultry delivery recently seeing her dubbed the alt-Adele by The Guardian.
Yet under her stage name Joan As Police Woman she’s been pushing herself out of her musical comfort zone for the last decade. During this period she’s evolved from being a tortured torch singer to a smooth dance-floor soul chanteuse, recording with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Elton John.
It’s a collaborative spirit that resulted in her working with multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis on 2016’s Let It Be. Although not always successful, the electronic pop album did help to inform a new way of working.
“Ben and I got obsessive with the drum programming and it gave me a better feel for how to use it musically,” she notes. As a result of this, percussion became integral to the development of her fifth solo album Damned Devotion.
A handful of songs were composed the traditional way, with Wasser writing at the piano or the guitar before recording them with her band in the studio. It’s a method that sees the drums written around the vocal line in order to “take out as much harmonic filler as I can,” an effect that can be heard on the hopeless romanticism of ‘Warning Bell’.
This time round, however, she also experimented with programming at her home studio. “I didn’t know if I would feel that it fit on a Joan As Police Woman record but obviously decided that it did. I had Thomas Bartlett play keys and Parker Kindred play drums and sing over those tracks that I had started at my home studio.”
This method of work produced the minimal R&B of Silly Me, on which she continues her career-long exploration of heartbreak with a plaintive cry of “Why did I have to fall in love with you?”
She also introduced a third way of working, which was to create “songs from jams Parker and I played in our rehearsal space. He was on drums, myself on bass. I took the recordings of those jams, chopped them up and wrote songs from them.”
It’s a technique that resulted in one of the album’s strongest tracks, The Silence. Over a brooding sub-hip hop beat and ominous piano line, she directly addresses #MeToo with a sampled ‘my body / my choice’ chant from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. It “began as a song about interpersonal communication and slowly spread to include the bigger picture,” she explains.
“I had taken audio of the Women’s March on DC shortly after our current administration had taken office. It was a powerful and necessary place for us all to be. I needed it to be in the song. There is nothing more important these days to keep our voices loud and sharp.”
Staying free in your mind and your actions, staying curious, staying interested, being kind is how we will get through this mess.Joan As Police Woman
Addressing topical issues is unusual for an artist who’s most famous for her emotional breakdown of personal politics, with Damned Devotion tackling relationships and death (What Was It Like is a tribute to her late adoptive father).
“Being an artist alone is a political statement in these shameful times,” she counters. “I have written songs about politics before – Furious from To Survive, for instance. It’s all the same thing for me. Some artists are better at directly addressing politics. Staying free in your mind and your actions, staying curious, staying interested, being kind is how we will get through this mess.”
It’s a toxic political climate that seems to have informed the tone of Damned Devotion, which is notably darker than her last couple of releases. “Quite literally I created most of the record at night!” she laughs.
“Living in Brooklyn requires me to go under headphones after a certain hour. This is why drum programming is a good nocturnal creative outlet. It’s banging in your body but only you can hear it through your headphones. I recorded much of the record at my home studio between midnight and 6am, even some of the vocals. It all had to be quiet. It’s a place I’m in mentally anyway so the restriction suited my mind frame.
“I don’t feel like the record is so melancholic as it is serious, sober, direct, intimate.”
The notable exception to this mood is Steed (For Jean Genet), a lascivious slice of disco-funk sung in a breathy falsetto. Other than a lyrical reference to the 1943 novel Our Lady Of The Flowers, it’s hard to find a link between the French writer and the track’s sweat-soaked promise that, “You will ride it over and over and over.”
“I read a lot of Jean Genet at one point in my life,” she elaborates. “When Parker and I were jamming that song out, I started to sing the verse melody and Genet popped into my head. I wrote the lyrics around his life and work. I can only guess he entered my mind then as the groove we were playing felt like a no-wave disco song, maybe something you’d hear at a dance club. Gay men rule the dance floor, at least in NYC, and he is such a symbol of being out, vocal and free.”
It’s an undertone of celebration and positivity that pervades the album, despite it being loosely themed around the stark question of how to “live a devoted life without becoming obsessed or losing one’s mind”.
“This message is the way I live because I have no interest in being miserable in this one life I’ve got,” she muses. “I don’t expect anyone to adhere to the way I see things but my views are clear in my songs and the listener can take what they want from them. In all these themes, communication is key.”
This attitude has kept her constantly on her toes throughout her career, trying to challenge her music and the creative process. But where can she go from here to keep things fresh? “Maybe I’ll take up curling next,” she jokes. “That will certainly make me uncomfortable!”
Joan As Police Woman plays at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on April 20 and at Deershed Festival at Baldersby Park, North Yorkshire on Friday July 20.