6th April 2005 in the morning, Bristol. The weather is kind of unsure and I’m waiting for a phone call from Joan Wasser, joanaspolicewoman, to confirm our meeting this afternoon before her opening set at the Rufus Wainwright gig at the Colston Hall. It finally arrives after 10am. Joan speaks with a very soft East Coast American accent and announces her day is going to be hectic.
We arrange to meet at the venue after soundcheck, say around late afternoon… to end up escaping to a nearby pub only half an hour before she’s due on stage. Hectic, she said?
Cat On The Wall: Now, let’s start with your most recent stuff. You recorded your EP last year….
Joan Wasser: Well, a while ago actually. It was released last year but I recorded it probably a year and a half ago. 2 years to a year and a half ago.
COTW: How did you come to work with producer Bryce Goggin?
JW: I was recording a record with a band called Those Bastards and he mixed the record. He didn’t record it he just mixed it and I just loved him. I loved his whole way. He’s very dry and he’s very certain but receptive to your comments. He’s just very sensitive musically and has a good idea of what is supposed to happen, very subtle. Once we had that experience together, of him mixing that record, we both said “OK, we’re going to work together”. So then when I wanted to record my own music I called him and he was like “great, come on over”!
COTW: Is that something that you tend to do, when you click with other musicians, you strike a friendship…
JW: Yeah, definitely! It’s so important the sort of relationship you have with the people you work with. That’s also true for the people in my band. It’s really everything because you’re doing something and you’re making something together. Y’know it’s not just ME! I mean, it’s my idea but you have to have people that want to flow with you. They have to just be open to you and you be open to them.
COTW: Joanaspolicewoman is presented as your own solo project, I know it’s not just that…
JW: It is just that.
COTW: So it’s just about you, you, you!
JW: I write all the music and I perform solo a lot. I have different situations of how I present it like tonight I’ll be solo. I did for a while have a drummer, Ben Perowsky, he’s played with so many people throughout the years. But he is my permanent drummer, I don’t use any other drummer. We played as a duo for a while, then I got a bass player Rainy Orteca and we played for a while. Now when I play live in a larger setting I have two violinists play with me! But it’s my thing, my music.
COTW: You’ve been in several bands…
JW: That’s what makes it different! In the bands it’s like a collective thing and this is just my thing.
COTW: There’s one band that you’re most well known for – The Dambuilders…
JW: That was 1990 to 1997. It was like a pop band with punk and arty stuff. I really mostly only played violin. I wasn’t writing songs really at that time, we were writing songs together but I wasn’t writing my own songs, I wasn’t singing. I was playing violin through this big amp that made it very loud, very growling, very aggressive. I sort of held the rthym guitar role even though I was playing violin – not that kind of pretty fluffy violin stuff. The guitarist was playing more high stuff, I was playing in the middle between the bass and the guitar. The bassist sang and then there was the drummer so it was a four piece. We did a lot of touring, we had a great time.
COTW: Why did it come to an end?
JW: It came to an end because we’d had seven years of playing together. We’d put out a lot of records, a bunch of records on major labels. It was just sort of like….
COTW: You’d come full circle? A seven-year itch!
JW: Exactly! I wanted to do my own thing and explore other stuff. The guitarist, he really wanted to be a producer. It wasn’t a horrible break up.
COTW: You started playing the violin at the age of eight. You were possibly the first and last to lead your youth orchestra with a platinum Mohawk! How old were you when you did that?
JW: I was 13!
COTW: They let you do that?
JW: They let me? I just did it!! [laughs] I just do it you know and then I deal with it afterwards! They were definitely not very happy about it, but you know…
COTW: So what was your background? How does a 13-year old violin player dress like a punk and get away with it?
JW: I loved all kinds of music, I loved punk rock so much.
COTW: Was it accepted at home?
JW: My parents were very accepting! I wasn’t a bad kid I just had crazy hair! I was just very rebellious towards the world. Not so much towards them, I’ve always liked them. When I was very young I was into Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. I did try to play Hendrix songs on the violin but I didn’t use my teeth or anything like that. I have known some violinists play with their teeth!
COTW: Where do you get your inspiration when songwriting?
JW: Y’know what I try to do is play the music first, I don’t really think of an idea then write a song about it. I mean I’ll have an idea sometimes but I won’t necessarily have words. When I make the music and the chords I just try to let the first thing that comes into my head… let that be the inspiration. Then do all the work later because I feel like the music and sound for me evokes a lot of ideas, words and stuff. I don’t really tell stories so much, I like poetry.
COTW: You mentioned not being a singer in previous bands. Did you not know you had a voice or did you just not want to use it?
JW: I sang a lot as a young person, then you hit puberty, then you stop! You stop doing anything embarrassing like singing! So I stopped for ages. I started doing a little bit of back ups in the Dam Builders and I was like “I wanna do this” so I started singing again. I did a band called Black Beetle, we actually made a record and never released it, may still come out. I sort of found my voice in that band and then I start playing solo shows where I would play mostly guitar and sing. I also start playing some piano and now I do both.
COTW: How did you get involved with Anthony and the Johnsons?
JW: I started playing with Anthony around 1999/2000 and he had drums, bass, piano, 3 piece strings (violin, viola and cello) and he’d just recently started the band and one of the violinist left… someone knew me and then I became a permanent member of the band. It’s amazing playing with him, he’s an incredible artist.
COTW: And you’re playing with Rufus Wainwright tonight. How did you become a permanent member of the live show?
JW: Same kind of thing. He needed someone that could sing and could play violin. There isn’t honestly a lot of people who sing and play violin. It’s not really at the same time! It’s just being able to sing a lot of complicated harmonies and play violin and play guitar! I did an audition and I got the job!
COTW: Is it difficult to switch from playing solo to fitting into an ensemble?
JW: I’ve played in bands and ensembles so I’m very used to that. It is sort of a role switch but it’s all music. I actually like being both the supportive member and the person that’s running the show. I like both things. It also teaches you how to be a better musician so it’s good for me.
COTW: Do you speak French?
JW: Naaawwwwoooo. [laughs] I took it in school but I’d never ever insult you by attempting to speak it.
COTW: We have to end it there, as I know you’ve got to prepare for the show. A final question for you: do you have any direction in your music or do you let it guide you?
JW: (She ponders for a moment on the question, unsure of how to answer it) It’s the way that I express myself so it’s always happening. I’m always doing something. I like communicating with anyone at anytime. I feel that music is such an important way to get your feelings across. It’s very connected to the whole world and the heavens – however you want to think of it because it isn’t tangible and you can’t just read it off a page. It’s a whole experience. That’s actually why I love live music so much as opposed to recorded music. It’s right there, it never happens again, it’s done. It happens, you experience it with other people then it’s all done. I like that!