“I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” declares Joan Wasser, and she’s just recorded the album that proves it. The Classic, the fourth album of originals by the uniquely charismatic artist known as Joan As Police Woman, builds on the creative impetus and success of its 2011 predecessor The Deep Field, on which Joan strove to create music rooted in an intimate, elemental and uplifting brand of soul combined with her own unique serene, torch-singing temperament, with a more liberated feel than ever before. The result is a perfect reflection of her efforts to address - and solve - personal issues and so reject the singer-songwriter’s traditional melancholic disposition for an unashamed lust for life. As graffiti in the artwork of her 2006 debut album Real Life read: “Evolve” and “Be Brave”.
The Classic is named after one of its ten tracks. “Part is to do with the way we recorded mostly live; the way records used to get made,” she explains. “But I wrote ‘The Classic’ itself as a classic girl-group doo wop song, and the lyric refers to classic old songs like Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘ Joy Inside My Tears’ and Danny & The Juniors’ ‘Rock’n’Roll Is Here To Stay’. And at the end, I spell out the name of the song, like Aretha Franklin did with ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’! The song begins ‘I am home in your arms’ and it’s solely joyful, expressing jubilation. Melancholy is still part of my life, but it’s no longer leeching energy from my life.”
Melancholy was a principal feature of Joan’s earlier work. Born in Maine, adopted by a couple in Connecticut, she learnt violin, studied in Boston and played with the university’s symphony orchestra before joining more raucous local bands, such as The Dambuilders. She graduated to playing in Antony Hegarty’s Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright’s band, whose combined piano balladry inspired her own music, while infusing it with her individual stripped-down-soul and torch-song approach. Her 2006 album debut Real Life was followed by To Survive (2008), written in the aftermath of her mother’s death; in 2009, she released an interim covers album simply called Cover, before The Deep Field confirmed Joan had started a full recovery and was determined to beat the blues. Which takes us to The Classic, where Joan reaches even further toward the light.
The title track, for example, includes a street-corner doo-wop bass vocal from fellow singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and a human beat-box backing from none other than US comedian extraordinaire Reggie Watts, which gives the track’s classic Fifties/Sixties vibe a more contemporary slant. It’s the album’s shortest, snappiest track, with the core ensemble of Joan plus her JAPW cohorts Tyler Wood (keyboards) and Parker Kindred (drums), plus Oren Bloedow (bass and sharing guitar parts with Joan), tending toward longer, simmering and smouldering grooves: four songs last six or seven minutes. “I’ve previously cut off the outro’s rather than fade them out, as I was looking to be concise, but I personally love an extended play” she confesses. “I was feeling the inclusion of all the musical information. I hope folks will go with me on that.”
The two longest tracks, the increasingly dramatic ‘Good Together’ (which berates her ex-lover for being "nostalgic for something that never was” and then clandestinely begs for one more meeting at the bathhouse) and the more restrained slow-burn of ‘Get Direct’ are consecutive epics in the centre of The Classic. As Joan rightly says, “’Good Together’ is the hugest song on the album, and it didn’t feel right with anything else sequenced after except ‘Get Direct’, which is the hugest song in another way, it’s emotional and romantic in a ‘let’s quit the talking and get to getting down right now', way. It’s my take on Barry White.”
Ensuring that JAPW could make the album ‘happen’ in a natural fashion was a bit tougher. For starters, Joan was scheduled to record an album of duets with eminent UK singer-songwriter David Sylvian, who, years earlier, had contacted her about singing a duet for his brother Steve Jansen’s album (Slope). Sylvian subsequently co-sung two tracks on Joan’s second album, 2008’s To Survive, but soon after the pair begun a whole album together in 2011, Sylvian fell ill, and the project put on ice. Joan decided to embark on the follow-up to The Deep Field: “I didn’t have anything written as I’d put all my focus into the project with David, so I began seriously writing at the end of 2012, which scared the shit out of me. You can’t force creativity or inspiration, but thankfully, I found the music, it was there waiting for me, I was even a little peeved I had taken so long to tend to it.”
Further pressure was self-inflicted by deciding to break from the past, namely recording in the same Brooklyn studio with the same producer, Bryce Goggin. “I wanted to challenge myself,” Joan recalls. “On record, the band has sounded more contained and refined than when we play live, so we wanted to capture that energy, and we decided we’d try recording it ourselves. Tyler has amazing focus, incredible ears, is a great engineer and amazing producer; he and I ended up co-producing the album.
“We started in our practice space, the basement of our friend’s house in Williamsburg [Brooklyn], which is my favourite place to play, it’s more like a living room. We later recorded the horns and backing vocals in different studios over Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s a testament to Tyler's vision that he was able to deal with the different spaces but still keeping an over-arching idea of how to capture our sound.”
Of the crew that contributed to The Deep Field, Doug Wielselman returned to play horns while the backing vocalists were Michele Zayla, Toshi Reagon, Stephanie Mckay and Nathan Larson (the former Shudder To Think guitarist). The guests enrich an already kaleidoscopic palate of sound that contrasts with the much sparser, melancholic piano ballads of her earlier records. Leading off The Classic is ‘Witness’ with Joan’s own pizzicato string part on violin plus swaying horns and a chorus that just flies. Her no-nonsense lyric underlines the album’s level of emotional insight: “it’s about the stories I tell myself, that I get used to hearing to the point where I accept them as fact, even though they have no basis in reality. If I constantly tell myself how something won't work out because of some underlying fear, I've cut all opportunities to find what it is I might learn from the situation. It got to the point where I was driving myself mad. It was suggested to me by a friend that I could change my perspective, step outside the emotional roller coaster and begin to be the witness to the stories, to the emotions, rather than accepting them as fact.”
The reference to a pile driver and a shoe (“I will crack the motor / Jam my stiletto into that machine / Yeah I took the power / Got to kick myself out of the dream”) came from reality, “every morning at 7am, the pile driving would begin it's incessant pounding, due to the endless Brooklyn construction. It felt like a symbolic representation of what I’d been doing, pile driving this cruelty into myself. I dreamt that I went on to my roof, threw my red stiletto into the cog and stopped it!”
The following song ‘Holy City’ is the album’s prime Motown/Hi label-influenced pop fusion, a brilliantly instinctive lead single inspired by a visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and understanding people find ecstasy in different ways, from praying to making music. The track’s atmospheric closing scat-rap is from Reggie Watts: “he’s an incredibly inspired musician as well as being a comedic genius,” ventures Joan, “he challenges you to think much deeper, but in a way that’s subtle plus he’s so comfortable, natural and sensual in his body. I hadn’t known him personally, but I contacted him through mutual friends, and a week later, he was recording on my record with the freedom to do what he wanted. It felt very magical.”
After the following triple whammy of ‘The Classic’, ‘Good Together’ and ‘Get Direct’ comes the warm, brooding ‘What Would You Do’ (about “trusting your instinct, to step in when a friend is being self-destructive and no one else seems to have noticed”) that fades to a gorgeous, meditative coda of just Joan and baritone sax. ’New Years Day’ maintains the stark and poised mood with its exquisite pale strings and the acknowledgement that, “I've got to always challenge myself to admit my weaknesses. I can often behave like I'd be able to conquer anything and I've got to constantly remind myself and my pride to ask for help when I need it.”
Like ‘Holy City’, ‘Shame’ is funky, faster and festooned with horns, underlining the message from ‘Witness’ that, “we learn to trust ourselves. I wanted to write a song that mocked shame by making it a quick R-n-B gotsta-move-your-body tune.” The Classic draws to a close with the sultry, serene ballad ‘Stay’ and the finale ‘Ask Me’ that unexpectedly rocks a gentle reggae beat: “it was the treatment for the song that felt the most natural, the most buoyant. For me, it's the chocolate mousse at the end of the meal; the last words being 'Let's keep it going'.
As if Joan sub-consciously knew that things would work out, her decision to remain single for as long as she did – “to calm the fuck down; chill the fuck out, and reconnect to myself” - were rewarded by recently meeting, “a magical man. Being on my own for a long time - the longest since I was 12, I do believe! - was really challenging and ultimately the best thing I could ever have done.”
She also has a magical album that’s come out of the process. It even has a cover photo that her pal Antony Hegarty thinks finally reflects her true “essence”, as she looks directly into the camera for a change, the way she has confronted her feelings all the way through this album. Antony will doubtless also think Joan As Police Woman has achieved their best album yet: musically, spiritually and emotionally, The Classic is a tour de force, and like the best soul music, has an uplifting emotional and satisfying pay-off – to know we’re alive, facing the future, and working it out.