It’s no surprise that Joan Wasser is an inspiring and charismatic woman. Throughout her music career, she has presented intimate and stunning records. Her latest effort, Damned Devotion finds Joan at her rawest and more fascinating form, always sounding fresh and unique. We caught up with Joan to talk about this mesmerizing new record and how’s it been like to be in the US right now.
It’s been a long journey for you in the music industry since the 1990s. What have you learn over these years that you think it’s the most important to you as an artist?
The most important thing as an artist for me is to stay true to my own ideas of what is beautiful in music. Trying to imagine what the industry, the public or anyone wants or needs more in music for me is never gonna work, I just have to always make what I think is beautiful. People tell me a lot, “You don’t fit in any category.” Actually for me that’s a great thing, but it makes it sort of difficult for people to place my music or what to do with it, but as an artist, creating your own world of what you feel is beautiful. I think that’s the most important thing.
You’ve collaborated with a number of amazing artists, including Lou Reed, Sufjan Stevens, and RZA. What did you take from those experiences?
For me in general, really learn to listen. If something has really deepened my appreciation and I think my ability to make music, because there’s different kinds of listening, you know? I try to really listen to whoever I’m working with, to what they’re saying, but also observe how they work and observe what works for them and what doesn’t in collaborating. But I think in general, it’s like you have to just stay your course, whatever it is that you’re doing and be true to your idea of art. I feel like it’s just something that is universal about art in general, in writing, in visual art and in anything.
You’ve just released your new album, Damned Devotion, which showcases a mesmerizing blend of moody and atmospheric classic soul, R&B and pop tunes. What was the writing process this time around?
It’s interesting because this record was written mostly as experiments with making beats. I love making beats. I love listening to that part of music, but I didn’t know if it would work with Joan As Police Woman format and if I could integrate that into my writing and my work. I started a lot of the songs at my home studio and I was writing songs to beats. They were songs that I wasn’t thinking necessarily anyone would hear. I wasn’t thinking about anyone else and I was just putting exactly what I wanted to do in the songs, because maybe no one would ever hear them, you know? I was saying exactly what I wanted to say and I was taking chances. I was just seeing what it would sound like if I was using beats rather than starting with bringing the song to a band and sort of writing a different way. After I had made a lot of these demos, one of my friends – who I was writing a film score with – he kept saying, “What are you working on? I want to hear what you’re working on!” and I hadn’t really played these pieces for many people, but I played it for him. He was very responsive, very supportive and loved it. I said to him, “This is what I’ve been doing and I have to start writing my record soon.” [laughs] He just said, “Well, you already have your record here.” It was something that I was hoping, but I didn’t want to maybe allow myself to think that yet because I wasn’t certain about how I felt about it. From there, I had Parker Kindred – an amazing musician and singer – playing drums over it and that friend that I was talking about, Thomas Bartlett, he did a lot of keys. I did a million overdubs myself and lots of singing in the background. I just developed the record from there. There are a few songs that are recorded the way that I used to record with the band, which is going into the studio, but a lot of the songs are definitely recorded in a different way.
So this record wasn’t planned at all, it just happened.
Yeah. I mean, it’s not like that on my previous records I’m thinking about what people want. That’s not the point of my writing ever, but somewhere when I’ve been thinking about to the record as a whole, I’m thinking like, “Oh, what does this record need? Does it need a more up song? Does it need a more poppy song?” Just trying to think about how will this record be well rounded, you know? With this, I’ve never even got to those questions because I was like, “I don’t care if it’s well rounded.” [laughs] This is what it is.
I love the photo of you on the album’s cover. What was the idea behind that photo?
I wanted a photo that was mostly a shadow and dark, but with just a very little part of me exposed like the Vermeer and Rembrandt portraits. My friend, who’s a photographer and who I’ve done a lot of photos with, we worked it together until we figured out how to make that work.
Last year you went to Women’s March in Washington DC – one day after the inauguration of Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump. The track “The Silence” has protest votes [“My body, my choice!” / “Her body, her choice!”] that you recorded that day. Tell us more about that day and the writing of this song.
This song started as a song about interpersonal communication, but then as I continued to write it, it became about the bigger picture as well. I mean, it’s all the same ultimately. That march was a really necessary for my country, that’s for sure. We were all in shock. No one I knew even considered that this unmentionable person that has stolen the election would be possible. There’s no way, so we all felt robbed and scared. To meet up there with tons of women, but also a lot of men, it was very important for us in general. But then also the amount of people that came was overwhelming, because protesting something that doesn’t happen like it used to and the fact that people were flying in from all over, at that moment was so necessary for everyone to not perish in the state of total depression and anxiety, you know? It was helpful and it showed what could happen.
How are things right now in the USA?
Personally, I’m still in shock. This is no news for anyone. Every day there’s another assault on humanity and insult to just kindness. I feel like every day there’s a good reason to get that “person” out of the office and the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is very scary to me, because I feel like people get used to this insanity. That can’t happen because we can’t get used to this. This is not right and it’s very easy to fall into a feeling of helplessness, which is also scary because of course we cannot allow that to take over. We’re not helpless and the more we talk about everything, the better it will be for all of us. We just have to keep the dialogue up and keep our voices very loud.
“We’re not helpless and the more we talk about everything, the better it will be for all of us. We just have to keep the dialogue up and keep our voices very loud.”
You’ve recently released a new video for the single “Tell Me”. It was directed by Brian Crano and you get to play half a dozen different personas. What was the concept behind this video?
[Laughs] Well, before I met Brian, he had been using my music in all of his films, so he was a fan of my work. We just got to be friends through doing this and he got to know me who I am as a person. None of those wings I bought, I had all those already. I do to have a lot of people in me that I express through the visual. He sort of used that for the concept of the video and I’m asking someone else to tell me what they want and what they need, but also I have to ask myself the same thing. He got that whole a part in there where I’m like yelling at myself and I’m angry at myself. That’s very real, I’m very hard on myself. At one point it’s like I’m holding my own heart and I’m just eating it, you know? It’s like I’m devouring myself. [laughs]
One of the personas, you are wearing a white sweater. That one looks like the most normal persona comparing to the other ones.
It’s funny that you mentioned that because that was the only thing that they had to go out and buy, I didn’t own that sweater. Brian kept talking about, “This is the innocent you.” [laughs] It’s funny because I do have a lot of innocence and I think some of it comes out in my music, but in order to live in this world and also to sort of exist honestly as a woman in this world, I have definitely in my life assume some very tough personality traits to protect myself, especially in the older days, I was always the only woman on the road and that gets tiring and challenging. It was interesting because I was kind of like, “What is this? I don’t really understand this character. Am I a child?” I am sort of a child, you know and I do have that sort of joy in me and it definitely comes out, but I have to feel safe enough for that to come out. I don’t know if the child and the innocence really looks like that to me, but that part of me is definitely something that I have worked for a long time to express more, to allow to come out. Um, yeah, so that’s of course, of course, what you, you, you, you, you mentioned that because uh, I mean that’s just very astute very far though.
You scored Brian’s new film, Permission, which is available now. What can you tell us more about that?
It was great. I loved doing that kind of work and I did it with my good friend who I mentioned, Thomas Bartlett. He’s just like one of my favorite people ever to work with and he is so much of the sound of this record. His keyboard playing is just my favorite. He’s incredible. It was really fun. It was great. The whole situation was a really positive.
Now that you’ve released your new album, what else do you have coming up in 2018?
I will be going on to an extensive tour. The tour starts in Europe on March 2nd and then it goes through the UK to April 26th and then I am desperate to make it to Portugal, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Those dates are in progress. There’s like summer festivals and stuff, so that will be most of my next six months. In the meantime, I’m also in the middle of a working on a second cover’s record and I’ve already started recording my next record. [laughs] When I finish songs, I record them because I don’t want to lose the freshness. Over the next few years, Benjamin Lazar Davis and I will be also working on a new record. We’ve already started that and we are working on it when we both have time.
Overall, you are definitely an inspiration for women all over the world. What advice would you give to them right now?
Talk about your feelings with your friends. Talk about what’s going on. Don’t keep it inside because men need to know and men want to know. They just don’t know because they haven’t been told often. I would just say, stay vocal!