Joan As Police Woman On Loss, Salvation & The Feel Of A Record

Heavy truths meet celebratory joy in the American singer's heavenly new album


Joan Wasser aka Joan as Police Woman. Photo / Lindsey Byrnes

If you’re not careful, life’s drudgery can often take over, clouding the big picture, and sucking up all your time and energy. Any dreams you hold pierced by the all-encompassing busy work and mundanity of your waking moments.

It’s this malaise that Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Police Woman, snaps you out of on Get My Bearings, the lead single from her recently released, brilliant new album, The Solution is Restless.

Over the song’s hypnotically syncopated groove Joan asks the pointed questions: What will you do? With the rest of your day? With the rest of your life? They’re big questions. They deserve big answers.

You don’t know the sun will rise tomorrow, she continues, before piercing the song’s meditative melancholy with its confronting wake-up call. The end’s the only thing we can count on.

It’s a heavy truth. We don’t tend to think about “the end” unless death comes calling — in one form or another.

Death doesn’t just hang over Joan’s album, it drives it in the form of the record’s shifting, shuffling, surprising drumbeats. These were performed by the 79-year-old Afrobeat pioneer and legendary sticksman Tony Allen, often cited as the world’s greatest drummer, during one of his final recording sessions before he died in 2020.

Indeed, the aforementioned song, Get My Bearings, is about dealing with her grief over the loss. What’s surprising is that while there are clouds over those bleak verses, celebratory joy shines through in its heavenly chorus. “I’m really glad to hear that you hear it that way,” Joan smiles. “It makes me feel like I did something right.”

That vibe permeates the record. Life, death and grief are ever-present, but it’s a joyous album. These two things would seem anathema, but Joan makes the disparate pairing work.

“I’m a person who has lost a lot of people in my life. Past the whole initial shock and trauma of it, there’s two ways to go with that,” she explains. “I can think, ‘I wish I had more time with them, it’s so awful they’re not here, how could this have happened? It’s a tragedy . . . ’, there’s that line of thinking.

“The other line of thinking is, ‘I’m so glad I had the time I did with that person. I can conjure them at any point, I can even ask them questions and hear how they would answer. This is not denying death or denying the incredible grief that I — and I think anyone who’s lost people close to them — will feel their whole lives. That never really goes away. But in order to honour them, at this point, it’s got to be joy.”

“They’d be so mad at me if I was just wallowing in sadness and grief,” she says. “The amount of time I have here is finite and I want to use it in the way that brings the best of me to the world.”

Music has been Joan’s salvation. In interviews over the years, she’s credited music with saving her own life more than once, and today she says that her exhaustive work on The Solution is Restless during New York’s Covid lockdown saved her mental state.

“When I hear music, some part of me allows it to take over and then I stop thinking. Really it’s about the thinking,” she explains. “I stop thinking about what I have to do today and tomorrow and the next day and what I didn’t get done and on and on, you know. I feel like I somehow give my permission to let all of that go and let the music take over.”

It’s through this process, this being swept up in the feeling and emotion of the music, that takes her to a place where she’s able to learn how she’s really feeling, why she’s feeling that way and how to, as her lyric says, breathe again.

“How I’m feeling can often be very cloudy, or it may have this tone or shade but I can’t specifically get to how I’m really feeling,” she says. “Then I’ll listen to music and it will become more clear. It also happens in my writing. When I start writing, that’s when the feelings really clarify themselves. There’s something magical . . . it feels magical.”

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The Solution is Restless is very much the sound of someone being saved by music as they work through complicated feelings; the lyrics so raw yet poetically refined, not just close to the bone but scraping bluntly right across it. The music so head-noddingly slinky and seductive as it slips around afro-grooves and jazzy phrasing that it sounds absolutely bursting with life.

Remarkably, it was recorded in one marathon recording session in a Paris studio with Joan, Tony and renowned multi-instrumentalist Dave Okumu of the Mercury Prize-nominated band The Invisible.

As the tapes rolled, the trio jammed spontaneously, without form or structure, coming up with grooves and riffs and tones and colours rather than straightforward songs.

Indeed, the tape captures the players chatting, planning to meet up and jam again. “I’m so glad we set this up as a weekly thing and I’m going to see you guys at the same time next week, that’s great news,” Joan jokes, to the sound of hearty chuckles from her two musical guests. “Want to do one more?”

“Yeah, let’s do one more,” Dave replies, while Tony answers at the same time, saying “Yeah, yeah, come on.”

“It’s too fun,” she smiles. “Are you feeling okay in there?” she asks Allen.

“Yeeeeah,” he laughs, as his hi-hat counts them in.

She returned from Paris to her home in New York with the tapes, unsure of how to use them, but began sorting through what she had in her studio. A short while later she learned that her mentor, the American music producer Hal Willner, had died. Grieving the loss, she was then hit with the news that her recent musical collaborator Tony had suffered a fatal heart attack.

In the press notes for the album, she describes this period as her “world becoming undone”.

To cope, she threw herself into her work. She quite literally spent every waking moment working on the album, cutting and pasting and assembling various snippets from the jam session into cohesive structures before adding layers of instrumentation and vocals over the top.

“It was also an incredibly labour-intensive record. I did so much editing to the improvisations that we did. The record sounds seamless but if anyone saw it, it is the most surgically edited quilt you could possibly imagine.

“I am consumed with love for feel. For the feel of a record. I know when it sounds wrong and I know when it sounds right so I just work until it sounds right. Sometimes that would take a very, very long time.”

She would start in the morning and then beaver away on it until the following morning or she collapsed from exhaustion — whichever came first.

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“I’d record way into the night, like until 6am. Because I live in New York City in an apartment building I can’t be loud, so I would do these quiet vocals and quiet strings way into the night,” she says. “I would exhaust myself and then pass out from exhaustion. The next morning when I would wake up, I would put the headphones on and hear what I did. I’d never be able to recall what I did! It was as if I was hearing someone else.”

Anyone who’s stayed awake longer than advisable will know that it can take you brain to some very strange places . . .

“It’s true,” she laughs. “It’s easier for me to let the inspiration flow because I try to not think at all. When you’re rested your brain is like, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m ready to do anything!’ and when I’m tired, sometimes really exhausted, my brain’s not working very well.”

She pauses for effect, before dropping a sly punchline.

“Which I feel contributed positively to making this record.”

Joan begun her New Zealand tour in Christchurch, before playing Wellington on Friday, June 10, and wrapping up with a show at The Hollywood in Auckland on Saturday, June 11. There are limited tickets remaining for her Auckland show.

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