Joan Wasser on Her New Album, Jeff Buckley, & Feminism

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Since her acclaimed 2006 album Real Life, Joan Wasser has drawn comparisons to ethereal soul singers like Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, and Beth Gibbons. Her voice cuts through layers, and taps into raw emotion. But on her new album, The Deep Field, Wasser, who also plays under Joan as Police Woman, changes the vibe completely. Gone for the most part are the heavy, sad ballads that defined her sound, replaced here with an upbeat, sonic lushness that harkens back to Al Green’s “Jesus Is Waiting” or Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light years Away.” We recently sat down with the singer/songwriter at Mission Dolores in Brooklyn, to discuss feminism, her relationship with Jeff Buckley, and why she’ll never shave her armpits again.

Is it true that Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love was the first album you ever bought? It was. I bought it in a Salvation Army store for 25 cents, because the cover was so amazing. Jimi Hendrix was dead less than two months after I’d been alive, something like 54 days. And that person was an absolute revolutionary. He was unlike anyone who has ever lived since, and before. It was so psychedelic. It was not contained. It’s like jazz in that way, spending time out in the galaxy exploring. It makes you feel hopeful and like, whoa, my world is very small. There’s a whole other world out there. That’s exciting and scary in the best possible way.

How old were you? I would say I was 10, and I had my mind blown. I started working out the guitar solo from “Little Wing” on my classical violin.

Was that your first introduction to rock and roll? No. The AM radio that I listened to every morning would play what was popular at the time. I would hear Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Motown stuff.

You’re working right now on your fourth full-length album. How’s it going? Great. All the recording is done. Now we’re just assembling it into the crystal palace that it will be.

How’s it different than any of your previous albums? This record has an up feeling. It’s groovy. There’s a lot of grooves on it. If I read that I would be totally repulsed, but it has that ‘feel good’ quality.

What do you attribute this more upbeat sound to? I’m in a good place in my life and the album reflects that. I’ve been revising my behavior to make it flow better with the rest of the world.

What kind of behavior are you talking about? Oh, I had a tough time making the last album. My mother was dying of cancer. I’d been on the road continuously for a number of years. I was exhausted, and just not as in contact with myself as I could be. It wasn’t possible.

And since then? Since then, it’s been a lot of getting back to the garden.

Did you go away to a spa or something? [Laughs] No! That’s about going inside, realizing that my mind is going to places that aren’t serving me. And then changing that behavior over time, and being patient with myself while this is going on.

Patience? Because it’s hard? Yeah, it is hard. It’s the hardest thing human beings do, changing patterns. But I’m not interested in living this life if it’s not to the very fullest.

You were in a band called Black Beetle, formed with the remaining members of your ex-boyfriend Jeff Buckley’s band in 1997, after his accidental drowning? What made you leave the band and go off on your own? Black Beetle is where I learned to write songs. I was writing them with this guy and also separately. I tend to be really attracted to strong personalities. I’m one myself. It can create this incredible chemistry or it can be really difficult. In this situation it turned out to be difficult. We made a record and then the band broke up. I think, in general, it can be hard for a band to have two different people who are the songwriters.

Are you tired of talking about your relationship with Jeff Buckley and the aftermath? It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s that it’s not my place to be talking about certain people, especially because I’m no longer in contact with them anymore. I have to be very sensitive to them. Because even though we had a really tough time getting along at a certain point, I have tons of love, and hope the best for everyone.

So what was it like playing shows on your own for the first time? It was scary. I had to push myself to feel comfortable singing in public. But I also knew I couldn’t do that again. I knew I had to try it on my own. There was no time.

You studied classical violin in Boston, then supported other artists for over a decade before finally taking center stage. Do you ever feel regret, like, I could have been singing this whole time? Well, I couldn’t have been singing this whole time. It happens when it happens. I played violin for a long time, which was incredible. It was totally fulfilling to me to play violin in a number of bands, and then I did ton of work as a string performer and an arranger. And that was so fun. I wasn’t pining away, wanting to sing. I loved what I was doing.

What changed? It got to a point where it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted to challenge myself. I came to realize that there was no possible way to write songs on the violin. It took me a while to figure that out. It’s not a chordal instrument, it’s like the voice. So I started playing guitar, and once I started playing the guitar, I started singing a little over it so I had a melody.

Does it bother you to be lumped in to the category female singer-songwriter? I used to be angry about stuff like that. But it’s just a waste of energy. Yeah, dudes aren’t called male singer-songwriters. You mean stuff like that? Why waste the energy when I could be writing a song or reading.

Are you saying that being a feminist is mentally draining? Oh, no. I have no problem with the word feminist. I have no problem calling myself a feminist. I am a feminist. I always have been, I always will be. Being a feminist to me means being an empowered woman, and that’s totally different for each woman. It really means being able to do whatever you want as a woman. You want to have a family and stay home and raise your kids, if that’s what you want to do, then that’s as much feminist as attempting to be a firefighter, or some other kind of job in a male-dominated workplace.

I see that you don’t shave your legs or armpits. Do you feel pressure to shave before a show? For me, body hair is beautiful. When somebody shaves I think it just looks like a shaved area. It doesn’t look more beautiful. I know some people agree with me and some people don’t. I haven’t shaved for years and years. I don’t, and I won’t. I just don’t think it looks attractive and it doesn’t feel right to me and it never has.

But it can’t be easy to deviate from the societal norms. I have been searching to feel comfortable with who I am my whole life. The signals you get as a woman in the media – on television, in magazines – could not be more confusing. It’s crazy, is what it is. It’s on the level of deep insanity.

What’s the most insane part of it? Oh, the sexualization of everything. The mixed messages. Especially for a young woman trying to figure out where she fits. I mean, whoa.

If you could talk to your 23 year-old self, what would you tell them? At 40, I’d love to say some things to my 23-year old self. I would say, you have nothing to feel shame about. You have nothing to feel guilty about, who you are is absolutely right. And also your attempts at controlling anything are futile. So take it easy. I don’t think any of that would have been comprehended by the person I was then. And 20 years from now, I’m hoping I’ll be able to look back and say the person I am now would never have been able to get what I know. I hope to keep growing in the way I have been – because then life never gets boring. It gets better and better. And then your actually psyched about getting older!

The Deep Field is in record stores on April 11th, but check out a sampler here.