Joan Wasser’s laugh is loud and throaty and warm. Down the line, thousands of miles across the pond, you can feel the creases of her eyes deepen as she lets you in, each story like a rapid stream that sweeps you up and carries you with it.
“I love covering songs, it just feels like candy. It’s a nice contrast after doing a lot of writing.”
Sitting at the piano in her Brooklyn loft apartment full of plants (“there are 49 in total, I think”), Wasser jumps from topic (“tomatoes are INCREDIBLE”) to topic (“there’s this magical gigantic rubber tree in Buenos Aires…”) with as much enthusiasm for tomatoes and trees as for the book she’s reading on the human gut. “The young scientist who wrote it is sooo crazy about the gut – which you should be! It’s part of our bodies! It’s unbelievable what happens in there!”
The crux of Wasser’s enthusiasm, though, is firmly rooted in music in all its forms. Having played violin throughout her childhood, she went on to study music at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, where she began to shed her classical skin and explore the world of rock, pop and folk. Before going solo as Joan As Police Woman in 2004, she played in numerous bands throughout the 1990s, including the Dambuilders, Anthony and the Johnsons and Black Beetle, a group made up of the remaining members of her late boyfriend Jeff Buckley’s band, and the first project in which she would drop the violin altogether.
“While I love the violin and I got myself to a certain level of technical proficiency, I hardly ever pick it up. It’s not the instrument I’m drawn to any longer,” Wasser says, favouring the piano, guitar and voice. “When I started playing in bands, I’d been going to shows since forever, so it felt really natural. In the classical world, you don’t learn to improvise. You’re playing music that’s been written already so you don’t have to think much. I play everything by ear now. So that transition was really scary and also fun.”
The layers of Wasser’s rich musicality come together instinctively on her latest album, Cover Two, in which she reinterprets songs by various artists. Released at the beginning of May, it comes 11 years after her first cover album, the range of tracks alone – Kiss by Prince, Spread by OutKast, Michael McDonald’s I Keep Forgettin’ – testament to a life steeped in musical zest.
“The vibe is so coked up!” she enthuses of the Michael McDonald song, her laughter crackling down the line. “It’s like you can hear how many beats per second his heart is going. The lyrics are just beyond, and I always thought it was crazy that they were laid over this super tight track. It makes it easy to miss the depth of the lyrics, so I wanted to bring that out. I probably listen to the original recording more than any song ever.
“I love covering songs because it just feels like candy. It’s a really nice contrast after doing a lot of writing. I’m not poring over the lyrics, there’s no weight. That’s all really fun too, but playing a cover is pure joy.
“People are always like ‘Why don’t you cover this song?’ and I think I ended up covering none of those suggestions on the album. If I can’t find some sort of new light or shadow in the song when I’m putting it back together after deconstructing it, it’s not worth covering for me. I desperately wanted to cover Sweet Love by Anita Baker but the fact is, I just want to sing like Anita Baker. And that’s not okay, because then I’m just doing a crappy wedding version. I may continue to work on it though. I just sort of gather songs and I have a huge list, so I’m already on Cover Three.”
Wasser was due to start her European album tour in Finland the day after we speak. “Ugh, yeah,” she sighs in her New York drawl. “I erased all the dates on my calendar because it makes me too sad, you know?”
When the tour does go ahead, the songs will once again don new guises under the frame of a stripped-back trio, with Parker Kindred on drums, Jacob Silver on bass and Wasser on piano and guitar.
“The tracks will be completely rearranged for the trio, which will be really fun. Parker and Jacob are also amazing singers so they’ll be doing a lot of vocals as well. Will I be able to cover all of Cole [Kamen-Green]’s trumpet parts [on Spread]? No. The recorded version exists already. When I go to see a band and I hear them play a song exactly like the record, I don’t care all that much. It’ll be new, fun versions.”
The stand-out track on Cover Two is Wasser’s rendition of Neil Young’s 1974 number On the Beach, her raw voice, at once fragile and strong, cracking and lilting over crashing drums and minor melodic jazz chords played on piano. “I’m so glad you think I pull it off – it took so much to make that happen. I’m terrified about touring this record because it means I have to play that live, so I’ve been practising it now for a tour that’s hopefully going to happen in a year.”
The song was recorded under gloriously serendipitous circumstances “at the Abbey Road of Argentina”, a handful of hours before she was due to catch a flight to New York.
“A sweet, shy gentleman called Leo” had approached Wasser at an equally happenstance gig she’d played the night before and offered her free recording time at Ion Studios, a place she’d always wanted to record. “I was just like: ‘What? No way!’ It was so wild.”
Wasser’s love for the piano is wed to her romantic conception of it as an exotic beast, never to be tamed. “I took, like, two lessons from this woman, the wife of a minister, when I was really young, and I brought in the music to Light My Fire by the Doors. She thought it was not appropriate, so that’s where my piano lessons ended.
“I especially like the piano. I also like to tangle with its evil twin sibling, the guitar, which is one of the most elusive instruments I’ve ever come into contact with. I’ll never understand it, and that’s fine. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing guitar, but I can see the piano, I can see [she tinkles a few notes on the keys] what’s happening on the piano. So yeah, it’s my favourite.”
This global lockdown has not only resulted in the cancelled tour for her.
“I’m concerned about Covid-19. I lost a couple of people, one of them a close friend, so I just really want people to listen to the scientists.
“Making my life as a musician means I’m set up for this type of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time writing and producing music in my home studio, so that’s been a godsend. I’ve also started mixing a record at the professional studio I’ve been working at for almost 20 years. Just as this was happening, the studio’s owner went upstate with his family, so that allowed me and the engineer, who is one of my best friends, to continue mixing. We both live alone and are each other’s sole contact. We ride our bikes separately and meet up at the studio, so that’s been incredibly helpful.
“I love creating all the time. Sometimes the creative spark isn’t there and that’s also okay because I love reading, I love being outside. That time is really necessary, so you can be living – living
a life that you will then use as fuel for later creation.”
As we wind down the call and Wasser attempts to diagnose my flailing succulents from across the Atlantic (“How did you kill them? What do they look like? Sometimes plants are like: ‘This isn’t my time around!’”), she hands me a final mental picture that encapsulates her sense of fun.
“I live in an old industrial building that used to be a squat and it has this amazing swelteringly hot silver tar roof that almost nobody uses. I love the sun, so I take my clothes off up there!”
She laughs, one last open, charming, generous laugh. “I wear slippers so I don’t burn my feet – they’re black and gold Adidas Slides that have all these nubs on the soles so you get a massage when you walk. Those are the best. The nubs, I mean – they’re everything.”
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