Over two highly personal, emotionally vulnerable albums, Joan Wasser has discovered an important truth: The more she reveals about herself, the less she is interested in concealing.
“I have used (songwriting) as a way to learn who I am and what I’m comfortable talking about, or not talking about,” says the artful, piano-playing chanteuse who records as Joan As Police Woman.
“And the more I get feedback from people who come to my shows, and they tell me how my songs have somehow enhanced their lives, the less I’m interested in hiding.
“I’m really not interested in talking about my love life,” continues Wasser, who has been questioned extensively by music writers about her relationship with the late Jeff Buckley. “Or the details of my personal life.
“But there is a thread running through my new album (“To Survive”) about the fact that I lost my mom to cancer recently. Losing someone we love is something we all have to go through, and it’s a very difficult part of life. But I’m just all for communication. If I feel helpless, the way I feel better is to talk about it. Isolation is the worst. Put it into words and get it out there.”
Wasser, 38, who assumed the name Joan As Police Woman in 2002, finally found an audience for her nuanced confessionals two years ago, when her debut, “Real Life,” was released overseas (it became available in the U.S. last summer).
Born in Biddeford, Maine, and raised in Norwalk, Conn., Wasser began playing piano at age 6 and violin at age 8. While at Boston University studying with violinist Yuri Mazurkevich and playing in the school’s symphony orchestra, she joined a series of local alt-rock bands. One was The Dambuilders, which released several major-label albums in the 1990s.
In those days Wasser’s furious violin playing and mini-skirted frame would often be the band’s visual focal point. She occasionally would wield a camera, or leave the stage entirely to dance with people in the crowd.
Post-Dambuilders, Wasser played live and in the studio with the likes of Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Elton John, the Scissor Sisters, Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright.
On her latest tour, Wasser is featuring material from her sophomore CD, which was released June 9. “To Survive” has a jazzier vibe than “Real Life,” which tilted toward dance-floor soul and indie-rock influences.
The constant, however, is Wasser’s willingness to bare her soul. On “To Be Lonely,” for example, she describes a would-be lover in terms that are both touching and detached, and verge on self-abasement: “This is the one/I will try to be/lonely with ... the one/I would die for.”
Asked if she ever expressed these sentiments to another, Wasser says, “I have, (but) you have to get to a certain level of comfort. You wouldn’t be saying that if you weren’t really there. At most profound moments, you realize you can trust yourself.”
Conversely, on “Honor Wishes,” she seems to be asking for clarity where there is usually turbulence, putting her lover on the spot with questions such as “Would you love me and not need my love?/Would you honor my wishes?”
“I wrote that song attempting to admit that a relationship was over,” she says. “It was a signal to myself. ... If I had been able to handle that relationship better, maybe I would have been (able) to sing that at the beginning.”
“To Survive” has a lighter side, including the almost frolicsome, horn-fired “Magpies,” about a blossoming, redemptive love that finds Wasser singing, “How does it feel/To be inspiring water from a stone” and “For the first time/I must make you my wife.”
“That’s me dominating, taking the man’s role, being tough and romantic at the same time,” she says of the latter. “I like to play around with typical gender things because (in relationships) there’s such an obvious blend of the two that often goes unrecognized.”
On “Furious,” the closest “To Survive” comes to rock, Wasser looked outward for inspiration.
“I wrote that on the road when I was spending all my time in Europe, reading European newspapers about the U.S. getting involved in ways and places that didn’t seem appropriate,” she explains, alluding to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “As an American it was shocking reading what was written, even though it was nothing I could control. You feel like you’re an ambassador, even though you have nothing to do with it.”
The closing track, “To America,” is a blend of the personal and universal. “It’s a culmination of a number of events in my life,” says Wasser of the song featuring Rufus Wainwright, “and about dealing with the cancer that was in both our lives and learning to accept the unacceptable.
“America also is symbolized as a mother,” she adds. “Our country does have cancer, and there’s a chance we are going to lose her. I am an optimist at heart, but for me and my generation, it’s been terrifying to see certain people get to a place of power.”