Joan has a backstory. Yes, it’s fascinating, but you can Wiki it after reading this interview, because to dwell on Joan’s past doesn’t give her one ounce of credit for the present and the future that Joan is creating for herself and us. Not content with stealing our hearts on her first two records, the broken-glass-tread-tenderly ‘Real Life’ and ‘To Survive’, she picked us up and took us along for the ride with funkier ‘The Deep Field’ and now the instantly accessible ‘The Classic’. This interview with Joan Wasser, the one-time violinist for Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright, is one of my favourites of all time: frank and full of mad energy, the lady emotes as much as her music.
Norwich is one of two – it could be said – tiny shows you’re playing before you hit the big ones this month.Oh, c’mon! I’ve played Norwich before, a number of times and it’s a never a let down!
There’s a pull quote already: “Norwich, never a let down.”[Laughs] It’s not! It’s always so fun, and beautiful – good combo, right?
And you’re playing a small, but beautiful venue, an old church, reimagined, so you’ll be channelling the spirits of generations past, that evening.Perfect, perfect. I hope I’m gonna seal the channel and if not, I welcome anyone else on stage to channel.
Just to clear up a bit of business; we’re obviously very interested in our own locality, being a regional magazine, and I’ve been noticing that geographically, Brooklyn gets all the love from you, but what’s wrong with Norwalk? [Joan’s hometown]Norwalk’s great, yep, nothing bad to say about Norwalk. It was not a bad place to grow up at all, and it sort of mimics New York City in the way that it’s very diverse. There’s every type of person there, culturally, class, monetarily, race – I really appreciated growing up in that environment. There’s a lot of towns nearby that are very homogeneous and my parents were the kind who searched out a place for their kids, to have them grow up in a diverse town. And as soon as my parents allowed me, and even sooner than they allowed me, I could hop on the commuter rail and be in New York City in 55 minutes.
That’s not too shabby.Oh no, it’s not! So that was another bonus because I’ve always been attracted to the city, and throngs and throngs of human beings, existing together.
For some reason, I’ve not been able to listen to the promo that I’ve been sent of your new album, ‘The Classic’, but it does let me come at this with the perspective of wonderment and intrigue about the rest of the album. Are the two singles indicative of what else is in store?Well I like your attitude! Oh, they’re pretty indicative, yeah; there’s a bunch of pretty ‘up’ songs on the record. Some of them deal with pretty intense topics, like one of them deals with shame – and it’s called ‘Shame’ – and it has this sort of James Brown kinda feel, really fast rhythm section stuff. I wanted to write a song about shame, but how ridiculous would it have been if I’d written a really super bummer song about it? [Laughs] I wanted to write a song about it that was really up, like almost making fun of it, like “I’m done with you! Get out of my life.” So it’s not like the topics are all like, ‘I’ve found you, finally!’; they deal with some pretty intense topics, but the overall feeling is really up.
Between you and Pharrell, you’re taking happiness to the sidewalks, quite literally. Your video for ‘The Classic’ sees you spreading the gospel on the streets. Do you think positivity is finally the new black?Ah yeah, I mean I really do. It’s so easy to be negative and it’s so easy to hide in a place of fatalism and how boring is that? The thing is, I certainly have, in my life felt like, “oh, nothing’s gonna work out”, but there was always something in me that was like, “alright, c’mon Joan, sort yourself out. Snap out of it.” It’s scary though, saying life’s awesome because the fact is we’ve got to live with life on life’s terms and there’s a lot of really intense stuff that happens in life. But everyone has to deal with it, so you might as well go into it thinking, ‘everyone’s gonna die – might as well have fun ‘til then.’
I read a quote from an old interview of yours that said you were constantly trying to get more comfortable with being more vulnerable, but in contrast, you seem to have grown with so much contentment and confidence. You don’t seem like you’ve been tapping in to your vulnerability at all.Hmmm, that’s awesome. It was sort of like an enormous revelation to me, a number of years ago, when I realised that self-confidence had nothing to do with self-love. I was born confident and really curious, and wanting to take chances all the time but that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how you feel about yourself. Certainly it can help you build self-love, but it’s when you’re by yourself, when you’re not having to deal with anyone else, or the world – and the world really turns me on; I love being around people, communicating and joking and laughing – but it’s when you’re by yourself that you start hearing those stories that you tell yourself. Often they’re never true, but they get hooked on and calcified or fane truthfulness and they might help you to grow, by being tough on yourself, but often that’s not the way and they hack away at the good stuff. When I started to feel freedom, then I wanted more. Then when I started to feel more freedom, I wanted more and more. It’s a lifelong thing, but I definitely do feel a hell of a lot better.
That’s great to hear, and it shows. And do you feel it comes naturally with age, or do you have to ride the storm, and decide how you’re gonna get out of it?I think both, and I say this from the standpoint that I’m only getting older! If anybody knows how to stop that process, I’d love to speak to them! But I’m definitely the type of person who goes all-in to situations, even if they’re CLEARLY wrong! [Laughs] Even if they’re really, really, really stupid and everyone’s saying, “No Joan, NO! Turn around!” I’m like, “no way, I’m going into this!” Very often I’ve learnt the hard way, which is CLEARLY how I need to learn things! It really creates a certain amount of pain but I’ve learnt it for good. For the long-term, I mean.
Good! You’ve done really well – - Well, not that I’ve always adhered to the lessons I’ve learnt…! I do usually know which way I’m supposed to go, but whether I take that route or not, depends on the moment.
I read that you’ve nixed the booze, and in other interview I read that you were even trying to give up coffee. Did that work, the coffee thing?Aargh… NAH! [Laughs] I did that for a while, and I used to be insane with the coffee like I was insane with the booze and everything else and now I just don’t like that feeling like my heart’s gonna explode. [Laughs] But the fact is, I used to really like it, so I feel really thankful that I don’t like it anymore. Yeah, so I definitely had to twist some things that were DEFINITELY gearing up to end my life, and of course I thought I was gonna DIE, and never have a life again when I stopped, but when you stop, of course, you realise the exact opposite. It’s just that you’re used to getting wasted every night and you’ve never tried the other, because it’s too scary.
[cont. after video]
Joan, I’ve been a fan for years, and perhaps I shouldn’t blow smoke up your arse, but it’s true. You broke our hearts over and over with ‘Real Life’ and ‘To Survive’, and THEN you released ‘Cover’ [a limited release album of cover versions], which was brilliant! To do Britney’s ‘Overprotected’ after an album like ‘To Survive’, was inspired; was it just a case of “let’s just change things up”?Yeah! [Laughs] You know, I was coming out of a really tough period, you know; I watched my mom die and in that time, I’d also gotten involved – as I’ve learnt, others do as well – involved with THE WORST relationship ever! Right in conjunction with my mom’s health stuff, and erm, I’d made it through that. I was really ready to have fun and not work with my own songs because I get so obsessive and precious, and like, “oh, it’s gotta be exactly this way.” These were songs that had already been perfected, really, by the original artists, so it was like, ‘let’s see what you can bring to it’. They’re all fun; they were all in the 100% fun of making music, so yeah, that’s exactly it.
Well it’s funny, because I try and live my life through the internet meme motto, “If Britney Spears can get through 2007, you can get through this.”What…? Oh my lord, that’s amazing! [Laughs]
It seems pretty pertinent with One Billion Rising coming up this week, I wanted to get your thoughts on it. In 2008, you described yourself as “part of a new generation of female singer/songwriters who have the guts to be emotionally direct.” I think that’s absolutely true, but six years on, have we come on at all?[Laughs wildly] Oh God! [Laughs] It’s a great question. I’m fairly disconnected with pop music, I mean, I always check out what OutKast are doing, but that’s my connection to popular music! And like, Janelle Monae – she’s doing sumpin! She’s a unique person and woman in the industry where she’s competing around that realm of pop stars. She’s not Rihanna, thank God. Please don’t get me wrong – I love Rihanna [laughs].
Rihanna needs to love herself before anyone else can love Rihanna!That’s the truth right there! I mean, hello. But Janelle is circling around that realm like, ‘hey, what’s up? I’m over here, like if you could just turn, just slightly to the left, you’ll find me.’ But then a lot of the women I know in New York City are just the biggest badasses, you know, so I don’t see what I think a lot of people see in the media. I don’t have a television; I’m really disconnected, so I know I’m sort of missing out. I used to feel more connected, and sort of involved and would feel upset about what was going on, but I have no time for that now. [Laughs] You know, I could be writing another song, or seeing an amazing show of one of my woman friends, or any of my friends, rather than being upset. So I know I’m disconnected, but I also know that I see women just slaying, so hard. Here in New York, like this girl Sarah, who fronts Lip Talk and bands that not a lot of people know, but I bet you’ll get to know at least some of them, because these women are young, and totally comfortable with themselves. Or at least it seems, from out here. They have amazing presence and they are doing amazing things.
Good. I’m glad to hear it. Perhaps we all just need to move to Brooklyn on the path of gender enlightenment.Well you wouldn’t be the first one, that’s for sure [laughs]! New York City feels like it’s run by women, very often. I know that’s not true, because the top people are, like 99% of the time, are men, but SO OFTEN, the people that are right below them are women that are really dealing with, like, the whole situation, you know what I mean? They’re not like the president, who deals with slightly less of the whole situation but it’s like that thing – there’s a good woman behind every man. I know that sounds a little like old soul shit, but that feels very true right now, even in terms of my friends who are not musicians. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before those people are actually running the thing.
Good! We’ll start in New York and it’ll get to the UK in about 100 years.No, that’s not true; Norwich can start it!
Yeah, you start it when you come here this month. Yeah, you and me, Emma!So Joan, final question – I know we’ve just talked about feminism, so that should implicitly deter me from objectifying women, but you look hotter than you ever have. What’s the secret?WOAH. Oh my God! Well first of all, thank you. [Laughs] That’s awesome to hear. I was not expecting that; that was a total curveball. Well certainly that whole cheesy thing of taking care of yourself physically, and also mentally, it affects the radiance factor, you know. When you’re happy, it shows. It was funny because I did a press tour recently in Europe and a lot of the time it’s the same interviewers who interview me for each record, which is such a cool thing to have. A couple of times, some of them said they didn’t even recognise me! It was really cool to hear, and I definitely think that making music is huge. I wake up everyday and I’m like, ‘wow, I get to make music today. This is unbeatable,’ you know. Starting from there, it’s pretty good. I also recently took some time off from being involved with anyone.
That’s the secret!Actually for me, I really think it is. It was the secret because I continually got involved with the wrong person. Not horrible people, just the wrong person. And pouring one’s entire energy into the wrong person, over and over and then having to get UNINVOLVED with that wrong person takes 300 times longer! It’s SO exhausting and you know, ENERGY sucking and distracting. My last experience, I left it not being able to say one bad thing about the other person; there was absolutely nothing wrong, it was just incompatibility. The amount of pain that I saw that person go through – and of course I just discount whatever pain I’m going through – I was like ‘alright, I’m done with this. I’m not looking around; I’ve just gonna hang with myself for a while.’ And for almost two years, I poured all that energy that I was pouring into other people, into myself.
Well it worked!Well thank you! I feel like it worked! I feel so different, I really do.
You know, you talked a lot about self-love at the beginning of this interview, it’s starting to get a little fruity – [Joan shrieks with laughter] That’s the key, isn’t it, self-love?Yeah! [Laughs] I know it sounds so bad and it’s gonna look so bad but –
- I promise I won’t frame it like that.No, it’s OK! You can because now when I read something – I mean, whenever I used to read stuff about self-love, I’d be like, ‘that is disgusting! Get me away from this article’, or whatever it is. But now I read something and I’m like, ‘it’s so amazing, I just don’t care!’
So I could frame it like, “Joan says masturbation is the key to happiness.”[Laughs wildly] You could! I’ll leave that up to you!
I won’t, I promise. Thank you! [Laughing] I’m still punk rock though, I’m STILL PUNK ROCK!
Emma R. Garwood
Joan Wasser comes to the Norwich Arts Centre as Joan as Police Woman on March 15th. For tickets, go to www.norwichartscentre.co.uk. Read the uncut version of this interview on Outlineonline.co.uk