It shouldn’t take a new, career-spanning, three-CD set (called Joanthology) to see that Joan Wasser, Joan As Police Woman to record buyers, is one of the finer, and certainly the most consistent and dedicated,soul singers of the past 20 years.
She brings a deep well of emotion and insight to songs which slow burn, plays with rhythm in ways that make bodies react before minds do, and while technically sound there’s an intensity of spirit that works with, rather than being undermined by, imperfections.
But because Wasser doesn’t have a classic or retro sound to her records, or a showboaty voice, because she isn’t some teenage prodigy who sounds like a 50-year-old from just outside Memphis, it doesn’t get recognised.
Should that matter? After all, does she even see herself as a soul singer?
“Yes, I do. Indeed I do,” says Wasser. “Soul music is what I grew up with, the music I most relate to, and where I feel like I sing from. So I do think of myself as a soul singer, even though it may not it. But you get it, so that’s good, I’ve got one [she laughs].”
The other barrier to being seen as a soul singer is she writes across genres, up to an including hip hop being dotted through last year’s Damned Devotion album, with indie pop and the scratchier end of rock frequent companions.
But you can hear the deep roots of the church in 2008’s Honor Wishes, which might initially sound like almost an art rock ballad, just as you can pick the sensual phrasing of 2018’s Tell Me, within a song that might be misread as a quirky slice of pop.
So, beyond being the music she grew up with, why does soul speak to her? What does it bring to her, and what does it bring out of her?
There is a very long pause. “I guess soul music for me starts with a burst of solitude. It comes from a place of aloneness, even if you are singing with friends,” she says eventually. “I just have that in me, that aloneness, and that makes soul music very natural. It’s a deep, basic yearning or longing. They can be turned into something up-tempo, but at the heart of it that thing at the centre of your heart that you try to protect, or are afraid to let out.”
That aloneness to which Wasser refers is not a figure of speech. While it may seem a bit glib, especially as she grew up in a household she’s described as loving and strong, the fact of Wasser being given up for adoption soon after birth, the later loss of several of her four parents, the death of her then-boyfriend Jeff Buckley and close friends such as Lou Reed and Elliott Smith, are no small elements in her makeup.
“I only know what I have experience so I don’t know how I would feel if I’d grown up with the parents who conceived me,” she says. “But as someone who was removed from their mother at birth - and placed into an incredibly loving, really cool, family - people would say that was an extreme situation to put a newborn into.
“I do know that a lot of adoptees are extremely independent, which I am and so is the [also adopted] brother I grew up with, and I wouldn’t doubt that that was a part of it, if not a lot of it. It’s not only us who feel [a sense of solitude] but I do think it stems from the earliest part of my life.”
By the time of her second album, the tellingly named To Survive, the first she toured to Australia, Wasser had been through enough personal upheaval to disorientate anyone, and in the 11 years since she’s had a career that didn’t always take expected paths or yield easy victories.
In To Be Lonely, from that album, she sang “I’ll make it through”. But how certain was she then, or any time since, that she would endure and continue?
“I have an extreme survival mechanism in me. It’s a little terrifying at times,” she says jovially. “I do feel like I will make it through, especially since in many ways I have made it through really difficult parts of my life. If I could make it through that, I’ll be fine.
“I think [singing ‘I’ll make it through’] is also a way of telling myself ‘Joan, you’ll make through’. It’s soothing the fear that I won’t. I do that a lot, with my music as well, telling myself who I want to be.”
Can some of this resilience, some of this resistance to the damage that can be wrought, be put down to the fact that as violinist since the age of 8 (she didn’t become a lead singer until her 30s) that she had an instrument which could be her voice but not exactly her, be expressive but not as vulnerable, and offer her something to retreat behind when she needed or wanted to?
“That’s absolutely true. I feel like I have one instrument that I can really play, and that’s the violin, because I studied it through college and I am really comfortable with it in any setting. In any situation I will be able to play something that I’m not afraid to express,” Wasser says. “And it does feel sometimes like my other voice that has like a couple of coats on it that, as you said, isn’t as vulnerable or revealing. But I feel like I’m getting there with the voice, which is really exciting for me.”
In reviewing Damned Devotion I noted that while many of the relationships – romantic and otherwise - she described were fraught, Wasser was not sitting them out. She sang “Silly me, why did I have to follow you?,” but she knew full well why. So, are relationships worth it?
“Wow,” Wasser says, laughing. “Wow. I have this conversation with so many of my close friends all the time. For me, absolutely, definitely yes. A lot of my friends I think have gotten to the place where they might say no, but I have to admit I will never get to the place where I would say no. I really love communicating and connecting with people, and while I have endured some of the worst pain - heart, soul and body pain - from relationships going wrong, and I feel like I’m actually going to die, it’s still actually worth it.”
As she said some years back, in To America, “Try not to starve yourself of love/Feed your hunger.”
“Pain is just pain. I’m not afraid of pain,” Wasser says, sounding more than ever like a soul singer. “I’ve gone through so much pain in different ways, and pain’s not fun but pain changes and hopefully goes away over time, and pain also forges new neural pathways.
“There’s just more information. And that’s always worth it.”
Joanthology is out now. Joan As Police Woman plays The Triffid, Brisbane, October 8; The Factory Theatre, Sydney, October 9; Melbourne Recital Hall, October 10; Theatre Royal, Castlemain, October 13; The Gov, Adelaide, October 15; Sewing Room, Perth, October 17; Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns, October 19.