At first take, you might not peg the sinewy, punk chick with the platinum shock of hair as a classically trained violin player. But then Joan Wasser has never been known to fit into any mold.
This rocker, who recently finished a tour with Rufus Wainwright, counts among her influences Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Mary J. Blige. And though her music reflects all of those influences, she is hardly chained to any one style.
“I started playing violin when I was eight—it was offered in the public schools—and I really got into it,” said Wasser over beer and eggs at the Carroll Gardens eatery, Schnack. “I studied it through college, but playing other people’s music became a bore. People tell you that Beethoven wanted you to play it like this. But when someone writes music, they give it up to the world.”
Wasser, child of a 16-year-old girl who gave her up for adoption, grew up in a liberal Connecticut household, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and later was heavily influenced by punk.
“I was the girl with the platinum mohawk,” she said, laughing about her love of playing the freak. She credits her ability to appreciate diversity to growing up in “a totally motley crew family—my mom was way taller than my dad, my brother’s black. It’s such a good way to grow up, because it’s about love, not about predetermined expectations.”
Since she began performing at the age of four, Wasser has been a part of bands including the Dambuilders, Black Beetle, Those Bastard Souls, Mind Science of the Mind, and Antony and the Johnsons, with whom she still plays. In her early rocking years, Wasser focused primarily on playing violin as “a noisemaking instrument,” with “at least four distortion pedals going” and sometimes adding vocals in a style she describes as “screaming and yelling.”
By the time she was 25, Wasser decided she’d like to write music, and soon realized that the single voice of the violin couldn’t sustain that. She learned to sing, and to play the guitar and the Wurlitzer, the sound of which she describes as “warm and round.”
“It was a little debilitating in the beginning, struggling with learning to sing, write and play instruments,” said Wasser. “But I was always determined to dominate it.”
The music Wasser loves is that which doesn’t have a set form—which is not surprising when you see how malleable her own character is. Her love of playing the part led her to her current stage name, Joan As Police Woman.
“I have about 40 hats, and whenever I leave the house, I’m a different character,” Wasser explained. “So one day, my friend said, ‘Joan, you’re channeling Angie Dickinson from that show “Policewoman.’” So I thought, great, that’s me! I love the whole aesthetic of ladies in hot polyester 70s suits, who are packing heat, and that whole thing of women kicking ass in a man’s world.”
This rebellion is visible most clearly on her new self-titled CD, in the track “Prime Mover,” with lyrics, “staring at my face again,” a reference to women’s tales of men who stare at their tits while talking. But Wasser’s is not a tale of angst; rather it is a warning to women to not let the anger destroy them.
“I wasted a lot of time in my life being angry,” Wasser said, as she recalled recently watching a video of herself at the 1995 Lollapalooza “excitedly getting into a fight with some guy.”
“If someone says shit to you, you need to turn it around and make it funny,” said Wasser, older and wiser now. “If someone can’t keep their eyes off your tits, so what? I probably wouldn’t be able to keep my eyes off your tits, either—tits are beautiful! It’s just that thing of not remaining a victim.”
Her love of tits notwithstanding, Wasser described herself as “ultrasexual,” saying “it’s just humanity I’m attracted to.”
She conceded, however, that she can come across as angry when she chastises people who walk around “not appreciating the stuff that is right in front of you that’s beautiful.”
Wasser’s new album is packed with sultry, complex songs, too beautiful to go unappreciated.