The New Cue #87 November 8: Joan As Police Woman

8 November, 2021

Good morning!

Welcome to another week of New Cue action. Let’s recap the story so far. In February, we launched (launched! We just started doing them) with one newsletter a week, a jamboree of chit-chat with musicians, musical recommendations, new artist tips, record shop choice cuts, Lost In Music biographies about music lifers, stories behind classic songs, little drops of wisdom from the stars, etc, etc…

Then we decided to split all this amazing gear over three newsletters, so as not to overwhelm the reader with three-thousand word emails on a Friday, and to stop triggering the little yellow bar that says “nearing email limit” in the design. We still trigger that yellow bar most weeks. We now we start each Monday with an interview with a musical behemoth; on Wednesday we are free and easy: we could run anything, be it another interview, a Story Behind The Song; a Lost In Music…perhaps all three. Friday is our famous Reccie Friday, the Recommender edition where we share loads of musical tips, both our own and also those from people who know what they’re talking about. We usually throw some other regulars in too because we can’t help ourselves (by we, I really mean Niall: he’s so generous).

Mondays are free for all to read. Everyone can enjoy today’s edition. Wednesdays and Fridays are for our subscriber friends alone. For a fiver a month they get eight extra editions, including Reccie Friday, as well as access to all our old editions. Please consider subbing. There’s no benefactor here, no trust fund underpinning our work. It’s just us, at our kitchen tables, listening and writing and interviewing and chasing and thinking of The New Cue every second of the day. You could just click those buttons below… 

Anyway, enjoy today’s edition. It’s an interview with the force of musical nature that is Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman. She’s very worried about Ted’s health.

Love you,

Ted, Niall and Chris

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Start The Week With… Joan As Police Woman

Joan Wasser is an American multi-instrumentalist songwriter and producer who releases music under the name of Joan As Police Woman. A gifted teenage violinist, she joined the Boston University Symphony Orchestra before becoming disillusioned with classical music and ditching it in favour of playing guitar and bass in punk bands. She later became a member of Antony & The Johnsons, playing on their Mercury Prize-winning I Am A Bird Now. She has also played with a host of other artists including Rufus Wainwright, Elton John, Lou Reed, Sheryl Crowe and most recently Damon Albarn as part of Africa Express, as well as contributing Simplicity to the Gorillaz Song Machine. She released her debut album as Joan As Police Woman called Real Life in 2006 and subsequently released eight others before a ninth, The Solution Is Restless, came out last week. It’s a collaboration with the late Afrobeat drumming legend Tony Allen and Dave Okumu of The Invisible. Ted gave Joan a call in her New York pad to see how it’s hanging.
If you’d like to listen to her as you read, she released a good compilation a couple of years ago called Joanthology:

Hi Joan
Hey! Are you ready?

I am, how are you?
I’m feeling pretty good. How are you?

Doing OK, thanks. I had a flu jab a couple of hours ago but no adverse reactions yet.
I’m glad you got that.

I love to be vaxxed. I’m a big vaxxer.
Yeah, I love to be vaxxed! Vax me for everything, please. Hit me with every needle you’ve got, baby. Let’s make it happen!

How’s New York at the moment?
You know, New York is New York. Extremely excited about being alive. Over the top, energetic. So excited to be interacting with other New Yorkers. It’s exploded. Where are you, in London?

I am. You know, I interviewed you face-to-face for a podcast in London in 2019.
In London?!

Yes. You came in very early one morning to a studio in a basement off Oxford Street. It was for Q magazine.
Oh yes, I do remember. That was fun! You had a little black suit, right?

Sounds likely.
Right on. Well, good to talk again.

You’ve been busier than most people in lockdown. What have you been up to?
Well, all my tours got cancelled. And I’m just here by myself. And what I had done at the end of 2019 was that I’d recorded with Tony Allen and Dave Okumu. Dave lives in London, Tony lived in Paris. We’d gotten together in Paris. I scheduled a day-off specifically for it, around my Paris show on tour. I purposefully brought nothing pre-written into the studio because I wanted it to just be free. Tony sat down at the drums, put on the headphones and said, ‘where’s the click?’ I was like, Tony, we’re not using a click – is that cool with you? He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah!’ I think he knew that the session may not be exactly as other sessions he’d worked on. I just wanted him to play freely with no direction from me, with no purpose. To just capture what the three of us may get in the moment. So we did that. We had a huge African meal, then we recorded more. We all listened back and were happy, so I put Tony in an Uber.

That was that.  
Yeah, then lockdown happened. I had these files and I knew I was going to something with them. I didn’t know what yet, but I just started editing.

Just from one session in one day
One night!

Wow. I assumed you’d have worked together for longer from listening to the record.
You can do so much with editing now. The flexibility is just incredible. I created song-forms out of free-playing. Some of the songs are just two-bar loops of Tony playing and I created the song from that. The opening song, The Barbarian, is that. Dinner Date I chopped all the drums and wrote a song over that. And some of them follow more of the changes we were doing in the studio, like Geometry of You. I did it all different ways and I tried a few things that didn’t work, then started again, and I ended up with ten songs.

What were you playing in the studio?
Keys and singing.

But you had melodies in your head beforehand?
No. Not at all. I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Being in the studio with the legend that is Tony Allen and saying, Yo, we’re gonna play free. I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not going to be doing a million crazy changes. I was like, let’s just play whatever feels good and everyone was down.

When did a central theme for it come to you?
Well, I have a studio that I’ve worked in for many years. The owner took off with his family over lockdown. I would bike to the studio, I was the only person allowed at the studio besides him. I would just spend the whole day editing, trying stuff out, recording piano. Any themes on the record are created after. I had no preconceptions. It was just, what can I find? I was in the studio editing drums when I got the call about Tony’s passing.

That was in March 2020. And a total surprise?
Yeah, yeah. To everybody. We almost had the same birthday but thirty years apart. I was going to turn 50 in 2020 and he was going to turn 80. We were going to meet up! We were figuring out how to be in the same place so we could celebrate together. That he passed when he did, it certainly did influence the writing of it.

Tell me about the first time you met him.
I had known of him for a long time, but the first time I saw him play was in 2007, when Joan As Police Woman opened for The Good, The Bad and The Queen for some festival somewhere. I was transfixed. I did not meet him then. I had to wait until I was at an Africa Express event that happened towards the beginning of 2019. It was the first day of rehearsals for that, a beautiful day in London. We were standing around outside in a circle and there was a joint being passed around, Damon handed me the joint. I was, like, ‘No thanks, I only smoke banana peel nowadays.’ I was passing it to my left and heard this tumbling laughter coming out  and Damon said, ‘You know Tony, right?’ So that’s how I met him.

What was he like?
I mean, we really hit it off! The fact I made him laugh before I’d even really met him helped. We had a great time playing together. After the show I asked if he’d be up for playing together. ‘Absolutely, let’s do it!’

Actually, you have some of his laughter on the record.
That’s right, on Perfect Shade of Blue. Yeah. I got him.

You also employ great use of the expression “sticky wicket” on Geometry Of You.
[shrieks] Ha!

Where did you pick that up?
I spend a lot of time in the UK and y’all obsessed with cricket! Did you know that?

Yes, I like cricket too.
I mean, come on! Growing up near New York City I would see these guys every Saturday or Sunday morning out on the field and they were from the islands, from the Caribbean. And they would be in these A-MAZING white outfits playing this absurd game. I was like, ‘what the fuck is that?!’ They’d say ‘it’s cricket, darling’. Alright, but it took forever. They were out there forever! Now, my manager is obsessed, a bunch of my friends are obsessed. Some of the terms. You have got to take advantage of the fact that there is a term of' ‘sticky wicket’. I had to figure out how to use that in a song.

That’s quite a saucy song, Geometry of You.
You cannot use sticky wicket in a banal way. Come on! You gotta work it up.

You have a nice duet with Damon Albarn on the record.
I sent him the song and he was into it, thank God. So he sang along to it and played some beautiful piano. I love his voice so much and to have it on one of my songs is just a gigantic honour.

You’ve worked with him a few times now. What’s the process of working with Damon Albarn like?
Super relaxed. You don’t even know that you’re making a song when it’s happening. That’s how you get the best stuff, just letting it happen naturally rather than saying ‘right, let’s sit down and write a song now.’ That’s not going to get anyone in the right space.

How are you going to play this record live?
That’s a great question. We have already begun rehearsing even though we don’t leave until the end of February. But playing this record live will be another creation process. There is no way to duplicate the record live. Tony is not available. But I will be playing with the drummer that I have played with forever, Parker Kindred, who is an incredible drummer. I tell you what, he’s been freaking out. He’s been losing his mind since he heard the album in April, like, ‘How on earth am I going to do this.’ I keep reminding him that he’s going to play it the way that he’s going to play it the way he plays it, not Tony’s parts. It’s going to be really amazing. I can tell.

It’s all to come next year.
A two month tour of Europe in February. Another two month tour of Australia and New Zealand, back to Europe for festivals. I have my fingers crossed. Have you seen live music?

Going to my first show this weekend. You?
I have. It was summer here, so that was pretty easy because everything can be outside. But today is the first day where it’s really felt like autumn, so let’s see. I know that last winter I was having dinner outside with people when it was below zero. But there are a lot of inside shows going on so let’s see how it all goes down. I’m hoping that come February when we leave the world will be in a better place. Who you gonna see at the weekend?

Scritti Politti.
Wow! Great entry back, man! Where are you seeing that?

Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Like a regular indoors venue? Right on. OK. Here you have to show proof of vax and you have to wear a mask. Is that true for that show?

No! We don’t believe in any of that. We’re going to beat Covid-19 by British willpower and a stiff upper lip.
What!!? Oh shit, I did not realise that. But that’s kind of…crazy? Fuck. That’s another level. I live in New York so they’re not doing that everywhere. But I have friends doing stadium tours and they’re doing masks and passes there.

I’m not sure if they’ll have to do that here.
Dude, you’re going to wear two masks on Saturday at that show. OK? Two masks. And you’ll probably be fine. I guess. Maybe? Don’t want you on a sticky wicket.