Listen to this track by former Dambuilders/Black Beetle/Antony & The Johnsons violinist and solo singer-songwriter Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman. It’s “To Be Loved”, the first single from her 2008 album To Survive, her second release under the Joan As Policewoman name.
Launching her solo career with a self-referential moniker is very telling when ruminating on the subject of survival. The “police woman” reference is to Angie Dickinson, and the 1970s TV series Police Woman that was on when Wasser was a child. The show was about a tough and sexy police officer who happened to be a woman in a man’s traditional field. Parallels can be drawn to the music industry, even today.
This song reveals Wasser’s feel for classic soul and her langourous jazz influence that has provoked vocal comparisons to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. What it also reveals of course is the highly personal nature of her songwriting, particularly around the subjects of love and its relationship to loss. The challenge with personal songwriting in the end is to find universal threads that connect artist to audience. So, how does Wasser manage that balance between the personal and the universal here?
When it comes to dealing with loss by way of writing songs, Wasser had been there and had done that by 2008. Her music in part had been driven by the deaths of her mother, and her famous boyfriend Jeff Buckley, who had accidentally drowned in 1997 during the making of his second album. As such, it’s pretty easy to imprint meaning onto the title of her second album, with the word “survive” having all kinds of implications that touch on loss, mourning, and the inherent risk of being hurt present in every relationship we have.
The year Wasser recorded this record and this song, she was in a new relationship. The words seem to reflect this, full as it is of gratitude, trepidation, and a sense of self-awareness about her scars. It also comments on the classic conundrum when it comes to love; that to be alone is to be safe, even if loneliness is the price we pay, and that love, though vastly rewarding, presents the risk of loss, always hovering over the bliss of being in love. As this song says, love is a gun without a safety. But as personal as this song is, Wasser isn’t just talking about her own life here, which is why this song has such dimension.
As we listen, we’re free to associate this conundrum with the songwriter in a new relationship, having experienced such pain of loss of an old love. We’re also free to recognize our own relationship to love and to loss; that the risk of loving someone is the same for all of us no matter who we are, and the experience of gratefulness of being loved and the danger of love’s ending are the two poles between which we all have to navigate if we choose to pursue love at all.
In this, the person at the center of this song is anyone who has embarked on that uncertain journey, defiant of the risk, and recognizing that survival is more than simply living through something, but is also about moving toward something new in spite of the damage we’ve sustained in the past.
Joan As Police Woman is an active musical vehicle for Joan Wasser today. She recently put out an album, The Classic. Find out more about it and about Joan at joanaspolicewoman.com.
Also, here’s an interview with Joan Wasser in which she talks about her more recent work, and her creative process, too.