The Deep Field (Dig/U.K. CD: January 25), the third album from Joan As Police Woman -- AKA Joan Wasser -- is one of those sprawling, "big idea" albums that, unlike most, works. "I want you to fall in love with me" is the album's opening line, but once you step inside Wasser's head and her music, you realize that this is no easy one night stand. She describes The Deep Field as her "most open, joyous record" -- all true -- but it is also a densely packed, complex work of soulful ruminations and intimate portraits that mostly stretch to the five and six minute opus category. This is also an album of hope and clear-eyed visions played out with an ear to detail and mood, ten songs of modern rhythm and slinky, sexy blues addressing what Wasser, who recently hit the big four-oh milestone, calls "the cliche of positivity."
"I am fine, I am divine / But there's a wild ride going on behind the sign," she sings in "The Magic", a perfect summation of what's in store. From the sweet funk bass line, chunky keyboard chords and smoky soul horns of "The Action Man" to the staggered rhythms and syncopated vocals of "Magic" to the torchy atmosphere and minor chord guitar echoes of "Forever and a Year", Wasser presents one ambitious production after another. She indulges us in her sometimes strange, always wonderful cosmic fantasies of blissed out, Al Green-tinted funky soul and shadowy indie-pop excursions. "There are enough lows in life in general," Wasser says, "and I am not interested in hanging out in them when I could be dancing." Who could argue with that? (Note: U.S CD due April 12, available now digitally at the JAPW site and iTunes)
Joan As Police Woman - "The Action Man" (from the album The Deep Field)
Joan As Police Woman - " Forever and A Year" (from the album The Deep Field)
Joan As Police Woman - Press Bio: The ‘Deep Field’ is an image captured by the Hubble space telescope of a region inside the constellation Ursa Major, of the youngest and most distant known galaxies. Deep Field is also a relaxation technique to enable profound physiological and psychological change, a novel about a young woman's emotional awakening against the backdrop of global conflict and a band from Charleston, Georgia. But while change, growth and music all figure on Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser’s astounding new album, it’s the Hubble image that gave birth to its title. “I found a photo of a slice of space that is just a tiny spot to the bare eye. But because space is infinite as we understand it so far, the spot spans a massive area, the distance so far, the length so wide, the depth so vast. We know so little about our surroundings. And as is the macrocosm, so is the microcosm, how deep can you delve into your own life… it’s endless too.”
Digging in deeper than ever before, The Deep Field begins with the words “I want you to fall in love with me,” and continues to unfurl an unashamed lust for life. It’s unquestionably her best, most significant album yet – in Joan’s own words, “my most open, joyous record,” but it’s her most soulful record, and also her most rocking; her most personal, yet her most universal too. “I went through the process of writing by wanting to speak from a more universal point of view, like, say, Stevie Wonder does, about the human experience. I have to hand it to Stevie, by the way, who single-handedly made being positive cool. There are enough lows in life in general and I am not interested in hanging out in them when I could be dancing. So I’ve tried to write songs about hope and being open and free. I knew it would be more challenging because of the cliché of positivity. I endlessly rewrote the lyrics till they rang true for me. It is not easy being green! Fact is, it's not easy being human sometimes. I'm not living some delusional existence, I have just learned that my thinking dictates my reality. I am aiming for total freedom. What else is worth living for- especially when it's so obviously there for the taking? I get bigger bites and more of a taste for it the more I take chances and step out of what I imagine to be my comfort zone. I get closer the more I laugh, the more I use kindness rather than reverting to fear and frustration, the more I learn to soak in the bath of ecstasy. Sound crazy? Good. "
Even on her 2006 debut Real Life, Joan was mainlining positivity. But it wasn’t always the case. Born in Maine, adopted at infancy and raised with her adopted brother in Connecticut before joining New York’s art/music fraternity, she started distorting the pure tones of her classically trained violin through massive speakers, amid the roaring sound of her formative band years in The Dambuilders, Black Beetle and Those Bastard Souls. “Anger only arises from other feelings that you’re not dealing with,” Joan said in 2006. “I’m trying to get deeper.”
She’d already got broader by playing in Antony’s Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright’s band, and being band leader for musical director Hal Willner’s projects, from his Sea Shanties album to the Neil Young tribute (which was performed again at February’s Vancouver Olympics concert). But Joan’s own music has taken centre stage, with its glowing, sultry pulse, but always with a palpable tension and turbulence beneath the apparent serenity. As her new track ‘The Magic’ puts it, “I am fine, I am divine / But there's a wild ride going on behind the sign.” Real Life was a soulful, torchy universe that aligned her with the likes of Annette Peacock, PJ Harvey, Dusty (In Memphis era) Springfield, and Laura Nyro, but also the soulful glow of Al Green. The rapturously acclaimed debut made The Word Magazine’s Best Albums of the Naughties among other accolades), followed up by 2008’s To Survive, which began the process of digging deep to the place where The Deep Field starts, a major leap forward, and then some. The opening ‘Nervous’ is instant proof, with its tribal/urban beat leading into a taut drum intro, Moog bass, surging female back-ups and flaming guitar coda. Joan says she was smitten by Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Bowie, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder too, on The Deep Field, the bliss and funk levels rise. Of the ten songs, three break the six-minute mark – “I wanted the music to feel freer, to be my Maggot Brain!” Joan says, referring to the Funkadelic classic – and all work up a head of steam. Simply, this record cooks. Sometimes it simmers, and by the time she reaches the soaring finale ‘I Was Everyone’, it reaches boiling point.
The energy behind this transition is partly down to the album’s rat-pack of musicians, both old and new to Joan’s records and stage outfits. “I am lucky, living in New York City and playing in so many different situations; I get to choose from the creamiest of the crop. All total bad-ass free-thinkers!” she beams. Producer Bryce Goggin returns for the third time, alongside drummer (and back-up singer) Parker Kindred, Moog bassist and organist Tyler Wood, guitarist Timo Ellis, clavinet virtuoso Chris Brown, bassist Nathan Larson (of Shudder To Think fame, who’s also responsible for the gorgeous R&B-smooth vox on ‘Chemmie’) and Doug Wieselman on horns and that climatic guitar solo on ‘Nervous’. There are five bassists involved – “I wanted different feels for different songs” - three female back-up singers and, among the male voices, Joseph Arthur, whose trademark mahogany baritone was heard on Real Life and Joan’s recent Covers stop-gap album and now guests on ‘Run For Love’, ‘Flash’, ‘Human Condition’ and ‘Forever And A Year’.
But the overriding change has been Joan’s own life - coming to terms with her mother’s passing, surviving a couple of un-nourishing relationships and also turning 40 in July this year. “A lot of people seem to shy away from birthdays, especially their fortieth, but I tend to embrace change; I’ve attempted to do the opposite in the past and boy, does that hurt, and not work,” she declares. “Turning 40 was an opportunity to embrace another level of letting go; of expectations from others, of worn-out voices in my head and generally of any semblance of what I may have once thought I should be. I’ve done a lot to raise my self-esteem. A lot has to do with helping other people. Remember, I am aiming for total freedom here, people.”
One opportunity came by joining Damon Albarn’s Africa Express mission to Ethiopia earlier this year. “I had an unexpectedly cathartic experience. Everywhere we went, on the street or in the clubs, people would start talking to you, asking where you are from and within no time, they had sat you down at their table, introduced you to the guy they were going to marry, their sisters and their husbands, their friends, their parents…Honestly, it made me feel better about talking to anyone and everyone on the NYC subway. It was lovely to be reminded of how we could all communicate with each other, all the time, if we took the chance. There is so much ease there. There is no time or space for worrying about being cool. These people began civilization. They don't have to be concerned with anything. They are the creators of cool.”
In the calm, sultry ‘Human Condition’, Joan sings “I smile at strangers knowing it's alright / When they smile right back at me / I know we agree / That good living requires smiling at strangers.” She calls the track “the crux of the album,” but every track contains personal revelation and emotional collision. ‘Nervous’ concerns what Joan calls “the freedom to admit you’re vulnerable and anxious,” in a new-found relationship, rather than just projecting bravado. A stewing ‘Run For Love’ also involves courtship where both parties are “angling to get with the other, each trying to communicate their interest in the other and that excitement, agitation and anticipation of the new connection.” ‘Chemmie’ is an exclusively positive spin on that dance, experiencing the “undeniable chemistry that soars past logic” that exists between lovers, wrapped up in the form of ‘60s Philly soul. Another of the gentler grooves, ‘Action Man’ even dares to suggest to stop thinking and intellectualizing and just surrender to the here and now (“Ain't we talked enough already / And don't you wanna be the action man? / Let's dance”) inspired by what Joan calls, “the ease,” of Marvin Gaye’s arrangements on his Here My Dear album.
Other songs are on a more singular trip. A forceful ‘The Magic’ involves trying to find, “the alchemy,” to stop the brain spinning into self-destructive obsession. ‘Flash’ – written during a solo trip to Mexico – is a song of self-acceptance, the ‘flash” being the realisation you have moved on without really knowing how. The hazy ‘60s psych folk feel only compliments the hazy mood. ‘Kiss The Specifics’ (which harks back to Real Life’s luminous glide), is “for the lack of a better way to express it, about being in love with being alive. Being grateful.” “I will never be careful what I wish for,” she croons, and means it.
Even more than ‘Flash’, ‘Forever And A Year’ is the album’s most haunting reverie, epitomized by its plea “Give in to the night / the legs of afterglow / the last leap open” and finally “I may go/ As soon as now / So I'm telling you / I love you forever / And this is always sealed / Within the deep deep field.”
Which leaves one very crucial song. ‘I Was Everyone’ closes the album on an ecstatic high, which makes sense given the inspiration was Joan of Arc, who Joan was named after. It’s sung from Joan Of Arc’s perspective, of the self-doubt and self-worth she experienced when receiving visions. As the music reaches boiling point, the lyrics nail the same core as ‘Human Condition; “What if I woke up tomorrow not afraid? / I could decide to trust the voices and take courage…For a moment I could feel it / I could feel it / For a moment I was everyone who had never been quiet / How would I spend my whole life?”
“This idea is very important to me,” Joan concludes. “What if Rosa Parks hadn’t spoken up? What if people didn’t say what they thought? I have to trust myself. It’s a song about honouring oneself.”
Some artists play a part, act stuff out, and like to hide behind imagery. That’s fine, but it’s not for everyone. Some, like Joan, want to communicate direct, to tell the truth, and share the honesty. To honour themselves and their audience. It may be cliché to read about it but wonderful to experience. Because this is real life. This is the deep field.