There was a time for Joan Wasser when walking into a rock club felt like stepping into the ring. It was the ’90s, and she found herself cranking out frenetic violin runs—and shrieking—in frustration-rock band the Dambuilders. “I was always trying to prove that I could do everything that the boys could do,” she says. “I had such an attitude. I had a tough-guy problem. I wanted to be bulletproof.”
You’d never know it based on her latest project, the jazz- and soul-primed outfit oddly named Joan as Police Woman. (The name originated after a friend commented that the then–bleach blonde, polyester-pantsuit–wearing Wasser looked like Angie Dickinson in the ’70s cop show Police Woman.) For many, her new album, Real Life, will seem uncharacteristically mellow and vulnerable. Since the Dambuilders’ breakup 10 years ago, Wasser has kept busy supporting other musicians and, in turn, learning a bit about herself. Touring with Rufus Wainwright as a solo act prepared her for the spotlight, while playing in Antony and the Johnsons taught her that it’s OK to be quiet.
But the biggest challenge for a woman once known for her piercing, tough-guy scream was finding her singing voice. “I wanted to sound like Sarah Vaughan or something,” she says. “Like, ‘Why don’t I sound like that?’ Well, you’re not that.” Wasser eventually settled into a drawling croon that sounds natural and effortless, even as it’s fluttering up into the high notes. And as a whole, Real Life is powerful but delicate, strong but unlikely to pick a fight. The album’s most strangely captivating track, “Eternal Flame,” accents a tune about what it must be like being the Statue of Liberty with lusty whispers and melismatic gospel backups, all provided by Wasser. Other tracks thrive on their simplicity, like the subdued and weary “The Ride” and the dark unrequited-love lament “Christobel.” Mentor Antony co-penned “I Defy,” a soulful duet she described at a recent show as “about being proud of being a freak.”
Though the album has fleeting moments of violin, Wasser now operates mainly on piano and guitar. “All of my emotional outpouring was not happening through the violin any longer, and I was starting to feel crazy,” she says, adding, “You can’t really write songs on the violin.” But she also received help in the studio from bassist Rainy Orteca and drummer Ben Perowsky, who support Wasser’s live sets whenever logistically possible, including an upcoming European tour. Real Life got a warm reception after its release there last year, making Wasser anxious for the stateside debut. “Now that people care overseas, I do want my country to care,” she says. “Just a little bit.”
Joan as Police Woman play the Gramercy Theatre June 6 with Rufus Wainwright, gramercy-theatre.com