She's got skills on vocals, guitar, violin, piano and organ. Tours the world. Shared part of her life with the remarkable late-singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley. Collaborated with Scissor Sisters, Antony & The Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. And Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Police Woman — hipster aloofness be damned — is genuinely grateful for every single thing.
Photo: Erica Beckman
“I feel like every experience I've had is filtered into music,” Wasser muses. She hopes her newest album, To Survive (Cheap Lullaby, 2008), will “communicate love…and the way time affects love. Learning to feel comfortable in my aloneness is a theme; others are the way we deal with our fears and my frustration with our world leaders' lack of morality.”
Wasser began writing songs for this album in October 2005, even as the recording of her previous set, Real Life (Cheap Lullaby, 2007), was in-progress. To Survive's sessions began in October 2007 with bandmates Rainy Orteca and Parker Kindred at Bryce Goggin's Trout Recording in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I know it sounds crazy to go directly into the studio off of a tour, but I was determined to get the feel of the new songs,” she explains.
Each musician's personal arsenal was fairly compact, with Wasser favoring a Lomo 19A19 mic for her voice. Instruments were more diverse. “I play a mid-'60s Guild Archtop, a Wurlitzer 200A, a Kawai 6-foot Baby Grand Piano, an original Roland Juno, a baby Martin acoustic, my five-string violin, a Baldwin organ and a vintage Moog Rogue,” she says. “Rainy plays a Fender MusicMaster bass using D'Addario light-gauge strings and a Tech 21 Bass Compactor. Parker uses a '64 Ludwig jazz kit with a Gretsch snare.”
Goggin tracked the sessions on a Neve 8028, with basics recorded to a Studer A80 MKI 16-track 2-inch and bounced into Pro Tools HD at 96 kHz through Mytek converters. “We mixed to an Ampex AG-440 ¼-inch at 15 ips for full analog glory,” Wasser enthuses. Fred Kevorkian handled mastering duties at New York City's Kevorkian Mastering.
Wasser found Goggin's facility inspiring. “His studio is a museum, a treasure trove of gorgeous old gear — but no yellow leather couches or million-dollar espresso machines. It's for working, not lounging. I always feel honored to be working there.” Close quarters and officelike hours were additional assets.
“We worked from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” she confirms. “It's good to have a start and end point. My head can get fried beyond my knowledge in sessions with no end. We recorded the basics in one room with the console, all close together.”
While Real Life was tracked “in pieces,” To Survive was recorded all at once, giving the set a more consistent feel. “It's more one galaxy rather than pieces of an entire solar system,” she describes.
Several of Wasser's favorite guitarists visited that galaxy — Timo Ellis, Nathan Larson and Ed Pastorini — plus Doug Wieselman on horn arrangements and Maxim Moston (Antony & The Johnsons) on string arrangements. “I'd arranged and recorded all the strings myself previously,” Wasser says. “This time, I got to sit back and listen.”
Experimenting surfaced, too, most notably on Wasser's favorite To Survive song, “The Start of My Heart.” “I'd been looking forward to integrating analog synth sounds and made almost a tribute to Eno with the Juno sound I used and Nathan's Robert Fripp-like guitar,” Wasser remembers. “I like the combination of elements and The Rayettes-style backups.”
Another successful experiment: her duet with Rufus Wainwright on “To America,” captured with a Blue-modified U 47, Langevin AM16 mic preamps and Neve 2254 limiter/compressors.
“I wanted an operatic-style duet, and I wrote it a little higher because I wanted him to work. When a great singer sings in his comfortable range, it sounds great, but I wanted it to sound very emotional. “
Recording seems to be what works best for Wasser. “There is no place I'd rather be,” she says. Although she's grateful for touring, which she calls “an incredible experience that taxes you in ways you might not expect,” it's the studio that feeds her creative being. That's something she both appreciates and thinks everyone should do.
“If you're not already making music, do not hesitate to start. If you think you can't do it, stop thinking. Just do. It will enhance your life.”