It’s been nearly five years since Wears The Trousers first met Joan Wasser in person, and much has changed in the life and times of our favourite Angie Dickinson-referencing should-be megastar. These changes have been chronicled both cryptically and bluntly over the course of three albums – from the psychological journey of discovery that was 2006’s Real Life, through the mournful elegies for her mother and painful self-analysis of 2008’s To Survive, to the comparatively blazing optimism and lovestruck obsession of her latest, greatest record, The Deep Field – and each one seems to have connected with an ever-growing audience on an intellectual, emotional and, when seen live, deep-seated physical level.
You see, there’s something about Joan’s sensuality as a singer that makes us breathe a little differently. You couldn’t really call it relaxing, as her music is often stirring and gorgeously rhythmic, but there’s a vital element of consoling and collecting that sets her apart from other singer-songwriters. The strange thing about Joan’s music is that it seems so carefully put together and yet so exotically, ambiguously hypnotising. Maybe it’s just her wisdom, hard-won and realised, that speaks to us so sincerely, or her flashes of vulnerability; but why explain it away when to pin it down might be to warp its nature? It’s enough to recognise that Joan’s gift is a rare one, but having had several months to digest The Deep Field in all its romance and complexities we thought it was high time that we reconnected with Joan so that she could shed more light on its creation and ambition.
Joan, I hear you turned forty while making this album. Did that have an impact on the songs you were writing?
Yeah, I think it probably did. I was really looking forward to it. I think a lot of people shy away from it, but I really didn’t and I really don’t. It’s because I feel very fortunate to have made it this far, and also I just feel really happy. I’m more happy every day.
That’s great to hear.
It is great, and it’s the point, right? Turning forty was like it signified a reason to just absolutely not give a shit any more. Though I always do a little bit, even if I profess to not; of course I do. I really care but, you know, there’s no time to waste. For some reason it’s allowed me to feel really free from the constructs of every other age.
What did you do to celebrate?
I had a huge party on my roof, with a DJ. It was really fun.
When I first listened to the album I felt very strongly that it was about taking charge of your life without being afraid to let people in.
That’s nice. That’s a great way of putting it!
I think you sing about your obsession with love in some very interesting ways, again, on this record. Is there a song here that comes close to your ultimate statement on that?
These songs are really about ways to different parts of the joy. I guess ‘The Human Condition’ is kind of like the crux of the record. I wanted to write about how fragile and beautiful people are, and I had to figure out how to express that in a way that felt comfortable for me.
You mean to avoid things becoming a little too schmaltzy?
Yeah. I mean, if you read the lyrics to the song they sound pretty schmaltzy, but I hope the song itself is a little bit different. You know, in a lot of other people’s songs that I really love the lyrics do sound pretty schmaltzy, but in the musical context something happens to change your perception. I don’t know what it is, but something does happen.
Let’s talk about the album cover. As soon as I saw it, I instantly thought, okay, it’s like a superhero / Wonder Woman type thing.
Yeah? I didn’t think of that at the time. I like the idea that I could just shoot right up into the sky. You know, it always happens to me where I imagine how a photoshoot is going to be and then I don’t ever use the photo I think I’m going to use. Actually, there’s a photo in the album booklet that’s sort of like the image I thought of using for the cover, like the famous shot of Hughie Newton in a wicker chair. Do you know it?
The one with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other? You have a rifle in yours, too, right?
Yeah…it’s not a real gun though.
Did you decide against it because of the gun?
Not really. We just did a bunch of other photos, and I really liked the one with the fire smoke. And it’s got the throat in there, which is nice.
Yes, and I think the exposed throat together with the defiant pose ties in nicely with my perception of the album. I also like it because it seems like you were finally getting the kind of cover you originally wanted for the last album, which was a sort of goddess Athena type portrait.
Oh yeah, that was a total failure that attempt! That was really funny. Yeah, thank you, it is like that. Absolutely. Like Isis. You’ve got an incredible memory; even I didn’t remember that.
The title of the album suggests that you’re a bit of a science geek. True?
Yeah. I love the idea that the deep field is just part of the sky, which we see every day but don’t really see. The idea of the deep field being what scientists pore over when they study how galaxies are formed is very romantic to me. I just see that as synonymous with our lives, with each person’s life.
You could say hidden depths are part of what ‘The Magic’ relates to.
That’s more of a song about trying to figure out how to calm down my crazy brain, but it can relate to any potentially self-destructive behaviour. It doesn’t have to be the worst stuff. It can just be obsessing about small things; this or that, or whatever, you know. It’s about trying to work out some formula to keep my mind in check.
Did it help?
Yeah! It’s been something I’ve been trying to work out for my whole life. It’s like those annoying things that the more patient you are with yourself about them, the easier they go. It’s just that being patient with yourself is the first and most difficult step. I always think I’ll never get anything done unless I whip myself, and that’s not the answer!
Absolutely. That actually reminds me of you saying that it can take you up to four months to find the right words for a song. That must be really frustrating.
Oh, totally. For a lot of the songs, most of the words will come in one chunk, but the other 15% take longer. I spent a long time finding the right words for ‘I Was Everyone’, and also for ‘For Love’. I just write along the way and if something comes up, I just keep it moving to the end. Well, I try to.
So you must have a pile of books filled with lyrics.
It helps to write words down in books, but usually I’m trying to write words around the melody. I often come up with a few weird things that sort of act as placeholders for the right words, which will come at a later time. It’s just so I can see where the melody sounds best, or whatever.
I read that part of the reason you did the covers album and tour after To Survive was to give yourself a break from the intensity of struggling to come up with songs, as a positive distraction.
Yeah, I was just getting tired of my brain really. I just wanted to see how other people write songs, because I can listen to a song a million times but I won’t ever really know the song until I do it myself; I won’t even really understand what the words mean. I mean, I might never really understand, but actually singing them myself helps to realise what’s going on. At least a little bit. So that was really fun for me, because it was just the joy of making music. I wasn’t obsessing over words, you know, and it helped me to transition into a really good place. I feel really great these days, really positive and happy, and I wanted that to come into the music. I don’t know that I had ever really written anything super happy before. I don’t know if I ever even felt it before! So I wanted to figure out if I could do that.
It definitely comes across, and people seem to have really responded to that. You know, when I have written about your music in your past I always come back to one word, and that’s ‘elegant’. The amount of detail you put into writing your songs really comes across in an elegant way.
Wow, I love that idea! I feel really inelegant most of the time, so that makes me feel really great. I’m totally comfortable with that.
There’s one neat trick you used on your first album that you’ve used again on this one, on ‘Flash’ I think, and that’s using a deep male vocal in place of a bassline. I’m a total believer in the voice as instrument.
Yeah, that’s Joseph Arthur. He knows how to moan, you’re right. He sings on a lot of the songs, actually. You know, this is the first time I’ve ever had other women sing backup on one of my records? Three amazing girls. There’s Toshi Regan, who’s mum Bernice Regan is the person that started [African-American a cappella ensemble] Sweet Honey In The Rock. They’re both incredible. And the other two are Stephanie McKay, who is a friend of Toshi’s, and Michele Zayla, who is one of my best girlfriends. She has a voice that makes me start crying every time I hear her. Every time. She sings like Aretha Franklin or something.
I just wanna take lessons from her. I got the three of them in and I was just like, “Okay, women, work!”, and I got them to do tonnes of beautiful harmony vocals on a bunch of songs.
I love the atmospheric backing vocals on ‘Action Man’. You know, I think that song, for me, is the one on this record that really stands out in the sense that you’ve always professed to being a feminist and a no-nonsense, independent woman but also willing to be vulnerable, and here’s you challenging a guy you like by saying, “C’mon and take charge, or try to.”
I think a lot of women feel like we’re doing everything, and of course I love that but sometimes it’s nice to have someone else to take charge: “It’s great talking, but let’s see some action!” It doesn’t happen often, and there are times when it gets to the point where I’m flustered when someone actually steps up. Which is also kinda nice.
Ah. And that’s part of what you sing about in ‘Nervous’.
Yes, exactly. It’s great when things tie together.
Joan releases her new single, ‘Chemmie’, on Monday (August 1). Peep the video below. Catch her on tour this summer at the following venues:
31.08.11 Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh
01.09.11 Duchess, York
02.09.11 End Of The Road Festival, Dorset
04.09.11 Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Ireland
05.09.11 The Sage, Gateshead
06.09.11 St Philips Church, Salford
07.09.11 Institute, Birmingham
09.09.11 Shepherds Bush Empire, London