Born at the Saint Andre Home in Biddeford, Maine, to an unmarried teenage mother, Wasser was given up for adoption at infancy. She was raised in Norwalk, Connecticut, with her adoptive younger brother Dan, who is a visual artist. She credits her background as an adopted child with her "very extroverted" personality and dressing up a lot. She explained that "when you are in a situation where you're not blood-related to your family, it does become extremely obvious that you're born with your personality". |
Wasser began piano lessons at age six and had her first violin lessons at age eight. She played violin in school and community orchestras before leaving Norwalk for her college studies. At the age of 18, Wasser began her music career during her studies at the College of Fine Arts, Boston University, where she was an early admittance student. She studied music under, among others, Yuri Mazurkevich and played with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. Wasser soon grew disillusioned and found that she "didn't want to make classical music my life, the Beethoven symphonies have already been played a million times and I am not going to do it any better." Instead she joined a number of local punk bands trying "to bridge the gap between the guitar and the bass and play the violin really loud."
In 1991, Wasser joined the Dambuilders who were signed to Elektra Records in 1994. Wasser featured on three albums as a violinist. The band played a number of shows on the East Coast, and found an admirer in Colin Greenwood of Radiohead. On stage, Wasser managed to stand out with "bright costumes and dyed, often dreadlocked hair". In 1995, the band appeared on Lollapalooza followed by the release of the album Ruby Red. Wasser augmented her role within the band, adding guitar and keyboard parts, singing vocals, as well as co-writing several songs as found on the album Against the Stars.
Wasser first began to make a name for herself in the indie rock world during her time in The Dambuilders as she developed her aggressive style of playing, which led to work outside the group. Wasser moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1996, while The Dambuilders disbanded in October 1997.
In May 1997, her boyfriend of three years, musician Jeff Buckley, drowned accidentally in Memphis. She found it "such a traumatic experience of loss. I needed to grieve but I didn't know how." She continued to play with Those Bastard Souls, a band started in 1995 by a close friend of the couple, Dave Shouse of the Grifters. They made a record entitled Debt & Departure attempting to respond to Buckley's death. In late 1997, she created a band with the remaining members of Buckley's band called Black Beetle and finished an eponymous album that was never released. This was the first project where she was writing as well as fronting a band. She commented that, "I found singing terrifying at first, I didn't know about the boundaries of my voice and I had no idea what words I wanted to say. The violin had been my voice for so long."
In 1999, Joan joined Antony and the Johnsons, initially as a violinist, but eventually as a full-time member. She contributed to their Mercury Prize-winning album, I Am a Bird Now. She explained that she, "was called up to stand in for another violinist but by the end of the rehearsal (she) was in the band." The experience was, "like a renaissance," and that she, "was surrounded by gentle people and quiet music, [...] I had a space to let go."
While working with others, Wasser began to develop her own material, which she described as sounding, "like old Al Green records." She focused on guitar and singing as, "for a long time, I was really content with playing violin, [...] and then all of a sudden it wasn't enough." The end of Black Beetle in June 2002 brought the beginning of Wasser's work as a solo artist and the creation of a new band, Joan as Police Woman. The name was a reference to the TV series Police Woman featuring Angie Dickinson. Wasser found the actress inspirational as, "she was really powerful but sexy at the same time" in the role. She also preferred, "the name to be funny because, although my music is serious, I like to laugh at tragedy." She formed a new trio in New York City together with Ben Perowsky on drums and Rainy Orteca on bass. Perowsky also co-produced the EP that also featured contributions by Oren Bloedow, Dave Derby and Erik Sanko. She co-wrote the song "My Gurl" with Michael Tighe. The group self-released a five-track eponymous EP in 2004, as Wasser had, "decided to do it without a record deal because I wanted to make music on my own terms." In February 2004, Rufus Wainwright asked her to join his band on tour providing backing vocals and strings. In the second half of the year, she joined Joseph Arthur on tour as a violinist.
In December 2005, Wasser signed a distribution deal with Reveal Records, a British indie label, which subsequently re-released the self-titled debut EP, while adding one track. The Joan as Police Woman's full-length debut, Real Life, appeared in the UK on June 12, 2006 and through PIAS in Europe and elsewhere. She embarked on a tour around Europe where she played a mixture of headlining shows and support slots, including the Guillemots.
The album was eventually released in the USA on June 12, 2007 on Cheap Lullaby Records based in Los Angeles. In early 2008, Real Life won in The 7th Annual Independent Music Awards for Best Pop/Rock Album. The album included three singles, "Christobel", "The Ride", and "Eternal Flame", which was supported by a video directed by Leah Meyerhoff.
Her second album, To Survive, was released in June 2008 and featured Rufus Wainwright on the song "To America". The title referred to the loss of her mother to cancer, where she felt encouraged "to talk about it, [to] put it into words and get it out there”. It was recorded with Rainy Orteca and Parker Kindred, an old friend and drummer of her previous band Black Beetle. The album reached No. 43 in Uncut's review of the year 2008, as well as in Q Magazine's top 50. Musically it was described as having "dance-floor soul and indie-rock influences".
With Rainy Orteca departing to pursue her own projects, Wasser and Kindred were joined by Timo Ellis on bass guitar for touring in 2008.
At the end of her 2009 European tour, Wasser returned to New York to play a show and release a new album of cover songs, entitled Cover.
In 2011 she released her third album, The Deep Field. It contained the singles "The Magic", "Nervous" and "Chemmie".
On March 10, 2014, Joan released her fourth album, The Classic, featuring the single "Holy City", featuring a video filmed by Alex de Campi.
In 2016, Wasser collaborated with Benjamin Lazar Davis and released the album Let It Be You in October. It was preceded by the single "Broke Me In Two". The album received mixed reviews, with DIY noting it as an "curiously unbalanced album", while allmusic.com described it as "a collection of appealingly loose, lush songs full of creativity". The duo followed the release by a UK tour.
The album Damned Devotion was released on February 9, 2018. Emily Mackay, writing for The Guardian, describes Wasser's return to her "characteristically languorous, smoky zone".
Before the album release Wasser released the single Tell Me, with its plea for openness and intimacy. "I am always wanting more intimate dialogue," says Joan Wasser. "Fear of being vulnerable, future tripping and feelings of shame, paranoia and jealousy get in the way. You got to separate now what’s real, what’s not real – stop using jealousy (not real) as a way to avoid having to clarify and tell me what you really want (real). Why don’t we try trusting each other enough to be fully transparent? What is there to lose?"
The album Joanthology was released on May 24, 2019.
Studio albums on the site, download: