Described by Joan Wasser as "punk rock R&B" and "American soul music," Joan as Police Woman combines two of the biggest influences on her music: classic soul such as Al Green and Nina Simone and the rougher experimental sounds of Sonic Youth and Bad Brains. The mix never sounds contrived, thanks to the intuitive interplay of Wasser's vocals, violins, and guitar, Rainy Orteca's bass, and Ben Perowsky's percussion in the first version of the group. Later, Wasser employed a varied cast of collaborators.
Wasser, who has played with everyone from the Scissor Sisters to Lou Reed, began playing violin at age eight while attending grade school in Norwalk, Connecticut. At Boston University, she studied violin with Yuri Mazurkevich and also played with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, and expanded her horizons to rock with local acts including Hot Trix (which featured Autoclave member and Helium founder Mary Timony) and the Dambuilders, who went on to national success. Wasser also played with Timony and Shudder to Think's Nathan Larson in Mind Science of the Mind, who released their self-titled album in 1996. The following year, the Dambuilders disbanded and Wasser's boyfriend, Jeff Buckley, accidentally drowned in Memphis, Tennessee. Wasser kept on making music, collaborating with the Grifters' Dave Shouse and Buckley's former guitarist Michael Tighe in Those Bastard Souls in the late '90s, and then with Tighe in Black Beetle, which folded in the early 2000s.
Along with working as a violinist for hire with artists as diverse as Sheryl Crow, Hal Willner, Rufus Wainwright, and Antony and the Johnsons, Wasser developed her own songwriting, and formed Joan as Police Woman in 2002. The band released its first single, My Gurl, early in 2003, and self-released the Joan as Police Woman EP in 2004. Joan as Police Woman signed to the British label Reveal, which issued their full-length debut, Real Life, in summer 2006, along with the Eternal Flame, Christobel, and The Ride singles. Real Life was released in the U.S. in summer 2007. To Survive, which featured a cameo by Rufus Wainwright, followed in 2008. For 2011's The Deep Field, Wasser reteamed with Bryce Goggin, co-producer of Real Life, and took a happier, more upbeat approach. This uplifting feeling continued on 2014's The Classic, which channeled the feel of vintage soul albums in its often joyous songs. On 2016's Let It Be You, Wasser worked with Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis. When they met, the pair bonded over their separate trips to Africa: Wasser traveled to Ethiopia to work on Damon Albarn's Africa Express project, while Davis went to West Africa to study the region's traditional music. For the album, they drew on Central African Republic Pygmy musical patterns, which they played on more conventional rock instruments such as guitar and keyboards. ~ Heather Phares