Using "beauty is the new punk rock" as her credo, Joan Wasser took center stage as Joan as Police Woman after years of being a supporting player and collaborator. Wasser's project blends two of the most profound influences on her music: the classic soul of legends such as Al Green and Nina Simone, and experimental underground acts ranging from Sonic Youth to Bad Brains. With her gorgeously heartfelt 2006 debut album, Real Life, she established herself as a singer/songwriter capable of a rare combination of vulnerability and sophistication. She maintained that reputation even as she added new dimensions to her music with each album, whether it was the jazz leanings of 2011's The Deep Field, the celebration of vintage soul on 2014's The Classic, or the blend of traditional and avant-garde sounds on 2018's Damned Devotion.
An adopted child, Wasser began playing piano at age six and 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. She 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. In 1995, the band appeared on that year's Lollapalooza tour in support of their album Ruby Red; on 1997's Against the Stars, Wasser co-wrote a number of songs. During this time, 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.
The following year, Wasser joined Placebo for their MTV Unplugged performance and debuted 2001, her project with Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis, with the single "Broke Me in Two." After bonding with Davis over their 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 — the pair drew on Central African Republic Pygmy musical patterns, which they played on guitar and keyboards, for 2016's Let It Be You. In 2017, Wasser performed with Daniel Johnston on a date of his final tour. The next year, she released Damned Devotion, a return to the stripped-down sound of Real Life and To Survive. The retrospective Joanthology, which included a Live at the BBC performance as well as previously unreleased tracks, appeared in May 2019. ~ Heather Phares