Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Goodbye and Hello: Joan as Police Woman

Birds are shrieking through the trees all over Rushcutter’s Bay. It is as if something violent and tuneful is going on at once as we sit on a hotel sundeck and take in the riot around us. “Birds are cool,” says Joan Wasser in an accent that fairly drips with New York tang, “but your Australian birds, o my god, I’ve never seen or heard anything like them. I mean, look at that… thing,” she says, pointing to a creature that appears to be part-pterodactyl, part pelican. “What do you call that?”

In scuffed boots and blue jeans, with a diamond-shaped, lapus lazuli ring that seems to cover her entire middle finger, Wasser is something of an odd bird herself. She has just flown in from Spain for the Australian leg of a 2007 world tour to promote her debut album Real Life. Not to put too fine a point on it, she looks like the rock ‘n’ roll bitch you don’t want to mess with.

And yet there’s something a little kooky about Wasser that belies the sultry glower. Better known by her musical moniker, Joan as Police Woman (inspired by the 1970s Angie Dickinson TV program) she will appear in a golden ball gown at her Sydney solo show two nights later, shimmying her shoulders and throwing round stage-patter as if the disco-fied Courtney Love in her were periodically channeling Lucille Ball.

The woman who inspired Jeff Buckley to write ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ is not someone to put in any kind of box. Long after Buckley’s death in 1997, Wasser has affirmed that by singing a few lines back to her old lover: “Just in case you never knew, I can’t be the lighter of your eternal flame”. One of the truly great songs of the last year, ‘Eternal Flame’ was a beautiful, even confronting way for someone to finally say farewell: “No, I can’t stain your white lace baby, not even you can stain your white lace baby.”

A decade may have passed, but Buckley’s death is still not an easy subject to broach, song or no song. Eventually, though, Wasser does start to talk – and every word has its weight. “Meeting Jeff…” she says, pausing for a while then starting over again. “We had a really special thing. Both of us felt safe for the first time ever. And you start to open up with someone when you feel safe. That’s where we were at when it happened.”

“It was such a strange thing that he did,” Wasser says, referring to the impulsive walk Buckley took, boots and all, into the Wolf River in Memphis, singing out a fragment of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ to the night, only to be swept away and drowned. “But that’s the way things happened... I’d never experienced a death close to me before. A part of me definitely died with him. But another part was opened up,” she says, un-folding her fist in her lap. “It took a long time and there was so much chaos after he died for me. But hopefully you learn. You learn.”

A project called Black Beetle, which involved her fronting Buckley’s old band in the wake of his death, dissolved after a year and half of abandoned recordings. Classically trained in both violin and piano, Wasser had previously distinguished herself with dervish wildness as an instrumentalist in her first major group The Dambuilders. She would continue playing with everyone from Antony and the Johnsons to Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Sparklehorse. But it was her working relationship with Antony, in particular, that would transform her. “At that stage Antony was really obsessed with playing soft. I learnt a lot from that. Antony is so supportive. A lot can happen through his guidance. He’s always holding you, even if he’s not near you.”

Broadly describing her refreshed and softened sound as “American soul music”, Real Life came on like Roberta Flack fronting Steely Dan. It certainly vindicated the My Space website slogan for Joan as Police Woman: “beauty is the new punk rock”. Almost out of the blue, Joan as Police Woman was put beside the UK’s Beth Orton and Canada’s Feist when it came to women producing pop music of profound subtlety and range.

A year has passed, and the 38-year-old Wasser and I are talking once more. This time by phone, about her second album To Survive, and strangely enough about death again. During the making of To Survive, Wasser lost her mother to cancer. Both Wasser and her younger brother were adopted, but she feels only grateful for this and the arts-loving, mixed race family she became a part of. “You learn that family is about the people you grew up; the people who stand by you; the people who love you unconditionally.”

“We all knew she [her mother] was going to go,” Wasser says, “it was just a matter of when. I mean, we’re all gonna go! But when you know there is a lot less time it makes you appreciate the time you have left. I tried to take advantage of talking to her a lot and sharing her memories. ‘To Survive’, especially, is written from her perspective.

“I think the older you get the more you find that people around you are dying,” Wasser says with a surprising laugh. “You can feel very depressed about that or you can really grasp it and be reminded that there’s a time limit for you too. Because it does go fast, incredibly fast, unbelievably fast. I really hope that feeling is on the [new] record.”

The feeling that time slips away, I ask? “Yes,” she says. “And the hopefulness that remains because you are lucky enough to be here.”

If Real Life’s roots were in dance-floor soul with a streak of indie rock insouciance, To Survive shows off Joan as Police Woman’s jazzier influences, the like of which I can only compare to an urbane white girl, jazz-pop classic like Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Though not as instantly grabbing as Real Life, To Survive has the same dark shine and continuously evolving arrangements that bear repeated listens. Wasser suspects the forward moving song structures are to do with having lived on the road for so long in the wake of Real Life’s success. “I use songwriting to keep myself alive,” she says, “I mean mentally alive. When you are on tour for so long you can start to feel like a ghost.”

It’s a feeling that emerges on a grand scale in ‘To America’, a much lauded duet with Rufus Wainwright that sounds like a Broadway musical lament for the nation as well as a love affair. “I wrote that for us to sing because Rufus and I were in similar positions in our lives,” Wasser says. “We feel the same way about our country and we were also dealing with similar personal situations, with both our mums with cancer. The bulk of that song, the verses are about letting go and allowing what happens to happen even if it’s extremely painful.”

“Cancer, though, is not emotional. It goes until it is done. It seemed similar in some way to what is happening to our country too. Leaders so blatantly and uncaringly not connected to their actions, like some disease taking over, I just don’t understand...” Wasser’s voice trails off before she begins again enthusiastically. “The song works pretty well on all those levels I think. And Rufus is a great singer. He doesn’t sound too shabby our Rufus; not too shabby at all.”

Apart from her mother’s presence one also senses the shadow of an abusive relationship affecting the record. Wasser only comment is “a lot of troubling things were going on. And I did make it through. Yes, there was a personal relationship that I am not dealing with any longer, I am thankful to say.”

“But you know, music is a place where I can go to feel. It was true when I was a kid and it’s still like that for me now,” she says. “The way I feel better when I am feeling desperate is to go to music, to a song, that is full of sorrow. If I can share that in music, or go to music that makes me feel more of that feeling, it’s like a way of letting it out.

“I’ve got so much from music in my life and I feel responsible about giving back to it. On this record I took a lot of chances lyrically, to help me, to help others I hope. I’d write something and think that’s horrible, that’s way too revealing, that’s way too honest. Then a day or two later I’d see it was the most important thing to leave in. It surprised people I know well, the people I would call up crying to on the phone! They’d say ‘I never knew you felt like this Joan’,” she says. “Everyone always thinks I’m so ‘strong’.”

“I’m on a path of trying to be more honest, and that includes being more vulnerable because I think that is the place of power. It’s not like I’ve ‘arrived’ or anything, it’s an ongoing process, but when you can say this is where my weakness lies it’s not your point of weakness any more. It’s the way to personal freedom.”

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared under the title 'Music is a place where I can go to feel' in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, August 9-10, 2008.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Network Freedom

Who are you? In a year bookended by James Cameron's Avatar and David Fincher's The Social Network, this was the central theme, as our lives were absorbed into an accelerating digital culture made up of iPhones, iPads, iTunes, Twitter, Wii, X-Box, PlayStation, YouTube and Facebook.

Thanks to the communications revolution, the notion of a mass consciousness - and, indeed, something like Jung's collective unconscious - has become fundamentally material to daily existence.

The digital realm provides a high-octane and interconnected environment in which we can all become immersed. That we are more likely to drown in it than breathe freely is one of its more miserable ironies.

It's not the first time artists have dealt with questions of identity, or the tensions between one's inner life and public face.

A reading of Jane Austen's Emma or an examination of Rembrandt's self-portraits reveal messages about status, role-play and how the self is snared between what is projected and what is interpreted.

Even the idea of fractured identity has been visited many times before: in cubist art, in the psychedelic rock music of the late 1960s, in Albert Camus's The Outsider, in Andy Warhol's pop art, in David Bowie's creation of an avatar, the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust.

But our ability to construct a public identity on Facebook pages, blogs, YouTube videos and the like has intensified, inviting self-evaluation as well as self-obsession.

Even gaming is an extension of this: the participation in another realm where we become somebody or something else until all our energy is spent, leaving us with what Shakespeare described in Macbeth as a tale "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

I'm not sure how much of this was behind writer-director James Cameron's thinking in Avatar.

But he certainly tried to promote it as a story of an ecological warrior of the future, told with a highly evolved videogame aesthetic, and deeply indebted to Joseph Campbell's archetypal storytelling model, The Hero's Journey.

Avatar is not only a green fable or a veiled critique of the hi-tech vanities of the Iraq war: it addresses a broader need to attach stories to sensations if we are to have a meaningful relationship with our real world and the one that exists somewhere out there in the digitised dreaming places we now share.

Fincher's vision in The Social Network is altogether bleaker, despite the frat house partying and nerdy sandals worn by its bland antihero, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The film focuses on Zuckerberg's ability to betray everyone in his path as well as make the most out of our basest desires for sex, money and status. In many ways it's a Faustian tale, as Zuckerberg sells his soul to a demon that's a mix of corporate success and technological vision.

By the end the Facebook founder reminded me of a character out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel such as Less than Zero: freakishly undeveloped and naturally detached. As the credits roll he sits at his personal computer (don't you love those two words) trying to "friend" an ex-girlfriend through his own network while we are blankly informed he is now the youngest billionaire on the planet.

The film owes a lot to the script by Aaron Sorkin, best known for his busy Machiavellian work on the TV political series The West Wing. It also mirrors the feeding frenzy that social networking and online commentary invite: overlapping, not-quite-in-step posts that come thick and fast, not flowing so much as jagging along in a sequence of jokes, snipes, trivialities and asides.

Sorkin's screenplay tears away at illusions about the web as a democratising force. Instead it depicts something closer to group-inspired narcissism, with Facebook's founder at the rotten core. It makes you feel bad about taking part in its ether.

And yet the film is an illusion as docudrama, its authority as an individual portrait and a modern history lesson open to question. In an interview with New York magazine, Sorkin said, "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy's sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?"

This tension between truth and storytelling is part of the difficult new aesthetic frontier, as nonfiction and fiction converge in the stories we are being told. It may be that we are simply learning all over again that identity is a fabrication and a shifting enterprise, depending on who we are with and where we are.

This may also explain our fascination with memoirs and biographies, although it's all too easy to forget Arthur Rimbaud's formulation: "I is another". Even when using the first person, a writer is constructing a mask of some kind.

Jonathan Franzen takes this question of identity to a new level in his latest novel, Freedom. It's my contention that Freedom's success is precisely due to the richness of identity on offer.

We increasingly think we know everyone and everything via the advantages of social networking and digital communications, but the truth is our insights have only become thinner, feebler and more instantaneous.

Franzen's novel gives us back a little complexity and elusiveness, some time to slow down and think again as we read. His characters grow and change, twist and turn. He shows us that, often, we are not even who we think we are. It's a treatment of character that is not only more authentic, but more compassionate.

It's this empathy in Freedom that suggests the novel may still be the most important machine we have for looking both inwards and outwards in the so-called digital age. Its silence and solitude are the real commodities we crave in a faster, brighter, brasher world.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Australian Arts pages, December 22, 2010.