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‘It Was so Emotional and Crazy—It Felt Just Mystical’: Joan As Police Woman on Working with The Late Tony Allen

Joan As Police Woman will return to Australia for a headline tour this May–June. Rolling Stone Australia speaks to Joan Wasser about the project’s latest album, ‘The Solution Is Restless’.

Image of Joan As Police Woman

Giles Clement*

Joan Wasser lives and breathes music. No, really. The artist known as Joan As Police Woman lives in a loft apartment in a converted factory building in Brooklyn, New York. The space is a grateful mess of keyboards, guitars, a piano, recording equipment, and “way too many books and records.”

Wasser has been a restless recording and touring artist going back two decades. After singing and playing violin in the backing bands of Rufus Wainwright and Anohni, Wasser released Joan As Police Woman’s debut album, Real Life, in 2006. Wasser’s most recent studio album, The Solution Is Restless, is her ninth overall. 

For The Solution Is Restless, Wasser shares primary artist credits with drummer Tony Allen and guitarist Dave Okumu. Though, Wasser did the bulk of the heavy lifting while waiting out the pandemic in Brooklyn. “I just worked on this, like, 14 hours a day,” she says, speaking to Rolling Stone Australia ahead of an Australian headline tour this June.

In the nonfiction essay, “Something to do,” British author Zadie Smith ponders the question, “Why do I write?” Smith, who’s one of the foremost literary novelists of the 21st century, concludes that she writes to have “something to do”. In “Peonies”, another essay from Smith’s 2020 collection, Intimations, the author is sceptical of the idea that writing is a “creative” practice. “Planting tulips is creative,” Smith says. But writing, “Writing is control.”

As COVID-19 tore through New York City in 2020, Wasser needed something to do, and so she applied herself to sculpting and refining the songs that constitute The Solution Is Restless. “I had no control of what was happening, and the city was in this state of terror,” she says. “So, I just used the time to go into the place that has always saved me, which has been music.”

Nearly twenty-thousand coronavirus deaths were recorded in New York City between February 29th and June 1st, 2020. Wasser lost two friends and professional allies in this period. The first was New York-based music producer and director, Hal Willner, who died of Covid at the beginning of April 2020, at the age of 64.

The second was legendary Nigerian drummer, Tony Allen, who, in conjunction with his collaborator, Fela Kuti, helped develop and grow the 1970s Afrobeat sound, which built on West African highlife and American jazz influences. Allen died of a non-COVID illness in his Paris home in late April 2020. He was 79.

“It was the craziest time,” says Wasser. “It was like, ‘What next?’” 

Wasser and Willner had been close since the early-2000s, but Wasser and Allen didn’t meet until 2019. Allen remained an active musical collaborator until the end of his life. In the 2000s and 2010s, he played with Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon in The Good, the Bad & the Queen, collaborated with South African jazz guru Hugh Masekela, and guested on tracks by French artists Sébastien Tellier and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Albarn introduced Wasser to Allen, and after performing together at an Africa Express concert in London, Wasser suggested they do some recording. Allen acquiesced and in late 2019, Wasser, Allen and Dave Okumu spent an afternoon and evening jamming at Midilive, a recording studio in the Paris neighbourhood of Villetaneuse. The Solution Is Restless is rooted in these jam sessions. 

“At that time, I thought, ‘Well, when I have some time, I will go through these tracks and see what’s there and see if there’s anything to write from,’” says Wasser of the Paris recordings. “I didn’t know what I would get—maybe one song, maybe three songs.”

Building songs from improvisational jam sessions is a bit like solving a puzzle. But despite Wasser’s modest expectations, the Midilive recordings gave rise to all ten songs on The Solution Is Restless, including the record’s hypnotic twelve-minute opener, “The Barbarian,” and thematically resonant eight-minute closer, “Reaction.”

“I just mined the tracks so deeply and did so much editing and created ten songs from quite a little bit of material,” Wasser says.

To be clear, Wasser always knew the Paris recordings were special. She and Okumu—who leads the UK art-rock and post-punk outfit The Invisible—got to the studio before Allen and were jamming on what became the single, “Geometry Of You,” when Allen sat down at the drums.

“What we were playing already felt really good,” says Wasser. But when Allen—who Brian Eno described as “the greatest living drummer” at age 70—slipped into the groove, the song was transformed. “It felt like he just lifted us off the ground,” Wasser says. “Dave and I looked at each other and we had to not cry. It was so emotional and crazy—it felt just mystical.”

Allen’s contributions help distinguish The Solution Is Restless from all previous Joan As Police Woman albums. The arrangements are lither and more impressionistic, but Wasser’s writing is no less melodic. Wasser’s touring drummer, Parker Kindred, now has the unenviable task of transposing Allen’s parts for the Joan As Police Woman live show

Tracks from The Solution Is Restless will feature prominently in the setlist for the upcoming Australian tour, and Wasser says Kindred—who she’s been working with since 2008’s To Survive—has it under control.

“Parker was really daunted. He was like, ‘What the fuck am I going to so with this?’ And then he just really did it—he just really embodied Tony’s parts and then made them his own. It was spectacular and really emotional to feel what he did with it.”

Joan As Police Woman 2022 Australian Tour

May 28th
The Astor, Perth, WA
Tickets via Ticketek

May 31th
The Gov, Adelaide, SA
Tickets via Oztix

June 2nd
Palais Theatre, St Kilda, VIC
Tickets via Ticketmaster

June 3rd
State Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Tickets via Ticketmaster

June 4th
The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD
Tickets via Ticketmaster