Talking With Ghosts
Joan Wasser recorded the collaboration of a lifetime. Then disaster struck
Tony Allen was the last musician to arrive at Midilive Studios, in the Parisian suburb of Villetaneuse, early on the evening of Nov. 13, 2019. He strolled past his playing partners for the night, Joan Wasser and Dave Okumu, and headed directly for a drum kit already set up to his specs by the engineers; the man Brian Eno once called "the world's greatest drummer" was not a stranger to the space. Allen put on headphones and immediately played one of his signature drum fills, the kind that effortlessly evokes both an accidental stumble and a brilliant equation. Then he stopped. "Where's the click?" he asked.
Wasser, who had organized the session, answered: "We're not using a click." Her hope, she explained, was to create a less regimented, more imaginative and free-flowing recording atmosphere, without any unneeded technological stress, even if it meant forgoing the metronome track musicians use in the studio to stay in time. "Is that OK with you?" Allen assented, and the three gathered in a close circle to play — Okumu on bass to Allen's right, separated by a small partition to minimize bleed, and Wasser on keys facing Okumu. When the drummer restarted, the other two wandered into his watery rhythm, and fit right in. "All of a sudden, we were floating," Wasser would later tell me on a sun-splashed October afternoon in the backyard of a Brooklyn restaurant, a smile dawning on her face. "It was so easy."
The trio played for several hours without stopping, broke for dinner, then came back for more. In their improvising, three sets of cultural references — Allen with his unique take on West African rhythm, Wasser the prodigious songwriter sketching soulful rock-pop impressions, Okumu's melting-pot London studio acumen fueling and midwifing their shared pluralism — overlapped, synthesizing a fusion-like global funk. Okumu would describe the session as "a kind of reverie, intimate and profound," and you can hear it in the deep crevices of the tapes, where a between-song interlude captures the gregarious Wasser joking about turning this one-time engagement into a weekly gathering: The men's laughter in response sounds uninhibited, full-bodied, like spiritual comfort as a creative mood. When Wasser finally put Allen and Okumu in a cab afterwards, she thought to herself, "One day I will make a record, or something, with this."
A few months later, she found herself with all the time in the world to figure it out. The spring 2020 tour that her band Joan as Police Woman had scheduled to promote a new album was canceled, and she holed up in her Brooklyn apartment, locked down like the rest of us. Over the course of the pandemic's first few destabilizing weeks, Wasser listened to the session's tapes, sifting and organizing their sounds and stretches, getting lost and found in the music. Yet the darkness outside kept infringing. On April 7 came word that music producer Hal Willner, whom she describes as "one of my mentors," had succumbed to COVID-19. Then, on April 30, she received a call from France. Her friend Tony Allen, the drummer who partnered with Fela Kuti in the 1960s and '70s to invent Afrobeat, and who over the past three decades popularized that beat among globally minded indie rockers, hip-hop and dance music producers, and jazz musicians, had died at 79 from an aortic aneurysm. "That was the beginning," Wasser told me, of the album she would come to finally release at the twilight of 2021 — credited to all three artists and titled The Solution Is Restless.
Joan Wasser grew up a suburban Connecticut child of AM radio pop, and mutated into a violin prodigy who smoked weed and learned Rush tunes with the math geeks. She suffered high school with a multivalent music education, mastering Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony with the all-state orchestra and selling Jolt Cola at an all-ages punk club, where she acquired a DIY feminist perspective watching the likes of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and The Fall's Brix Smith. Arriving at Boston University on a classical music path, she befriended guitarist Mary Timony (later of Helium), fell into Boston's indie rock scene, and by 1993 was singing and playing electric violin in The Dambuilders, a band that industry powerhouse Sylvia Rhone signed to Elektra during the great alternative rock boom. Though the quartet peaked commercially on the second stage of Lollapalooza, its hard-touring etiquette gave a rough exterior to the first chapter of Wasser's career. "Just being around men all the time, I had such a 'tough guy problem,' " she says, referencing an early Dambuilders release. "The route I took was: 'I can drink you under the table. I can carry that 215 bass cabinet by myself. No, I'm not someone's girlfriend in the band. Thank you. F*** off!'"
Her second chapter was largely spent in the shadow of a relationship with singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley — or, more precisely, under the dark cloud of his May 1997 death. The two were engaged just a few days before Buckley accidentally drowned in the Mississippi River, during the recording of his follow-up to Grace. Wasser was 26 at the time.
"It changed my life so profoundly," she says, "and it got me on a very clear trajectory of thinking about death." She briefly formed a band, Black Beetle, with the members of Buckley's group, and though their main mission was medicating their sadness — they never released any music — Wasser says that post-traumatic period was one of creative growth. By the early aughts she was a presence among the left-field experimentalists hanging around Tonic, one of downtown Manhattan's last great music outposts. And as a go-to electric violinist, you could find her onstage as a member of Antony and the Johnsons, alongside any number of downtown jazz players, in both John Cale and Lou Reed's bands, at a studio session for Sheryl Crow or RZA, or in one of Willner's conceptual all-star projects.
Joan as Police Woman was born to augment that diffuse sideperson career with something of her own. The moniker was a gift from a friend, who saw the lifelong fashion maven in a powder-blue pantsuit and called it out as an homage to the 1970s TV cop drama starring Angie Dickinson. Yet the stage name also worked logistically, legitimizing her as a songwriter to audiences inclined to misread her shows as violin recitals. She says her early compositions reflected a woman on the run: "Terror! Got to keep going! Got to figure out how to keep going, with some love songs in there for hope's sake. I was so overwhelmed with feelings that I just did my best to get them down." With a small rotation of talented New Yorkers, she crafted glamorous, rocked-up soul music — captivated by Dilla and Madlib beats and Al Green's Hi Records sessions, inspired by Haitian pop, Central African rhythms and Éthiopiques, a little bit sad but forceful. The lyrics constantly returned to mortality, and "the very thin line between here and there" that Wasser, a child of adoption who has lost all four parents, had long pondered. It seemed natural.
"I really do just learn by following the music," she repeats again and again like a mantra. "I go towards what feels good, and then things come back."
One such journey involved befriending Damon Albarn and joining Africa Express, an intermittent decade-long tour that the Blur singer cultivated as a collaborative space for musicians of the global South and West. Among the regulars was Tony Allen, to whom Wasser, like many of her contemporaries, had been in thrall for years. In early 2019, she got up the nerve to ask him if he'd do a session with her the next time she came through Paris, Allen's home base since the mid-1980s. He agreed.
There were no expectations for the session that became The Solution Is Restless. Though Wasser had instigated the collaboration, she was playing things by ear as usual: purposefully arriving with no music written, just the hope of jamming something into being. The date was inching close when she sensed the need for a third, and tapped her friend Okumu — a London-based multi-instrumentalist and mighty "musician's musician" whose long scroll of credits includes membership in Mercury Prize-nominated trio The Invisible, producing Jessie Ware's early records and a few prior sessions with Allen. Months later, as the lockdown wore on and the album took shape in Brooklyn, Okumu remained a supportive presence across the internet wire, giving himself over to Wasser's process.
"I really felt like it was important for her to have as much space as she needed with that material," Okumu says by Zoom from his London studio. "She would send me things — every few weeks or months, one song or a few songs — and sort of say, 'What do you think? Do you think it needs anything? Do you want to add something, or take something off?' We embarked on a kind of creative dialogue, which was really a cathartic process."
Wasser would work deep into the night at her Greenpoint loft — composing, scrapping and rewriting, editing and layering, sewing together epic string and vocal arrangements — the late hours adding weight to her conference with the spirits. In the morning, she would listen back to parts she had little memory of recording. That was the case with the layers of echoing strings that open "Enter the Dragon," the track that most evokes a conversation with the departed, as Wasser addresses a photograph of an absent lover, begging him to "come alive." Allen's ambling drums became the music's sonic and thematic center, played by someone who'd just left the earth yet was very much alive in Wasser's headphones, guiding her way: "There would be moments where he would do some sort of a stop, or play a fill that was really distinctive, and then I got to write to that," she says with a sense of wonder. His presence is central to "Geometry of You," which unfolds with that first drum fill he played at Midilive, before coalescing around Wasser's ominous distorted violin, Okumu's bass line and chorus trumpet fanfares added by Cole Kamen-Green. Its primary magnet is a metaphor-filled lyric that feels like a cross-dimensional creative chat about rhythm mathematics, the singer asking for a critique: "How do you like it?"
During the day, Wasser would don protective gear and bike to Trout Recording, a studio refuge five miles away, where she and engineer Adam Sachs cloistered as a two-person pod. Devoting herself to the music offered an escape: "I was super aware that many people around me were really crumbling and having a terrible time. And I had this project, creating this world." Gliding through quiet, empty streets on the way to and from the studio, Wasser saw some of the devastation firsthand, encountering EMT sirens and paramedics wheeling people out of buildings in giant plastic bags. "There was a feeling of insanity to living in the city at the time," she remembers. "It was such a liminal space." As The Solution Is Restless evolved into form, its songs became a soundtrack to living in that space. Some react directly to the headlines: Though it never names names, Wasser says that "Take Me to Your Leader" is a poetic acclamation of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern's early handling of the pandemic in her country. Some simply mark the days: The short "Dinner Date" documents a studio ritual, Wasser and Sachs' evening meal break listening to Sly Stone.
But often, the songwriting feels like a seamless continuation of Joan as Police Woman's career-long dance with survival. "The Barbarian," which features a counterpoint bassline by Meshell Ndegeocello, is a therapeutic platform for acceptance of that early "tough guy" side, while "The Love Has Got Me" is a love note to music, its caring and protective qualities, sealed with Wasser singing a little of David Bowie's "Sound and Vision." "Get My Bearings," with layered piano parts and a late vocal entrance by Damon Albarn, is an existential gospel song about death and renewal, written directly under the spell of Willner and Allen's absence. When the Grim Reaper registered his presence in our conversation about how these songs address other people's impermanence, the 51-year-old Wasser expertly pointed the camera to herself. "He's giving me a little wink too. Like, 'What's up? I'll see you sometime.' "
A few weeks after our last conversation, as the album's early November release date loomed, Wasser and I were exchanging texts about art made during and about the pandemic. I shared that I had just read Carina del Valle Schorske's phenomenal New York Times story about the return of dancing in New York City, and seen the British filmmaker John Akomfrah's video installation "Five Murmurations." She noted that she and Okumu had just confirmed a performance of the new songs at a Tony Allen tribute produced by the London Jazz Festival — which would, in a stroke of synchronicity, take place on the second anniversary of the Villetaneuse session. According to global health statistics, the pandemic was still very much in motion. But increasingly, the creative work made during its deadly first act was beginning to refract the public record and mass memory of the event.
"It's so funny," Wasser wrote. "I was determined to write a collection of songs that never referenced the pandemic — which, of course, I did do. But I still ended up with an album about that very specific time."
Reflecting on Allen, her tone has an exceptional warmth. She speaks of an "indescribable" cognitive camaraderie that clicked from the very first moment, like meeting a mirror: "I felt such a kinship to the way he lived his life, which feels a little bit like how I live my life," she said at one point. "Like, oh, there's this other project that has nothing to do with anything I've ever done? That's what I want to do, because that's how I feel." If it was a familiar restlessness that guided one of her heroes into the studio with her, the same restlessness attended her side in the months that followed, as she was left to steer his parting creative act through an ocean of loss.
The Solution Is Restless is finished now, released into a world without Tony Allen. On the one hand, its completion leaves Wasser no solution. On the other, the solution is the music, which has been guiding her all along.