I first discovered the music of Joan Wasser—better known by her stage name, Joan As Police Woman—the year I moved to a tiny town in the Northwoods of Minnesota. It was the middle of winter. Far from most of the people I knew and loved, I felt lost and isolated. I’d often sit in my car before work blasting Wasser’s debut album, Real Life, the wind battering against the window, and weep. Her music helped me thaw and dig out from under the snow.
In the decade since that winter, Wasser’s subsequent releases have continued to accompany some of the most pivotal transitions of my life—not just because her music is good, though it is, but also because there’s something deeply optimistic about it. This feels truer than ever on her tender, ruminative new record released last month: Titled Damned Devotion, the album is Joan As Police Woman’s most powerful demonstration yet that hope doesn’t have to be naïve.
If there’s a central theme to Wasser’s work, it’s that joy can be born from an honest reckoning with pain and loss. For the musician, grief creates a relief against which an appreciation for simple pleasures—the thrills of going on holiday, reuniting with a loved one at a train station, or discovering chemistry with a paramour—can be cultivated. On To Survive, the 2008 album created as she grieved the death of her adoptive mother, Wasser sings, “I’m so happy to be loved,” and her gratitude for something so simple is astonishing. “We Don’t Own It,” the closing track of Real Life, finds her singing in a gorgeous near-whisper, “It’s all there in the moment / You understood / That he’s not going on / And you’re still going on.” At its core, Wasser’s music is about the act of going on. It’s about how life’s most devastating experiences can be transformative, and how understanding this can open up space for affection and happiness—and that makes her oeuvre profoundly vulnerable.