Indie-rocker staying Young at heart
The last time producer and Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner and singer-songwriter Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Policewoman) worked together on the Neil Young Project was 2004. A sprawling tribute to the iconic Canadian singer-songwriter, the touring series featured over 30 musicians performing for nearly three hours. On February 18-19, the Cultural Olympiad is presenting a remount of this ambitious effort featuring a hodge-podge of indie-rock all-stars that includes Lou Reed, Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene, Iron and Wine, and Joan as Policewoman, who’s back as both a performer and the event’s musical director. WE spoke with Wasser about doing it all again, six years older and six years wiser.
How did you get originally get involved with the Neil Young Project?
Hal asked me to be the musical director. I’d known him for a number of years before that and I like him as a friend and appreciate him as a producer and curator.
It’s six years later. Is this latest incarnation an evolution or is it a similar beast to what you put on back then?
Honestly, that original show almost killed me. [Laughs] It was definitely the most work of anything I’d ever done, and that’s saying a lot, because I think a lot of people would probably call me a workaholic or something of that sort. At that point it was a 10-piece band and I got to choose the band, so that was great. I got to work with people that I love. But then you’re also dealing with about 30 singers and the prep time is very small in relation to the amount of work you have to get done. It was fantastic doing it, it was just a gigantic amount of work. It’s going to be a little bit of a different beast this time.
Has Neil Young given you any thoughts about the Project?
He has absolutely nothing to do with it and we’ve had no contact with him, so he cannot be blamed for anything that happens with the show. [Laughs]
Your own biography has featured collaborations with a number of amazing musicians, so this seems right up your alley.
I feel like Hal did really choose me to do this because of my background. I grew up playing in bands as a musician only, as a violin player. I studied it classically and played in an orchestra and chamber music. It was a really natural transition to start playing in rock and pop bands, and then my name kind of got out there as people wanted to have violin on their records. But then I started writing my own songs and became the leader of my band, and I really just love playing with other people. I really work with each singer to make each arrangement of the song something everyone’s really happy with. I have no interest of pushing my own ideas on a song someone else will be singing, unless they want my ideas. I also understand the discomfort of jumping up with a band you don’t know.
What are the different things that you bring to the project now, versus then?
I’d done about six months of touring solo, and I had a trio in New York City, but since then I’ve been touring pretty much non-stop with my own music since 2006. I just got home today from doing some shows, then I leave on Tuesday for Europe, and then I go to Ethiopia to do this project that Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) asked me to do called Africa Express, then Vancouver. But I’ve just been on the go since [the Neil Young Project] happened, so I’m actually really looking forward to doing it and finding out for myself how it’s going to change. I certainly don’t have the anxiety that I had originally, because I know much more. Things happen the way they want, so I’m looking forward to approaching it in a more flowing manner.