When David Sylvian released the Sleepwalkers compilation featuring collaborative tracks from the first decade of the 2000s, he told radio host Joe Silva that his aim was to ‘show something of a companion body of work to the solo work that I’ve been doing with Blemish and Manafon.. ..People have been saying I’ve been moving further and further away from melody, traditional melody and traditional forms of popular music. But I wanted to show that this wasn’t necessarily the case. I’ve never really moved that far away from it because I’ve always got my toe dipped into that stream as well as working with more abstract forms.’
Sylvian seemed determined to pursue both the experimental approach of his samadhisound solo albums and the more familiar structures of pop. Asked what future collaborations might follow Sleepwalkers, he talked of further work with artists featured on that album, including ‘a more expansive project’ with Dai Fujikura; surprisingly – given the passage of time – he intimated that Steve Jansen, Burnt Friedman and he were ‘still looking for the common ground for a possible second Nine Horses album’; and confirmed that, ‘Joan Wasser and I have spoken of writing together.’ (2010)
Wasser, aka Joan as Police Woman, has been a regular guest on BBC Radio 6 in the UK over the years, and just a few weeks later in a January 2011 conversation with Huey Morgan she revealed that the project was already beginning to take shape. Asked whether she would be writing new material whilst touring her latest release The Deep Field, Joan confided, ‘I have a bunch of projects with other people that I’m kind of excited about doing, so I’m trying to write for those.’ Pressed for details she explained that these were ‘things that are not at all definite,’ including ‘a project that I’m working on… I hope it’s ok to talk about this… I’m doing a project of duets with David Sylvian.’
Of course it was a duet between Joan and David that first saw them working together, the Americana-tinged ‘Ballad of Deadman’ from Steve Jansen’s 2007 debut solo album, Slope. On that occasion, however, Joan’s vocals were recorded in Brooklyn while David’s were laid down separately at the samadhisound studio in his New Hampshire home. Sylvian also contributed backing vocals to a track (and an out-take) from Joan’s album To Survive, released the following year. The prospect of more work together was clearly an exciting one, as Joan explained to Morgan: ‘He was on my last record and he’s one of my favourite voices ever, and such an amazing person and mind. So, we’ve also started that!’
In another interview around the same time, Joan described her motivation for working with other artists. ‘I look for music that is made from the deepest part of the person. Obviously, that can sound very different depending on who it is. It is usually apparent when music is made from a place that is special. I just get that feeling in the centre of me… it’s physical.’ (2011)
Wasser is a prolific touring musician and promptly set out on an extensive tour to promote The Deep Field, including a number of European legs between stints in both the US and Australia. Passing back through London for a Shepherd’s Bush Empire show in September 2011 she returned to the Radio 6 studios, updating listeners to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the duets project: ‘I have to get home first and pretend I’m human for a second, and then I think we are going to start doing that.. ..we are going to try to write a whole album of duets, so we’ll see what happens with that. That should take some time..’
Her return home to New York was a catalyst for plans to be firmed up and preparations for recording to be accelerated. Presumably referring to Sylvian’s home in the mountains of New Hampshire, Joan tweeted on 18 December 2011: ‘Already back up in the Northern Country finishing songwriting w/David Sylvian 4 the recording of our new duets record. ELATION!’
And then just days later, between Christmas and New Year, the core musicians for the project entered Trout Recording Studios on Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. Joan’s twitter, 28 December: ‘first day in the studio with david sylvian, parker kindred and fred cash, utter heaven’. This studio space was a familiar one to Joan, being the domain of Bryce Goggin, trusted producer from her eponymous debut ep in 2004 to that date. Indeed it was in this studio that her vocal for ‘Ballad of a Dead Man’ had been recorded by Goggin. Drummer Kindred was a stalwart and bass player Fred Cash had featured on The Deep Field.
We didn’t have to wait long for the next update: 29 December 2011, ‘second day even better!’, and were even taken inside the studio for a glimpse of the headline performers:
Later, a shot of Fred Cash and Joan also taken at Trout Recording was posted on David Sylvian’s (now closed) Tumblr account the opposite of order:
The sessions were undoubtedly fruitful. The studio’s own website carried an update in March: ‘2012 has started off with a bang. David Sylvian and Joan Wasser have cut 10 tracks for an upcoming record.’
All was not plain sailing, however. After a successful appearance as artist in residence at Punkt festival in autumn 2011, Sylvian surprised everyone that December with the announcement of a 20-date European tour entitled Implausible Beauty. Scheduled to kick off at the Gran Teatro Geox in Padova, Italy on 1 March 2012, the performances were perhaps destined to be more in the mould of his experimental work, with the band line up of Jan Bang (sampler and live sampling), Eivind Aarset (guitars), the subsequently Oscar-winning Hildur Guðnadóttir (cello, vocals and electronics), Gunnar Halle (trumpet and electronics) and Sebastian Lexer (piano, keyboards and electronics).
We can only speculate, however, as at the end of January 2012 came the hugely unwelcome official communication that, ‘David has sustained a lower back injury that is causing him significant pain and affecting his mobility to such a degree that, at this time, he will be unable to perform. We are hoping that with medical care his condition will improve significantly, and that we’ll be able to reschedule the tour at a later date. We’re doing all that we can to bring this unanticipated setback to a positive conclusion.’
Presumably without the stricken Sylvian, the duets project continued. A picture of Wasser and Cash at work was tweeted by Trout Recording on 2 April with the caption ‘@joanpolicewoman is back this week. We killin’ some more basics/strings/horns for the project with David Sylvian. Holla!’. Earlier in the week, Bryce Goggin had found a personal note of gratitude for his professional oversight of proceedings which he shared on the studio’s facebook page.
Honing songs through live performance has always been a part of Joan’s modus operandi, and even before this return to the studio she had invited fans to a Saturday night solo show at the City Winery NYC on 17 March to hear ‘new songs from the project w/d sylvian plus classic JAPW’. Presenting pieces with the barest of accompaniment on guitar or piano, it’s like hearing them stripped back to the mere skeleton of composition.
Two days after a solo performance in Copenhagen on 23 March a clip emerged on YouTube of Wasser performing one of the new songs from the project. The sound quality is far from perfect and Joan is struggling with a cold, but she introduced ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ as follows: ‘It’s very low in my register. I have a little bit of a cold right now, so I’m thinking maybe it will fit… but it might not, so we’ll see what happens! This is another song that I wrote for the duets I’m doing with David.’ Taking both parts, she warns: ‘so, I’m going to shift gender. Don’t be alarmed!’ There’s a link to this original performance at the foot of the article, but here’s a better YouTube clip from a show at Bus Palladium in Paris a month later.
The final lines were clearly meant for Sylvian’s voice, and we can only imagine him shifting the octave to close the piece:
‘Don’t you know who I am?
Can’t you feel it?
I’m your man
Don’t you know who I am?
You’re my woman and I’m your man.’
A five-star review of the Copenhagen show on the Danish site GAFFA also told us that the opening song that night, ‘Stay’, was introduced as being part of Duos, whilst an online reviewer who witnessed the Paris performance reported that they ‘really like ‘Warning Bell’ – one of the Sylvian&Wasser project songs – it’s beautiful.’
Meanwhile, David Sylvian was enthusing about the collaboration. Wyndham Wallace of The Quietus noted in a March 2012 feature, ‘It’s actually when he talks about the future that he sounds most invigorated, as when he mentions the album of duets with Joan as Police Woman on which he’s spent the winter working.’ Sylvian commented, ‘It’s been a return to more traditional forms of songwriting, and there’s been a complete joy in that process. I love Joan. She’s an absolute pleasure to work with.’
April saw Sylvian stage an exhibition of his polaroids at the IMPOSSIBLE Project Space in Tokyo. The images were mainly black and white washed with a sepia tinge and were arranged as triptychs for display. He declared in the catalogue for Glowing Enigmas, ‘I rarely photograph people. Most of my images are now devoid of the living.’ However, there were some pictures of others included, predominantly his daughters. Sylvian is there alongside Joan in an image taken at the same time as the one shared on twitter the previous December, and thanks to the exhibition we can complete the series of studio shots of Joan with the core band. Here she is with Parker Kindred:
In May, Wasser was back in the UK for an appearance in a tribute concert for Sandy Denny. There was another visit to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on Radio 6 when she explained that both she and David had written material individually for their project and subsequently composed some pieces together. There was significant progress to report. Joan’s estimate was that the album was about two thirds complete. String arrangements were done, but it was difficult getting the album finished as they were both busy and live far away from one another. Her desire was to get things done straight away, but it just wasn’t realistic.
Sometime over the coming months the extent of Sylvian’s incapacity evidently meant that progress stalled completely. In August the update was, ‘It’s gonna be a while – but you won’t be disappointed,’ but by October Joan was reporting that the project was ‘on hold’ due to ‘health issues.’
At this point realisation dawned for Wasser that a year’s effort had been poured into a project that had ground to a halt and she now needed to engage her creativity in another direction. She turned her attention to writing what would become The Classic. ‘I didn’t have anything written as I’d put all my focus into the project with David, so I began seriously writing at the end of 2012, which scared the sh*t out of me. You can’t force creativity or inspiration, but thankfully, I found the music, it was there waiting for me. I was even a little peeved I had taken so long to tend to it’ (JW, 2014). In pursuing a new course she moved away from trusty producer Bryce Goggin in search of a new, higher-energy sound. When The Classic was released in 2014 it carried the song ‘Stay’ written by Joan; reportedly first destined for the duets project, her voice was now complemented by retro-soul backing vocals.
Asked about whether the previous project could be revived, Joan told one fan: ‘On hold indefinitely. I was holding my breath but realised that wasn’t going 2 work. Whenever I’ve any news, I will let U know.’ To another enquirer she said it was ‘still in the works.’ (2014)
But only silence followed. That was until September 2017, when David Sylvian unexpectedly opened a Soundcloud account and over the course of a few days posted a couple of rare tracks – the guitar-accompanied miniature ‘Jacqueline’ and his kizunaworld collaboration with Jan Bang, ‘Modern Interior’. And there was one never-before-heard collaboration. For a moment it looked like the tracks might keep coming and we would be treated to an online-based second instalment of Sleepwalkers.
Of the new song, ‘Beautiful Country (rough mix)’, Sylvian wrote: ‘This song was recorded back in late 2011/2012. It’s a love song of sorts, dedicated to my adopted country, the birthplace of my children, an ode to the many travels taken through most States of North America, and to Joan with whom I recorded the piece. I attempted to capture something of the spirit of the best of country and western pop, the kind peddled by the likes of Glen Campbell or Willie Nelson (I’m sure they could’ve done a better job with it than I. Well, Willie, it’s not too late). It was recorded with the core trio of Joan Wasser, Parker Kindred, and Fred Cash. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been unable to release the track, so I offer this rough mix if for no other reason than my daughters would love for me to share it with you.’
It’s not uncharacteristic for Sylvian to spring a surprise on us, but what is highly unusual is to share a mix that he might have considered “rough”. Any out-takes released up until now had been subsequently polished, such as those on the Everything and Nothing compilation.
In Hypergraphia there are a number of lyrics for songs never publicly heard. I had read these struggling to imagine how they might sound with music in the style of Sylvian’s releases of the period. Titles such as ‘The Great Swan’, ‘The Dark Glass of a Girl’ and ‘Tear Me Apart’. At last, here was the opportunity to bring one such set of words to life.
‘Beautiful Country’ picks up the theme of ‘Wanderlust’ from Dead Bees on a Cake, with the latter’s ‘travel light, don’t think twice’ sense of freedom reflected in the depiction of carefree adventure as ‘we drive all night, sleep by day’. On this occasion travels across the US are invoked in sketches of specific locations traversed. First we have the Colorado town of Boulder, where the ‘stupas’ pointing to the heavens no doubt refer to the Rocky Mountains in whose foothills the town is located, the analogy most likely prompted by the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya nestled among the peaks just two hours’ drive to the north:
‘Her mind slept well
At high altitudes
All the way through Boulder
With the stupas pointing skywards
Like true believers
In crystal blue’
And later the bizarre wasteland of California’s abandoned Bombay Beach resort:
‘It was an inland sea
We were near narcoleptic
And the fireworks died with their heads down in the sand’
Over the decades we have seen how Sylvian’s lyrics often refer interchangeably to romantic love and devotion to the divine, but here there is another perspective. This being a love-song to the US, the female addressed could equally be America the ‘beautiful country’:
‘Joy grows from her fingers
Her native hands
Long roots burrow down
Into her stomach spilling the air out of her lungs’
There’s a sense of release in embracing freedom as the physical, whether human or the enveloping landscape, seemingly becomes a distraction from faith – or perhaps God is found in a loved-one’s face and the spectacular surroundings:
‘She stole the face of the Lord now I won’t recognise him
But it’s alright, yes it’s ok
We wouldn’t have it any other way
Made our bed gonna lie in it
Watching the suns go down on the horizon
We’re setting up camp far from it all..
..Between the earth and stars
We’ll find a place to live’
The sliding guitar notes at end of the phrase, ‘this is your land and soon your land will be my land too’, catch the euphoria of the experience and the abandon that is encapsulated in the photograph Sylvian chose to accompany the song (the featured image above).
It had been a long time since we’d been able to luxuriate in such an extensive new vocal from David Sylvian, with the track running to eight minutes. I’d enjoyed his experiments in deconstructing the form of a song through improvisation and automatic writing, but what a joy to hear him really sing these lines.
I would love to hear more of those ten tracks created in Brooklyn at the turn of the years 2011/2012. Perhaps it’s understandable that circumstances meant that the full album couldn’t be completed, but this surprise upload shows that there is material that was well developed. An ep of a few tracks would be an intriguing side project in the catalogues of both artists. Just days after ‘Beautiful Country’ appeared on Soundcloud, it was gone. The account was soon defunct, with Sylvian citing copyright issues. (At the time of writing, the song can still be found on the excellent fan-run davidsylvian.net here or through a simple online search).
Who knows what problems prevented the completion of a creative endeavour of which both David and Joan spoke with real enthusiasm after those recording sessions in Brooklyn. Whether creative, legal, personal, I guess it’s none of our business other than that we caught only a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
When Joan as Police Woman released the album Damned Devotion in 2018, included in the running order was ‘Warning Bell’, the song which the Paris reviewer had spoken about so positively six years earlier.
In a Joan as Police Woman podcast series broadcast in 2019 and surveying her career to date, the host enquired whether there was any hope for the collaboration. The answer was straightforward: ‘We did some recording together, and it never got completed, never got finished, never got turned into a record and I think it’s very unlikely that it ever will.’
Late in 2020 David Sylvian started posting photographs more or less daily to a new Instagram account. In February 2o21 he uploaded a few pictures taken during his time working with Joan, including shots taken in Temple, NH, no doubt when she visited to write songs for the collaboration. The pictures were titled ‘all things must pass (Joan)’. Asked on twitter what the chances would be of hearing any of the other material worked on beside ‘Beautiful Country’, David replied, ‘the moment has passed. This has nothing to do with Joan and everything to do with the circumstances of my life. Joan was a joy to work with. There was a good deal of love between us that made working together relaxed, informal, an extension of our friendship. She’s exceptional.’
I like to play ‘Stay’, ‘Beautiful Country (rough mix)’ and ‘Warning Bell’ together, three tracks that hint at an album of traditional pop songs which it seems we are destined never to hear.
‘Beautiful Country (rough mix)’
Fred Cash – bass; Parker Kindred – drums; David Sylvian – vocal, guitar; Joan Wasser – vocal, guitar
(my assumption that both Sylvian and Wasser play guitar)
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian
Posted on soundcloud by David Sylvian, September 2017
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
The Copenhagen performance of ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ with introduction referencing the duets project can be seen here.
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘Creating a decent pop song is a challenge – and occasionally, once in every decade – it’s kind of fun to do that. That’s the kind of writing I’ve been doing with Joan Wasser.’ David Sylvian, 2012