Return to Amanda Palmer


November 5, 2009

A word with Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls

By Brent Hallenbeck, Free Press Staff Writer

Even by the standards of an increasingly multi-tasking world, Amanda Palmer has a lot going on. The flamboyant, performance-art-inspired leader of the punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls starts a solo tour Wednesday, Nov. 11 at Higher Ground; it’s her first full-band tour since releasing her “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” album last year and a related DVD this year. The multi-media maven also published a “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” coffee-table book and created a dozen “artisan scents” inspired by the book that bear, to say the least, unusual names for perfume such as “Unfortunate Shopping Cart Incident” and “Cupcake Spatter Pattern Analysis.”

Palmer spoke recently by phone from Boston, where her long list of activities includes getting ready to move to New York City. Because of her many far-flung projects, however, she describes herself as a “permanent gypsy.”

Burlington Free Press: What’s the status of The Dresden Dolls?
Amanda Palmer: We’re in the middle of a long “Who knows?” scenario.

BFP: So it’s on the back burner?
AP: One thing (drummer) Brian (Viglione) and I have found taking a break is that we’re very, very happy with the projects we’ve found. I can certainly only speak for myself, but there are pros and cons to every lifestyle and we’ve certainly had our fair share of pros and cons in the Dolls, and we’re discovering the pros and cons away (from The Dresden Dolls). I think we’ll get together at the very least to tour.

BFP: Does performing solo give you more freedom than you might have with The Dresden Dolls, especially when it comes to listeners’ expectations?
AP: Yeah, absolutely, that’s probably the starkest difference, in lots of senses. On stage it’s now a complete free-for-all, it can last up to 15 minutes without the drummer throwing a stick at my head. There’s a wonderful sense of freedom in the travel and the planning because now I’m able to literally globe-trot and play shows where I feel like it. That was never a possibility with the Dolls. On the other hand, you can really start to miss that sense of partnership and being in a gang instead of being a desperado. Every tour and every scenario I’ve been in solo has been very different. There have been shows I’ve played completely alone, even without a tour manager. I literally show up and say, “Hi, I’m Amanda Palmer, where’s the piano?”

BFP: You’ll be playing here with Nervous Cabaret as your backing band ...
AP: They aren’t so much a known quantity, but I have recommendations from everybody and their mother that they’re fantastic. It’s fun. It’s sort of like a blind date. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but you know it’s going to be fun. The piano is a powerful tool solo, but especially in certain situations with certain songs, it’s just not the same without percussion and noise. I miss rocking out. I had a great backup band in Russia last month, and it just reminded me it takes drums to make a room of people stop and pay attention and put their drinks down and listen.

BFP: And as a performer it takes the spotlight off you a little bit.
AP: That’s certainly not been my problem (laughs). It’s nice to have a dialogue up there. It’s nice to have someone to look over to when the power shorts out, to laugh and joke with and ride the wave with instead of shredding it solo. I really enjoy mixing it up. I’m perfectly capable of pulling a solo show out any time I need to.

BFP: Your solo material sounds more pop-oriented and less in the cabaret vein than The Dresden Dolls.
AP: I don’t think much about that. I get very confused when I try to categorize songs. I let other people do that.

BFP: But you must recognize when material has a certain influence behind it at the time you wrote it.
AP: I can take any of my songs and try to put the genealogy of the song together and say, “Oh, it’s a little bit Beatles and a little bit ABBA and a little bit Gilbert and Sullivan” or whatever, but I can never see the value in doing that. It’s a fun game to play. As far as the record, on the whole when I was making it, I had the sense that it was really accessible, but then again I always thought that about The Dresden Dolls stuff, too, which is why I was always completely confused by my record label saying, “If you would only make an accessible album ... .”

BFP: On your MySpace page, you rave about PJ Harvey’s album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,” which is my favorite album of hers, too. It seems like that sort of sound — urgent but clear, vivid songwriting with a punk energy — infuses your material as much as the whole Brecht/Weill sound you’re associated with.
AP: It (“Stories from the City ...”) definitely hit the sweet spot. There’s that beautiful in-between place where artists who are actually artists allow themselves to be accessible enough but not so accessible that they’re pandering to their listeners’ ears. It takes a self-confidence to do that. If you’re artistically minded, it can feel much more safer to veer in the direction of esoteric so you’re not seen by your peers at least to be striving for the almighty dollar. That’s its own challenge, to have enough space in your writing and your work that you can follow your impulses even if they sound “commercial.” No one’s going to tell you a great accessible Beatles record is pandering to their audience. But you look at something like Liz Phair’s last record and you go, “Why was she trying to make a pop record? Why?” You can be risky on either side.

BFP: Do you follow that modus operandi, trying to balance artistic and commercial?
AP: My general philosophy is if I write what sounds good to me I can’t (expletive) up. That’s what I do. I write stuff that I want to listen to, and I listen to all sorts of different things. There’s a lot of latitude. Sometimes it’s a little poppier, a little weirder, a little jazzier.

BFP: You’ve had enough success to know your fans will follow you to an extent.
AP: I think you get into weirder territory as you get older and you’re bound to have not only expectations but a sense of trust (with fans). You find yourself in a relationship with them where you don’t want to disappoint them or write with the idea of “This will make them happy” or “(This will) make them laugh.” You have to have the presence of mind to shut them out as you write.

BFP: How possible is that?
AP: It’s (expletive) impossible. It’s like any discipline where you try as hard as you can. The more you talk about writing, the more you sabotage yourself, so even having this conversation is pretty dangerous.