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An Interview with Amanda Palmer

Posted on November 28th, 2009 (2:05 am) by Katherine Parks

The hardest part of talking about Amanda Palmer is picking out a single thing to begin with. Not only is she an accomplished singer, songwriter and pianist, but Ms. Palmer began her rise to critical acclaim with the cabaret punk duo, The Dresden Dolls. After releasing two fantastic albums and a handful of EPs over the course of eight years, most artists would think about taking a breather when their main project decided to (temporarily) throw in the towel. Not Amanda Palmer though - last year, she struck out on her own and released the full length, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?. While her solo debut retains the cabaret aesthetic we’re all familiar with, the addition of Ben Folds as a producer and a sprinkling of collaborators (Annie Clark, anyone?) lent the record its own singular personality.

Now, here we are at the end of 2009. We’ve loved everything Amanda put out previously, and were more than a little eager to catch up with her to see how the end of the Aughts were going. Our questions (and Amanda’s answers) spanned the majority of the decade, beginning with the solo stuff and ending with the Dresden Dolls. Read on past the jump for a wonderfully insightful interview with none other than Ms. Palmer herself.

Inyourspeakers: First and foremost, congratulations! Word on the street is that you’re a solo act now. What’s that like? How is it different from the duo that was The Dresden Dolls?

Amanda Palmer: Um, you know, funny enough, it doesn’t feel that different. The amount of spontaneity is the main difference, in general and onstage. When you’re working in a band, it’s not cool to make split decisions like, “Oh, tonight I’m going to party on the roof!” You’ve gotta plan things and make decisions, and what I love most about being solo is just the ability to plan things super last-minute, like, “Oh my God, next week, I want to go to California,” and I just go. And, you know, that’s the logistics; it’s made life really fun for the last year.

IYS: That’s really cool, good for you! Taking off on that, your solo album came out last September, and Ben Folds was the producer. What was it like working with him? Did he play on the album at all?

AP: Yeah, he played on the record, he produced it, and he sang on it. He helped me pair down, and edit some of the songs. Ben Folds is fully all over the record.

IYS: On your album, you were able to collaborate with Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. What was that experience like for you?

AP: She was wonderful. What I love so much about Annie is that she’s completely self-effaced. She’s fearless in the studio, and we got together with no plan in mind; we literally booked a studio day, and said, “Let’s go in the studio and play around and maybe write something, maybe do a cover song, let’s just see what happens.” We had met and hit it off and just wanted to work together. I wound up coming up with the idea for that cover song, like, the night before and really didn’t think that it was going to wind up on the record, but thought it might be a cool thing we could put up online. I just liked it so much, that I stuck it on the record and it was sort of keeping in the spirit of my life at the time; I was trying not to care about anything and trying very hard to have fun and just hang out with good people, people I intend to work with. Spending a day with Annie was heaven, because she’s so smart and she’s so talented.

IYS: You’ve managed to retain your “Brechtian Punk Cabaret” image on the solo record, but at the same time, the piece has its own sound. How is the production process different these days?

AP: You know, that question is difficult for me to answer because as far as I’m concerned, I just write songs and then I figure out what to do with them after they’re written. That was the case with the Dresden Dolls records, and it was the case with the solo album, because it’s not like I sat down to write a record with a plan in mind; I always have an ongoing collection of songs, and when it’s record time, I kind of look to the pile and whatever’s good floats to the top.

So, as far as a kind of a “sound” or genre goes, I think it all happens by accident, then journalists do their magic, and we wind up with weird information. You know, I think it’s better that way; the minute I start thinking about genre, the minute I start thinking about how my stuff sounds, and who it should be directed towards - I think that’s really a way to get in trouble. The minute you plan what you’re doing, you can sabotage it. It doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but it works for me, and I like floating plan-less and then boxing everything up after the fact, or letting other people box it up. [laughter]

IYS: Your music definitely has a unique, almost theatrical spin to it, with your creative, offbeat lyrics. Did you have typical music training or were your more self-taught?

AP: I was definitely way more self-taught than most, but I had enough of a smattering of formal training, here and there, that I resisted like the plague. But I had enough piano lessons and enough theory in school. I also sang in the choir in church, so I was exposed to what music looks like and how it moves. Everything sort of got mismatched together in a strange product that became Amanda Palmer. But, you know, I think it’s so interesting to look back at how I developed as a musical person.

The thread that is constantly running through it is that I was completely undisciplined; what I really wanted to do was perform. I never cared for anything technical, I never really cared for my instrument; I looked at it as just that: as an instrument by which I could get onstage, and through which I could communicate to people. I never really looked at the piano as “special,” and I never looked at singing as something that I really needed to particularly do well, as long as people could understand me. So, I definitely used to feel an overwhelming amount of guilt for my lack of focus and discipline and my lack of classical chops because I’m a pianist and you know that’s one of those things that pianists, of any level, just have to grapple with; it’s such a classically-oriented instrument traditionally. But, I’m so happy with what I’ve wound up with in the end, that it’s hard not to look back at the whole course of my history and just glorify it and want to embrace it. If it hadn’t all happened the way it happened, I wouldn’t be here.

IYS: Now that you’ve done the solo thing, you been able to see the grass on both sides of the proverbial bridge. What are the best parts of going solo? What are the worst parts?

AP: Lately I've just been loving the freedom to make split decisions. But with complete freedom comes complete insanity...sometimes it's impossible to decide what to do with so many possibilities. But believe me, I ain't kvetching. I'm more in love with my life than I've ever been, and I'm seriously fucking grateful.

IYS: I’m very familiar with your work with Seattle’s Jason Webley on Evelyn Evelyn and that you were recently working with Kill Hannah. Do you have any future plans to work with Webley again, or do you have any other collaborations in the works?

AP: I'm always seeking out collaborations and I have a list as long as my arm. I have the feeling my next set of recordings may house some weird pairings, and I'm also meeting more and more interesting theater people and directors I want to work with on stage. And at some point, I HAVE to make a covers record with my dad.

IYS: On your solo record, there are a number of string arrangements and collaborations, like “Leeds United,” which features the backing efforts of the Born Again Men of Edinburgh, creating a rather unique sound for the song. Were these collaborations part of your initial plan for your solo debut, or did they just happen along the way?

AP: Well, some of it was mapped out very specifically by Ben, and some of it (like the horns in Edinburgh) just cam out o nowhere. It was a strange year. I just kept saying YES! YES! to absolutely everything and spending the time and energy necessary to make the record perfect. I'm paying for it now, but I don't regret a single second or a single penny.

IYS: You’ve managed to attain so much acclaim, yet you retain this humble musician image. Modesty seems to be a rare trait amongst musicians these days, as so many of them expect things to be handed to them. On your blog, you went into personal detail about the difficulties of making it in the music biz. Have you ever just wanted to give up and just try a more run-of-the-mill career?

AP: [Long Pause] I don’t even know what that [career] would be! I mean, I really fundamentally just want to be happy; I want to spend my life around good people, doing things that I enjoy. At the end of the day, I put that first before any kind of artistic agenda. That stuff, the simple needs, they drive my artistic agenda, and they’re why I’d rather be in the studio with someone I like, rather than some platinum-selling asshole. I’m doing this life the only way Amanda Palmer can do it. I’m trying to do what I’m good at. Any other agenda would be insane, because I’d be unhappy.

It’s important to bear in mind that what works for me, works for me. There isn’t necessarily a recipe for success because every human being (artists included) is different. One of the things that other artists always come to me and say is, “I want to be just like you. How do you do it?” and I say, “Do you really? You may want what you think I’ve ended up with, but you may not want to spend your life the way I do.”

The way technologically has changed the way in which artists interact with their fans, the fact that artists are now called upon to be more responsible for themselves makes it important to stand back, look at your life, look at your work, and say, “How do I want to spend my time? What do I want this to feel like and be like, because there’s now a hundred options.”

It’s not like the ‘80s anymore, where it was the major fucking label way or the highway.

IYS: That’s very true. And again, speaking about your solo debut, your song “Oasis” has garnered quite a bit of attention, especially over in the U.K. with many of the outlets over there refusing to air the video. On your blog, you went into very honest detail about it, so as an artist, what was your reaction to this harsh treatment?

AP: It certainly wasn’t the end of the world not having a video played in the U.K., given all the other things that could go wrong in my life. Frankly, I was grateful that it at least sparked a really interesting discussion between me, my fans and the press. I brought away from it what I could bring away from it, which was actually a really interesting look at myself and my songwriting, a look which I hadn’t stopped and taken before.

Every time a conflict or weird controversy comes up, there’s always usually a pretty bright silver lining. Since I have so many things going on at any given time (and I’ve had more setbacks than you can fucking even start to think about), the setbacks just don’t bother me as much as they used to. I know that I am constantly in forward motion, so taking a couple of steps back is not as dramatic as it used to be.

IYS: It’s cool that, as a musician, you’ve gotten yourself to that point where you can look back at your work, and come out with such an optimistic outlook. I know you’re on your solo tour as we speak, but do you perform alone onstage or do you have back-up musicians?

AP: I’ll be performing with a whole back-up band. I’m taking The Nervous Cabaret, who have been playing with me for the whole tour, open our shows and then back me up. They’re fantastic, by the way. I recommend getting there early; you don’t want to miss the opening set.

IYS: Ok Amanda, we have to ask the inevitable question: are the Dresden Dolls really done for good?

AP: I would love to play live with Brian again. I think our shows are our strong suit. But at the time being, I think we're both pretty happy pursuing our separate paths.