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Amanda Palmer: Strength Through Music
04-03-2009 by ShockHound

Interview by Dan Epstein

Amanda Palmer likes to do things her own way. Actually, most artists do; but the singer of Boston’s Brechtian punk duo the Dresden Dolls is far less shy than most when it comes to taking matters into her own hands. Unhappy with the way Roadrunner Records ignored her acclaimed 2008 solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? — save for their bizarre resistance to her bared midriff in the video for the album’s “Leeds United” — she’s been actively campaigning to be dropped by the label, even going so far as to sing a song in concert called “Please Drop Me,” which is set to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” and name-checks such esteemed labelmates as Megadeth, Cradle of Filth and Nickelback, none of whom remotely have anything to do with the darkly witty cabaret music she purveys.

Earlier this year, Palmer ran into a blizzard of controversy in the UK, where the video for her song “Oasis” — whose wry, semi-autobiographical lyrics revolve around a teenage girl’s rape and subsequent abortion, and how her devotion to the Gallagher Brothers’ music gets her through it all — was deemed to be “making light of rape, religion, and abortion,” and thus banned from broadcast on all of the nation’s TV networks. Palmer, who maintains an exceptionally tight bond with her fans through the magic of the internet, blogged about the situation, and encouraged her British followers to raise a stink with their media outlets; while the ensuing outcry didn’t break the blacklist, it did result in far greater awareness and coverage of her UK tour than even she could have hoped for.

ShockHound caught up with Palmer at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, where we talked about the “Oasis” controversy, songwriting, Leonard Cohen, and the power of music to help you process and transcend even the worst experiences.

SHOCKHOUND: Who Killed Amanda Palmer? has been out since last September. In hindsight, how do you feel about the record? Are you still happy with it? Is there anything different that you wish you’d done?

AMANDA PALMER: The record itself? I think it’s incredible. I love it. I think I love it maybe even more than anything that the Dresden Dolls did, because it feels less egotistical to love it, because so much of it was Ben Folds and not me. [Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and I love what Ben did on it, and I love the fact that I can still go back and listen to the record and find it constantly interesting because of all of the layers that Ben added to it. So, I’m insanely proud of it.

SHOCKHOUND: “Oasis” is the current buzz song off the album — I don’t know if we can use the term “single” anymore — and it’s stirred up a fair amount of controversy in the UK, hasn’t it?

PALMER: You know, I don’t think singles really exist anymore, anyway. But, yeah, the UK had “Oasis” slated to be a single about a month or two ago, when I went over there for a tour. And then I think I probably got more attention for the record and in the press than I did when the record came out; because when radio and video wouldn’t play it, I blogged about it, and the fans made themselves known to the radio and video outlets. It was a weird situation though, and it really did catch me off guard. The UK is not the kind of place I would have expected a song like that to not go over well, or for people to think it was out of line, because the UK is usually, you know…things that are a little more left-field, are usually, not only acceptable, but embraced. Do you remember that song “Fuck It” by Eamon? That was huge over there for months and months and months, and the fact that that can be played on the radio all the time, but then a song like “Oasis” was verboten, that struck me as really strange.

SHOCKHOUND: Especially since the English sense of humor is…

PALMER: So dark. [Laughs]

SHOCKHOUND: Yeah, and allegedly more sophisticated than ours.

PALMER: Yeah, it did happen in an odd time though, because right before I got there, there was a huge scandal at the BBC where a bunch of people lost their jobs because somebody said the wrong thing; I think the censorship level was at yellow and red, instead of the green, at the moment.

SHOCKHOUND: So it’s sort of like if you had done something on American TV right after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”?

PALMER: Exactly, yeah, it was a weird time to be getting there.

SHOCKHOUND: So tell us a bit about where that song came from, the process of writing it.

PALMER: It came from my head. I wrote that song a while ago. I’m almost 33 now, and I wrote that song probably when I was 26 or 27. There’s certain songs where I can like totally capture and remember the moment of conception of like, “Oh, that’s when I got that idea,” and I don’t actually remember exactly what was going on in my head when I wrote that song. I don’t remember what the initial lyric was, but I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny, conceptually, to write a song about a girl who has all these terrible things happen, but really, everything’s fine because of some stupid reason?” And the stupid reason I pulled out of my ass was she got an autographed picture in the mail from her favorite band, Oasis.
Oasis was random. I picked a band that I assumed someone could be a massive, massive deluded fan of, and they seemed like they fit the bill. I mean, a lot of that is autobiographical: I had an abortion when I was 17, and I did have that terrible experience of going to the abortion clinic with my mom and my boyfriend, and literally getting attacked by a bunch of people with signs and pictures telling me that I was going to hell and telling me that I was a baby killer, right up in my face. I was a pretty tough kid and I was like “Ah, this is ridiculous. Leave me alone and go away. I really, really don’t want to have this baby.” [Laughs]
Getting an abortion wasn’t this super-traumatic experience for me. But when things like that happen to you, and actually they really are upsetting, and especially at 17, you don’t synthesize things quite the same way. You do tend to brush things off more, and you do tend to be really nonchalant and cavalier about things that are happening to you. They pop out at you later. The fact that it popped out in a song when I was 27 was like, “Well, maybe that was my way of processing something.” But that’s why art is awesome. That’s why song writing is fantastic…in your own fucked up way, it can help you come to terms with things, or put something to bed. Not even necessarily put it to bed, but the fact that I could laugh about that and play around with it there’s something beautiful about that.

SHOCKHOUND: Have there been times in your own life where music has played a similarly uplifting role — like, “Alright, I’ve gone through a bunch of shit, but this record or this band has helped me get through it”?

PALMER: Oh sure. I mean, growing up, the Cure was huge for me. They were my favorite band for years. That was like my junior high school and most of my high school years, and then I swapped allegiance and got really into the Legendary Pink Dots. Part of why I connected with them is ‘cause no one in my high school had any fucking clue who they were. They were mine, and there’s really something special about that. I’m still really into both of those bands to this day, but it’s interesting how my whole view on music has shifted, because I just can’t listen to music the same way as when I was 15. That’s been hard for me to accept, because I still wish that a band could be so huge in my mind.
Now I feel like I’m on the flipside of that, because I’ve got kids coming up to me, and the Dresden Dolls are that band for them. I think also the fact that I was that kind of music fan, it makes me totally able to relate and it makes me really empathetic and when a kid comes up to me and says, “You won’t believe it and I’m sure you hear this a million times, but you’ve saved my life, and you’ve changed my life.” It’s like, “No, I totally get that. It’s not stupid and I don’t take that for granted and I love you. Yes, I’ll stand here and hug you for five minutes,” because it makes me feel better that that still exists. Even if finding a new record can’t do that for me anymore… I can really love stuff, and really appreciate it, but I’ll never worship at the altar of a band the way I did when I was a teenager. It’s just not gonna happen.

SHOCKHOUND: What’s a song by someone else that you wish you’d written?

PALMER: It’s gonna sound really corny, but that’s probably not a bad thing because it’s got such a universal resonance, but I think “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I could just die happy if I had written that song. [Laughs] I could probably name a half a dozen Leonard Cohen songs that if I had written, I would die happy. Yeah, Leonard Cohen — he does amazing things with words. He’s a fantastic measuring stick, because it’s so great the way he just cuts to the emotional truth.

SHOCKHOUND: So what’s on for the rest of the year for you?

PALMER: Well, I’m hoping desperately to get dropped by my record label, and I will find that out in June. Until then, I’m doing a little bit of touring, and then I’m doing a project that I’m actually really, really excited about because I’ve been trying to make it happen for years: I’m going to be playing in and creating music for and performing in my old high school’s spring play. The director is my same director from high school, and he’s been like my mentor and my inspiration and has really shaped me a lot as an artist and a person. Ever since I left high school, and especially since the band started, I’ve said, “We have to do a project. I wanna do something with you, and with the kids.”
He cast about 13 kids to write a play from scratch based on a layout that we came up with. Basically, it’s a play based on all the songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. He’s been sending me emails everyday about what the kids have come up with, and it sounds amazing. It’s gonna be performed at the high school for three nights and I’m gonna be in it and playing a lot of the songs and…involved. That’s basically a fantasy to me. It’s also really great to do theatre with these kids, because they’ve had incredible training from this guy and they’re all so not full of shit. They’re really all so passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re all just doing it because they love doing it. It’s really fun to be around that kind of energy.

SHOCKHOUND: That sounds pretty rejuvenating.

PALMER: Yeah, and it’s fun because I get to hang out in my hometown and hang out with my folks and take baths. [Laughs]