Interview: Amanda Palmer

words by Dan Brian | photo by Beth Hommel
| Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

palmerOriginally published in Verbicide issue #25

Amanda Palmer, the punk-cabaret queen who haunts all our hearts with triumphant screams and grief stricken cries of melancholy, has taken a brief side-step into the solo realm with her latest outing, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? I recently sat down the Dresden Dolls’ front lady to get a glimpse of the inner workings behind the raffish eyeliner.

How’s the release of the new album going?
Well, it leaked a couple days ago, which is not so bad because I can finally see what everybody thinks of it officially. The reaction so far from everybody has been just off the hook. It’s been really good.

Who leaked it?
We’ll never know. I mean, once there are promo copies out there, that’s it. It’s over. I guess my question is that…if the record leaks now, are less people actually going to buy it when it comes out? I just don’t think it works that way anymore. I don’t think it ever worked that way necessarily. I think if people hear my record and are listening to it and it’s good — and it is good — it can only help. I don’t think it can hurt.

The song “Runs In The Family” on your new album seems to touch upon a consistent theme throughout your work: an aversion to medicine that changes your personality. Or am I totally crazy?
I don’t think you’re crazy, but [that song] actually didn’t have anything to do with medication or anything medical at all. It’s really more [of a question]…what if someone made a grand hyperbolic excuse that nothing is my fault because literally everything is genetic? That’s sort of what that grew out of. I wrote that song right around the time I wrote “Half Jack,” and they’re basically exploring the same terrain in a different way.

The stuff that inspired “Half Jack” and that song was that during my parents’ divorce I was still in the crib, so I was never really close with my dad growing up. And I started noticing in my early 20s that I had some of his mannerisms… and I barely knew the guy. And it really freaked me out because it left me with this sense of helplessness, as if there really is some coding in there that I can’t break. It’s a really interesting nature/nurture struggle we enter into to define ourselves.

It’s kind of like that Bob Dylan song [in which] he’s singing about how he’s not his father, but in the end he was.
That’s the thing, you can never really get that far. Where you come from and what you’re made up of does not change. Even if you redefine yourself and pick a new religion or dye your hair blonde or whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Does that mentality come into play in your solo work? Are you trying to redefine or reinvent yourself?
I’m definitely not trying to do that. That’s one thing that I think is important to point out is that this solo record didn’t grow out of some frustration with the Dresden Dolls. I actually had a fair amount of freedom in the Dresden Dolls. It’s not like Brian and I spent hours fighting over arrangements and concepts. I basically took the lead and Brian is a really, really fantastic supportive band mate. But there is something about doing everything together, and making all the decisions together, being around another person all the time, even if the creative decisions aren’t that hard. It’s a totally different feeling sitting in a room making decisions by yourself. One of the perfect analogies for it is [that] it’s like traveling. You can travel to the same place as a couple or with a friend, and you just have a completely experience of the place than if it’s just you and a backpack and you’re deciding where to turn right and where to turn left and when to wake up and what to do and what to eat and what people to talk to. When you travel as a pair, your experience of the place is actually the experience of the other person. When you travel as a duo or do a project with another person, a huge amount of what you’re experiencing is through them, a lot more than the art and a lot more than the process.

What the history of the record is is that I had this collection of ballads that never were going to end up on a Dresden Dolls record because they had no drums. Plus, the band needed to take a break. We said, “Okay, we’ve put out a second record, I’m going to go off and record this little solo record and put it out for the fans and then lets reassess and see where we’re at,” and right around that time, Ben Folds approached me and offered to produce it. Then one thing led to another and what was going to be just a simple $10,000 budget turned into a giant, year-long, epic cluster-fuck [laughter]. But a cluster-fuck of beauty! I’m really, really proud of the record. I think it’s perfect.

I hear you have a future theater project. What’s going on with that?
Yeah, there is this director from my old high school, this genius writer and director, who sort of shaped me a lot. He directed the musicals and the spring plays and taught all the drama classes. He also encouraged all the kids to write and direct their own material. I go back to my high school to see the productions and it’s usually the best theater I see all year, and I sit there and I shake my head saying, “God, why isn’t this guy in New York?” He’d be killing it. We’ve been talking about doing a project for years and we finally set a time this spring, where me and five or six professional actors are going to workshop an original play with the kids and put it on as the spring play and then shop it to New York.

What kind of play is it going to be?
It’s going to be a fucked up, surreal, probably very music based, but probably not musical theater. We did a little mini-workshop this summer with all the professionals about what the show would be about, and we were using In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel as source material for the improv.

Are you worried that the parents are going to be a little on edge?
No. I’m not worried about that because they’ve already had 15 years of Steven Bogart and every time I go back to see a show there’s rape and incest in it. I’m always looking around at all the parents thinking that they’ve just gotten used to it. [laughter]

You’ve been viewed as a really strong front woman for several years now. How do you react to that, and more importantly, how do you feel about that in relation to your female contemporaries?
My insecure side looks at other ladies in rock and I feel really inadequate, because at a certain level I feel so unhip and unplugged from the indie rock scene that I wonder if hipsters just look at my Vans and think we’re just really dorky. I stand in awe of people like Bjork and Feist and people who do things that get the coolest collaborators and stylists flocking to them, and they seem to be in this untouchable bubble of cool. The funny thing is, I think I felt more like that a few years ago before I realized that all of these things that are happening, that seem so magic in these other women’s lives, are actually very random.

I’ve been reading your blog now on a regular basis and you disclose everything. You certainly don’t seem insecure.
That’s kind of the paradox. I don’t think I’m all that insecure, but I certainly grew up fucking insecure and it’s worn off, a lot. Especially since I’ve grown as a performer and I’ve met so many people and I’ve learned so much. But those feelings, they never really go away, but I recognize them and I don’t take them very seriously. When you start peeling away the layers of the onion and you look at women — especially [those] who are touted as the next “in” thing — there’s always something that seems a little off, because too much of that stuff seems unreal and fabricated, and you’re looking at some sort persona that the press is creating. You have to wonder how this is translating in real life.

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