Amanda Palmer - interviewAmanda Palmer has been a Dresden Doll, covered Radiohead on ukulele, created a band around fictional conjoined twins, and worked with everyone from Ben Folds, who produced her first solo album, to writer Neil Gaiman, now her husband. She has also accrued the kind of fan base most artists only dream of, thanks in part to her disarming stage presence, soul-baring songs, ever-present tragicomic streak and, more recently, an intuitive business savvy that’s seen her release her music directly to fans (nearly half a million Twitter followers and counting) in customised bundles and name-a-price deals. Her website - amandapalmer.net - reads less like an artist hawking wares, than a globetrotting friend rallying others to join in the fun.
And people have. People love Amanda Fucking Palmer, as she’s been known to call herself. And now Aussies and Kiwis have even more reason to do so, given her Antipodean-themed second solo album, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. It’s a grab bag of live and studio forays, collaborations, and covers, including Nick Cave’s classic ‘The Ship Song’ and the like-it-or-not cultural anthem ‘We’re Happy Little Vegemites’. Yet the quality is quite consistent, especially once you get used to Palmer’s theatrical leanings and incredible bond with her fans in concert. For someone who’s no stranger to the theatrical and exaggerated, she’s also that rare thing in the music business: real.
And thus, when the following interview commences, Palmer is reclining in the grass somewhere in Melbourne, a city of which she’s an outspoken admirer. She’s enjoying the southern summer, yes, but also another chance to discuss her work.
I hear you want to split the year between living here and in the States.
Yeah, I still fantasise about doing that. I fell in love with a British guy, which is less convenient because I don’t really want to move to England. But I might be able to drag him here.
Well, your new album might be a step towards the Australian government welcoming you...
As long as they like the record cover.
I think they’d have a good sense of humour about it. But let’s talk about this record: how did it get from an idea to a reality?
As is common in the world of Amanda Palmer, it all happened kind of lopsided and gradually. I realised one day that I had enough songs to put out a tour EP. It was just three songs: ‘Australia’, ‘New Zealand’, and ‘Map of Tasmania’. I thought if I add a couple of cover songs, I’ll have a tour EP. Then one thing led to another and I kept adding songs, and it turned into an album. It was all recorded this time last year while I was touring in Australia. I took a week off and did the studio songs in Adelaide and then I recorded a bunch of the shows live. I just picked the best of it and threw it all together. So it’s the most improvisational album I’ve ever put out, because it’s got a lot of mismatched messiness on it. But I actually think that’s kind of beautifully poetic. Because I think one of the reasons I love it here so much is that the Australians are not obsessed with perfection. (Laughs) So I think it’s maybe perfectly fitting that I put together a really unpolished record.
Your EP of Radiohead covers (review) was also a mix of live and studio songs, which work well together.
I think it does work, especially thematically. Because the record jumps around all over the place, it’s nice to hop back and forth between the really intimate stuff in the studio and then the incredibly silly stuff on stage, with, y’know, thousands of Australians singing the Vegemite song. But that’s very me. That’s pretty representational of typical Amanda Palmer extremes: things are completely absurd one second, and the next second you’re crying.
The Vegemite thing is a good example because you visit two sides of it: the jingle everyone knows, but another song [‘The Black Death’] where you say it tastes like batteries and asses.
Vegemite is incredibly divisive over here, I’ve found. I’ve had lots of Australians sidle up to me and tell me in secrecy they can’t stand it.
So do you like it or not?
No, I actually genuinely don’t. But in the interest of being diplomatic, I’ve been trying it daily, spreading it on different things, seeing if I can cultivate a taste for it. If I really want to be an Australian, I feel like I might just have to fucking get over it. But it hasn’t been working yet.
You had a bad childhood experience with Marmite, right?
Yeah, actually a traumatic experience. So I don’t know. I think maybe, if I really put my mind to it, I can like anything. Like, as I grow older, I really want to learn to like gin, because I feel like that would be really good to drink as I turn into an old lady. But I just can’t stand it. But I keep trying. I keep trying and hoping … maybe some day. Some shit you just don’t like. I can never like liquorice – I just can’t stand the taste of it.
What’s the song ‘Dr. Oz’ about?
That was actually written in Scotland about a crush I had on an Aussie from Melbourne. The song makes a whole different kind of sense if you realise that I wrote it while abroad, obsessing over an Australian guy.
As for the covers, were you just a longstanding fan of Nick Cave and Peter Jefferies?
Yeah. I was into Nick Cave from when I was a teenager. I was a complete fan girl. And Peter Jefferies I discovered while I was in college. He’s sort of up there with Kurt Weill in terms of a special kind of hero where, when I heard his music, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m not alone. Someone else plays the piano like me.” He’s very, very unknown. I’ve found that even people in New Zealand haven’t heard of him. He’s pretty obscure, whereas Nick Cave is obviously huge and beloved. So I thought that was actually a nice contrast.
One thing I like about your stuff, and you hear it a lot on this record, is that it blurs the lines between music, performance art, theatre, and even comedy. Is that part of the appeal for you?
I don’t know. I think that’s probably a question for somebody else. I don’t know how much of that I actually do deliberately. I think my subconscious mind is always at work, making sure that my output is balanced and isn’t all lugubrious or all comical. But my general habit is just to write songs as they come to me, and that’s what I do. Then I look at what I’ve written and figure out what to do with it from there. I don’t do a lot of planning.
How ruthless is your editing process?
In terms of what songs I’ll play for people once I’ve written them, or within songs?
I guess both: within songs, and how many songs actually survive till the end…
Y’know, it’s interesting. Neil and I talk a lot about this, because I found that as I get older, I produce almost no waste. I used to write a lot of songs when I was younger that I would just chuck and never use. But nowadays, since my time is at such a premium, I only really sit down to write stuff that I know I’m gonna use. Which is an entirely different kind of process. When I was teenager I was just writing and writing, and a lot of it was crap and some of it was good. And I think back then I didn’t even totally know the difference. Nowadays I have a much better gauge of what’s actually a great idea versus an okay idea versus a mediocre idea.
Also, I have a lot more opportunity to bounce things against the wall and against people, because I’m not grappling with the insecurities and isolation I had as a teenager. As a teenager nobody was hearing anything I wrote, at all, ever. Everything was hidden. Nowadays I can play a song at a gig and feel how it goes over. Or I can play it for a friend or I can even, in a kind of musical Method acting, imagine how a certain song is gonna go down and say it’s just not good enough or it’s not quite right.
There’s an interesting flipside to that, which is the more musical output I create, the less precious I get about any given song. A song like ‘Dr. Oz’ I wrote and said, “This is a good song. It’s not the best song I’ve ever written, but it’s a good song and it would probably be great produced and with a big band, but fuck it, I’m just going to play it on piano and throw it on this record.” Because it’s a good song. It used to feel like, back when I was making the first Dresden Dolls record, the songs really had to pass muster because I felt like I was gonna be so heavily judged on every single song. Because it was my only record. And in a certain sense I think that’s true. When you’ve only got one record out and you’ve got a song on it that you think is just okay, then a tenth of your entire output is just okay.
It’s interesting how you interact with fans. There’s such a strong dialogue. There’s a song on the album you had only played once before live, but it was on YouTube so all these fans already knew it. Is that scary and thrilling at the same time?
I think it’s really interesting, because the process, the songwriting process, is completely changed. It can’t happen in a vacuum anymore. It’s actually really funny you should mention that, because I haven’t been writing a lot [lately] but I did write a song yesterday – a really, really incredibly lewd and silly song – and I played it at this benefit gig I did for my friends [The Jane Austen Argument]. It was incredibly sloppy, I’d just written it, I had four sheets of lyrics that I had my friend just hold for me, and I probably stopped the song eight times to fix mistakes. And it was fun. It was fun to play in a really sweaty bar of people, but I’m not sure how pleased I would be to see that be the official version of the song.
[Because] it’s not. It’s like a rough draft of a blueprint of a song. But because I have the kind of relationship with my fans that I do, I asked them all to hang on to the [videophone] footage but wait and not post it until I had actually gotten a chance to practise the song and present it in a more official form. They all made their disappointed sounds but agreed to do it. That’s really incredible when you can have that kind of relationship and dialogue with people, and trust them. And I totally trust them all. Even if one of them does jump the gun and stick it up on YouTube and I find it, that happens all the time. I just email those people and say, “Hey, that song’s not quite ready. Could you take it down?” And they always do. I think that’s maybe also the benefit of being an artist who’s small enough and has enough of a familial relationship with her fans to know that stuff like that is going to be easy to take care of.
That’s the whole thing: the tone of your website and the approach you take to releasing things now encourages this intimacy and dialogue with people. Most fans just don’t have that with bands. I think it’s amazing for fans to experience that and feel appreciated.
Absolutely. I think the reason I got into music in the first place was to find these people and connect with them. For other musicians the audience is sometimes incidental and the music primary, and for me I think it’s the other way around. (Laughs)
So are you in Australia from now through March?
Yeah, I’m leaving in mid-March but March is going to be a light touring month because I’m mostly gonna be hanging out at the Adelaide Fringe.
What do you have planned besides playing shows?
Well, I’m going to do a lot of ninja gigs, which is what I call my random, Twittered, flash gigs. Especially in Australia, because there’s not a lot of all-ages venues. That means that in a bunch of the cities I’m playing, my teenage fans can’t come see me. So I’ll be Twittering “meet me on the beach” or “meet me in the park”, and I’ll play ukulele and create a party. I love doing that. I especially love doing that in Australia because you can do it outside. That’s really hard to do in, y’know, Boston in February.
You mentioned the ukulele, which is the focus of your Radiohead EP. What prompted you to incorporate that as well as piano?
I picked it up one day, kind of as a joke. And I realised instantly how incredibly powerful it was to be able to carry an instrument anywhere and play for people. One thing led to another and I’ve just continued to play it. I haven’t actually learned how to play it, but I’ve kept playing it. (Laughs)
If you can make it sound like an ukulele, I think that’s enough.
Yeah, it’s kind of a magical-trick instrument, because it’s so easy to play but it’s so incredibly charming. Just the sound of it makes people smile. There’s something wonderful about that. And it seems to have a huge, huge fan club here in Melbourne.
Oh yeah, there’s a festival for it…
There’s a festival the same weekend as my gig. I was on the tram the other day and saw a random guy sitting there playing ukulele. I struck up a conversation with him, because he knew me, and I wound up with like 12 members of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective [sic] on stage with me last night. They just showed up at the gig and played Paul Kelly and Radiohead songs with me. It was awesome. We also did an AC/DC cover.
What Paul Kelly and AC/DC songs did you do?
We did ‘Taught by Experts’, which is one of my favourite Paul Kelly songs, and ‘…Long Way to the Top’.
Sounds like there could be another Australian record in there…
Yeah: All Ukulele All the Time: Amanda Palmer and the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective Present the Popular Hits of the Australian Frontier, Volume 3. (Laughs)
Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under and Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele are both out now via Amanda Palmer's Bandcamp. Tour dates below.
01-15 Tasmania, Australia - Mono Foma Festival
01-17 Tasmania, Australia - Mono Foma Festival
01-26 Sydney, Australia - Sydney Opera House [w/Neil Gaiman]
02-01 Canberra, Australia - James O. Fairfax Theatre
02-04 Perth, Australia - Fly By Night
02-10 Byron Bay, Australia - Great Northern
02-12 Brisbane, Australia - The Old Museum
02-17-18 Wellington, New Zealand - Webstock
02-19 Wellington, New Zealand - Bodega
02-22 Christchurch, New Zealand - Al's Bar
02-23 Auckland, New Zealand - Kings Arms Tavern
02-26 Melbourne, Australia - The Forum Theatre
03-02-03 Adelaide, Australia - Adelaide Fringe Festival
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