THE S/T INTERVIEW: Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls

[Photo by Tina Korhonen]

By Michael Tedder

Amanda Palmer had a big year in 2008: constant shows, a contract-fulfilling Dresden Dolls compilation (No, Virginia), and the unveiling of her intricately-arranged, bitingly-black solo debut, the Ben Folds-produced Who Killed Amanda Palmer? The next 12 months look pretty busy as well, from more touring (featuring The Danger Ensemble, an Australian improv troupe) to the imminent release of a Killed companion book featuring artful post-mortem pictures (courtesy of photographer Kyle Cassidy) and text by Sandman-writer/goth icon Neil Gaiman.

self-titled caught up with Palmer shortly after the release of Killed to discuss working with Ben Folds, the fine art of cover songs and why she hates Carousel.

self-titled: Were you seriously going to call your album That’s Amanda Fucking Palmer To You? Because that’s a great title.
That was the original idea, but I didn’t know how my mom was going to handle that, or Wal-Mart for that matter.

What made you decide that in addition to the Dresden Dolls, you wanted to release a solo album?
Well, it started as a much simpler idea. I was going to just release an album of solo piano and voice stuff. The project was not going to take very long, I was seriously thinking about just recording it in my bedroom. And then Ben (Folds) got involved, and once Ben got involved things got very complicated, because I moved to a real studio and started considering other songs and the next thing I knew it was a year and a half later and I had a full-on rock record with an orchestra on it. One thing just sort of led to another and the thing exploded.

So, originally you wanted the album to be less produced than The Dresden Dolls, and it ended up being a lot more produced than The Dresden Dolls.
Yeah, absolutely.

How did you end up meeting with Ben?
He E-mailed our website [laughs]. He sent us fan mail. We were quick friends, and before too long he offered me use of his studio and [his production skills]. It all happened very quickly.

What was working with him like?
It was fantastic. Ben is a musical genius; he’s a great arranger, he’s a fantastic musician. He applied himself in every role to the record. He helped me with the song selection, he helped me edit the songs, he played on them, he suggested other instruments, he helped me arrange string parts, he wrote entirely new parts to go over the songs and played all those parts himself. He was heavily involved.

Amanda Palmer : Ampersand from Festival Previews on Vimeo.

Tell me about “Ampersand.” It’s a beautiful song and seems to be the emotional centerpiece of the album. How did it come about?
Well, I wrote the song maybe three or four years ago. It felt like a solo piano ballad (then), so I stuck it in the solo box. And then Ben gave it a listen and said, “I think you could use some strings on this to keep it from sounding too boring.” And he hooked me up with this incredible old-school string arranger from Los Angeles, Paul Buckmaster, who is actually a British ex-pat. He did a lot of arranging for Elton John back in the day, and he was hundreds of incredible songs to his credit.

We listened to the songs in L.A. I sang him a bunch of ideas and we worked on it from there. We tweaked the arrangements and recorded them live at Capitol Records with a huge string section–it was a total ‘pinch me’ moment, sitting there thinking, ‘I was going to record this to four-track in my bedroom, and all of a sudden I’m sitting in the Capitol Records building with 30 string players with charts in front of them with my music.”

The success of the Dresden Dolls made it possible for me to make this record. There’s a full weird cyclical thing going on, because I wouldn’t have the money to make the record if I hadn’t done all the touring with the band. I invested it all right back into making this record.

When you’re writing songs, what makes you think, ‘this is solo, this is Dresden Dolls, this doesn’t need a drummer on it,’ and so on?
I don’t ever think that way. For a long time it was just kind of like, “I can’t bring this one to Brian because there’s nothing he can add to it.” But it was never a case of this is going to be for the solo record, this is going to be for the Dresden Dolls record, this is going to be for this and that; it was more just that every time I had a recording project I looked at my pile, and thought, ‘okay, what’s going to fit?’ When the Dresden Dolls made our last record, it was the same way: “okay, these are all the songs I’ve got, what do we want to do?” And that’s how I approached the solo record. I brought Ben a pile of literally like 30 or 40 songs, I played them all over the course of a couple of days and we recorded everything as demos and we started paring down what Ben thought was going to make the strongest record.

You’ve got a strong online fanbase–one you speak directly to. When it was announced that you had a solo album and Brian was off doing other projects, a lot of your fans worried that the band was breaking up. Did you have to do a lot of reassuring to your fans, even though the group released an album and went on tour before the solo album was out?
I think Brian and I were a little shaky last Spring. We didn’t know what was going to happen with the band. We’ve had enough conflicts over the past five or six years, and there’s been more than a couple moments where we were so fed-up with each other and the touring and the schedule that we thought we might pack it in. But the band to me is still an incredibly strong entity and I think we’ll just call it a part-time job right now while we work on these other projects.

It’s got to be tough with a two-person group, compared to, say, a five-person one. I can see how:
Yeah, it’s an intense fucking work environment, for sure. Brian and I are really good friends and we understand each other really well. And everything we learn outside of the context of the Dresden Dolls only helps the band. And we’ve come to really understand that and respect each other’s decisions about what to work on and when. I’m actually already looking forward to making the next Dolls record, even though it might be two years from now.

Any idea what direction that might go in?
No clue, but that’s why it’s so exciting. I don’t know where I’m going to be at in two years, and I don’t think Brian does either. The idea that we’re collecting all of these incredible experiences and we’re getting so musically educated in so many different ways, it’s constantly exciting to think about what’s going to happen.

[Photo by Naomi Jellicoe]

Getting back to the solo album, you covered a song from Carousel on it.
Yes, I did.

Have you ever auditioned for any musicals?
I was in Carousel, dude!

Really? When?
Junior year of high school.

Hell yell! Actually, it was my senior year of high school. I thought that it was the most evil, misogynist set of songs I’d ever seen on a stage, and I wrote my own protest song to the musical which I played for the director, and my director also hated the musical, so he let me perform the song onstage during intermission. It was my first public performance of a song that I’d ever written. It was a good debut. And that song in particular, (“What’s the Use of Wond’rin'”) always really got under my skin. It’s so dark.

So why you’d decide to cover it?
Because it’s funny?

That’s a good point.
You’ve got to listen to it the right way, it’s pretty funny. It’s pretty black.

Speaking of black, “Oasis” is probably the catchiest song about rape and abortion I’ve ever heard. What made you decide to make that one?
Um, because it’s funny? [Laughs] I mean, I wrote that one as a total off-hand little ditty and played it for Ben, and Ben also has a completely twisted sense of humor and he loved it, and so we decided to do it up completely, complete with Beach Boys-style back-up singing. We had a lot of fun on that one.

So, I hear that you’re working on a companion book for the album with Neil Gaiman.

How did that one come about? Have you always been a fan of Mr. Gaiman?
Um, I’ve always been familiar with him, I wasn’t a super, super comic fan growing up, but I always knew his work and really respected it, and he’s an incredibly cool guy. He’s a smart, really, really sharp person and he’s also very warm, and he loves connecting with people and I feel like we have a lot in common that way. And he and I got in touch with each other because we’re both acquainted with (songwriter/busker) Jason Webley, and we just started chatting and we struck up a friendship. And when the record came along, I sent him a copy just so he could hear it, he loved it and I was working on the art work and I realized that I had enough photographs that I could create a book, instead of just a CD booklet. And I threw out the idea to Neil that he maybe could write some text, and he just loved the idea and he took it from there.

Are you completely a self taught piano player?
Pretty much, yeah.

What inspired you to first start playing and how old were you?
I was inspired to start playing because the piano was just there. I grew up with a piano in house and I just gravitated towards it. I was three or four years old when I started playing.

How long before you were writing your own songs?
I think I started improvising little tunes when I was maybe 8 or 9, but without words, I would just write little stupid songs that just repeated words over and over, and then I started writing my first songs when I was 10 or 11. Really bad, bad pop songs. That hopefully no one will ever hear.

What was the first song you ever wrote that you were proud of and would still play to this day?
“Flood,” off of the first record. I wrote that when I was 15 … I wrote it late one night, I got the idea for it and I wasn’t allowed to play the piano that late so I wrote it in my head and I wrote it on a piece of paper and I played it really quietly so I wouldn’t wake-up my parents, and I remember thinking “this is really good.” And I still felt that way ten years later when I made the first Dolls record.

You’ve said in interviews that the cabaret style of music was a big influence on you. When did you first get introduced to that style of music?
Oh, you know, just through musical theater and listening and hanging out and absorbing it. That’s always a hard one for me to answer because I don’t really know. That style of music, I’ve always been drawn to it the way I’ve always been drawn to certain kinds of food. It’s just around and in the environment and I gravitate towards it.

Were you in a lot of musicals when you were in high school?
Yeah, pretty much every year from sixth grade on. I think I skipped my sophomore year because I dropped out of school, but every other year I was in a musical and a play. We had a really fantastic director, a great visionary, and he also encouraged us to write and direct and produce our own works, so I did that every year as well, and that really shaped me. Interestingly, I was more interested in directing than I was in performing because I was writing my own plays.

Could you ever see yourself writing a musical with your songs?
Oh, sure. That takes a lot of time and concentrated effort and I’ve been flitting around so much that it’s hard to imagine. But actually, I am doing a workshop play this spring with that same director I was just telling you about. My old high school director and a bunch of actors and a bunch of his students are getting together and writing an original play that we’re going to put up in the high school as their spring play this May. That’s going to be a two-month project.

What’s it about?
Well, w’ve only had one workshop so far, but it looks like it’s going to be about a circus at the end of the world. [Laughs] That’s the big concept right now.

Switching tracks a little bit, you’ve had an interesting career as an opening band. Who was the hardest crowd to win over: Nine Inch Nails, Panic At The Disco or Cyndi Lauper?
Oh, well, in descending order–Cyndi Lauper was really easy, Nine Inch Nails wasn’t too bad, Panic At The Disco was a nightmare.

Yeah, and it was very ironic. We thought that the Nine Inch Nails crowd was going to be really tough, and they were actually really open-minded, and we thought the Panic At The Disco crowd was going to be this sort of young, alternative gothy crowd that would just eat us up, and we were really surprised when we got on the road with them and we saw how mainstream their fans were, and how young. We were expecting high school age, Hot Topic kids, and instead it was 12-to-14-year-old Gap kids, and we didn’t freak out, but we faced that crowd the first few nights of the tour going “Oh my God, wow. Well, you know, a lot of kids like us, let’s see if this works.” And we won over a ton of fans on that tour, but we also really took the ego battering of the whole first ten rows just texting and chewing their gum while we were playing. It was really hard, emotionally hard to take that every night but we did okay with it.

One of your fan sites has almost a double album’s worth of live covers that you’ve done. I think my favorite is “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” by Sinead O’ Connor.
Oh yeah.

I was very happy that someone remembered how awesome Sinead used to be. But what’s with all the covers? And when you hear a song, what makes you think “yeah, that’s something I need to put my own spin on.”
When we play covers, it’s really just for pure enjoyment. There’s just something really liberating about putting your material aside and just enjoying playing a song you love. It’s like : singing in the shower. Sometimes I play them just because I want to hear them. And then there’s the added benefit of turning our fans onto music they maybe weren’t familiar with.

Is there a song of yours that is a favorite to cover?
Yeah, I have different favorite covers for different reasons. Every tour brings up covers that sort of appear. We’ll also start playing covers because one of us will play a song we like during soundcheck and the other will start playing along and we’ll look at each other and go “you want to do it?” We’re really spontaneous that way. We played “Fight For Your Right To Party” on the last tour because Brian was showing me some drum stuff and I started playing that drum beat or something happened and he said “okay, let’s be ridiculous and do it,” so we did it. It was just an instant party the minute we started playing that song.

I haven’t heard that one!
Oh, check it out on YouTube, there’s a great clip of the entire crowd rushing the stage in Chicago for that song, which is awesome.

Where did you meet Brian?
Brian and I met at a party at my house that I was throwing in the Halloween of 2000. He got dragged along by some mutual friend of ours, and he saw me playing because it was a performance party with a bunch of different bands playing in the house. And he saw me play and he knew I was looking for a drummer and a band at the time and we were going at it full force within the week.

Within a week you were playing together?
I think we got together and jammed within that week, and the first night that we played together we knew it was going to happen.