The Veteran Siren Is Poised For Pop With 'Theatre Is Evil'.
Words and Interview by Kathy Iandoli
Amanda Palmer is not your traditional rockstar…thank goodness. As a child, Palmer would throw mock art gallery openings in her living room for her parents, selling them watercolor paintings using the colors and paper they purchased for her. She’d make $20 at an “event” by selling her mother and father back the very supplies they bought for her. While Palmer refers to herself as a “sleazy entrepreneur” as a kid, that keen business sense has since echoed throughout her entire music career. Following her photo shoot for MTV Iggy, she sat in her dressing room in a tattered kimono. She’s planning to fix the tears by sewing in a silver lining. “It’s to make my tour more hopeful,” Palmer says, while playing on her MacBook Pro. Scanning through her computer files, she reveals a photo of a near perfect sketch she drew on a piece of fabric that she’ll later emboss on t-shirts to sell at shows. Amanda Palmer is a simple kind of star (her tour rider includes hard-boiled eggs and fresh ginger) who just happens to produce grandiose results. After diverting from the cabaret killer duo known as the Dresden Dolls, Palmer took her celebrity status to new heights with 2008’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The project – while admittedly all over the place – showcased Palmer’s ability to stand alone with her full-bodied vocals, and win hearts and libidos worldwide. That’s when she took on the internet.
Creating a safe space and mainline to her fan base, Palmer formed an army of supporters both on and offline, who carried her through four years of touring while piecing together the upcoming Theatre Is Evil project arriving September 11th. This album is geared to be Palmer’s pop masterpiece with a nod to her ‘80s and ‘90s musical upbringing, as indicated by the focused single, “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen).” In April, Palmer launched a Kickstarter campaign for the album, which grossed $1.1 million dollars (breaking a record) to date in preorders alone. She has also taken to the internet to find musicians for her Grand Theft Orchestra, who will add the live instrumentation element to her shows. To add fuel to her promotional vehicle, she’s accepted the challenge of performing at house parties across the globe for $5,000 an appearance. It’s the most complex form of a simple life for this Boston bred singer, who in one breath is posing for cameras in New York City and in the next, wiping off her signature slashmark eyebrows (only to reapply them perfectly) as she heads upstate for another show. How does she do it all? By being Amanda Fucking Palmer, that’s how.
How would you describe your life in between Who Killed Amanda Palmer and Theatre Is Evil?
A wild improvisation. It was a combination of slap-happy freedom, finally getting to improvise and do what I want to do instead of being locked into the routine of The Dresden Dolls. But also, I was improvising and also building to this moment. So even though a lot of my improvisations looked random to the outside, a lot of them were more strategic than you might think, because I was trying to figure out how to run my business. So even though my projects might have seemed insane from the outside, there was a hidden strategy.
Rumor has it you invented the internet…
Oh wow, I think the government did that! I just used the internet for the things I wanted to do anyway as the tools became available. I didn’t sit and strategically look at the internet, thinking, “How can I fucking master this tool?” I just desperately want to connect with everybody. As the internet has blossomed into this hyper-connected machine, it’s really been ideal for a person like me. I’m as a happy as a pig in shit being able to document and archive, and connect at every moment, whereas for other artists that’s really a burden and a challenge. For me, it’s like a playground. The same questions people are asking me about the internet are really similar to the questions people ask me about The Dresden Dolls and the general fan base, and how they’re so connected and why they’re so connected to me. Online and offline are kind of the same thing. If you spend time and energy being real with your fans, it will pay off. It doesn’t matter if you do it on Twitter or FaceBook or at a show or in a park, it’s all the same thing. So, connecting with people in a real way and not in a stupid superficial way is doable as an artist. You can always do it. Whether it’s online or offline, it takes a certain amount of time, and you have to want to give it that time and energy. I’m about to go do 40 house parties for people all over the world.
Are you serious?
They paid for it, bought it on Kickstarter along with the album. I’m going to go play in their homes. In a lot of cases, people pooled their money, so I’m playing for 50 people in a house. I’m going all over the world – Europe, Australia, South Africa, Israel, The States, like everywhere. Here’s the thing, that could either be an enjoyable night or a nightmare depending on how you approach it. I have developed a particular brand of hostessing skill, where I am not afraid to walk into the challenge of being in a total stranger’s house and making an evening happen. But that’s its own skill, it has nothing to do with being a songwriter, a singer or being a rockstar. It has to do with being a social animal and making 50 strangers in a stranger’s house feel comfortable. It’s a weird job, but I’ve always wanted to do it. Even as a kid, my fantasy job was to be a party thrower. I chose music because it was a little more concrete, but I think music was always the path to this place where everybody is together. It’s what I’ve always craved.
Where have you performed so far?
We just did one in Fresno, California and before that did a few in Australia.
What are some of the differences you noticed in the parties in the States versus overseas?
There is no inter-continental difference, I think. It has to do with the individual person and the place. In Australia, I did a party that was a girl’s graduation present from her parents in her backyard with all of her friends and a barbecue pit. It was in the Australian countryside under the stars. She was a songwriter, so we all sat around a fire and played fucking campfire songs. It was beautiful, and then a few weeks later I did a party in Melbourne that was in a shared house of early twenty-somethings who were all about to leave that house so it was a house-trashing. Everyone was hammered, and by the end of the night, one of the housemates was giving a full party display of penis puppetry and how he could put his scrotum over an ashtray. It was awesome.
What was your mindset going into Theatre Is Evil?
The songs have been in preparation for five years. This is more than five years’ worth of songwriting. As with all of my previous albums, I looked at this pile of songs and thought, “Okay, what’s this record going to be? These are the songs.” I had 15 or 20 of them that were on the drafting table, and it was really obvious to me, given the way six or seven of them sounded that I definitely needed a full band, definitely needed a producer who spoke ‘80s, and definitely wanted to explore the sound of my past— my ‘80s and ‘90s roots. I could tell that’s where I was writing. I was writing derivative songs that sounded like the shit I grew up on. I decided instead of doing something weird and wacky with it, I’d just honor it and try to make it sound as authentically as possible.
So you’re having a dinner party with your favorite artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Who would be there?
Just me and Robert Smith.
What were you like as a kid?
I did a lot of things, like I always had 12 projects going. I played piano in the living room, I had an entire weird den of projects going on, I’d take over the entire dining room table with my sewing projects and my sewing machine. In my bedroom I’d have my fanzine laid out, taking up seven feet of floor, and then I had my whole jewelry making station laid out on the floor. I was also strangely anti-social – that’s a surprising thing to a lot of people. In high school, I spent a lot of time alone, like wandering off into the woods and dropping acid, drawing in my journal and figuring it all out. I was a weirdo.