Erstwhile Dresden Doll, perpetual cabaret rocker and a poet who knows it, an evening with Amanda Palmer is epic in every sense. Ahead of her visit to Cardiff this month, Isabel Thomas got her ear bent about topics galore.
Hi Amanda, thanks so much for the interview. I’m going to launch straight into the gritty stuff, if that’s okay with you?
I mean… do you know who I am?! (laughs)
Of course! Okay, so your song Oasis brings a sense of humour to the subject of abortion as a way to cope with the darkness. How does your newer song Voicemail For Jill compare to this?
Well, it’s less funny, for one. I actually talk about Oasis and [Dresden Dolls song] Mandy Goes To Med-School in my show, and the evolution of how to write the perfect abortion song. With these songs, I had to wrap it in a bunch of satire and sarcasm because that’s the only way I could deal with it. But I’m really proud of myself for now getting to the place where I always wanted to be, which is writing about abortion sincerely – because it’s a fucking hard thing to write about! I’ve had three experiences with abortion and have gone through three different circles of hell. I felt like a failure as a songwriter because I couldn’t write an abortion song that to me really captured the experience.
So you finally came round to being able to write about it in a different way?
Yeah, I took a lot of inspiration actually when I was in Dublin right when the repeal vote happened, hanging out with all these really ballsy and brave Irish journalists. I got home and sat down almost immediately and wrote Voicemail For Jill because I felt like I finally had this moral songwriting responsibility to write a song that really captured the experience, especially given what was going on politically at that moment in America, and is still going on in America: the threat to legal and safe abortion being very, very real.
Also, I don’t take for granted that I now have a bunch of patrons [via the Patreon funding platform] supporting my songwriting. I knew that I wasn’t going to have to bring this song to a major label run by a bunch of dudes who were going to listen to it and go, “oh holy hell Amanda – how are you going to put this on a record?” There’s an incredible amount of freedom in writing whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want – still getting paid for it and not having to send it through any filters, permissions or hassles with the middlemen. And trust me, having gone through the music business, it’s always men
Drowning In The Sound – my favourite from your latest album There Will Be No Intermission – takes inspiration and comments from lots of your online patrons. Did this bring up any new topics or angles that you wouldn’t usually go for?
A little bit, yeah. I had an end-of-month deadline coming up for my Patreon, I had a video that I was supposed to put out and it wasn’t ready, so I decided to just write a song really fast, and I decided to write it with input from the patrons. In a way, I wound up sort of feeling like an emotional scribe for that entire group of people who commented. It’s a different way of writing.
I certainly had what I was going through and what I was feeling, but I also had what they were going through and feeling. I felt like my job was to synthesise all of that into some kind of offering, and that’s where the lyrics for Drowning… came from. Some of them were literally cut-and-pasted out of comments from my patrons.
Although it’s not obvious, there are definitely hints towards the issue of climate change in the song. I don’t think you’ve written about that before; did it come from the patrons?
Mhm. I mean, there’s a constant slow-burning fear with pretty much nearly every human being I know right now. We can talk about whatever we want, we can make art about whatever we want, we can discuss abortion, we can discuss our children, and we can discuss anything and everything; but underneath it all there’s this brimming spectre. If the ocean levels actually do rise 15 feet in the next few years, we’re all going to be underwater, and a lot of it’s not going to matter.
There are a lot of difficult things you share on this record, and you said they were frightening but therapeutic to write about. Do you hope they’ll have the same effect on your listeners, or is there a risk that some people might find them too upsetting?
Oh wow. Well I don’t have any concern, honestly, about people finding my songs too upsetting. My music has never been easy listening, from day one of the Dresden Dolls. My songs have always been about challenging subjects, and really emotional experiences. Nobody sticks an Amanda Palmer record on at a party [laughs] – but that’s fine. If I wanted to make music like that, I could make it – and maybe someday I will – but right now I need music as an emotional connector between me and my audience, and I’m not ready to let that go yet.
I’ve had a really difficult past seven years of my life and music was my touchstone. I know enough about being a touring performer and a writer to know that if I was able to put words to these experiences and sort through them using my songwriting, that those songs would not be unimportant or unhelpful to other people. But whether or not it’s going to be well received by an audience, or scare an audience, doesn’t concern me anymore. It never did, really.
Let’s talk about your tour. It’s very much piano-oriented. Are there any particular pianists that have influenced you?
That’s a good question. I actually talk about influence a lot during the show. I spent years of my life trying to figure out how to make a piano sound like bass, drums and guitars, which meant breaking a lot of strings and beating the shit out of it!
When I was a teenager I was scared to like Tori Amos, Elton John and Billy Joel, because I had such bizarre and ambivalent feelings about the piano – and it took me until my 20s to realise the genius of a lot of female singer-songwriters. But I listened to a lot of classical music: Beethoven, Chopin, Bach and Debussy. When I took lessons as a kid, that was the stuff that I was trying to play, and I think you can actually hear those influences on this record more than any of my others. I sort of get to show off my lame amateur classical chops on songs like The Ride and Death Thing.
You call this show your “most human and vulnerable stage show to date”. Is there any danger of burnout from the emotional intensity that that involves?
Well, you shouldn’t come to this show expecting an entertaining night out, but, ironically, it’s the funniest show I’ve ever toured. It has to be – there’s no way that I could talk about these kind of topics without dousing them in standup comedy. So it is, on the one hand, the heaviest show I’ve ever toured, but it’s also the most ridiculous – I mean, there are Disney songs and disco balls.
There are parts of this record that are really funny, and A Mother’s Confession is a perfect example: a really silly song, but it’s also dark as fuck. That combination seems to be my speciality lately, because I just don’t think you can do one without the other.
Amanda Palmer, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Sat 19 Oct. Tickets: £26. Info: 029 2087 8444 / www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk
“Challenging subjects and really emotional experiences”: five of Amanda Palmer’s most hard-hitting songs.
Mr Weinstein Will See You Now
Written and recorded with Jasmine Power, a singer-songwriter from west Wales, this song depicts the sadness experienced by the victims of abusive men. Amanda Palmer’s unconventional income streams went to fund a video reinforcing the powerful message with impactful nudity, a year after the start of the #MeToo movement.
The Bed Song
This follows the lifelong decline of a relationship, from sharing a sleeping bag through to an elderly couple sleeping at opposite sides of a larger-than-king-size bed, accompanied by a simple but incredibly moving video. It’s difficult to decide whether the dark twist at the end is sweet or heartbreaking.
Voicemail For Jill
Amanda Palmer finally writes a sensitive abortion song, and every line cuts like a knife, as she lists the things expectant mothers get to enjoy which her friend won’t experience. Even on the last line, “We can throw you an abortion shower”, the singer manages to avoid delivering any hint of irony or jest, a rare thing for the queen of dark humour.
Dedicated to Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, this cover draws at the heartstrings as the vocals range from fragility, on the verge of cracking, to full-throttle yelling over a string quartet. In this interpretation, Zombie‘s original lyrics, about the Troubles in Ireland, take on new dimensions in a lament to another singer’s untimely death.
On first listen, a jaunty song built around a euphemism. Listen closer, though, and underneath the double meanings (“he feels like a boy should feel”) you can hear levels of delusion, denial and loneliness. One of her most famous songs as half of punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, with drummer Brian Viglione, this song set the tone for much of Amanda Palmer’s career, combining light-heartedness and humour with difficult, emotional topics.
words Isabel Thomas