Amanda Palmer on Catharsis, Metaphor and Performance
Francesca Lewis, Culture Correspondent
Amanda Palmer is my hero. Ever since she burst onto the scene in 2003 with her punk cabaret band, The Dresden Dolls, I have followed her music, and the blog which has served almost as a companion to it, these past ten years. Her honest, personal, cathartic style struck a chord with me, as an intense person who wears her emotions on her sleeve.
I have seen controversies come and go - from the initial reaction to her unshaven underarms and drawn-on eyebrows, to her split from her record company, to the music industry's uproar over her record-breaking Kickstarter success - I have watched it all from the side lines. So, you can imagine my extreme delight when I found out I was going to be able to interview Amanda.
We'd met before, after shows, at the signing table, but this time I would be one of a few journalists she was chatting to that day, not one of thousands of fans. To say I was excited is a gross understatement.
Just before the phone rang, I was so nervous that I spilled coffee everywhere, and had to mop it up with a tea towel while Amanda's people passed me over to my idol.
"Hi," said that familiar, husky Boston-twanged voice. I asked if she knew who I was, "Sure - you're Francesca from The Yorkshire Times."
I can now die happy. Amanda Fucking Palmer knows who I am...
You wrote on your blog recently that the artistic process can be likened to putting things - ideas, feelings, experiences - into a blender. You describe how the setting an artist puts their blender on, and therefore how mixed up the final product is, depends upon how much the writer wants to reveal about themselves. You have your blender on a very low setting - is that by choice?
That's almost impossible to answer because that's like asking if you have a choice in the kind of art you make at all - of course you have a choice! But I also take instinctive direction from myself, so I try really hard not to overthink my writing, overthink my expression, and if I have the impulse to do something - I do it. And sometimes the impulse is to put the blender on 3 and sometimes it's to put it on 9.
Yeah, I think that for someone like me, who follows everything you do - because I'm stalking you! (luckily she gets the joke and laughs) - the less literal songs are easier to decode, because I read your blog. When I look at your songs though, some of them are more literal than others, for example "Oasis" ...
Even "Oasis" isn't completely literal, because it's a fucking joke song. "Oasis" definitely picks up a lot of real life ingredients and puts them into a silly story but a song like - what's the most literal thing I've ever written in my life?
There's a song that I wrote on ukulele called "Do You Swear to Tell the Truth". Aside from some fictionalised names, there's almost nothing in there that isn't literal. But even so a song like that has artistic licenses and poetics and stuff in it.
I wrote a paper about you a few years ago, called "Truth or Dare: Amanda Palmer, Tori Amos and Methods of Feminist Catharsis" - what role would you say catharsis plays in your work?
Huge. I mean, I think music for me is incredibly cathartic, possibly even to a fault. I use it as a kind of therapy, self- therapy.
I think that's better, because you get the catharsis of writing the song and then your fans have a cathartic experience too, when they listen to it...
Yeah that is what one always hopes, that cathartic music doesn't necessarily mean wanky and self-involved, if it's truly cathartic then hopefully it's universal and useful to others.
And when you're performing, too, you've got a very strong, emotional performance style and every performance is different...
The thing about writing really personal music and really cathartic music is you find the freshness in the hope that the audience is gonna take something new away from it. If you knew what to expect and you were playing to the same audience over and over, it would be harder and harder to keep it authentic.
Yeah, I guess when you first do a song it's new, but once you've done it a few times...
People have asked me that constantly, like, "aren't you bored of playing Coin Operated Boy?" And actually the answer is no, it's really not boring, as long as there's an audience. Because an audience keeps it completely different and completely fresh and even if I'm playing the song the same way I played it yesterday, it's gonna land on a completely different set of ears, which makes it exciting for me.
So, is it different playing Glastonbury now, as opposed to 5 or 6 years ago, with The Dresden Dolls? Your profile is much higher now...
It's interesting because my profile hasn't so much gone up and down as just shifted. Now that I have a longer term relationship with my fans it actually just feels homier. Back in 2007, The Dresden Dolls were up and coming - people were really excited but they didn't know me as well. And now I feel much more embraced by my own community - not that I didn't feel it back then - but it's sort of like the difference between being in a brand new relationship vs a long term relationship.
Speaking of performing, who would you say are your most inspirational female performers?
Shannon Wright is one of the most inspiring performers I've ever seen. I got to see her in a teeny little club in New York, maybe 12 years ago, and she completely blew my mind with her freedom on stage.
And then on the other side of the spectrum, Laurie Anderson is one of my heroes.
I've never heard of her. (I feel myself blush and am thankful this is on the telephone!)
You've never heard of Laurie Anderson? Ok, I'm giving you an album recommendation - get Big Science by Laurie Anderson, and if nothing else, listen to the song 'O Superman'. She's one of my influencers in general - incredible performance artist, storyteller, bad-ass - and later in her life married to Lou Reed.
I'll definitely check her out - she must be good if you're recommending her!
It's interesting because a lot of the women whose songwriting I love haven't necessarily been influential as performers - like PJ Harvey. I love the vast majority of her music and I've seen her live a tonne of times but I wouldn't say that I've ever come away from a PJ Harvey show going, "oh my god, the bar has now been set so differently! I have to be much more expressive on stage!" because she's so constrained. But, if anything, she's taught me that often less is more - I'm so flamboyant and she's so - whatever the opposite of flamboyant is -
Yeah, controlled, serene, but she can still mesmerise an audience so, y'know, that's what teaches you the lesson that you don't need to scream to be heard.
I actually had a quote from you, in that paper I wrote, saying "deliberate intrigue is not my forte - I'll leave that to PJ Harvey" (she laughs, very genuinely, at this, and repeats it, as though she's remembering when she said it, what she meant by it) - I like that you're saying there's nothing wrong with that style, it's just not for you.
There is nothing wrong with it - I think it's sexy! It's also impossible, for me!
I'll end on a question about the album, Theatre is Evil, which is what this tour is all about. Which would you say are the most literal and the most metaphorical songs on the album?
That's a great question. 'Massachusetts Avenue' is probably one of the most literal on the record. A lot of them are somewhere in the middle. A song like 'The Bed Song' - that song's pretty literal but it's also sort of fantasy-driven. I mean, all of these songs sort of have both ingredients in them. "Melody Dean" -
That one confuses me!
Yeah, and to me that one's totally literal because I know the back story. The same with something like 'Bottom Feeder', which feels like a real sketch of a song where I don't even know what half of it is about. I sort of know what I'm talking about but I'm not positive - the same with 'The Killing Type'. It's like I've strung together a bunch of images that make sense to me and hopefully make sense to the listener, but if I had to explain what the song's about - I'd tell you to go ask somebody else!
Amanda is playing at The Ritz in Manchester on July 11th - a truly spectacular venue - and I will be there reviewing the show. Tickets are still available, as are tickets for Birmingham Institute on July 16th.
Amanda Palmer on Catharsis, Metaphor and Performance, 5th July 2013, 14:36 PM