Amanda Palmer

by Shawna Ortega

Amanda Palmer fascinates us.

Unapologetically and fiercely independent, we spoke with her a few hours after she agreed to become one side of an ampersand, and she was (dare we say it?) giddy with happiness (she became engaged to Coraline writer Neil Gaiman on January 15).

The darkness lining the edges of her songs flirts dangerously with the humor, and quite successfully. She writes of love, abuse, seduction, and mass murder, among other titillating subjects. In fact, her rollicking number "Oasis" about rape and abortion was banned on UK radio.

"Divorced" from her first band the Dresden Dolls, and hot off her success as a solo act, she next hits the stage with Jason Webley as a musical duo: conjoined twins Evelyn and Evelyn.

Yeah, this is going to be interesting.
Shawna Hansen Ortega: I have heard about the controversy regarding "Oasis," can you tell me about that one, and what has happened since the UK banned it from radio?

Amanda Palmer: That's a really good story. I wrote that song very jokingly kind of to myself, and didn't ever take it very seriously, and didn't ever push to get it on any of the records. I wrote it pretty early on in the world of the Dresden Dolls, but I didn't push to get it on the second Dresden Dolls record. It was always this joke-aside song that I had in the pile, and I produced this funny little video. But when Ben Folds heard it, he loved it and knew exactly how he wanted to produce it. And it actually wound up being sort of his own record.

The idea came to me in a very pure and simple way. Sometimes I get ideas for lyrics and melodies first, but in the case of this song, it was more of a concept of a really happy, poppy, jaunty song about to not know, in a very specific teenage way, when the shit is really hitting the fan, but you're bouncing along going, "Oh, no! It's fine! Everything's great!" I wanted the song to be a happy little three-chord jam where I could make the lyrics as disturbingly sticky-sweet as possible. That song was written in one sitting, and probably in 20 minutes. I definitely didn't give it the kind of care and feeding that I would give one of my great, long, deep-felt, personal ballads or something. I wrote it because I was like, "Oh, isn't this a great, silly idea?" which is really the same way I wrote "Coin Operated Boy," which was, "I've got this funny little concept, and this funny little hook, and I'm just gonna sit here and bang it out, and not expect that anything's ever gonna come of it." In fact, Brian (Viglione, her Dresden Dolls partner) and I almost didn't work on that song, because we thought it was too silly. But we did. And interestingly, I think those songs are sometimes the ones that take root, because if you have the balls to take an idea like that and then actually see it through, orchestrate it, and then bring it in front of people… not everyone goes through all the steps that it takes to take some ironic little joke and then turn it into a full production.

Songfacts: I love your comments on your blog about how if you had played it at a slower tempo, a little more moody music kind of thing, they may not have taken offense to it the way that they did.

Palmer: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was about the delivery. I mean, that's even what they said. The complaint was that they thought I was making light of rape and abortion. They weren't upset that I was singing about it. They were upset that I was making light of it. Very strange, though, to be coming from the UK, which is land of parody and sarcastic humor.

I think the painful thing about it, and the reason that it probably rubs people the wrong way, is that the truth hurts. And there's something about that song that really is painfully true. Anybody who has ever talked to a 15-year-old who's having problems with sex and drugs, but is fully out to lunch, can attest to that. [laughs]

Songfacts: You also said that you had been date-raped. So if you're in that situation, it's like it almost makes it more okay for you to write about it.

Palmer: I actually don't agree with that. Even though emotionally that makes sense, I found myself thinking, who can criticize me? I've been through these things, I'm allowed to joke about it. It's like, well, no, really, anyone is allowed to joke about anything. It's not like you get more cred because you've been through a specific trauma, and you then have the golden password to reflect on and process information having to with that. If that were the case, Steven Spielberg wouldn't have been able to make The Color Purple, he'd have been laughed out of town. But it's a big fucking movie, right? I mean, art is art. Everything's fair game. The whole point of being an imaginative, creative artist is that you are allowed to think and create outside of your own specific realm of experience. And if every artist was limited to the palate of their own experiences, art would be incredibly boring.

Songfacts: I like that thought process. Okay, I have a request from a friend of mine who lives in Leeds. He asked about "Ampersand."

Palmer: Well, I'm not sure what the actual seed of that song was. There's certain songs where I have vivid memories of their starting points. I'm pretty sure the seed of "Ampersand" was just the image of the ampersand as a symbol that happens to people when they cease being Mary, and they're always John & Mary. They turn into this really irritating relationship people who'll only ever say "we," even in terms of, "Yeah, we really like the movie, but we weren't really sure about…" And those people drive me so fucking crazy.

And in my life, there was that, "I don't ever want to just be Amanda & Neil," and "Maybe they should send their book over to Amanda & Neil." That concept terrifies me, because I'm so staunchly independent. But it also seems deeper than this, because at the time of that song, I was single, I had hit 30, and I was finding myself in a really defensive position, probably of my own making. I started to sort through the cultural noise, what it meant to choose to be single, and to choose my path as not the relentless crunch to find some magic other person to complete me. I had been single for long enough that I sat myself down for a year or so and said, "If you're looking for a relationship, and don't even know that you are, are you looking to a relationship as what has been mandated as what you have to do to be happy?" And I was really, really thinking deeply about this, because I had looked around a lot, and I was like, Wow, I've been single for 3 years. I might like to be in a relationship. But actually, I'm really happy. I love my friends, I love my life. I'm not in a relationship, and yet I feel this weird pressure from culture as a whole, from my parents, saying, "But you won't be truly happy until you find that special someone." And I don't know if I buy it. I sat down and thought about it long and hard; do I buy it? Or is it possible to be alone and truly happy?

That song came out of that deliberation. I was also leaving my band, and that was like going through a divorce. It was the same death of painful separation that, no matter how good or bad the relationship is, no matter how good the highs are and how bad the lows are, at a certain point you just get so used to being in the relationship that when you leave it, you're just reeling. Because all of the sudden, the person isn't there. And that's fucking hard to do. And so I was dealing with that aspect of my relationship with Brian, and overall thoughts about relationships and whether it was even a road I wanted to go down. All of that stuff was swirling around and plonking into "Ampersand."

Songfacts: That's quite an explanation. The lyrics, "Lying in my hospital bed, you said there's no such thing as accidents." Can you elaborate on that?

Palmer: That's an Amanda Palmer special. There's a line almost identical to that in "Girl Anachronism" where I say, "Trying to convince you that I have a soul beneath the surface." How does that go? – That song is so motor memory for me. But if you look it up, you'll find a line where I say it was accidentally on purpose. And that was an actual snarky remark that my parents used to make to me when I was a kid any time I hurt myself. Like if I fell down the stairs or if I came home with scrapes and bruises, they would roll their eyes and say, "Oh, sure that was an accident – accidentally on purpose." And I would go, "No, really! I fuckin' ate it on the sidewalk!" And it bent my head in a strange way, because when you're a kid, your intuition is saying, Well, that's not true, that's not right. But then you're constantly second-guessing, because the adults know which way the wind's blowing. So I was really twisted about what my intentions were as I was growing up, and I never trusted myself. I never trusted my own instincts and my own intentions, especially when it came to attention-getting. Because I felt trapped in this strange narcissistic hole where I knew I liked attention, but I was taught that it was a very bad, naughty thing to want it. So I was coming out of a very warped space for a long time before I sorted out my own stuff, which was the better part of my teens and 20s. That line is a reference to all that stuff.

Songfacts: Since you brought it up, "Girl Anachronism." Is there any truth to the rumor you feel you're an anachronism because you were born early due to a Caesarian section?

Palmer: Yeah. It's totally true. My mother had a superstition about numbers, so she wanted me to be born on an even day of an even month. And the surgery was slated for an odd day of an odd month, so she moved it back. Just a couple of days. I think the surgery was slated for May 1st, and she moved it to April 30th. And there was nothing unhealthy about it. The doctor was like, "Yeah, sure." Got a couple of days here or there, it really doesn't change anything. But I always thought that was a great poetic excuse for lopsidedness. (laughs)

Songfacts: (laughing) In all the growing up that you've done where you said that you'd never trusted yourself, you certainly come across as somebody who is very confident. So that's kind of a surprise to hear that coming from you.

Palmer: Oh, I don't know if that's true. I think the deeper into the woods you go… it's sort of like that law of relativity; if you can manage to bust out of a strange situation, you come out all the stronger. I firmly believe that.

Songfacts: I'm with you there. What was the seed for "Leeds United"?

Palmer: "Leeds United"… I started it when I was at home. That was one of those songs that I had an idea for, and it took a left turn. It ended up being a song about everything and nothing, where I was like, Ah, this is gonna be one of those fucking songs. I'm not even clear what it's about, but I'm gonna dump all of the lyrics that sound good, and do it, and just leave it at that.

It started out as a song about how pissed at myself that I constantly am that I lose everything. I'm sure I have the lyrics all on scraps of paper somewhere. That song is a lot like "Ampersand," with six ingredients that didn't necessarily have anything to do with each other. (laughs) I had been dating this guy from Leeds, Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs, and we had a totally brief flash-in-the-pan fling. He was great. I really liked him and I loved his band. I think we found quickly that we had very little in common other than the fact that we were lead singers in bands. We had a really great time together. I really liked him, and I went up to his house in Leeds for a week. He gave me this great Leeds United jersey, which I prized. And then when I got back on tour a couple of days later I wore it on stage. I had a bra underneath, so I took off the jersey and finished the encore all sweaty and stuff. I went back to look for it, the stage was being cleaned, and it was like, "Fuck! Where's my shirt!?" I had that shirt for all of about 5 days. I'd already gotten all excited and sentimental about it, and then it vanished.

Around the same time, I lost my wallet,and I lost my keys. I was like, Am I still fucking 12? I'm losing all my shit. And I loved the words "Leeds United." It's such a sexy name for a team, and there's something so great and military and bold sounding about that united, Leeds United, it's so often heard. I had a whole pile of whatever was going on in the relationship with Ricky, and I also had some really, really weird stuff going on emotionally within the band, and I had the fact that I felt like I was falling apart at the seams, and just losing everything. And that's what initially started to write the song. Leeds United was going to be this really ironic bold united statement, where everything was falling apart. That was the seed of the song. But then the lyrics ended up morphing into stream-of-consciousness territory, and I let that happen.

I finished it in the Tom Waits room of the Prairie Sun Studio in Cotati, California, because there was some down time and there was this extra piano in this room called the Corn Room. It was a teeny little studio in the middle of nowhere in wine country, north of San Francisco. I was there doing a couple of the solo tracks from the record that we ended up putting strings on.

Songfacts: As stream-of-consciousness, do you sing the same words every night?

Palmer: Yeah. I'll change little things here or there, but generally I keep things the way they are on the record. It's very, very easy to remember the songs that I write in one sitting, and it's very, very difficult for me to remember the songs that I don't. It's a simple formula. There's some songs that I never, ever forget a single lyric, and they're really dense songs, but I wrote them linearly, and that's the way they make sense in my mind. So I never really have to think about it. And then the songs that I've patchworked together and changed things and verses around, I can sing those songs six hundred times live, and they'll never really gel in my mind.

Songfacts: That must be interesting when you're up there.

Palmer: Yeah. You should see, I've had some classic moments. I once forgot the words to "Girl Anachronism" three times in a row, and I finally just handed the mic to a fan and I had them carry it. (laughs)

Songfacts: It's good to have fans like that though, because they forgive. (laughing)

Palmer: Yes, they're very forgiving. They see the move as very rock and roll.

Songfacts: Let's cover "Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner."

Palmer: That was a really old song I wrote in my late teens or early 20s. Wow. And I think it's my most Smith-sy song to date. I am a huge, huge Smiths fan and Morrissey fan, but I don't think you can always hear the influence in that song. To me it sounds like a blatant rip-off. It was inspired by this running joke that I had this long string of piano teachers who all came on to me. I did various things in various situations (laughing), but I thought that was a very Morrissey situation to find myself in, and so I should write a very Morrissey-like song.

Songfacts: Can you tell me how you reacted to something like that? Did you slap them?

Palmer: No, no... see, it's never dramatic like that. I mean, the part of the equation you have to remember is that I was an incredibly saucy, flirty teenage girl with all sorts of stuff going on all the time. But I think it's probably fair to say that I seduced as many piano teachers as tried to seduce me.

Songfacts: Okay… I'm getting the picture for some reason of a Catholic church. Maybe it's the organist thing?

Palmer: I grew up in an Episcopal church, but I was never an official page turner. The organist never had a page turner. It was a small operation. I'm not even sure where that image came from. The lonesome organist – actually, no! I do remember where it came from! Now that you remind me… I wrote that song in college, because there was this guy, I think he might still tour, called The Lonesome Organist. He was like a great sort of vaudeville-y one-man band. And his shtick was that he played, like, 12 different instruments, and he had them all in one contraption. So it was like a big, crazy drum set with keyboards and accordion, and things to blow in, and all sorts of stuff. I remember seeing him, because he toured at my college, and the name stuck. And I remember thinking, Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner would be a really hilarious newspaper heading. So it was one of those songs that was written off the title.

Songfacts: Again, I'm getting a mental image here of a Dr. Seuss character…

Palmer: Totally. He was totally Dr. Seuss. And his music was really throwback rag-timey, great theatrical crazy stuff.

Songfacts: Cool. I'm really curious; is "Delilah" a real person?

Palmer: No, Delilah's like a human mash-up. I didn't have an actual friend named Delilah. She just creeped into my consciousness. But she's as many parts me as she is all of the down-and-out friends I've had over the years. That one actually has a really interesting story. There's an article I wrote for Shambhala Sun, which is a Buddhist magazine. I wrote a little article about how I got the idea for that song. ("Melody Versus Meditation" by Amanda Palmer) I was on a silent meditation retreat where you're not supposed to read or write or record anything.

Songfacts: And you wrote? (laughs)

Palmer: Well, I started writing in my head when I was on a walk, and that's why it's a three-chord song with such a simple melody. I wrote the whole thing in my head on a half-hour walk. I couldn't make it very complicated. But I had the whole thing stuck in my head, and then I struggled with, "Well, I'm supposed to be on this retreat. But it's such a good fucking song, and if I don't write it down it's just gonna replay in my head. And I'm gonna try and keep it there, which is gonna distract me, so really maybe I should write it down so that I can meditate. But I can't –" (laughing) I drove myself crazy, and ultimately I opted to be really naughty and write it down real fast.

Songfacts: Okay. Let's talk about "Strength Through Music." First, I would like to know when that was conceived, and then the video. Because that's really disturbing.

Palmer: Sure. When Columbine happened I was really affected. Everyone in the world and all over the country was really affected by it. But I had a special interest in it that didn't go away. I encounter so many really disturbed, angry, lonely, frustrated teenagers, because of what I do. And I think what Marilyn Manson said in Bowling For Columbine was brilliant. I was so upset, especially having been a misfit in high school. I think it was really upsetting for people to look at these kids being so demonized with so little thought given to the larger questions. And my imagination was really captured by what the quality of these boys' lives were like, as they were sitting in their rooms playing video games and plotting this catastrophe. It really was my view of the whole thing, and my emotional impulse was to actually feel real sympathy for them, because I see so many kids feeling so misunderstood, and the culture around them is so hostile. Not to say that what they did wasn't completely abhorrent. But on the other hand, when you've got a culture of 15-year-old kids going around shooting each other, you need to ask yourself bigger questions. And I think people are really afraid to ask those questions, which is: what's their cultural diet? And why would this happen?

I certainly don't think my high school experience was as extreme. I went to a liberal New England high school where there was a lot of tolerance. And even though I stood out as somewhat of an outcast and a freak, we were bred to respect each other. And no one ever really got beat up. No one yelled names at me in the hallways. But high school is just brutal no matter what way you cut it. It doesn't matter that on the whole, people were tolerant. I still felt really isolated, and I think it's a very common teenage thing to feel wherever you are.

And the video, I've maintained a really great relationship with my high school drama teacher. I got the idea for the video in my head, and I approached him and said, "Hey, can you loan us some kids from the drama department, and can we use the hallway?" (laughing) "We don't have any money, we don't have a cent, so let's just shoot it in the school." And that's what we did. That was my high school. I actually walked by my locker in that video. (laughs) And the vast majority of those kids, with a couple of exceptions, were sophomores and juniors and seniors in the drama department. If you look at the video for "Guitar Hero," it's the same kids. We shot those two videos in one day.

Songfacts: How does one video tie into the next?

Palmer: Those two videos kind of work as a pair, because that character, the killer in the "Strength Through Music" video, is sort of a corpse throughout the entire "Guitar Hero" video. And in a way it's a common response, because "Guitar Hero" is more a commentary on kids mentally tuning out of reality. So you can see the connection between the two songs, and between the two videos.

One of Amanda's 2010 projects was Evelyn Evelyn - the world's only conjoined-twin singer-songwriter duo. From their press release:

Lyn and Eva Neville were born in September of 1985 on a small farm in Western Kansas. The girls are Parapagus Tripus Dibrachius twins, conjoined at the side and sharing between them three legs, two arms, two hearts, three lungs, and a single liver. Orphaned when their mother died in labor, little is known about their early life until 1996 when they made their first public appearance with Dillard and Fullerton's Traveling Circus. It was here that the "Evelyn" sisters developed their love of song and performance.

Unsatisfied with the grind of circus life, at the age of nineteen the twins decided to explore a solo career. It was then that they were discovered by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, who heard the twins' music on MySpace. Webley and Palmer encouraged the twins and offered to help them record a proper album.
Songfacts: You're off to tour Europe now, is that correct?

Palmer: Yeah.

Songfacts: And is this where you're going to introduce Evelyn and Evelyn?

Palmer: No, Evelyn and Evelyn don't tour until mid-April, and then we do a tour of Europe and a tour of the States. We're just starting to leak their music into the world. And those are some interesting stories. (laughing) Their album comes out March 30th, or thereabouts. The twins' songwriting process is very strange, and they don't do interviews, but Jason and I are happy to talk to anyone about them.

Songfacts: Tell me about your engagement news.

Palmer: Marrying a writer has been great for my writing, I have to say. It's really nice to have somebody who's not working in exactly the same world. He's not a musician, but he's a writer, and he thinks like a writer, and sharing my space and my life and my creative world with him has been the most fulfilling, exciting relationship I've ever been in on a lot of levels, but especially on that one. It's like really being able to talk to somebody about processes that probably are so foreign and weird to other people, to be able to just chat about that stuff is just a real relief. (laughs) And the two of us have similar brains, so in a way it feels really incestual, because he feels like a being from the same planet. At least I feel like I've found one of my own.

Songfacts: Do you have a date yet?

Palmer: No. Sometime in the far flung future when we aren't so busy, probably. I don't think it'll be too long. Probably in the next year or two.

Songfacts: Exciting stuff. Thank you so much for the time, Amanda.

Palmer: You bet.

Amanda spoke with us on January 8th and 15th, 2010.
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Comments: 3

  • A. Beck from CaliforniaGotta say, I was brought to this article to find out about Guitar Hero. Because when I listened to that song, I always heard the Columbine Massacre. And it freaks me out that I was right! That's just good songwriting there.
  • Georgette Hilton from LeedsHad to laugh when you said Leeds united is a sexy name for team - thats funny . Kaiser chiefs help out at old chapel studios where i go sometimes they help out a music charity that im part of. Well i do know in Leeds alot of girls get that date rate drug thrown in their drinks - so your right about that - theres loads of girls its happen to in the UK its rife .
  • Blind-fitter from Leeds, UkTerrific interview. I've been a fan of The Dresden Dolls and Amanda for 3 or 4 years now, since seeing the Dolls perform on "Later With Jools Holland" (coincidentally, I believe it was on the set of "Later..." where Amanda met my fellow Leeds United-supporting North Leeds dweller, Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs). So I was much surprised at the time, when my current musical heroine featured a song called "Leeds United" on her solo debut, and even mentioned the supermarket where I do my weekly shopping! It's nice to finally get some insider insight into the content of the song, which has puzzled me for 18 months now. Anyway, I digress somewhat.
    Although I'm not particularly surprised to learn that Amanda is - like myself - a bit of a Morrissey fan, I would not have picked out "Lonesome Organist" as overtly Morrissey-esque. I have listened to it since and tried, in my head, to superimpose Mozzer's crooning tones atop the rumbustious piano-driven toon. Only just managing to envisage that. However, it's fair to say that not many lyricists, Morrissey apart, would even attempt such deft , witty and literate lyrics as "He told me that I showed a great potential,
    That given I turned heads and pages
    Fame would be a piece of cake, but practice was essential.
    So like a stupid child I believed it.
    And, golly, who would ever had agreed, if I had been Schubert or Mozart, devoted to the fine art of perfecting absolutely everything inconsequential?
    Don't be sad. I'll come back again.
    I joke about trash, 'cause it takes class to be enlightened.

    So several decades have gone by,
    I am still sitting by his side
    I turn the pages faithfully,
    He turns his head and smiles at me.
    And with a wink, he said, "I doubt we would be anywhere without
    your gift for keeping truth and consequence from meeting"

    Genius stuff.
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