After nearly a decade recording with drummer Brian Viglione as the Dresden Dolls, songwriter, pianist, and vocalist Amanda Palmer struck out on her own in 2008 with the musically diverse Who Killed Amanda Palmer. “Oasis,” one of the album’s catchiest tunes, was crass enough to get banned in the United Kingdom, and Palmer later found herself in a dispute with her label over the suitability of her midsection for a music video. She continues to court controversy at South By Southwest and on her blog, where she makes no bones about her desire to be dropped from Roadrunner Records. Speaking before playing a concert in the indie wilderness of Alabama, Palmer offered her insight on the drama that surrounds her, did a little name-dropping, and admits a healthy respect for the pop stylings of one Dolly Parton.
How was South by Southwest?
It was unbelievably brilliant. I was working the whole time, so I didn’t get to catch any bands or hang out much, but I would still recommend the experience. There are so many creative people
Did you get to meet Rachel Ray or Perez Hilton?
I did not get to meet Rachel Ray or Perez Hilton. I did get to do some busking with John Wesley Harding when Quincy Jones delayed my panel. Neil Gaiman also arranged a meeting for me with Tori Amos, so I got to sit down with her for a moment. I also got to hang out with Margaret Cho, which was excellent. She’s really one of the only ones out there that’s doing something as fucking bizarre as me.
Were you playing any new material?
Not really, because it was such a short set. I was playing in a converted church, so I did open with this beautiful a cappella Irish folk song that I almost never do live. While I was preparing, I was thinking about it as a regular two-hour set, so I wrote a song called “Please Drop Me” for Roadrunner. It’s a fun song, but it would have taken way too long to set up. They already know that I want to be dropped, so there was no use wasting my entire forty-minute set on one song.
Why do you want to get dropped?
To put it simply, the relationship isn’t working anymore. I’ve found myself going completely independent and turning into the kind of artist that Roadrunner isn’t interested in representing. I’ve sat in meetings and been told that I’m a wonderful artist, but that people at the label don’t understand why I just can’t be more commercially aware. I don’t want be putting out music that tries to appeal to the masses.
What’s the next thing you’ll be releasing?
Nothing is going to be coming out in the traditional sense. My hands are tied in the label situation. I will be putting out an incredible amount of material, but not in the traditional sense. I’m working on another book, a theatre project, and there will be a bunch of new videos on YouTube. Fans who think they’re going to be starved will actually be bombarded. June is drop month, so when that happens I can start thinking about the follow-up to the record.
How close was Who Killed Amanda Palmer to what you originally envisioned?
There were different states of envisioning, so it’s hard to say. I originally pictured it as solo voice and piano, no arrangements, no nothing. Then Ben Folds got involved, and that pulled the cork on a chain of events that moved the recording process from about two months to two years. The end result was very different from the original concept, but I’m very proud of how the songs came together.
Where does the inspiration come from?
I’m not goal oriented. I just sit down and write. Some of the songs on Who Killed Amanda Palmer predate the Dresden Dolls. When I was writing then, Brian and I would just sit down and sift through them and pick out the ones that felt right. When most people are writing, they’re thinking about hits. I was writing for years without an audience, so I never thought about my process. It’s one of those things where it can be dangerous to rip apart your process.
Tell me something nobody knows about Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
I’m pretty open, so there’s not much new to tell about the album. There’s an interesting story with a song on the album called “Another Year.” There’s a line in the song where I where I say “plus I’m only twenty-six years old.” I remember talking to the engineer and asking him whether I should change it, because I was technically lying. He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, but that’s the type of idiosyncrasy that I deal with on a minute-to-minute basis.
What was it like to work with Ben Folds?
His work persona is actually kind of chill. Ben is kind of a frenetic genius and he can be really demanding, but we ended up meshing really well. He’s made enough records to know how to treat an artist. I was definitely never intimidated during the recording process. I think it’s really lucky that I wasn’t a huge fan. I was able to become a fan during the process, and we ended being mutual respecters of each other’s approach.
How did you hook up with Neil Gaiman?
Oh, I could answer that question in so many wicked ways. I first met Neal through Jason Webley, who is an amazing musician that I’ve worked with; he and Neil had this e-mail correspondence going on, and he knew that that we would hit it off.
Is there anybody you’d like to work with in the future?
I don’t know, really. Collaboration depends on getting together with the right person at the right time. There are still just a bunch of people I’d love to work with. Sara, from Teagan and Sara. I’ve always wanted to do something with Robyn Hitchcock and Edward from the Legendary Pink Dots. It seems so tempting, but collaborating with another artist takes so much time. At this point, my life has enough complications without having to set up time to write, rehearsals and recording.
Tell me about “Oasis.”
I wasn’t thinking about much of anything when I wrote it. I was probably about twenty-five and I thought it was funny. I brought it to Ben and he thought it was funny. He put that pitch perfect arrangement to it, and we put it on the record. I didn’t really think about it until the powers that be in the United Kingdom refused to play it.
Was there a point where you worried about joking about such a sensitive subject?
I honestly don’t think there were that many people who would be offended by the joke. I think mainstream media drastically underestimates what will offend the general public. I don’t want to censor myself because someone might not like what I have to say. For me, there is no hypothetical. I don’t make art to appeal to every single person on the planet.
Is there any subject that’s off limits to you as an artist?
Nothing is inherently off-limits. I do have to do a specific amount of veiling and changing if I want to address something that occurred in my life. If I’m spewing some venom about something fucked-up that happened or a broken relationship, using actual names would be abusing my power. Other than that, anything that pops in my head is fair game. As an artist, it’s a lot more effective to edit on the back end.
Do you think that popular music is not daring enough?
There’s so much music out there, I think that everybody’s going to find what they need. Would I like it if thirteen year olds were out there listening to thoughtful, well-crafted music rather than Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, or Britney Spears? Of course, but it’s a waste of energy to spend time being down on any type of music. It’s like a philosophy or religion, people take what they need from it. And that’s the beauty of the Internet. Everybody has access to it, and there’s no excuse for settling for the mass-produced garbage out there.
Do you ever see yourself bowing to pressure and consciously writing something popular?
I have lots of respect for pop artists who write with a mass audience in mind. I grew up on Prince, Madonna, and Abba. Dolly Parton is a wonderful singer and songwriter. I’ve had fantasies for years about creating something like that, and I’ve even set myself the task of writing the most mainstream, accessible song that I can create. But then I look at the choices I need to make and I how I need to spend my time. It’s better for me to spend time on my own work, which I really care about, or going to the place where I can shut down and recharge. Lovely pop music is going to have to come from somewhere else.