Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Art Space Talk: Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer. Photo by Beth Hommel

Amanda Palmer is the lead singer, pianist, and lyricist/composer of the duo known as The Dresden Dolls . Palmer describes the musical style of The Dresden Dolls as "Brechtian punk cabaret". One could say that Palmer, along with Brian Viglione, helped to spur mainstream interest in dark cabaret-- an underground music movement that started gaining momentum in the early 1990s.

The Dresden Dolls have performed at Lollapalooza, Britain's Reading and Leeds Festivals, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour, among other venues. The Dresden Dolls debut network TV appearance occurred on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' performing "Girl Anachronism". The duo are known for meshing aspects of performance and visual art together during their performances.

Amanda Palmer has stated that the name was inspired by the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II and the porcelain dolls which were created in mass in pre-war Dresden industry-- among other influences. Palmer has went on to say that she liked the parallel between the destruction that occurred in Dresden and the delicacy of dolls. This parallel is reflected in the music of The Dresden Dolls and Palmer’s vocal range which ranges from a “childlike whisper” to a “banshee scream” within seconds.

Palmer's solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, was released on September 16th, 2008. The album was produced by Ben Folds -- who also played on the album. The title of the album is a play on an expression used by fans during Twin Peaks’ original run, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" A companion book was released with the album featuring pictures of Palmer looking as if she were murdered with accompanying writing by Neil Gaiman .

Amanda Palmer offered her time to answer a few questions about the influence that visual and performance art has had on her musical direction. A big thanks goes to Beth Hommel for being instrumental in the interview process.
Amanda Palmer. Photo by Brian Viglione

Brian Sherwin: Amanda, you are the lead singer, pianist, and lyricist/composer of The Dresden Dolls. As you know, Myartspace normally focuses on visual artists. However, your music often involves a meshing between visual art, performance art, and music. Can you discuss the influence that visual art, specifically performance art, has had on the development of The Dresden Dolls? For example, can you name any specific visual artists that have inspired you?

Amanda Palmer: Oh, for sure. The wonderful thing about rock is that it's a truly multimedia forum. There's the album artwork, the posters, the live shows, the stage design, the costumes, the videos....it's perfect for a gesamtkunstwerk hound like myself. I found myself recently watching Monty Python and being really inspired by Terry Gilliam's animations. I decided that those would be a perfect look for my new line of merchandise. Things like that are beautiful.

The Dresden Dolls' video for "Sing" from the record "Yes, Virginia..." 2006 Roadrunner Records. Shot, Cut, & Directed by Michael Pope

BS: It is my understanding that you are directly involved with the visual art that represents The Dresden Dolls-- everything from album cover selection to set design. In a sense, the art and design is a reflection of your taste. How much creative control do you have over the visual concepts of the band? Or would you say that the visual aspects are a collaboration between you and band mate Brian Viglione?

AP: Things are generally in my control but I always run anything important by Brian, and he'll often give me feedback. Sometimes it's great to have an outside eye. But sometimes deciding by committee can be hell.

The Dresden Dolls perform "Half Jack" live at The Paradise Rock Club June 5th, 2005 in Boston, MA.

BS: Concerning the image of the band, you have said the following, "It makes me very sad when I find out that people who never hear our music think that we are really about image and not about substance". With that in mind, have you ever doubted the visual direction of the band, so to speak? In other words, have you ever thought about reducing the visual impact that you and Brian have? Or are you steadfast on keeping that image strong regardless of who challenges it?

AP: I feel strongly about following my own impulses and having no regrets. I would never make exactly the same aesthetic choices I made four years ago, but that's normal, we grow. If you start faltering and stuttering "oh, I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that" then you're not focusing on NOW and what you ARE doing. This is important.

Photo by Ken Thomas

BS: Can you discuss your roots in performance art?. For example, while in college you created a performance piece titled "Potential" that utilized various recordings of songs that you had written. During the performance you destroyed about 200 cassette tapes with a hammer. The performance ended with you confronting the audience with statements about how you "hated" yourself for having wasted your life. In a sense, the performance challenged the idea of "potential" and the burden that individuals are faced with when high hopes are placed up their creative development. Would you like to discuss that performance? What about other specific projects like "Potential" that you have been involved with?

AP: That one was the ultimate wank-fest! But very useful. I think every performance artist probably starts that way, just to clear the air. There's something about exorcising demons like that in front of an audience. When I look back, I'm impressed I had the balls to do a lot of things I did. I wasn't thinking very much, and that was wonderful.

I created some wonderful site-specific performances when I was in my early twenties that I have very fond memories of. One was at a friends loft, a show for about 200 people. I did a piece called "Where's Jennifer" and it involved blindfolding the entire audience with neckties while terrified actresses/girls ran from their father and tried to hide amongst the members of the audience. It was amazing.

Photo by Anabel Vasquez

BS: You are involved with the Cloud Club, correct? My understanding is that the Cloud Club is a collective of artists. The artists living in the residency work in a wide range of media. Including, filmmaking, painting, dance, animation…etc. Can you discuss your experience at the Cloud Club? Perhaps you could give a brief history of the residency?

AP: The Cloud Club is an artists residence in Boston, and it's constantly undergoing changes. I had my heyday there when Michael Pope, the filmmaker, and I were both living there and I hadn't started touring in earnest. There was a painter next door named Zea Barker who created a lot of work for the Dolls and also did art direction for our videos. Those were real golden days.

Nowadays I'm not around there anymore and we're in a quiet period, but we're always looking for new good artists. They can be hard to find. The house doesn't have a website, which is a shame because I would love to share the place with people. We're working on it.
Photo by Beth Hommel

BS: What about your thoughts on art collectives in general-- specifically as a support system for emerging individuals?

AP: Essential. And wonderful. You see a lot more of these types of places in Europe. Sadly, art and music is seen differently in the states, more as a luxury and not a necessity.

BS: A good example of meshing music, visual art, and performance art would be the collaboration between the Dresden Dolls and The Red Paintings during your tour in 2006. The audience members and auditioned painters were allowed to work on paintings that served as a visual memento of that collaboration. You took part in some of these works. Can you tell our readers about that experience? Is it something you would consider doing again?

AP: I'd love to. The timing of that doesn't work out well as I usually have to be getting ready for the show during the opener's set. But I've fantasized about doing paintings every night and auctioning them. The Cloud Cult, another indie band, does that and I think it's an absolutely brilliant idea, especially because making money on the road is really hard and it's a wonderfully creative way to expand the shrinking revenue streams of the musician.

Photo by Gregory Nomoora

BS: Do you collect visual art? Perhaps you know of some artists that our readership should look into? Visual artists that you have worked with for example...

AP: Oh yes please. Run, don't walk, to Barnaby Whitfield's site: www.barnabywhitfield.com. My favorite. I'm also a big fan of E. Stephen Frederick (www.empiresnafu.org) and Cassandra Long (www.cassandralong.net)

Video for "Leeds United" from Amanda Palmer’s solo album "Who Killed Amanda Palmer", produced by Ben Folds. Directed by Alex de Campi. Choreography by Steven Mitchell Wright, featuring the Whoopee Beaux Belles Director of Photography: Joe Dyer. Produced by Irresistible Films. Art Direction: Jenny Ray. Voiceover: Des O'Connor

BS: Amanda, successful artists often face similar burdens-- no matter what form of creative expression they embrace-- in that they are both expected to submit to the cult of celebrity, so to speak. Interested parties often desire that artists become the next 'Art Star'. For example, career advisors will often suggest that a successful artist should adhere to a certain degree of mystique. Those expectations often facilitate the myth of being an 'artist'. Needless to say, fans often embrace the persona they observe within the painting, within the lyrics-- they create their own image of who the artist is as a person. What are your thoughts on this? In your opinion, how should people learn to view the person behind the work instead of only observing assumptions based on the work? Or is that just the price of fame-- wanted or unwanted?

AP: This is a totally personal question that must be answered differently by every artist. I'm a sharing, blunt, out-there kind of person and so I've incorporated it into my public "persona". But not everybody is like that, nor should they be. I think the key is to be totally authentic all the time. Anything that you cultivate un-authentically, for greedy reasons, like a false mystique or a fake sense of exhibitionism... all those things can poison you. You have to simply be what you are.

Amanda Palmer plays "Astronaut" from her solo debut, "Who Killed Amanda Palmer." Recorded at The Paradise Rock Club. Recorded by Johnny Onasis, ToolDVN, Tom Buehler, James Holland, Erik Holland, and Peter Sand. Edited by Peter Sand.

BS: I don't want to take up too much of your time. Thus, I will close this interview with the following question. What advice can you give to a young creative person-- a young painter, singer, or musician? Do you have any words of wisdom for those who dream big?

AP: Yes. Do not be afraid to do the things in your head. They might not make sense to anybody else, but as long as they make sense to you, that's what counts. Also, never have a plan B. Plan B will kill you.

You can learn more about Amanda Palmer by visiting her website-- www.amandapalmer.net. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.

Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

This was a great read! I listen to the dresden dolls while working in the studio. It was a sweet surprise to wake up to this interview.

deseraestage said...


i don't have your freaking e-mail address anymore. get in touch, plz?

Anonymous said...

very nice indeed! Esp EStephen - love his stuff!

Check out

Walter Sickert as well - his art is great I first saw him play with Amanda in Boston this year - great music and art


- Sasha

Steph G said...

love her(their) music! and the dresden dolls live is a fun fun spectacle! i enjoyed reading this. thanks.

Anonymous said...

"...I feel strongly about following my own impulses and having no regrets. I would never make exactly the same aesthetic choices I made four years ago, but that's normal, we grow. If you start faltering and stuttering "oh, I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that" then you're not focusing on NOW and what you ARE doing. This is important..."

I've tried to live by this motto for years, but never so much as in these last two. I've missed so many moments because I'm too busy focusing on "what could have been," which, in turn, causes you to lose the moments you have NOW, which makes you flail and say "oh but THIS could have been if I'd only focused!" etc. etc. ad nauseum. It's a terrible cycle, but one that can be overcome, with time.

Well said, and great interview.

Julie M. T.

Donna Dodson said...
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