The Dresden Dolls frontwoman wanted to break, at
least temporarily, the mold. So she killed herself.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
It’s almost too good – too filled with the smoke, fog and
foreign intrigue of an Isherwood novel – that Amanda Palmer is phoning me from
a train station in France.
En route between London
(where she just left in a hurry) and Paris,
she’s speaking French with her hand over the receiver while being surrounded by
screaming Gaelic children and the assorted madness of schedules screaming from
speakers above her. It’s an altogether too-perfect scene for the Brecht-enthusiast
to be pictured in. Someone should grab some snuff and a Pimm’s Cup.
As part of the Boston-reared duo The Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer (vocals, piano, ukulele) and
Brian Viglione (drums, percussion, guitar) have made snarkily literate,
fabulously dramatic punk cabaret more grandly cabaret than raucously punk-ish
that never forgot its pop solvency, its Smiths-Cure roots or how to make it all
sound sensationally organic. Add in the already-theatrical Dolls’ coterie of
fans doing its brand of mad performance art around the duo, and it’d come off
like the loudest scene in Diva.
Whether it’s something subtly Germanic or brazenly French, the Dolls are
Eurocentricity defined. If Palmer’s a stranger on a train, it’s only because
she’s not been at that stop previously. In spirit, Palmer is a Lotte Lenya
infused-vodka martini with loudly-plopped PJ Harvey olive.
She was in London
an hour ago. She’s waiting to get to a train to get to Paris
then back to London.
It’s all visa stuff. She’s impatient. She’s an angry femme fatale. This is all
working out sensationally for the introduction to my article.
So when I ask Palmer where she’s going and what exactly is
going on and she answers thusly – “I don’t even fucking know, dude” – the
cinematic illusion is fantastically and funnily shattered.
Which is, in essence, the reason she’s done her first solo effort, Who Killed Amanda Palmer – and I’m on
the phone with her while she’s in Lilles trying to find a corner (a shadowy one?)
in which to speak quietly about making majestic pop that’s both distinctly and
recognizably her and not-so easily theatrical or knowable.
“Absolutely,” exclaims Palmer heartily, when asked if Who Killed Amanda Palmer‘s wide-screen moments, whether
screeching and surrounded by strings (“Astronaut”) or humbly tampered by an
organ’s humming tone (“Guitar Hero”), are a way of reaching out beyond Dresden
Dolls’ mess of drama: the face-painted fans on stilts; the theatrical
productions based on her songs; the Dolls’ own drum-n-piano sturm und drang?
“The answer is a resounding yes to that long question” she
laughs. “The Dolls are a very simple concept and we approach all of our
recordings the same way, drum and piano.” Palmer is proud of this and prouder
of long-time Doll-partner Viglione.
“The Dolls is about me and Brian – about our chemistry using the songs
as a springboard to show people what we can do together. This solo record is
just about me…but it’s important for people to understand that in Dresden Dolls
no one is backing up the other. It’s about a relationship. My record is about
Palmer notes how different it is being a solo act but how
she’s had time to get used to doing it since she’s been running around with
just her and her piano for the better part of a year. “It’s never uncomfortable,”
says Palmer. “If anything, it’s more comfortable because there’s much less stress.”
Is Palmer so very comfortable being solo that she might not dig doing the
The answer is a resounding no.
“That does not worry me.”
She is very confident in saying that.
Huzzah to the next Dresden Dolls’ album, then.
The Dolls are their own deal according to Palmer, apart and
away from what she’s done with – surprise (at least to me) –
producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Folds and string arranger Paul Buckmaster
“There are fantastic things about being in a band, and doing
music with Brian and living life that way,” notes Palmer, regarding the Dolls
and albums like 2006’s Yes, Virginia….
But being a band and being alone? The experience is apples
and oranges to her.
“It’s like backpacking through Europe
with a friend vs. going totally alone. When you’re with a friend the experience
becomes about them, about the relationship. When you’re alone it becomes about you
and the journey itself.”
Palmer goes on and mentions that gong with a friend “can drive
you nuts, be a total pain in the ass” and that the loner-traveling route can be
scary. But you can be in total control or completely impulsive and take a
random left turn anywhere you want to without consulting or checking in with
the other person when alone; when Kill-ing
Amanda Palmer. “You connect with
It’s the best metaphor she can think of because she did a lot
of traveling as a kid, solo and with boyfriends. “I learned that the hard way.
It’s not like two people traveling alone together. It’s so much more different than
you’d think… even if you like them. Traveling with someone can be harder than
being in a band.”
Enough backpacking. My back hurts already.
The solo record doesn’t seem to avoid topics that Palmer
might usually hit upon during the length and breadth of a Dresden Doll effort.
Whether old songs or newly-penned, there’s lonely isolation
found in Killed‘s “The Point of it
All,” “Ampersand,” “Another Year” and, most surprisingly, in the upbeat “Leeds
United.” They could be Dresden Doll tunes save for their bustling luster and
sweetly arranged grandeur.
“I can hear myself working through the idea of being alone,”
says Palmer. “A lot of these songs are about that loneliness and growing into
my life. Having spent the last five or six years [in a band] constantly puts
you around a lot of people a lot of the time.”
It’s wonderful, terrible and very extreme to Palmer (not that she minds
extremes); the push-me-pull-you between playing to thousands of people 300
times a year, the lifestyle of being on tour and the constant social
disconnect. “One second you’re playing to 1,600 people with 20 people talking
to you at once then you’re TOTALLY alone in a strange hotel room. And there’re
crickets. THEN it starts all over again. There is no middle ground.”
So why is Who Killed
Amanda Palmer a solo record?
Coincidence. “I hate to say it because I’d like to think that life has more of
a plan. Then again, when it comes to my life there’s rarely any plan.” She
laughs. “Some of them just were never conceived with drum parts.”
There was a loose plan to record them in her Boston apartment from her bedroom with just a
piano before her. That’s before Ben Folds – Nashville’s answer to the question, “What if
Elton John was straight?” – entered the picture. He became a fan of theirs via
their website. They became friends. They met in Australia and played together. Then
Palmer began pulling out a klatch of songs old and new. “When things grew and
the record just seemed as if it would be more than a solo piano project, everything
was up for grabs.” She went for broke.
Palmer asked Brian Doll how he felt that some great Dresden songs might go on her solo album and
he told her to go for it. So did Folds.
Palmer mentions that while so many songs were no-brainers, others brought the
two to “scuffle.”
“There was a bit of a scuffle between us regarding a few
songs. Like ‘Runs in the Family.'”
Palmer was mildly ashamed of the song.
“I wrote that song over ten years ago and the lyrics were
from a wordier and more complex time period in my songwriting. It made me antsy
that this 22 year old angst ridden Amanda would be represented on this album.
But Ben liked it.”
Folds took out bridges. He trimmed out sections. It was
liberating to Palmer give Folds that much control; anybody really.”
” I deliberately made it so I would put my trust in this guy… even if I didn’t
agree with him,” says Palmer. “You’re allowing someone to take a knife to
things. As emotional as it was at the time, I don’t regret the decision. When you’re
holding your songs like a child you don’t want anyone to touch it or change it.”
That’s what being solo meant to her: giving up that control.
“When making a Dresden Dolls record I don’t think either of us would give up
control. But since this decision was all mine to make… control was all mine to
give up or hang on to. And to give it up felt great.”
Without sounding too much like S/M and issues of release and binding, Who Killed Amanda Palmer went quickly
from a little piano record done quietly in a Boston bedroom on her home
keyboard to a sprawling effort taken on by Folds in his Nashville studio filled
with toys and Folds’ instrumental skills and his coterie of playing pals who literally
and figuratively filled all sluices and crevices of the record.
“It was suddenly made more exciting,” says Palmer. “Ben was
the source of all that.” Besides, if she didn’t want to show off the angst of a
22 year old with “Runs in the Family,” what angst did she want to portray?
She laughs and points out how on, say, “Guitar Hero,” she
doesn’t feel as if she has to hit you on the head to make you get her point. “I’ve
matured in that I’ve learned a little more about subtlety; not so much
literally than figuratively, but literally to. I don’t have to scream. I’ve
allowed myself to write songs like ‘The Point of it All’ that are tender. At
age 25, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to go there because it wasn’t extreme
“Astronaut” was inspired by a relationship that didn’t
happen with a guy she was smitten with who vanished into thin air. “Leeds
United” was a bizarre brain dump of a song about a guy in Leeds that Palmer had
a fling with that reminded her somehow of watching her friends be married and
how she neither had nor wanted a beau. That’s the future of her intimate brand
of songwriting. The passion is there in cool, funny escapades of intimacy.
But, Palmer makes a point though about going backwards
before she has to catch that mystery train she’s waiting on. She rushes through
this in one breath, as if giving out a life lesson before hopping back to London.
“There’s something really embarrassing about me hearing the
songs I wrote as a teenager – hopefully no one will hear them. They’re as
overdramatic as a teenager. But overdramatic can be good sometimes even though
it can also be really overbearing. When I hear the songs I wrote at 16-17, they
just sound so self-unaware. That’s not to say they weren’t good. Some of the
songs on the first Dolls record that was released when I was age 27 came from
that teenage period and they were great. But one of the things I tell young
songwriters when they come up to me is “let yourself write as much bad stuff as
you want.” Just make sure you write and finish the bad songs even if you don’t
think something will come of them. Exercise that part of your brain. If I
didn’t write all that bad stuff… I wouldn’t be what I am now. Besides, I was
only imitating what I was listening to – the Smiths, the Cure. I was talking
about my life the way Morrissey would. I had to flare out and find my own voice.
That’s why this solo record works: it sounds like me, more like myself closer
to my actual thoughts and less like a picture of what I’d like people to think
I am. It’s more revealing and honestly intimate rather than be superficially
And then Amanda Palmer disappears onto that train as the smoke billows around
her shadowy frame.
Now who’s the superficial one?