Ten days and 65 years after the Normandy Landings, Amanda Palmer will have her very own D-Day, the day she finds out whether or not she will be allowed to devolve from Roadrunner Records, the major-label subsidiary she says has sabotaged her album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The D in this case will stand for either ‘drop’ or ‘disaster’. June 16th; mark it in your diaries.
“I may have a little party,” she says with a sharp, arch laugh as we perch on stools in the kitchen of a bijou Camden flat belonging to sci-fi author John Clute and his artist wife Judith. “Maybe I’ll make it a vigil. Maybe we’ll go on a symbolic fast…or a binge! Everybody eat to get Amanda dropped and send in pictures of your ever-fattening bodies to my A&R guy!” Cake in the name of liberation? Now that’s a concept I can stand by.
The delicious irony of Amanda’s pro-gluttonous idea has a short yet tragic history. In November last year Roadrunner execs had what can at best be described as a total awareness bypass, and at worst a cheap and tacky (though admittedly successful) attempt to gain free publicity for an album they refuse to support, instructing Amanda that certain shots in the video for her song ‘Leeds United’ would have to be edited out because she looked too fat. I’m sorry, what? Fat is what’s blocked up their central retinal arteries; Amanda Palmer is perfectly normal, at least in terms of body shape.
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It’s on London’s now consecrated Snow Day that I trudge up to the door of chez Clute and ring the doorbell. A clatter of footsteps rains down from the upper floor, the door opens and Amanda appears much like a character on Sesame Street might, her head perpendicular to the doorframe. “I’ve just built a fucking snowman!” she beams.
Before I even switch on my recorder she takes me on a tour of the Clutes’ “magical house of books,” showing me her makeshift bedroom, Judith’s paintings and the inescapable wonder of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases stuffed with every imaginable variety of tome in every room. “They’ve lived here since the ‘60s,” she tells me. No shit? You’d need a rainforest’s worth of cardboard boxes to shift all these books.
Gesturing towards the postage stamp-sized balcony on which she sat out last summer with the Clutes and their mutual friend Neil Gaiman, she recalls the good times had just witnessing the ebb and flow of Camden High Street’s drunk, debauched and destitute, then promptly makes me an optimistically tropical drink of pomegranate juice and tonic. Time to talk serious business. “I’m starting a little one-woman revolution to take back the abortion and take back the rape,” she giggles.
There’s a short yet tragic history to that statement too. Just a few days before she arrived in London, Amanda was told that her next planned single, ‘Oasis’, had UK radio programmers in uproar over its “controversial” lyrics that “make light of date rape and abortion.” That’s one interpretation, and according to Amanda any interpretation of art is valid, but it’s probably the most narrow-minded.
Amanda is adamant that they have missed her point entirely; sure, it’s a catchy Beach Boys-styled pop number about a teenage girl who has an abortion after being date raped while drunk at a party but is more concerned with getting a letter from the Gallagher brothers, but Amanda maintains it is deeply ironic and essentially a commentary on girls not taking themselves seriously. Not overtly political, just “a character sketch, a very real one, because I do see a lot of hazy denial and lack of ownership.” As she told Wears The Trousers in 2006, she’s “pro-choice but anti-stupid.”
“Everyone is reeeally fucking touchy right now,” she tuts, alluding to the hysteria surrounding the Sachsgate radio ‘scandal’ involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. “There’s definitely a fine line between a sense of humour and offending, but you have to be able to push the line otherwise you end up in a fascist society. When you feel the need to take things so seriously you end up giving those subjects more power and perpetuating fear instead of empowering people to take control of their own situation.
“I was talking to Neil about this and he said something like, there’s really something wonderful about how all these terrible things have happened to [the girl in 'Oasis'] but it’s fine because she’s going to see Blur. And I was like, well, that wasn’t exactly what I was intending.” She rolls her eyes and folds her leg beneath her. “The beautiful thing about art is that it can be whatever you want; you cannot pin it down, and the minute you try you’re going to get into an argument with somebody. You as an artist can have your own interpretation of it and you can defend that interpretation to the death, but if someone wants to see your still-life painting of fruit as a representation of white power, they’re allowed. It’s all subjective.”
This rather begs the question of why Amanda is making such a big deal about the airplay ban, but with Roadrunner making little effort to publicise her album you can hardly blame her for making a stance. Radio bosses are entitled to their opinions, but Amanda’s beef is with their refusal to let their listeners find their own interpretations in the song. “If you were going to determine whether every single song was going to be played on TV or radio depending on whether it has a positive or negative political socio-psychological message you’d just be fucked,” she says with a rare pause. “A song like ‘Oasis’ has to be able to exist, and you have to be able to make art like that so that things can move forward and so that people actually can feel comfortable talking about things like abortion and rape.
“The fact that I’m a woman singing about it should count for something, and the fact that I have actually had those experiences shouldn’t totally matter one way or the other but I feel like it gives me extra points.” She giggles, almost inviting further questioning on the matter, but I don’t take the bait. That’s one for her blog. “I would have to be completely on Mars to be singing something like that if I thought it was going to undercut the idea of empowering women,” she rails, and on that note declares her little rant over. On to a weightier issue: naked Morrissey.
Amanda almost howls with laughter when our talk of her belly fiasco leads to the subject of the artwork for Moz’s new single, a photo that depicts him and his band in total undress, save for strategically placed 7″ vinyls. As a big fan, Amanda is excited to see him when they both perform at this year’s Coachella festival, but what does she think of his tum? “I appreciate Morrissey mostly for his Morrisseyness, and his utter fucking commitment to his Morrisseyness. He’s so self-actualised and so self-styled. Until the day he dies he’ll just be this wonderful singing wound for all of us. You have to just love it…or hate it, depending what side you’re on. If you hate Morrissey you would see that and your blood would just boil and you’d just want to punch him in the fucking face and tell him to get over himself and not be naked and just die,” she laughs wickedly, waving her arms to emphasise poor Moz’s grisly end. “I’m in the love-Morrissey camp,” she reassures. “He looks in pretty good shape.”
Another of Amanda’s teenage heroes who still holds a special place in her heart is Robert Smith of The Cure. She tells me how, age 14, she made a promise to herself that one day she would scrape together enough airfare to take a plane from Boston, Massachusetts to Crawley in Sussex where Smith grew up. “I think he was married already by then,” she muses. “I just ignored that.” We both agree it was very inconsiderate of him.
Although Amanda was asked to participate in a Cure tribute album – of which there have been three in the last few months – she never got around to it. She gets asked to do a lot of tributes, she says, but even when she wants to she finds it very hard to fit in around her constant touring. “Am I really going to take my one day off on tour to find a random studio and do a tribute song for someone?” she asks, rhetorically I presume, before revealing that, actually, she has recently recorded one for an upcoming split single with cinematic post-punk band Murder By Death, out in May.
The 7″ will feature Amanda’s version of the band’s ‘Three Men Hanging’, and, on the flipside, an MBD version of one of her songs. “I had two string players on tour with me so we learned the song on the bus and recorded it live in soundcheck,” she explains. “We played it that night for the crowd and recorded it again, and one of those will be on the record.”
Also in May, Amanda is returning to her high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, to work on an original theatre production based on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, an album often noted for its powerful effect on indie record store clerks, lowering their voices to reverential tones and dampening their eyes. She’ll be collaborating with her old director in the drama department (“one of my most important mentors”) and 12 to 16 of his students on music for the production, which will run for four shows. Sounds like fun, I say. “It’s fucking paradise,” she laughs, loudly. By this time we are sat upstairs on her bed having been displaced by the Clutes’ early return from the shops with wine. “The most important part,” laughs John.
This summer Amanda’s putting out a DVD of all the videos made to promote Who Killed Amanda Palmer, with a few exclusive extras including a 20-minute two-way interview between Amanda and longtime video director Michael Pope filmed in her home. Of course, it won’t count as an album under her Roadrunner contract, and, amazingly, neither did last year’s Dresden Dolls B-sides and rarities collection, No, Virginia. When asked about that Amanda sighs and shakes her head. “I wanted those songs to be out so badly. I didn’t know where the band was headed, and I thought, fuck, if I don’t put this out now, it might just sit in a can on a shelf forever. The label refused to count it. The artist in me was screaming, ‘Put it out! Put it out!’ and the businesswoman inside me was like, ‘Noooooooo!’” She laughs. “You know, it’s a fucking great record. I love it.”
Mindful of the Dolls’ rather public falling out, played out over the internet last summer, I tentatively enquire how the two are getting along these days. She smiles brightly. “We’re getting along fine, but we’re also really happy with the projects we’re doing. We’re thinking about touring together next year, we’re just trying to find a time. We still drive each other crazy.” She laughs. “Some things will never change. It’s just a matter of where our tolerance lies, how much we can be driven crazy and for how long.” She currently has no plans to start recording a second solo album, certainly not before next winter, and would like a longer break than she’s allowed herself thus far.
For now her motivation is to keep her career going, connecting with people and making music. With relations at Roadrunner now irreparably soured, Amanda says she is less interested in selling more copies of her album than she is in just having new people hear it. “Every gig that I play has less and less to do with the record company and the record itself, every moment,” she says. “I’m just biding my time until June. The label are fighting a losing battle because I will continue to tour, sell merchandise, publish books, and earn income in all these other ways, while the record sales are just going to decrease over the next few years. If they think it’s valuable enough to have me on their roster as a dangling carrot for some idiotic incoming bands stupid enough to sign a contract, then they might opt to keep me just because they can.” She trails off briefly. “I hope they don’t. It would make me sick.”
Amanda hasn’t given up on her album yet though, harbouring a hope that the record she loves so much will take on a life of its own through the internet and that people will share it. Surprisingly, she says she often meets Dresden Dolls fans who don’t even know her album exists. “I have a lot of faith that it’s actually going to work,” she smiles. “That’s what happened with the first Dolls record. It had a little push at the beginning, but not much. It was years and years of word of mouth.
“I still see posts all the time saying ‘I just discovered this fantastic band The Dresden Dolls, you should check out ‘Half Jack’ and ‘Coin-Operated Boy’.’ And I’m like, well, it’s 2009; the debut came out six years ago; so hopefully in 2014 people out there will be finding Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and that record will stand the test of time. I think it’s fantastic.”
The doorbell rings. It’s a woman from The Guardian (with a nice scarf), and so my time is up. Just as we were getting on to Amanda’s newfound friendship with Tegan & Sara as well. Damn. Two days later, at a thoroughly ramshackle show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, she covers the twins’ song ‘Like O, Like H’, howling uneasily of swinging her fists like nails into a board as she hammers at the piano. It’s really quite a sight. She’s right, too; her performance has very little to do with anything but Amanda giving to and feeding off her fans. She accedes only to her instincts, good or bad, and love or loathe her music, you can’t help but admire that.
The tragedy of her label situation simply highlights how out of touch the majors seem to be with the way that music lives and breathes on the internet, the beauty of how it passes between fans and would-be fans. They are even out of touch with their own artists. Even as a casual fan, I hope Amanda’s D-Day in June delivers her the freedom she craves. The alternative is troubling. An industry that would rather lose face than admit that they have made an error is an industry severely in need of a shake up. And it is coming. Artists like Amanda Palmer, whose whip-smart attitude and utter fucking commitment to being herself is inspiring, are rising up, answering to nothing but a desire to make art that matters.