by Robin Umbley
Catching up with Amanda Palmer isn’t easy. One night, she’s playing piano and singing at Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops, then she’s jetting off on yet another tour that runs from the West Coast to Toronto and New York, and finally Europe. And before all that, she recorded a solo record with Ben Folds as the producer which comes out this month. Oh—and she’s got a book of photographs coming out to accompany her solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, with text by sci-fi/fantasy/comic book writer and screenwriter Neil Gaiman. Amanda has been touring both solo and with drummer Brian Viglione as the Dresden Dolls. Today she’s playing as the Dresden Dolls at Pukkelpop, a festival in Kiewit, Belgium. Even here, she’s tough to locate; she arrived later than planned at the vast festival grounds. It seems that the Dresden Dolls and their management had unforeseen difficulties with their rental car; apparently none of them could drive a stick. (This, on a continent where a rental car with a standard transmission really is the standard). But they forged on, and having no alternative, bucked and stalled their way to the festival.
Amanda, by herself as well as with the Dresden Dolls, has developed a large—and international—following. She recently sold out her solo show in New York at Spiegeltent. A future solo show in London is already sold out. The Dresden Dolls are huge in their namesake city of Dresden, Germany. And at tonight’s performance at this seven-stage festival in Belgium—the Dresden Dolls are playing on the Marquee Stage, second in size only to the Main Stage (where bands such as Metallica and the Killers appeared at this same festival). The hugely enthusiastic crowd, estimated to number about 3,000 or so, all of whom seem to know every last word to every song on the Dresden Dolls’ set list, spills out from under the canopy.
This success is no accident. Basically, it’s the result of old-fashioned hard work and persistence with a conscious goal to keep building on smaller successes. Amanda explains: “Go to the web site and take a look at the tour schedule. You can literally watch it happening. We started off playing in Boston and then Boston and New York and then we started doing small tours down to Philly and D.C., and then we started doing tours out to the Midwest, then we signed with a label and got management and we started flying out to the West Coast, we went to Europe, and bit by bit we just grew it and grew it and started doing more supporting slots.
She adds that achieving this degree of success absolutely requires touring: “Constant touring was the key. There’s no way you can do this from home. You have to get on the road and stay on the road for a long time, especially nowadays with the state of the music business. …We’ve done European festivals almost every summer for the past four of five years. It’s a circuit. We’re with the same bands every day. It’s just something you do here. It’s not really like that in America. Bands spend the summer going from festival to festival and there are so many of them.
Although Amanda acknowledges that there is nothing glamorous about constant touring, she explains that it is simply something that must be done: “This touring actually is not ‘fun’ and if you romanticize it and think that it’s gonna be a lot of ‘fun,’ you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s a lot of slogging, a lot of hard work, and a lot of sleepless nights, but if you love the work and you love the band, and it’s really your only plan—I never had a plan B, really, it was this or… nothing else—then you just do it. You find a way to make it work. But I’ve barely been home for the better part of six years now. You have to make that choice and live with it, go with it.
She adds, “Nomadic touring life is really hard to figure out… but you just do it. I have found that I’m a real fan of hitting the exact same cafes in the cities I frequently tour, because I crave a sense of repetition and stability, of non-change within constant chaos. The tour bus is very handy, since you can kind of move in and have a mobile home. This month I’ve been doing only fly dates, constant trains and cabs and runners and rented cars, packing my suitcase two or three times a day. That can make your brain hurt, and I lose things constantly.
The crowds on the festival circuit are different than those who might show up at a club where she or the Dresden Dolls headline. Amanda acknowledges that there is a different vibe: “Festivals feel more like an advertisement for the band than the band itself. It’s like getting up in front of a group of people who are mostly engaged in a totally different head space than they would be in a headlining venue and you’re basically saying, ‘this is what our band is like. Now come see us.’ It’s weird. We’re not like the Killers or the Kaiser Chiefs [also playing at many of the same festivals] or a band that is specifically about fist pumping and singing along and drinking beer and getting a party on. We’re not really anthemic that way; we’re more of a… [she pauses for a moment] we’re definitely engaging but not in the same way.
With a different aesthetic (speaking of which, they’re “unmasked” at this particular show; Brian wears a black tank top and shorts and Amanda wears a black T-shirt and miniskirt and purple tights with large stars printed on them. Neither is in whiteface.) and a modus operandi that sees beauty in decaying old things such as abandoned old theaters, Amanda explains that in order to be engaging, the songs must be tailored to the audience: “We pull out different tricks when we play at festivals. We don’t play long slow ballads, we don’t do a lot of quiet stuff. We do high energy songs that keep everyone engaged. We’ll gauge the crowd and throw out songs that we think are going to work.
Evidently, the refinements made after these years of touring are paying off. This past June, Amanda made a triumphant appearance with the Boston Pops as part of their Edgefest series. She explains that this, too, came about as the result of persistence, or, more accurately, just a classic case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease: “I walk by it [Symphony Hall] every day on my way to Whole Foods—where I eat, because I just don’t cook when I’m at home any more because I’m never home for more than a couple of days at a time. It was maybe a few years ago when I noticed they were doing this series called Edgefest, which is where they pair up rock bands with the Pops, and my first thought when I saw they were doing that series was that it would be perfect. So I approached them and just kept poking them until they said yes.” She smiles and laughs slightly at the recollection.
Amanda was clearly impressed by the entire Pops experience and marveled a bit at how quickly the performance gelled: “I mean, they’re professionals. We had one rehearsal… I worked quite a bit on the arrangements with their house arranger, Pat Hollenbeck, so we did a bunch of preparation together but I only rehearsed with the actual symphony on the day of the show for two hours. That was it. And they nailed it. And Keith Lockhart, having never played with me before, he was almost as in tune with me as Brian, having played with me for years and years and years. He picked up on every little nuance.
Of course, Keith Lockhart is not a classical music snob. It’s well known that he’s a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, for example. Amanda explains that this, unlike touring, was fun: “And they wanted to have fun. You could tell. So I kept throwing ideas at him—he did great things where I walked around the audience, pushed Keith off the conductor’s stand, lots of cool practical jokes—it was just a good night.
But like playing the festivals, a successful show with the Pops requires understanding your audience: “I think the important part about the night and the thing that I kept in mind from the beginning is that I was aiming at a very particular kind of crowd and that night for me wasn’t so much about expressing myself from the depths of my soul, it was about how I am going to entertain these two groups of people—the Dresden Dolls fans… and the old people, you know? And I told myself that this night, I am an entertainer, really. I just want to make this a GOOD night. Start to finish. Making the 70-year-olds happy and making the 13-year-olds happy and making the whole thing feel relaxed even though I’m in this really fancy place. And it worked.
In the meantime, Amanda has a solo CD coming out—a project that snowballed from a simple recording to a major production. She explains that “it was originally supposed to be a very stripped-down solo record, just voice and piano—there wasn’t going to be any fancy production on it. And then around the time I was looking at a place to do it locally, Ben Folds approached me and asked if he could produce it and that seemed like a dream come true, so I said yes and what was supposed to be a two-week project basically stretched into a year and grew and grew in production until it involved strings and orchestra, a horn section, lots and lots and lots of mixing and four mastering sessions and a lot of money and a lot of time. I just hunkered down and threw myself full-force into the solo project. I think it’s is a beautiful and perfect next step because it’s certainly not leaving the band behind—it seems like it’s expanding on something beautiful. The solo record was a real exercise in letting go of control. It’s funny, how I had to go solo to be able to totally submit myself to a process, but that’s what I had to do. Ben really took a lot of risks with my permission and my ability to let go of my inner creative-control-freak yielded the most beautiful music I’ve ever made.
Amanda may have given Ben Folds creative control but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a different kind of control issue. She explains: “It was hard at times because I was the end of the line on the project. The label wasn’t funding it, so I was basically acting as my own record label; I went through a management switch during the making of the record—and that was really hard. There were times when I was sitting alone in a room and going, Jesus, do people really expect that I know what to do here? I was spending a lot of time fumbling in the dark figuring out which decisions were the right decisions. There were days where I didn’t know where I was going the next day. I mean, I would be in San Francisco not knowing if I could just go home to Boston or to go up to Seattle to keep mixing. I’d stare blankly at the computer going, “wow. I guess this decision is up to me. There’s no one in charge here but me”… and that was frustrating and liberating and confusing and wonderful and very educational. Every time you hit a groove, you’d also hit another set of problems. I’ve grown tremendously in the last year as a musician and… as a person, an understander of things in general. The solo record was really humbling. I also learned a lot about what I didn’t know. I wouldn’t trade it, though. I’m really, really glad that everything happened the way it did.