Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra
Amanda Palmer can’t remember a time when she didn’t imagine being an artist, performer, and provocateur. Growing up in bucolic Lexington, Massachusetts, little Amanda spent her Saturdays dreaming up imaginary street fairs, great kaleidoscopes bursting with color and sound and people swirling around her.
“I spent lots of time drawing flyers for events that never existed,” Palmer says. “I would plan everything late at night in my room, conjuring up the most incredible, magical event on the planet, imagining everyone in the town would come and eat the candy, ride the bizarre rides that my friends and I would create, and buy the art that I would draw, so that I would never need to rely on my parents for an allowance again. At nine I was already fantasizing about throwing the ultimate party.”
“Being a musician or rock star seemed like the most obvious 'real' job that would line up with that dream,” she muses. “I think that’s why I turned to music. The rock stars I was idolizing on MTV seemed to have the most leverage when it came to art-party-throwing.”
But as anyone who’s ever seen or heard Palmer – whether raising eyebrows and attracting onlookers as The Eight Foot Bride living statue in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, delivering dramatically direct, wildly theatrical performances as one half of the cabaret-punk duo The Dresden Dolls, or, most recently, as a solo artist whose uncompromising vision has frequently made her a flashpoint for both admiration and controversy – will attest to the fact that being a musician and rock star is not merely a job, and never has been.
Instead, Palmer is her art. And, in turn, her art is an extension of who she is, and is always becoming: a voracious seeker of creative catharsis and emotional release, a bold participant in games of truth or dare (she always opts for both) on a life-sized stage, and, above all, an utterly un-categorize-able work-in-progress. She’s a fearless singer and songwriter, of course, and an audaciously expressive pianist who simultaneously embraces – and explodes – traditional frameworks of composition.
She’s collaborated with indie pop pianist Ben Folds (who produced her most recent solo work Who Killed Amanda Palmer) and teamed with acclaimed author Neil Gaiman for a storybook of photography that beautifully expands the conceptual and narrative ideas outlined in her ambitious solo album. She created an ambitious 12-video DVD project to match each song of the record with filmmaker Michael Pope, and continues to post so-called "Karaoke Verité" lip-dub videos of other musicians' work on YouTube. She helped conceive and co-write an adventurous theatrical work, “The Onion Cellar" with the American Repertory Theater and played front-woman at Symphony Hall with the legendary Boston Pops. Then there’s a hotly anticipated record by the conjoined twin sisters, Evelyn and Evelyn, that she’s planning to co-produce with powerhouse performer Jason Webley, a close (though not conjoined) musical friend.
Her band, the enigmatic Dresden Dolls which she founded with drummer Brian Viglione in Boston a decade ago, remain an ongoing concern. Although currently on hiatus, the Dolls have hinted at playing select dates after rejoining briefly for a benefit gig in Washington DC in celebration of President Barack Obama's inauguration. Somewhere in between tour dates, Palmer is also breaking ground on her literary debut, a loose memoir and guidebook that reflects her complicated life as a female performer. The collection of eclectic projects, not to mention Palmer’s perennial To Do list, goes on. In the meantime, any mortal attempt to adequately capture Palmer’s mercurial essence and limitless imagination (and why she means so much to so many devoted fans around the world), would require an awful lot of hyphens.
“I don’t really belong to any genre, and people have always had a tough time with that,” Palmer says with a verbal shrug. “But that is, I think, a positive thing.” As Palmer herself put it when talking about her early Eight Foot Bride persona, her endeavors are about “changing the environment around you” and transforming the mundane of the everyday “into something surprising and artistic.”
What people see and get with each permutation is up to them. To some, she’s a feminist icon, brazenly challenging gender roles and body image stereotypes with equal parts humor and hubris. Case in point: the recent uproar surrounding her appearance in the video for her song “Leeds United.” When news broke that Palmer’s record label objected to the state of her stomach, fans responded by flooding her blog – and her label – with photos of their own tummies as a show of support. The campaign was cheekily dubbed "The ReBellyon,” and it tickled Palmer pink.
“It’s what keeps the party fun,” Palmer says of the occasional setbacks that can occur when she won’t pander to convention or bend to biases. “It’s inspiring to have such unwavering support from my audience; it’s like a family. I'm not just talking to them; they're talking to me, and when I hit a pitfall, they respond loudly. Every challenge I've faced with this record has ended up looking more like a blessing than a curse.”
Credit, she says, goes to her legions of loyal friends and followers. Palmer keeps in close contact with them through her blog, which she updates with a prolificacy that borders on fanatical dedication. It’s a kinship that goes to the core of Palmer’s appeal. The recent ban of the song "Oasis" on British radio and video outlets - who refused to play the upbeat pop tune on the grounds that it "made light of rape, religion and abortion" - triggered more attention in the press than the song itself might have received on the airwaves given the conservative nature of most modern radio outlets.
"When you cannot joke about the darkness of life," Palmer explained on her blog, "that's when the darkness takes over." Ever loyal, thousands of Palmer's listeners responded to the controversy by barraging Palmer's various web outlets, which range from Twitter (she's addicted) to MySpace, Facebook, her own amandapalmer.net, and a dedicated discussion forum called TheShadowbox.net.
“There is something really special about connecting with people so intensely,” she says with a mixture of wonder and gratification. “You can't expect to blog about superficial things like shopping and expect to really reach your audience in a real way. Staying in contact with your fans means nothing if you aren't saying anything that really connects with them emotionally. It’s an ongoing discussion, and the whole point is inclusiveness. It’s never just about me being on stage and in the spotlight. Sure, I get to throw the party, but it’s not a good party if nobody comes, if nobody's acknowledged. It’s my life, and everyone’s invited. That's the way I like it.”
In that spirit, Palmer recently teamed up with mentor Steven Bogart to run an original workshop at her alma mater, Lexington High School. A cast of twenty teenagers wrote a play entitled "With The Needle That Sings In Her Heart," based on one of Palmer's favorite albums, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. She also performed the music and acted alongside the cast for the four performances in early May. In addition, she stole the festival spotlight at the Coachella Music Festival in mid-April and is also planning a short tour this summer of the US, Russia and Eastern Europe to promote her new DVD and the Palmer/Gaiman Who Killed Amanda Palmer book project.
And what other personal details might she want people to know? She is 5'6, 137 pounds, and no, those aren't tattoos. She shaves them and paints them on.
– Jonathan Perry