Dark piano music seems an odd fit for college house parties, but that is where Amanda Palmer first performed shows as a shy solo artist before forming the Dresden Dolls. "They were so intense," she says. "I hadn't found the humor to balance out the dark shit." Her friends who attended the shows were encouraging but concerned by Palmer's emotive, diary-entry intimate and revealing performances. "They would come up to me after the shows and say, 'That was really good, Amanda ... are you OK?'" Now years later, Palmer, 32, is back for round two of the solo shows in support of her debut solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer, though this time, a bit more seasoned and a bit less depressing.
Palmer grew up in Manhattan and Boston, as the youngest of four kids. She describes herself as a "greedy little attention-seeker" as a child and was an incessant performer since birth. "I think I popped out like that," she says. Palmer was a member of the school choir and a community theater participant, whose early musical diet consisted of the Beatles, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, and ABBA. Prince and Madonna were added to her mix in the 1980s, but her love of happy pop faded as a teenager. "I got into darker, weirder stuff," she says. Bands like the Cure and Depeche Mode moved into her world, and under this influence at the age of thirteen, she started writing songs.
Palmer attended Wesleyan University, and it was at one of the Boston house-party performances during college where Palmer met drummer Brian Viglione. Palmer says she was at the point where she had to decide to "get her shit together" and start a band or forget the music career. Lucky for both parties, the two decided to form the Dresden Dolls in 2001, and Viglione ended up being the support Palmer needed to feel more confident on stage. The band slowly became known for its dark, theatrical melodies with a punk twist, but despite the production with makeup and costumes that made Palmer and Viglione look like Cabaret extras, Palmer says everything developed naturally. "If we had an aesthetic, it definitely wasn't planned," she says. "Whatever wasn't fun, we didn't do."
During a Dresden Dolls hiatus — there was "nonstop bickering" — Palmer began to toy with her own music. "I had a pile of drum-less songs," she says. Her original intent was to make a small record quietly, but that plan changed once she fell into the production arms of piano wizard Ben Folds.
The Dresden Dolls met Folds at a joint gig in Australia, and when Palmer shared with him her plans of making a solo album, Folds offered his studio in Nashville as a recording space. The brusque and throaty-voiced Palmer mixing with a sunny pop symbol like Folds might seem like an odd combination, but they found that they had a lot of overlapping similarities. "We share a love of dorky musical theater," Palmer says. Palmer and Folds also have a mutual appreciation for sick humor and speak the same piano language, which bonded the two musicians. "Even though we belong to different genres, our approach of songwriting is not far off," Palmer says.
Palmer compliments Folds on being a strong producer who became someone she could trust for an opinion. Though Palmer came into the studio with nearly thirty songs, Folds helped her to whittle the count down to only a dozen. All of the tracks remain true to Palmer's slam-and-attack piano style and dark lyrics, but hints of Folds slip in on tracks like "Oasis," where Palmer sings about rape, pregnancy, and abortion to the tune of a jolly piano romp and a clap track.
Palmer released her album this September and has been on the road promoting it ever since, intentionally leaving little time for the Dresden Dolls. "We're taking a break," Palmer says. "We both need some space." Palmer says the break has been good for her and Viglione and that the two are now on better terms. But she insists that they will only "gradually start up again as we feel it." In other words, no promises.
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