Dont Call Her A Piano Chick: Amanda Palmer on Ben Folds,songwriting,and why classical training sucks

Long before Sweeney Todd gave his first close shave, a different anti-hero’s blade sliced through Victorian London in the Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. If that spirit of gritty musical theater were a band, that band would be the Dresden Dolls. Edgy, piano-pounding hits such as “Coin Operated Boy” and “Girl Anachronism” didn’t just earn them opening gigs for Nine Inch Nails and the True Colors tour — they started a musical movement. Some bloggers called it “dark cabaret.” We call it wickedly fun.
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Long before Sweeney Todd gave his first close shave, a different anti-hero’s blade sliced through Victorian London in the Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. If that spirit of gritty musical theater were a band, that band would be the Dresden Dolls. Edgy, piano-pounding hits such as “Coin Operated Boy” and “Girl Anachronism” didn’t just earn them opening gigs for Nine Inch Nails and the True Colors tour — they started a musical movement. Some bloggers called it “dark cabaret.” We call it wickedly fun.

Now, Dolls singer, songwriter, and pianist Amanda Palmer — known for paying homage to Weill by taping a letter “T” over the “Z” on her Kurzweil keyboard — emerges with her first solo effort, a personal and stylistically diverse disc produced by none other than fellow piano rocker Ben Folds.

How did Ben Folds wind up producing Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

He emailed a fan letter to the Dresden Dolls’ website. Seriously, that’s how it started. The Internet is magic! I think his new record is genius. I’m opening the show with a cover of “Cologne” [from Ben’s disc Way To Normal] tonight. The genius thing about Ben is that he’d listen to my demo of a song — all of which were pretty far from what you hear on the record — and immediately, he’d get this 3D picture in his head. As long as he got to realize that vision, it’d sound fantastic.

What was the collaboration process like?

He had me lay down the basic tracks on one of his pianos, because he has this fantastic collection. His space in Nashville is the old RCA studio, where hundreds of hits were recorded. It looks like a church in there. He has a Baldwin concert grand, a beautiful Steinway grand, another old Baldwin he turned into a tack piano, and a great upright. We’d choose the right piano for the song, then at a certain point, he’d get this look in his eye and say, “Okay, I want strings here, synths there — Amanda, go away!” [Laughs.] And I would, because I had this weird, inherent trust that’s very unlike me. He played Moog bass on some of the songs, which fit perfectly on “Astronaut” and “Guitar Hero.”

Did the experience stoke any fire in you for producing someone yourself in the future?

I wouldn’t call it a passion of mine. I’m not enough of a tech geek to think about this mic with that compressor, and all that. A big part of producing is clerical: timing, scheduling, not spending too much time on any one task. That’s a completely different skill set than artistic vision, and then there’s the emotional — making sure everyone in the room feels good — which you also need to be skilled at!

Does technology play much of a part in your own songwriting?

I used to record my own songs in high school, and had a four-track. I was starting to get geeky, doing MIDI sequences in some ancient version of MasterTracks Pro on my little green-screen computer. I had Encore for music notation. I then started using synths and a drum machine in the songs I was writing. At a certain point, I was like, “I never play piano anymore. I’m never gonna be great at this tech stuff,” and I stepped back, put my sequencing rig in the closet, and decided to focus on writing songs at the piano.

You must have some kind of personal setup for capturing song ideas, though.

I used to use a little [Sony] Walkman cassette recorder, and I had stacks and stacks of 90-minute tapes. Then I went through a series of unfortunate switches. I tried a DAT, and it never sounded good, and I never really figured out how to use it. So I went MiniDisc, and it never sounded good, and I never really figured out how to use it. Then I tried to use an iPod with an iTalk on top and — well, you get the idea. All these things would go into my “shoebox graveyard” of technology that wasn’t as good as my Walkman. I just got a [Digidesign] Mbox and a couple of Neumann U87 mics to record at home, so maybe I’ve gotten over my anti-technology phase a bit.

A lot of musicians would say that with digital technology, you can capture a great idea anytime, anywhere.

True, but a “great idea” is not a song. By the time I was 20, I’d recorded over 1,200 minutes of song ideas that I loved to listen to, but never finished, because I was too attached to them. In a sense, computer recording increases that danger, because it’s so easy to record just one idea or snippet at a time. Sometimes I think that if I’d stuck with tape — a more linear medium — it would have forced me to work out more complete song forms.

So what does it take for you to move from good idea to finished song?

That happens when I have the discipline to sit down at the piano, which is rare. I’m a disciplined everything else, but not a disciplined songwriter. That’s something I’m constantly ashamed of, until I turn around and look at the fact that I’ve got four albums worth of great songs. I have to remind myself that I don’t need to feel Catholic guilt about it!

How do you know when a song is finished?

If I’m unhappy with any single moment in the song, it’s not finished. Often, I get myself into nasty spots with this. There’ll be this one lyric or melodic problem that’ll mire the song in this flickering light of incompleteness. Nothing I think of quite fits, and sometimes I’ll go back to it month after month. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll sit at the piano, and the song’ll come out perfect on the first try. The best songs I’ve ever written, I feel, are the ones I’ve done in 20 minutes.

Any good tips for busting writer’s block?

One of the things that always inspires me is writing a song with the thought of performing it live as soon as possible. Before the Dresden Dolls, I used to have a gig once every month or two. So it was a big deal when I had one, and I’d get these songwriting bursts in the days just before the show.

I remember that feeling. “Wow, I have a real gig!”

Yeah — “Next week! I must prepare at once!” It always put a fire under my ass. Recently it happened again for the first time in awhile. In Portugal, this promoter invited the crew and me to a fancy lunch, but I had a piano in my dressing room, which almost never happens. I thought, “If I write a song right now, I could play it tonight.” So I did, and it became “The Point of It All” on the new record.

How did you learn to play?

My mother taught me. She’d had lessons as a kid, and played only classical, right off the page. I gravitated towards the piano, so my mom started putting me on her lap. When I was five, she tried to get me started reading sheet music. I told her “I don’t wanna do it that way, I just wanna look at your hands.” She figured that was a perfectly legitimate way to teach me, so I never looked at the page. To this day, I look at my hands while I play, and while I type — I’m visual and pattern-oriented. I can make sense out of sheet music, but I can’t just read off the page and play in real time.

I’m surprised to hear that, because your playing sounds like you’re classically trained.

Well, I did play classical pieces a lot. I’d set my mind to learning one and I’d spend, like, a year memorizing. But I hated practicing. Every time I sat down, I felt terribly inadequate.

Keyboard instruments get this rap of having a barrier to entry that people don’t feel about, say, the guitar.

Yeah — guitar is rock ’n’ roll, keyboard is “serious.” This brings up a beef I have with the whole “piano chick” image. People see a female piano-based songwriter, and they think, “Oh, she must be this classical chick who ‘broke free.’ [Pronounces vowels with a faux-hippie drawl.] Isn’t it cool that she’s playing her songs now?” See? The piano doesn’t have the sex factor of “Even though I only know three chords, I am now a god!”

Even though you know a lot more than three chords, all someone would have to do is come to one of your shows to see how “rock god” piano can be.

Trouble is, if you’re a woman who’s aggressive on the piano, then people see you as [rolls eyes] “creating paradox.” So that finishing-school emotional cage is still there, especially if you were trained classically. The further I go on, the more glad I am that I wasn’t.

I guess the only way it gets more finishing- school is if you play the flute. . . .

Or worse, the harp! [Laughs.]

How important is the sonic quality of a particular piano?

I like things to be loud and very responsive. So, when I play muted classical pianos — like nice velvety Bösendorfers — I can’t stand it! I wanna get some noise out of it, and it’s like, “Oh, no, Amanda. You must play me properly!”

For digital pianos, you’re well known for being into Kurzweil. Why?

Simple. To my ears, they sound like a piano, especially in the low end. I also think you get attached to whatever you start with. When I was 20, I walked blind into a Guitar Center, wad of saved-up cash in my pocket, because I needed a keyboard for a gig. I played everything in the store and settled on the Kurweil PC88. That’s been my keyboard for the past 12 years until last month, when I switched to the PC3X. [See our review of the Kurzweil PC3 in the Dec. ’08 issue. –Ed.]

What music inspires you to write?

Film soundtracks. I tried to get my hands on everything by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. I love all of Peter Greenaway’s films. I’m also a real fan of filmmakers who “curated” their soundtracks really well — like John Hughes or Wim Wenders. One of my favorite soundtracks is Wings of Desire.

That connects to the theatrical quality your music is known for.

I started writing songs because I wanted to perform. I love the idea of constantly being surrounded by creative people, interesting things, and a great party. Songwriting is one path, but you could do theater, or direct videos. At the same time, I’m secretly jealous of all those musicians who hate the lifestyle aspects and are all, “Can’t you just leave me to my music?”

They have such cred, don’t they?

Those that mean it. Half the time it’s complete bulls**t. The other half, I feel sorry for them. Really. Because if you’re on a major or even an indie label, working the usual album cycle, you actually spend a relatively small part of your time songwriting and recording. The rest of the time, you’re touring, doing promo, reaching out to your fans. You’re doing the 19 other things that are part of choosing this as a career with your eyes open. So if you hate all that, and you want to be melancholy in your room and write songs all the time, dude, you’re so f***ed!

The Palmer Dossier

Website:www.whokilledamandapalmer.com
Origin of the album name: It’s a reference to Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s groundbreaking TV drama.
First home studio: Korg M1, Casio CZ-1000, Alesis MIDIverb, TASCAM fourtrack cassette recorder.
First keyboard hero: “Thelonious Monk. He saw the piano purely as a means of expression, not as some club you have to be scholarly enough to join. He had no baggage.”
Favorite stage keyboard: Kurzweil PC3X, which recently replaced her PC88.
Favorite acoustic piano: “Yamahas have the bright, brassy quality that works well for me. My favorite piano I ever played was a Steinway. I’ve played a lot I didn’t dig, but this one was like buttah.”
Worst gear nightmare: “In Hamburg, Germany, I once broke four keys on a rented Casio digital piano, all at one gig.”

A Selected Amanda Palmer Discography

As a solo artist:
Who Killed Amanda Palmer (Roadrunner)

1WKAP

With the Dresden Dolls:

No, Virginia (Roadrunner)

NoVirginia

Yes, Virginia (Roadrunner)

YesVirginia

The Dresden Dolls (Roadrunner)

DresdenDolls