The idea was a simple one: songs for the piano and voice, recorded in one week in a bedroom, just to get them down on tape. But like all things surrounding The Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer - a one-woman machine who is a rock musician, artist, writer, yoga enthusiast, political activist and more - simplicity is not an easy thing to come by.
Her small idea snowballed into something grand, exciting and nothing short of brilliant in the form of her debut solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
Born and raised in Boston, "simple" has never been a way to describe Amanda Palmer's undeniable talent and passion for creating art.
With years of theater and performance art studies under her belt, Palmer has always sought to merge the worlds of rock music, theater and performance art... even when it's meant biting off more than she can conceivably chew (Palmer, never one to shy from a challenge, always finds a way to get it done, and to do it well).
Post-college, she was notorious around Boston as a "living statue" street performer, art-party impresario and DIY theater director. And, occasionally, a piano-bashing singer-songwriter, setting up shop in small galleries and friends' parties and sharing what would eventually become the first batch of songs for The Dresden Dolls. Upon meeting drummer Brian Viglione at a party in 2000, The Dresden Dolls were born, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Until history took a bit of a turn. With multiple critically-acclaimed records under her belt, Palmer could have easily continued on that trajectory - but as the band hit their consecutive fifth year of touring, Palmer decided to take a breather and create her first solo album - a stripped-down piano-and-voice affair to be recorded at home.
"I was all set to just bang out the tunes in my bedroom with the help of a local engineer and was locking the dates when Ben Folds showed up on the scene. He emailed the band's website while he was on tour in Japan, gushing about how much he loved our records. I was totally ecstatic and jumped up and down for a while and then dug out my old Ben Folds CDs and wrote him back immediately," explains Palmer. "We struck up a fast friendship, and fate would have it that we were both in Australia a few weeks later, so we met up and had a good old-fashioned geeky-piano-songwriter-bonding session.
He told me that if I ever needed to use his chock-full-o-pianos studio in Nashville, he'd be happy to loan it. I told him that, as a matter of fact, I was plotting a solo album and would love to make use of it. He stopped and thought for a second, asked me if he could produce the record and I said yes without blinking an eye.
I just had a good feeling about it and knew I could trust him. And I wound up being blown away by what Ben brought to the table, he went beyond my expectations in spades."
The resulting sessions culminated in Palmer's solo record, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
Spanning almost ten years' worth of songwriting, Palmer had nearly thirty compositions to sort through with Folds when she finally went down to Nashville to begin working on them. "My recent songs, like 'Point of It All' and 'Guitar Hero' all seemed like no-brainers because they represent a newer and mature kind of songwriting for me, but there were some older ones that Ben was curious about, like 'Runs in the Family' that I tried to veto, and, well, Ben won," Palmer says. "Other songs like 'Blake Says' were written in my mid-twenties and had always had a place close to my heart - I knew they had to go on the album. But Ben was really merciless about separating out the wheat from the chaff, and it really paid off. I don't think there's a single weak link on the record."
With the songs picked, recording commenced in marathon sessions in spring of 2007, with Ben Folds acting as producer and back-up one-man-band, and the creative process in full swing.
"From there, the project stretched from a two week side project into a year-long epic project," she continues. "Ben was a madman in the studio. He had a wicked sense of humor and a perfect touch with sounds and ideas. He was able to see what I missed. I thought that 'Melissa Mahoney' was too silly to go on the record. I mean, come on, it's a pop song about abortion.
But Ben took the joke, ran with it, added back-up singers and NAILED it to the wall. He knew exactly when to take an idea too far and when to pull back. The amount of magic he added to the songs is just unbelievable."
"We weren't working with a strict deadline, so we got to try a lot of things and throw them away," Palmer continues. This experimentation also gave Palmer the opportunity to invite some of her own favorite musicians to play on the songs, resulting in guest turns from the likes of St. Vincent's Annie Clark (on a twisted version of Carousel's "What's the Use of Wondrin"), The Dead Kennedys' East Bay Ray and Rasputina's Zoe Keating. Mr. Folds, in addition to producing and arranging, played synthesizer, drums, organ and contributed some back-up vocals on the record. He also introduced Palmer to his trusted and critically-acclaimed string arranger Paul Buckmaster, who supplied gorgeous string and orchestral arrangements for four songs on the record and conducted the sessions at LA's historic Studio A at Capitol Records.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer, titled after a Twin Peaks reference that has "come to mean new things," according to Palmer, gives the listener an entirely new angle by which to view Amanda Palmer as a songwriter, vocalist, piano-player and arranger. "One thing that was always irritated me is that the Dolls get locked in the gimmick box by a lot of people. Many times they don't see past the fun and theatrics, they never actually find the music or experience us live, so they have little idea what the essence of the band is."
Palmer explains. "At the core, I'm a songwriter and the Dolls are a rock band. We've earned a great reputation for throwing wonderful events and making our shows feel like big parties, but I'm hoping that people can see past that and assess me as a songwriter and performer instead of just a circus ringmaster. I do love that role - and I think the role is an important one - but it's important for me to wave and remind people that I'm a human being before I step back into the ring."
The songs on Who Killed Amanda Palmer do just that. From the sweeping orchestral opener "Astronaut" to the wild choruses of "Leeds United" to the sinister pop of "Melissa Mahoney," each song peels back multi-faceted layers of Amanda Palmer, revealing an unbelievably talented woman at the core. "'Astronaut' may be my hands-down favorite. It feels most representative of where I've gone as a songwriter," says Palmer when discussing the songs on the album of which she's proudest. "But the recording of 'Leeds United' has a great story, which is part of what makes me love that song," she continues.
"I had just written it and played it for Ben, and we were trying to figure out how we wanted to track it. I was in Scotland playing at the Fringe Festival, and I had wanted to add the song to the live set, so I called a local trumpet player I knew to come to the venue with some horn-playing friends. We had one rehearsal and they joined me that night, wearing no pants and lampshades on their heads, on stage for a piano-and-horns version of 'Leeds United.' It sounded so great that I wanted to capture the arrangement to send to Ben, so I booked us into a teeny, cheap little studio to cut a demo.
That scratch vocal was done in one take, and I'd been smoking and drinking all week, since I was done with my engagement and living it up. I knew there was no way anyone would ever hear it but Ben, but Ben loved it...so it wound up on the record. It took forever to track down all those Scottish guys to get them to sign releases."
Other songs have taken on new emotional depths as Palmer has seen them take different shapes once they've hit the stage. "'Strength Through Music,' which was inspired by the school shootings at Columbine, took on this whole new quality when I worked it into the stage show with The Danger Ensemble, a performance art group from Australia who are going to be touring with me," says Palmer. "Watching actors on stage interpret the meaning of those lyrics was heartbreaking." Palmer also collaborated with long-time friend and filmmaker Michael Pope on a film project based on six of the album's songs to be released in pieces in the weeks leading up to the record's street date. "We filmed 'Strength' in the hallway of my high school with a bunch of teenage drama students. It was incredibly powerful, there were a lot of tears after we cut the first take." The film project also includes clips for "Astronaut," "Guitar Hero," "Ampersand," "Runs in the Family" and "Point of It All." Extra footage was shot to weave the songs into a complete 30 minute film that connects each song to the next and follows Palmer through a series of painful but liberating realizations.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer evolved from a simple idea to an elaborate process culminating in the finest work of a varied, already-impressive career. At its center are the words of a masterful story teller, a woman with a wry tongue and a penchant for bold confessionals. In this way, it makes sense that for the album's liner notes and accompanying mystery concept and photo book, Palmer has teamed up with another artist who successfully merges many worlds into one: best-selling author Neil Gaiman, who is best known as the man who penned the Sandman comic series. "I met Neil through my good friend Jason Webley," she says. "We really connected and became a quick little mutual admiration society. I sent him an early draft of the album and he loved it. When I realized I wanted to release a companion book of bizarre photographs along with the record, I asked if he might want to write the text to a story called 'Who Killed Amanda Palmer,' and he was jazzed at the idea." Thus, Who Killed Amanda Palmer grows even further - a story written within a story sung. Gaiman and Palmer plan to self-publish the book in a limited edition and plant hidden visual clues within the images for further hunting should the reader want to follow the mystery of Who Killed Amanda Palmer down the rabbit hole.
Fans who have felt a kinship with Palmer - and there are thousands who pore over her words in her personal blog every day - will feel this bond strengthen even further due to the astonishing forthrightness and vulnerability in these songs. Those who know the backstory of Palmer's personal struggles and musings will feel at home instantly; Palmer has piled every reference, challenge and acceptance from her very vibrant life into this album, inviting the listener into her home, as well as her heart. Who Killed Amanda Palmer sees our fearless heroine weaving together the many threads of her personality, her interests, her extensive artistic family, her astute, witty world observations and the stark openness of her feelings into a dynamic record that pushes emotional boundaries while staying true to its genius creator. From Amanda Palmer, we would expect nothing less.