Interview: Amanda Palmer on Neil Gaiman, Frances Bean Cobain, and why her people think Evelyn Evelyn is career suicide


We're going to start this off with a huge tease. The biggest news to come out of our interview with AMANDA PALMER can't be printed -- yet. But we'll let this much slip: you're going to be seeing a lot more of her in the Boston area this fall, in a role you've never seen her play before, which may also be the role she was born for.

In the meantime, you can see her tonight and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday, April 12 and 13) at the Oberon in Harvard Square, where she's workshopping a new stage show by a very odd little side-project, EVELYN EVELYN, in which she and her good friend JASON WEBLEY impersonate a pair of singing conjoined twins with a long and tragic backstory. (After the Oberon, they're taking the show immediately to Europe.) There's an accompanying album out now, which features guest appearances on one song (which you can download below) by Andrew WK, Frances Bean Cobain, Tegan and Sara, and Weird Al Yankovic. And there's a graphic novel coming this fall in collaboration with another post-goth art-rock warrior with Boston roots: CYNTHIA VON BUHLER, who has now become famous in New York City for her fine-art work and children's books about cats.

DOWNLOAD: Evelyn Evelyn, "MySpace" (mp3)

We spoke to Amanda on the phone last week, Just before she parted ways with Roadrunner Records, to discuss the challenges of impersonating conjoined twins, and why everyone associated with her professional life thinks EVELYN EVELYN is career suicide, and how she talked Kurt Cobain's daughter into making her recording debut.

I wasn't sure how far you guys wanted to go with staying in character on this.

[Laughs.] It depends on who we're talking to.

You did an interview with SPIN where all the questions were answered in the first-person plural. You've put some thought into this.

Uhhhh . . . one could argue that. We put some thought into it, but we didn't put extensive calculating and planning into it. We just wanted to have fun with it. And then I don't think we realized how much work it might be.

Conjoined twins are endlessly fascinating. Did you have a favorite literary or historical precedent in mind for EVELYN EVELYN?

Jason, more than me, did a lot of research into the history of, specifically, conjoined twins who were performers. But when I say "a lot of research" I don't mean we took six months off, and read and researched everything there was. One of the things about cultural references, and doing stuff like this for fun, is that you're working on the same level of cultural education as a lot of the rest of the world is. It's an interesting thing that I come up against with cabaret, too. Everyone assumes that I must be a Bertolt Brecht expert. And the truth is: I'm not. I know about as much as the next barely-educated but interested person about Weimar cabaret and Kurt Weill. I probably know more than a lot of people, but I don't know as much as people who devote their lives to writing books about it, and seeing all the plays, and really getting to know it. I've been too busy just doing life.

If you became an expert you wouldn't have time to write songs and tour.

Some people I know are really fucking inspiring and manage to do both. At any given moment I'm usually more inspired to communicate than to absoirb, and that can be a really wonderful tool. It can also be a fatal flaw.

I came across a review of an EVELYN EVELYN live gig in the Portland Phoenix from about two years ago. Has this been on the back burner for a while?

We actually perfoemd these little songs that we had written maybe two and a half years ago. So yeah, the idea has been floating around for ages.

So, spoiler-alert time: the performance is the two of you, in costume, playing almost a piano-four-hands, divided-by-two kind of thing, only not necessarily with piano?

Yup. [Laughs]

That sounds really hard.

It's so hard but it's so much fun. This is what happens when you get people like me and Jason Webley -- who have very different stated goals and intentions than your average pop artist -- when you set our minds in a certain direction. You wind up with very strange results. You wind up with time and energy spent where no normal person would spend it. But that's kind of what keeps us interested in life and in being artists: sitting around late at night and thinking, "Oh my god, wouldn't it be fucked up if we did this?" And then spending a year doing it. Everybody thinks we're absolutely crazy for doing this project. And by "everybody" I don't mean our fans, I mean everybody on the inside. There's not a an agent or a manager out there who thinks I'm making the right decision.

There's no upside for this record, commercially or career-wise.

No, no. At every turn it's a completely suicidal move. [Laughs]

You just put out a well-received solo record. There's other stuff you could be doing.

There's always stuff we could be doing now. Having done a long career with the Dresden Dolls and a couple of years with a solo career, I've really been able to divine what's important to me. And it's not money. It's not commercial success. What I really want to do is make art with my friends. And if possible make people happy by doing that.

You're in a rare place to be the kind of artist who's built an audience outside the cycle of albums and tours -- whether you're making a record about conjoined twins or selling t-shirts on the internet.

And in that sense I'm really blessed, because I've worked long enough to make a record like this and have an audience for it. If Jason and I had decided to make a record like this 10 years ago, we'd have been making art for our friends, but the possibility of making people happy with it would've been very, very slim.

As left field as Evelyn Evelyn is, it doesn't feel completely surprising. It's like, "Amanda Palmer's making a freak-show concept record? Oh, that makes sense."

[Laughs] "Of course she is."

After the Oberon shows you're doing a whole tour. But have you actually done a performance yet?

We did a preview/test-run in New York a month ago and it was fantastic. And that was the night -- well, an afternoon actually, for our friends and a handful of fans -- and that was when we knew that the tour was going to work. We were worried about whether all the jokes would work, and whether the whole thing would translate as a stage show. And it really, really worked. In fact, one of the things I wanted to tell you is that the only reason we booked these Oberon shows is so that we wouldnt land in Europe and start touring totally cold. We wanted a chance to get the kinks out. So we're treating these shows kind of like open dress-rehearsals. And that means that each show is going to be slightly different. We're going to test out different versions of the show each night. And after each show is over, we're going to come back out as Jason and Amanda, and we're going to get feedback from the crowd and take questions.

You're doing an Evelyn Evelyn comic book with Cynthia Von Buhler. It seems about time the two of you did something together.

She's so good. The beautiful thing is that we knew each other way-back-when. Right around the time the Dresden Dolls were starting, our worlds weere starting to cross. This is back in 1999.

Was she doing Women of Sodom then?

No, it was after Women of Sodom. She was doing the Countess. And we knew each other and had friends in common, but we weren't friends per se. She invited me to do something in a variety show she was doing at the ICA. And we got into a full-on feud. About what I can't even remember. It had something to do with my show going on too long, or something someone said -- it was just one of those things where we pissed each other off.

I'm so glad that she's doing this, because she's such an incredibly talented artists. It feels really good to heal an old wound from when I was a young twit, but also to reconnect with a Boston person who knows me from those days. I love going back and working with people I was hanging with in 1998, 1999, from the old-school era of my life. But also, Jason and I looked at dozens of artists, and talked to tons of different people about doing the artwork for the album and the graphic novel. Cynthia came to mind and it was such a done deal. Everything about her was perfect: she'll completely get the story. Completely get the aesthetic. She'll totally get the sense of humor, which is key. And she's so professional, she won't flake out on us. And we were right, she's been perfect.

There does seem to be a natural affinity between your bodies of work. Maybe it was something in drinks at Man Ray.

[Laughs] Yeah, it was a poison they put into the Man Ray iced teas. Goth poison.

How did you and Jason meet up?

That's actually a great story. Jason and I met each other in the year 2000 in Adelaide, Australia. It's about the most artistically-romantic story in the world. I was a street performer and he was a street performer, and we were performing two blocks away from each other. And one day I walked by him and stopped dead in my tracks because he was so good, and I stayed and watched him and waited until he was finished screaming his head off and stomping on his accordion. And I said "Oh my god, who are you?" And he said, "I'm Jason Webley." And I said, "I'm Amanda, I'm a statue down the street."

This is in your eight-foot-bride days.

Yeah. And he and I just stayed in touch, but minimally. But then years later when I was touring with the Dolls, I said, "I know this really great accordion player, we should get him to open up for us." And one thing led to another. At this point we've toured dozens of shows together, and we've become genuinely good friends. I don't have many really, really close friends, but Jason's one of them. We've got a lot in common, and we've been there for each other in our lives. And we both understand the nature of our lifestyles enough to know that the best way to cement our friendship is by trying to work together, because it forces us into a room at the same time. Otherwise, it's just random phone calls every couple of months from the road. It's hard to have friends that you never see.

So that's your primary way of staying in touch with friends: to collaborate with them?

Yeah, it's interesting. It's funny in a way, I was just with Neil [Gaiman, her fiance] over in Poland, and we did this long interview abut our relationship and collaborating. And with Neil it's just the opposite. We go out of our way to spend time where we're not working together. I think once you choose someone as your primary relationship and your lover and your mate, then you go into complete protective mode. The last thing we want to do is collaborate on some giant project, because we need to protect our relationship. But with your friends -- the ones you're not crawling into bed with every night -- that's one of the best ways of cementing a friendship.

That being said, I've also seen enough friendships destroyed by creative collaboration that you have to choose very caferefully what you're doing and who you're doing it with. There was once in this collaboration -- not creatively, becaue we work creatively and business-wise really well together -- but when it got to the point that some people got upset about the project, that really strained our relationship. Because all of a sudden -- our intentions are completely good, we were loving our recording and loving planning our tour and playing this wonderful game with our fans. But as soon as critics from the outside came and rained on our parade, we had different recactions to it. And that was a challenge for us. We're wise enough people and good enough friends that it only lasted a day.

But it is really interesting how any artist is going to have a difficult time prioritizing all of those things: your commitment to your work, your commitment to your ideals, your commitment to your friends, and your commitment to your partner or domestic life. Those things are just constantly blurring into one another.

But it sounds like you've started figuring out how to deal with married life.

It's true. I've started figurting it out. [Laughs]. I don't think anyone else can handle me as well as Neil. And cvice versa. Neither of us is really easy to handle, but we really speak each other's language. We make a really good match because we give each other a lot of freedom and a lot of understanding. And I never saw myself getting married. It was completely unfathomable to me.

That sort of makes it all the more romantic.

Yeah, it kinda does. At the point where I decided I was gonna stick with this guy for life, it wasn't that hard.

OK, I have to ask: how did Frances Bean Cobain end up on this record?

She ended up on this record the way all the other random celebrities ended up on the record. Jason and I sent emails to all the famous people we knew and said, "Hey we're doing this ridiculous record: will you sing on it? And by the way, no one will really hear your voice and then we can put your name on the record."

Well, that's the next question: is she actually on the record?

Everyone is actually on the record. I think all these poeple are "actually" on the record in the same way all those people in the very back row of "We Are the World" are "actually" on that record. I knew Frances because she was a Dresden Dolls fan, and she's also a Neil Gaiman fan, so we struck up a correspondence. She's a great person: she's really, really smart and she's a great artist -- a visual artist. She said yes, and so did all these random people.

I didn't realize she did any visual art.

She's really into graphic novels. She's very cool.

And this seems a risk-less move: now she's gotten it out of her system. She's made her recording debut.

Yeah, if her goal was to do it in a ridiculous way, she's won. She's made her debut, it's over. 
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