Amanda Palmer's eyebrows resemble bolts of lightning. Drawn on with liquid eyeliner, they seem as if they could be the result of a grooming tip from a guide to being rock star fabulous. But sitting across a table from Palmer at a Manhattan coffee shop, the cabaret-tinged rocker, who recently raised over a million bucks via a well-publicized Kickstarter campaign to finance her creative endeavors, any larger-than-life oddness fades away. Those jagged eyebrows serve to frame a face that goes excitedly rubbery when the singer-keyboardist discusses her latest project.
Theatre Is Evil, out September 11 from the newly formed group Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, is the album that over 24,000 people paid to create. For a dollar, fans bought a digital download of the to-be-released record; for $10,000 Palmer agreed to paint a patron's portrait over dinner. But more than the fundraising, what's truly worth talking about isn't how Palmer paid for her record, but what she put on it.
"Every album is just a greatest hits of whatever songs are on a pile when I go in to make a record," she says. "I write when songs come to my head, capture them if in disciplined enough, and keep them all in a box until its album-putting-out time. That does mean that the songs wind up making a kind of a diary-mosaic."
And if Theatre Is Evil is a diary, it's one that charts loss, death and redemption — albeit in an engagingly histrionic, glittery kind of way. Songs like "Smile," in which Palmer moans "Please don't leave me," and "The Bed Song," a piano-heavy gut-wrencher chronicling extinguished love, give the album a somber weight. But it's a weight that's tempered by glam-tinged tracks like "Massachusetts Avenue."
"Its sort of like psycho-analyzing your past, when you can look at your songs like that and recognize the bigger patterns of the shit you felt it was important to work through via song," explains Palmer. "We're funny creatures, songwriters. We do therapy on ourselves in public but we have to keep the content relatively interesting, otherwise you're just an angst-y wankfest."
For this project, Palmer enlisted her new band — ex-boyfriend Michael McQuilken on drums, Chad Raines on guitar, keyboards and horns, and Jherek Bischoff on bass and string arrangements — and recorded in Melbourne, Australia with producer John Congleton. But there's another member of every Palmer project: her fan base.
Palmer has close to 600,000 Twitter followers, with whom she's in almost constant contact. Her interest in quirky modes of communication runs so deep that she says she and her husband, renowned fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, will sometimes go to dinner and communicate solely through written notes passed back and forth. At a recent meal in San Francisco, a lady at the neighboring table tapped a note into her iPhone and passed it to Palmer, hoping to join in the silent conversation.
And while Palmer did rely on her vast network of digital followers to score the funds for her latest record — and has used social networking to cast a Wayne Coyne-directed music video and find places to crash while on tour — she's quick to point out that her hyper-involved fans aren't dictating her content, simply enabling it.
"I suppose I'm happy to sell my time and energy, but I'm not happy to sell my initial creative time," she says. "I draw the line at letting people into my songwriting cave. To me that's where the alchemy happens and where the mystery is. I suppose it's the difference between me and a star who has nine co-songwriters. That star might not want people up in her face and live in a barricaded house, whereas I'm happy to frolic around naked in my fans' houses and play requests, but I'm not that way with songwriting. That's mine."
As it should be. If Theatre Is Evil does anything, it should make clear that Palmer's not just a fundraiser par excellence but someone who's energized enough people with her work to be able to create exactly the kind of record that makes people love music in the first place. "I hate being ignored," Palmer says, stirring an iced cortado with her finger. With the new album, and all that's lead up to it, she's done a good job of avoiding that fate.