Musician Amanda Palmer: Spontaneous Intimacy

This week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail interview features musician, artist, and all-round creative maverick Amanda Palmer who is currently in the UK with her band Grand Theft Orchestra. You may know Amanda from her inspiring TED talk on The Art of Asking and if you want to hear a song about relationships that will bring you to your knees, check out The Bed Song. Amanda’s latest album ‘Theatre is Evil’, is available now.

Amanda Palmer

Amanda photo by Tracy Graham

Amanda on creativity… do you have a muse?

“I find it incredibly hard to be disciplined when there’s not an immediate reward in the form of a connection. Blogging and tweeting have contributed to the death of my songwriting, because I can present the same images and ideas that I used to squeeze into songwriting into immediately presentable images for an immediate crowd. My desire for spontaneous intimacy and instant gratification is the muse itself. I’m in the process of trying to figure out how to turn that driving desire back into art now that I’ve become a full-time comminucation-holic. If I had to name the part of my body which contains the art-making fire, it’s in the touch of the hand of another person. I feel most inspired when I feel the most connected.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who or what were your early creative influences?

“I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to grow up to be an art-maker of some sort. It was there at the beginning.My creative adventures were absolutely encouraged even if they weren’t understood. My household was very literal: my mother was a computer programmer, and my step-father was a physicist. The only time the family stereo was played was at Christmas.

My sister and I created worlds of sound behind our bedroom doors. She cranked Rush and U2 and Guns N’ Roses and tried to learn drums and I listened to The Beatles, The Legendary Pink Dots and Nick Cave and fiddled with my four-track. Learning about metaphor was what I craved; I felt very isolated at home and at school and tended to gravitate towards anything that looked artistic, different, outside. I still feel like the people who influenced me most weren’t the ones who taught me the craft of making art, but those who taught me the art of being human. The craft of songwriting mostly came to me through records and tapes, copying, listening, attempting. My college years were infamously dark, and I stopped writing for the entire four years, but I was lucky enough to be exposed to some wonderful things; German culture (where I lived for a year) experimental music and performance art (I’d never heard of Robert Wilson before college) and an expansion of the idea of art itself.”

How long did it take to write Theatre is Evil? Can you recall the first spark of inspiration and is the finished work what you originally envisioned? 

“Every time I make a record, I look at the collection of songs in my drawers that I haven’t recorded yet. Most had been written within the past few years, but some were ten years old (like Berlin, I wrote when I was in my mid-twenties). I’ve never attacked the making of a record as a single project in itself (with the exception of Evelyn Evelyn, which was a start-to-finish concept record). I usually look at the making of a record as a bucket landmark into which I dump everything I’m currently doing. And when I look at the pile of songs that are going to land in the bucket, it dictates a series of choices. Band or no band? What kind of tour? How to put it out and promote it? Every single one has a different path, and I don’t plan it ahead of time, I chase after it.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what? And what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“Being in front of people inspires me to want to make things for them. If I’m in isolation for too long, I forget the purpose of making art, which is (for me) to share it. Usually, when I haven’t written music in a long time, it’s a show or event that will kick my ass into writing, because I’ll be inspired by the idea that I can immediately share the work. I make fast, and I share fast, and that’s the way I’ve always liked it. Long projects with delayed gratification are harder for me. I don’t like to perfect. I don’t like to wait. But I’ve also tried to harness that as a power, not a weakness.”

Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore?

“Creating things is ALWAYS a chore. I’ve always been terribly undisciplined at finishing things, ever since I was fourteen and started writing songs. And the songwriters and book-writers that I know will usually agree with this: work is work. Work is not fun. That’s why it’s work. I love having written. I love the feeling of having created something great. And I’ll often even love the high of penning a good lyric and tapping into the kind of creative mood where the chords and words flow easily and it doesn’t feel difficult. But getting my ass in the chair has NEVER been easy. That’s why having deadlines, constructs, albums, and demands from the outside is good for me. That forces me to sit and focus.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“Collaboration depends on the project. When I’m writing the structure and lyrics of a personal song, I have no desire to collaborate. Not with another songwriter, not with the band, not with an arranger, nothing. But once the skeleton is locked, I’m very happy to collaborate and give the skeleton a new wrap of flesh or a new gender. As long as the internal structure keeps its integrity. Making the Evelyn Evelyn record with Jason Webley was a fantastic departure for me, because we literally penned the songs sitting side by side, discussing changes, lyrics, ideas, lengths, and the sorts of things I usually never share with another brain. It was really enjoyable.

When I was making Theatre is Evil, I brought the songs as solo piano tunes to the band (Michael, Chad and Jherek) first, and we worked out the arrangements for all their instruments over a long series of rehearsals and shows. Chad would program a synth sound and I would tweak it. Michael would try out a drum rhythm and Jherek would move it to the left or right. Everybody weighed in on the sounds and feel of the instruments. This was something I would have found almost impossible to sit through ten years ago. The nature of my songs is so personal that I used to feel the need to control every single detail of the presentation. Now I don’t feel as attached to a song once I’ve written it, and I can hold it at arms length and view it as a malleable piece of art. But it took me years to get to that place.”

Please provide a photograph of and talk a bit about the environment you most like be in to create… do you prefer the city or the countryside?

“The Dresden Dolls went to the Catskill mountains to track our second record, and I have never been quite so freaked out as I was that week. The isolation of being on a mountain in the woods brought up something very dark and lonely for me. I woke up early every morning just so I could drive 45 minutes to Woodstock in order to sit in a cafe listening to sounds of humanity, just so I wouldn’t go crazy for the rest of the day. Everyone else was happy as a clam to be in a nice, isolated retreat spot. I just wanted to escape. I think I thrive on the energy of humanity and when I detached from the sounds of life, I wither. I was like that as a child, as well. I split my time as a kid between the quiet, woodland suburbs of Boston with my mom and my dad’s Manhattan apartment.

Amanda Palmer writing space

In the suburbs, I had terrible insomnia and couldn’t sleep because the silence terrified me. In the city, with the window open next to my bed and the sounds of traffic and sirens and yelling floating in through the window, I felt utterly calm and at peace. That being said, I like going to the countryside to recharge and think, and some of my best song ideas have grown out of retreats to the wilderness. But for actual living and working, the city wins. I also have a very hard time with cold weather. I avoid it like the plague, because it just ensaddens me and drains my will to live.

Here’s a photo (see right) of a tomb in a graveyard near the house I grew up in. I went there before visiting my parents for their birthdays, took my ukulele, and tried to write.”

Do you have a daily routine around your creative process?  

“I’m much more of a mid-afternoon and evening person when it comes to creating. Late nights my brain tends to be very fried. My best ideas often slide in upon waking and I make sure I have a paper and pen by the bed at all times to catch stray thoughts and lyrics. But in general, I have no routine at all. I try to carve out time when as song hits, knowing that my ability to be disciplined is going to mean the difference between the song either being born or vanishing.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it. Perhaps you have a talisman of some kind that connects to your work? 

Amanda Palmer lucky note“I lose things so easily that I can’t have a talisman. Objects of sentimentality tend to only cause me pain in their loss. But I do like this piece of paper I keep taped above the piano in my apartment. (See below right). It was mailed to me from one of my best friends after he went off to college and I was still in high school. We’d had long rambling talks about discipline and writing and frustration earlier that summer. And he mailed me a letter that was just a white piece of paper with a single line written on it, in white pen that said:

“Amanda, it is saturday morning, and I find myself wondering: are you composing a song or having a bite to eat? Joshua”

He’s now a tenured professor of philosophy at Yale. He didn’t bother with eating. I did.”

Which other creative art form outside the ones you are known for do you wish you could master or do more of?

“I’m not a bad visual artist and I sometimes wish I’d spent more time synthesizing my own artwork into my album art. I may start doing that more.

For the album Kickstarter, one of the backer levels was called “I Sharpie You”. I’d already been playing a game with the fans where they’d upload a black and white photo of themselves and I’d pick a random one, draw it in sharpie within 15 minutes and upload it back to them. About six people ordered this level on Kickstarter and the results were beautiful. I really loved being able to draw people and turn on that part of my brain. So I may spend more time refining my drawing-hand. I’d also love to learn how to play the piano for real. I’ve been meaning to do that for YEARS.”

Please tell us a bit about the upcoming UK live shows and say which environment inspires you more, the studio or the stage?

“They’re both inspiring in different ways. The studio is all about blocking out the outside world and focusing focusing focusing on the songs and the sounds with a microscope.

This tour we’re about to embark on is a postponed tour – it was supposed to happen in the spring but I wound up cancelling it because a friend of mine stateside got sick with cancer and I wanted to be with him during treatment. The last tour we were on, right after the album came out, evolved over the course of a few months and we started with a lot of bells and whistles that we gradually dropped because they were either too expensive, too cumbersome, or just plain unnecessary. By the time we got to the last leg of our last tour, we were extremely tight as a band and pretty much taking the stage with no frills, screaming and wailing with a minimum of distractions. The stage is a good place for me, I feel totally comfortable up there. But I also tend to overdo it and exhaust my reserves pretty quickly. After thirteen years of touring, you’d think I’d figure out how to pace myself, but I’m an idiot that way.”

What are you working on next?

“I can honestly say, and it’s sort of overwhelmingly wonderful, that I don’t know what I’m doing next. I have missed working on theater, and I may turn back to my roots and work on some theatrical projects. I miss that world. I’m also very interested to see where my songwriting takes me and I think I’m going to follow it instead of force it. I’ve been writing less and less songs over the years and I’m not sure if that’s a sign that I need to kick up the discipline or let go of the notion that this is the main way I make art. I may just rent a little flat in Camden, close enough to a good cafe and bar, and see what happens. Maybe sitting and waiting for something to appear is the best path when you’ve spent too many years running with two suitcases in each hand…”

Theatre is EvilTheatre is Evil is available now on Amanda’s website. You can follow Amanda on Twitter or check our her Facebook Page.  European tour tickets including July 12th at London’s Roundhouse are on sale here. Go, go go!

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Musician KT Tunstall: Desert Boots

Catching The Comet'sTailI am delighted to welcome singer/songwriter KT Tunstall to Catching the Comet’s Tail. KT’s new album, Invisible Empire// Crescent Moon, is as haunting and plaintive a record as you’ll ever hear, capturing a unique time in the singer’s life. Recorded over twenty days in the middle of the Arizona desert, Invisible Empire is musically stripped down, as emotionally raw and vast as the landscape which spawned it. Yep, it’s a good one, perhaps even her best yet.

KT on creativity… 

KT Tunstall Portrait“I’ve mostly felt like a conduit for songs, although that has shifted on  Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon. It has presented a new process of deeper personal expression which feels much more internal this time.

I’ve always called myself a ‘lightning bolt’ writer. The idea comes very quickly and strongly. I can’t schedule when to write, it pretty much comes when it chooses. I do have muses, often they inspire more than one song.

If I had to choose a physical place where my creativity resides, I’ve always had a sensation that it is about 4 feet above my head, moving past at great speed, like a wispy river.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early creative influences?

“I had pretty free reign as a child to try whatever I wanted, as long as I promised to put some effort in. No-one else in my family was inclined towards playing instruments or performing, so I was the black sheep. I asked for a piano at age 4, and took up stage acting at 8. I was a tap-dancer, played classical flute also, and always loved art. Music and creative writing always felt like a world I belonged to from when I was very small. Music in particular felt like a language I understood.

I wanted to be an actress from the age of 8, but as soon as I taught myself guitar and started song-writing at 15, I became much more interested in writing my own material and being in charge of my own path.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t dreaming of living a life based around creating and performing. I wasn’t into listening to music until into my mid teens, but when I was small I loved the Sesame Street and Muppet Show music which I still think is exceptional. I was also a big fan of Roald Dhal and Dr Seuss, and still am.”

How long have you been working on your current album and can you recall the first spark of inspiration and is the finished work what you first envisioned? If the original concept has changed, in what ways? How do you know when a record is finished?

“My new album took 20 days to record in 2012; 10 days in April, and 10 days in November/December. It was all recorded in live takes to old reel-to-reel tape in Tucson, Arizona. It was heavily inspired by meeting and working with Howe Gelb, frontman of the band Giant Sand, who produced the album with me. His invitation to go out to the desert started the creative process. Being there shaped it greatly also. He has a great maverick attitude to life in general which permeated the music. There was no great album vision, just a desire to make simple, rich recordings of live performances, drawing out as much emotion as possible.

I was also inspired by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ gorgeous album Diamond Mine. It’s a stunning record, and renewed my love of, and faith in, beauty and simplicity.

I am fascinated by the notion of ‘finishing’ creative work. The only way I can describe it is that you just somehow know in your belly. I always feel a bump of excitement when I feel the realisation that something is finished. I asked a German artist friend of mine, Jonas Burgert, the same thing as he makes huge, very intricate work. He said the same; ‘you just know’.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what and what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“Landscape and travel have always been a great creative catalysts for me.

As for killing it, being around people and cities all the time. I need space and time to myself to write. And someone attempting to tell me what to do is never helpful.”

Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore? What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“Creating is always pretty thrilling for me, but I only ever attempt it when I’m feeling inspired. I think if I had to write to timetable, I’d go off it pretty quickly. Making something where there was nothing feels like a wonderful, alchemical process for me. If it felt like a chore, I’d have to assume that whatever I was making wasn’t worth it. I do believe that the nature of the spirit and energy used to make something remains part of it.

I’ve never felt ‘blocked’ as such, I have just had to wait longer at times for new material to arrive. If nothing is coming, I leave it until it does. The longest I go without writing is when I’m I tour, so it can be months at a time. But often that long break leads to a concentrated output of work; I wrote the first half of the new album, probably 8 or 9 songs in total, in two months after a long period of not writing.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? Please say something about how you involve others in your creative process  or do you prefer to work alone?

“If I had to choose, I would write alone. I don’t feel as able to replicate the deeper relationship I have with work that is 100% my own when it comes to collaborative work. I didn’t write with anyone else for 10 years, and when I first moved to London my publisher asked me to try out co-writing. A lot of it was soulless and depressing, but I did develop two or three really cherished partnerships with writers that I love and trust, so anything I do with them I know will be great quality in my mind. I find collaborating useful if I am in a lazy phase, it often kick-starts my creative brain again.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create. 

“Most importantly, I like to be alone. I usually write at home. I need it to be quiet, so seclusion is definitely key.

My favourite writing situation would be a great view of the sea, or empty landscape, or being able to see the stars at night. I imagine a little house perched on top of an inaccessible cliff…bliss.

There is a particular table at The Wolseley, a posh restaurant in London, which I love sitting at on my own and writing in my journal. I feel like I’m watching a Peter Greenaway film and can sit there for hours.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are creating a project? 

“I’m not a fan of routine. It’s taken me a long time to respect my process, and realise when it is happening that it is important and deserves space and time, rather than feeling like I’m just dicking about and could be doing something more useful. These days, I allow myself time, and a lot of tea! I relax into it, let myself drift, and don’t get worried if things don’t get finished in one go.

I used to mostly write late at night as there’s no disturbance, but I am much more of a daytime writer now. I still occasionally have to get out of bed in the dark if I have a really good melody and lyric idea as I never remember music the next morning.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it.

KT Tunstall's Boots“Every time I release an album, I have a main pair of shoes that I will wear to play that music in. I find that it makes a real difference to how I feel when I play, what I wear on my feet. I stamp a lot, and use my feet with my equipment. I remember once needing to change my shoes on stage about 4 songs into my gig because I was so aware that I wasn’t wearing the right ones.

This is the first album where I’ve engaged fully with using image to express myself. It’s been an important step forward for me, feeling that the imagery is meaningful to the same degree as the music. In the past it has always been secondary. These are the boots that will see me through this new album.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master or have you mastered another that we don’t know about yet?

“I am writing a film script at the moment which I’m enjoying as much as song-writing. I’ve always enjoyed visual lyrics, so script writing takes me right into the heart of that.”

Please say as much or as little as you’d like about your next project and the stage you are at with it.

“It’s an animated film script which myself and my friend and collaborator Jim Abbiss have concocted. It started as a music project, which then became a soundtrack. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years now and have just finished the first draft, so we’re excited to move on to the next stage of seeing it become a reality.

Although we’re having so much fun writing it, we don’t actually want to finish it…”

Invisible Empire/Crescent MoonKT’s new album Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is out now. You can follow KT on Twitter, find her on Facebook or check out her website here.