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"I don't know if it's necessary, but I do know what feels right at the moment, and sometimes the song just calls for a bloodcurdling scream," Amanda Palmer says by phone from Red Hook, New York, in reference to several sonic outbursts on her new album, Theatre Is Evil. "It feels necessary."
Necessary or not, the screams are indicative of an artist trying to get at the heart of that emotional plane where music and feelings meet.
Yet, as Palmer weaves her way through songs of alienation, loss, fantasy, and tragedy, on stage, those voice-killing cries have to be sadly absent.
"This album has three or four songs, actually, that I can't sing [on stage]. When I write songs that I can't sing, then I'm doing my job," says says. "It means I'm taking direct translation from the ideas in my head and not thinking about what's going to be easy, or what's going to be effective, or what's going to work. Some [songs] were voice-killers. Some I would do a single vocal take, and I'd be through for the day. My voice was wrecked."
Palmer made a name for herself as half of the Dresden Dolls, which began in 2002 by mixing abstract music with absurd theater and vintage cabaret. Though the music was highly evocative and conceptual, it was the stage show that often drew notice.
Palmer's solo career follows a similar path, though the music — screams included — is all her, drawing on influences as diverse as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack her mom incessantly played in the car and the church music she heard as a little girl to showtunes and 1980s German synth bands. It's this wild mix of styles that makes every track on Theatre Is Evil stand on its own.
"The Killing Type" sounds like a collision of Berlin and 'Til Tuesday, while "Do It with a Rock Star" could fit into the Siouxsie and the Banshees catalog. It's this way throughout the album, with the synthetic drone of Depeche Mode or the playfulness of Thompson Twins, the minimalism of PJ Harvey or dark edge of Nick Cave, driving songs to surprisingly modern conclusions. It's like a time trip that lands in multiple genres at once.
"It's a giant collage of influences, and I don't think any one of them is less important than the other," she says, defending her passion for '80s music. "My teenage years were soaked in synthesizer, and it never occurred to me music could be any other way, because it was the music I grew up on."
Palmer's stage show is equally tantalizing, and her songs take on a visual manifestation of the subconscious thought that created them. Palmer is known to perform in little more than a corset — if that's what's needed to bring the song alive — or she may opt for the grandeur and opulence of vintage cabaret costumes.
Early reviews are touting the brilliance of Theatre Is Evil, but Palmer doesn't expect her star to rise too far — nor does she want it to. It's nice, she explains, to retain some level of anonymity.
"I worry about that sometimes because I'm pretty happy," she claims, despite her music's darker angles. "All I know is that I want to stay happy. I don't want my life to be any more complicated or difficult that it is now. I'd very happily play larger venues and have bigger budgets so I can do more theatrical stuff on stage, but I'm not really intrigued with being a famous pop star. It sounds like an agonizing burden."
Just enough to keep those screams coming.