Life is a work of art," says Amanda Palmer. "It's all art -- from how you decorate, to how you treat other people, to how you cook your food."
Listening to Palmer's contributions as one-half of the Boston-based duo the Dresden Dolls, there's no question that she knows art. But the 28-year-old pianist's manic, dramatic musical performances are just one piece of a compulsively creative puzzle. In the late '90s, before Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione began performing together as the Dresden Dolls, the singer-songwriter could often be found standing perfectly still, high on a pedestal in Cambridge's Harvard Square, wearing a bridal gown and white face paint, holding a small vase of flowers. This living statue was known as "The Eight-Foot Bride." Palmer would remain motionless until an admiring passerby would drop a few coins into her silver collection urn. She'd then hand the benefactor a single fresh daisy from her vase and quickly resume another frozen pose.
Like the Bride, the music of the Dresden Dolls exists in an exhilaratingly tense space between stillness and movement, between holding on and letting go, between weeping with joy and screaming in agony. As she pounds out a mercurial, strident mix of piano-driven musical theater, Palmer's angst, candor and humor evoke the spirit of early Tori Amos combined with PJ Harvey's rawness and volatility and Nico's throaty Prussian detachment. Viglione's jazz-influenced drumming provides the perfect counterpoint to Palmer's percussive keyboard and emotive vocals. Responding deftly and subtly to each of his partner's musical maneuvers, Viglione adds essential dimension, dynamics and power to the sound the Dolls like to call "Brechtian punk cabaret."
Bertolt Brecht was a German poet and playwright who developed a theater of social criticism called "epic theater" in the '20s, '30s and '40s. By employing alienating techniques that drew attention to the illusory nature of drama, Brecht sought to break down the "fourth wall" of the theater -- the one that divides performers from spectators -- in order to draw the viewer into a more interactive relationship with the performance. At around the same point in Germany's history, just before Hitler's rise to power, nightclub acts began to push the boundaries of morality, sexuality and politics in their performances, and the Weimar cabaret was born.
Incorporating such highfalutin Teutonic influences might sound a bit heady and artsy for pop music, but in the Dresden Dolls' case, the result is remarkably accessible and affecting rock music that has drawn a large following as well as critical acclaim. At this year's Boston Music Awards, the Dolls received five nominations -- more than hometown fossils Aerosmith -- and took home three awards, more than any other artist. Although they were unable to attend the ceremonies in person, they submitted a video acceptance speech, delivered by sock puppets.
On stage, Palmer and Viglione bring together their artistic and cultural influences -- along with a love of punk, indie rock and other contemporary music genres -- to create highly stylized theatrical performances. Palmer generally appears in Geisha-meets-mime face paint and striped tights. Her shaven eyebrows are replaced with intricate, art-deco-style designs. Viglione sports a bowler hat, a suit, stark white makeup and deep red lips. Their striking appearance is made even more arresting by the almost-visible connection arcing like an electrical current between them. For such artistically driven individuals, this band is the ideal outlet. "We get to create visual art," Palmer enthuses. "We get to act. We get to make music, and we get to be models."
The two idiosyncratic soulmates met at -- of all places -- a Halloween party in 2000. At the time, Viglione was unhappily playing bass in a local hardcore band and looking for something fresh and exciting. Palmer was playing solo at the time, but in a halfhearted way, afraid to take the plunge and start promoting herself. When she took a seat at the piano and played a few of her songs, the raw passion immediately drew Viglione's attention away from the rest of the party, and a prolific creative partnership was born.
"Brian gave me the motivation to get off my ass," explains Palmer. "If I hadn't met Brian, I might have pulled myself up by the bootstraps or found another band, but I can't imagine I'd be as happy as I am now."
Many of the same songs Palmer played at that party four years ago appear on the pair's self-titled 2003 debut. "Slide," an eerie, sing-songy piece about child molestation, was composed when the writer was just fifteen, while "Bad Habit," a driving paean to self-mutilation, came at eighteen. A painful breakup in Palmer's early twenties yielded many of the record's best tracks. "It's a great catharsis," says Palmer. "But then you're left bereft of material."
But writer's block doesn't seem to be a problem for the Dresden Dolls. Material for the act's next record has already been completed, and Palmer finds herself beset with fresh ideas nearly every day. "I lose a lot of ideas, actually," she explains. "And then they're gone. It's like trying to remember a dream."
While dredging up emotions and reactions associated with ancient personal history might seem a difficult and repugnant task, it is one that this songstress relishes. "I'm an insanely nostalgic person," Palmer says. "I'm never loath to revisit old places and times, as dark as they may be, or as happy or confused."
And so in the spirit of a true artist and like the anti-heroine of "Bad Habit," Palmer eagerly seeks out old wounds and opens them for higher purposes.
"One of the most fulfilling things for me," she says, "is when I learn that our performances have inspired other people to go out and create their own art. I love the idea that you're actually electrifying others into their own artistic realm."