Amanda Palmer: “I felt a level of artistic liberation that I’ve never felt before”

From years as a statuesque street performer handing flowers to passers by, to marrying famed author Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer’s life has been almost as unconventional as her musical career. The latter, traversing theatrical duo The Dresden Dolls and finding TED talk fame in talking about how she connects with audiences, has ultimately thrived on swimming upstream.

For the last few years, Palmer’s solo work has taken some unconventional roads. She’s been accompanied on tour by an ever changing cast of local musicians who she brings on stage for impromptu jams, replacing her backing band night after night. She plays guerilla gigs in parks and at roadsides for fans who can’t afford tickets, or simply want to see her twice.

She’s spoken openly about empathy, and about her trio of abortions, then later explored the complexities of parenthood and raised money through a committed team of 15,000 personal backers. Being away from a label, she’s found, is a real route to independence and personal control.

“I’m really good at forgiving myself, which is the theme of the show,” she says of her current record. “I’ve been touring for so long that I’ve found an approach to stage work that involves never being bored. If you’re going to do this job for decades, you’ve got to figure out a way to love getting on stage every night, or you just won’t last. Or become really grumpy. I like it too much to ever want to feel like I’m just closing my eyes and doing a routine.”

“Some things haven’t changed since the early days of The Dresden Dolls. My connection with the actual human beings who come to see me is a massive ingredient in my ability to get up there every night and tear my heart out of my chest,” she says of her deeply personal new album, ‘There Will Be No Intermission’. “I wouldn’t want to do it alone.”

“I know there’s a real element of catharsis in it, not just for me, but for everyone who’s watching. The crowdfunding has really changed things. This kind of thing is actually really hard to describe to people, because I think people think about crowdfunding, Kickstarter, Patreon, they think about the financial side of it all.”

Shayne Ward: “I’ve had a lot of obligations recently, and I’ve tried to make them things that matter to me”

SHAYNE WARD burst onto a very different pop scene in the middle of the last decade. Back when pop was largely a shiny, crooning outlet for love songs and harmonies, he was a fresh-faced X-Factor winner who grabbed an immediate Christmas number one, the first stemming from an original post show song, with ‘That’s My Goal’.

In fact, that debut single was the third fastest selling in UK history back in 2005, yet while writing and performing music is still central to Ward’s life, he’s progressed into some strong acting roles, too, and sees balance as his new primary aim in life.

Referring to his years on Coronation Street and a number of film roles, Ward jokes about some of his idols, and admits it’s mainly about having the right kind of experiences. “I’ve watched other people balance film and music, people like J-Lo and LL Cool J, and I figured I’ve got to try my hand at it. You only get one life to live,” he says. His acting has arguably taken centre stage recently.

Along the way, Ward’s not been afraid to speak his mind. In one particularly bold move, he went on popular chat show Loose Women at a physical low ebb, and talked about male body confidence, having gained weight himself after the arrival of his first child.

“A lot of guys have body confidence issues. I felt okay being a bit bigger, and I’ve lost the weight again now, but I thought it was important to talk about. Shaming people for their body isn’t okay,” Ward explains. “It felt like an important message. I think men are much worse at talking about that kind of stuff.”

“I’ve had a lot of obligations recently, and I’ve tried to make them things that matter to me,” he continues. The music, clearly, has become a much more occasional part of Ward’s life, though you still sense the passion in his voice when he speaks about it.

“Back when I released that first song, I felt a lot of pressure, it was a huge responsibility,” he recalls of ‘That’s My Goal’, “I was really lucky it was received so well. An original song for X-Factor seemed like quite a new idea back then.”

Marc Rebillet: “Anxiety is very real for me right now”

MARC REBILLET, a cultured multi-instrumental songwriter from Dallas, is often pigeonholed by his stage persona. Rebillet is essentially a talented musician with an incredibly sharp wit, and produces live remixes of some fairly abrasive (but hilarious) beat-driven comedy. He’s been called a ‘techno Randy Marsh’, or ‘Loop Daddy’.

There’s a little more to it, though, from a man who became famous for his social-media remixes. Classically trained from a young age in jazz piano, Rebillet has very few musical staples. He improvises every single show almost from scratch, with just a few of his biggest hits getting treated to regular airings. He’s typically on stage for over an hour, literally making things up as he goes along with the help of his audience.

At around two years since he first broke out of relative obscurity and launched tracks like ‘Reach Out’ and ‘Summertime’, his complicated live approach is taking its toll, and he’s ready to talk in a way you just wouldn’t associate with a man famed for his humour-based public persona.

“Anxiety is very real for me right now,” he says. “It can be at a very high level, surrounding the viability of continuing to do this. I wonder how much longer I’ll be interesting, how much longer can I do it. Those questions are constant, and I’ve been having a hard time maintaining a modicum of general happiness. It’s been a real internal psychological struggle.”

“You sort of zoom out and look at where you’re at and it seems ridiculous, because things are going better than they ever have. On the surface, they’re going very well. I’m playing shows for a lot of people, but the reality is I feel like I’m right on the edge of failing. The more I talk to other performers, the more I realise it’s just part of being a creative professional, and you just have to learn to manage that.”

From the outside, it certainly doesn’t feel like Rebillet should have any particular pressure. He might have his nerves, but his creativity in producing that live show on the spot is almost astounding, and his viral acclaim ever growing.

All Saints: “Everything in the industry’s changed this time around”

The surprise return of pop sensation All Saints in recent years has had a different pace to the mania that surrounded their early releases, as the multi-million-selling four-piece continue their return from a decade long hiatus.

With the digitalisation of music, different styles topping the charts and an audience that have grown up with them, though, Nicole and Natalie Appleton, Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis are enjoying things just as much second time around.

“It’s funny because we never got a chance to properly tour after our first album so it’s so nice being able to perform live regularly and see our fans, I feel like we’re closer to them now than ever before,” Natalie Appleton says of the return. “We do have our families around at loads of shows now, which is amazing for us. They’re all so supportive and we love seeing them out in the crowd.”

Lewis, the group’s core songwriter, sees huge changes in the industry since the band’s heyday with ‘Pure Shores’, ‘Never Ever’ and ‘Bootie Call’ in the late 90s, ones that have been clear in the style of their return.

“Everything in the industry’s changed this time around,” she says. “It’s all about streaming rather than CD sales. As a band, though, we’re stronger than ever and loving being back together making music and doing shows.”

Despite the changes, the process of putting together an album is still very much the same, with ‘Red Flag’ (released in 2016) and ‘Testament’ (in 2018) having emerged since the band’s reformation, accompanied by major tours with Take That.

“I think the songs all mean different things to each of us,” Nicole Appleton says, “but then sometimes Shaz will play something for us and we won’t realize until the end that she’s based it on a story we’ve told her.”

The Wedding Present: “Music isn’t a film. It’s not a book. It’s about connection, about back and forth.”

34 YEARS after their formation, The Wedding Present – under the continued tutelage of their inimitable frontman David Gedge – are still one of the kings of musical juxtaposition.

A deeply emotional band ruminating on themes of love and desperation, Gedge’s pulsating live act complement the alluring simplicity of their age-old topics with vibrant, manic guitar and melodic gnash.

Gedge, the sole remaining original member of the band, is going through something of a nostalgic period at the moment.

“There are new ideas within this group,” he says, “but these anniversary tours are quite interesting. When they were first suggested to me, I wasn’t at all keen on the idea, but I spoke to people about it and almost universally, to a person, they said ‘do it’.”

“I’ve come to really enjoy them. Oddly, I’ve found it easier this time around. We used to fall off stage and almost collapse backstage after shows. Maybe I’ve developed the muscles to play guitar this way.”

Back living in the UK after various periods in the US, Gedge and the band have ended up playing a series of 30th anniversary shows, touring in spots such as Asia and lesser-known corners of Europe along the way.

White Denim: “We’re not the type of band to play the ‘hits’ or even the same songs for many shows in a row”

Drawing on mildly psychedelic influences and living with a growing dislike of anyone meddling with their music, fiercely independent Texans White Denim are treading an unusual path.

Born in vibrant Austin – a rare liberal haven in the state – the four-piece almost collapsed in recent years, when two of the four members walked out to tour with another act. Having considered their future, remaining members James Petralli and Steve Terebecki came out publicly to say that despite a recent UK top twenty album, they weren’t sure they could carry on.

But carry on they did. Recruiting new members and re-routing their music to its original, slightly roughshod home turf, they abandoned the idea of producers, and reconnected with the shabby, garage-led sound of their early records. They also set themselves back up in their music-obsessed city, ploughing their own furrow far from watching eyes in a purpose build studio far from the eyes of record labels looking to spin their sound.

“Austin has so many venues that you could play every day of the week if you wanted to,” Terebecki says of the early days that have begun to inspire again. “I guess that helped us to forge our set up as a live band, which was really healthy. Now, we probably play in London more than we do in Austin. We had two albums out in the UK before we released the first one in the US, so we had a bit of a head start there, and we play a lot of shows in Europe compared the back home.”

White Denim are now seven albums deep, but their most recent effort ‘Stiff’ is unusual, in that it is such a throwback to the band that originally broke out of the Texan scene, and throws aside the more complex take of the last three or four records along the way.

“I don’t think too much has changed, really,” Terebecki says. “We used to listen to a lot of early 70s [Frank] Zappa, and we still do. We’re kind of all over the place, like that stuff. We don’t write for a record, particularly. We have enough tracks to put our another three or four records right now, but we’re writing them as individual tracks.”

Bouts: “There were times when we played the same chorus for an hour, just for Barry to get a melody”

WHEN HALF your moderately successful, edgy rock band relocate to another country, that would, more often than not, mean the end of things. But not for Bouts.

The Dublin grunge-pop act have made distance a virtue, meeting sporadically for fierce bursts of musical activity, and building new song concepts via a busy WhatsApp group and a sheer drive to continue. Five years after finding themselves split across borders, the four-piece return with their best work yet, second album ‘Flow’.

“Barry [Bracken, vocalist] had moved to London in 2014, and then Niall followed over there not long after. That kind of meant we weren’t in a position to do any gigs,” drummer Daniel Flynn remembers. “We recorded some songs before they left.”

“It’s been about five years since we last toured. We released an EP [titled ‘Unlearn’] on cassette in 2016, but didn’t play any shows. Barry lives in Amsterdam now. Niall is still in London, but was in Laos for a while. There was a pretty major break on at that stage.”

“We officially decided to do another record a couple of years ago” guitarist Colin Boylan explains. “There were four really quite intense sessions to make ‘Flow’. The first was in London. Then we got a cottage for a few days in Connemara, and wrote about 15 demos, some electronic, some not. Then the last two sessions were done in Dublin over quick weekends.”

“We had the stuff from the London sessions that myself and Barry and Niall had done, rough sketches of ideas,” Flynn says. “We sent them around, and they floated around in our brain for a while. Barry had worked out a few other songs in Amsterdam, and he sent them up. When we all got back together, we had the starting points.”

Little Dragon: “We’re really open-minded in what we write. It’s quite abstract, hippy and free”

SWEDISH electro-pop veterans Little Dragon have been going for more than 20 years, a winding journey that’s taken them through several disparate guises, seen them accompany several megastars, and made them an indie hit.

Fronted by notoriously fiery Japanese/ Swedish vocalist Yukimi Nagano (for whom the band are named), Little Dragon’s adventurous journey has seen them appear on Gorillaz hit album ‘Plastic Beach’, and TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, The Vampire Diaries and 90210. Oddly, they’re more famous in Britain, Ireland and the US than in their native Sweden.

Drummer Erik Bodin has seen a transformation in the band’s recent work, describing it as “increasingly DIY. We’re definitely more interested in doing what we want to do than making hits. Music has to be a natural progression for us. Labels generally try to say that you should do this or that, especially with collaborations and stuff like that. All they want is hits and collaboration names for confidence, but we’re more confident now on the way to move forward.”

“Gothenburg is a great place to do this stuff. It’s cheap to live in and has a really nice feel to it, and it really works for us being here.”

Little Dragon are fantastically creative, morphing in style notably from album to album. While the Gorillaz collaboration and subsequent tour alongside Damon Albarn perhaps gained them the most attention, it’s the distinctive vocals and spaced out, fuzzy beats that have become their calling card.

“We don’t know how to reproduce the same thing over and over,” Bodin says of their career progression. “We stay curious and keep experimenting, we’re really open-minded in what we write. It’s quite abstract, hippy and free. We don’t really think about it, it just kind of happens.”