Amanda Palmer was visiting family in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her newborn baby and husband, the fantasy and comic book writer Neil Gaiman, when she heard about the death of David Bowie.
She called up composer and collaborator Jherek Bischoff, with whom she plotted to record an EP of string quartet Bowie covers, Strung Out In Heaven, and the record is now available online, with proceeds going to cancer research wing of the Tufts Medical Center in Bowie’s memory.
The record was funded by her 7000 fans on the crowdsourcing site Patreon and features British artist Anna Calvi on title track ‘Blackstar’ (she recorded vocals in London at three days’ notice), while Gaiman does a jaunty countdown from 10 to one on ‘Space Oddity’. We got Amanda on the phone to talk about the record and the end of a rock’n’roll era.
How did you feel when you heard David Bowie had died?
“There’s something going on right now that has never happened before, since rock’n’roll did not exist for this generation of people before us. We’re watching Lou Reed dying, Bowie dying and Lemmy dying. It feels weird to look at my newborn baby and go: ‘Oh my God, these people are all going to be distant history to you.’ We’ve lived through this thing and we’re now seeing the end of an era. We were there to witness this thing happen and the world changes so fast; you start taking it a little bit less for granted when you see the perfected completion of an entire career. David Bowie is now is only going to be the sum accumulation of all the things that he did. David Bowie is now a finished story. And that just seems so strange.”
‘Blackstar’ is the first song on the album, which seems like a massive statement. What made you choose that song?
“When I mentioned to Neil that I wanted to do ‘Blackstar’, he shook his head and said, ‘No, no, no, that’s right now Bowies; you shouldn’t do that one.’ But I had gone to my Patreon and said to my fans: ‘I’m not asking for any particular reason – wink, wink, nudge nudge – but tell me your favourite David Bowie song.’ I looked through hundreds of responses and because all these millennials are getting turned onto Bowie right now, lots of them said ‘Blackstar’. I thought it was fitting to strip it down and make it really reverential. I wanted to find a female co-vocalist – preferably somebody from the UK – to sing this song like a hymn or a goodbye.”
You’ve said ‘Blackstar’ is “constructed like a Russian nesting doll”, which is a fabulous phrase – but what does it mean?
“Well, it’s actually 3 different songs. It’s the same at the beginning and the end – although the tempo is way slowed down at the end – and there are two songs in the middle work like a circle. It’s really a beautiful piece of art.”
‘Heroes’ is also a humongous song, albeit in a very different way to ‘Blackstar’. How did you approach it?
“I let Jherek take the lead on the string arrangements, and that was a real trust fall. We were working so fast that I didn’t have time to make many changes. He was sending through the ideas, I was green-lighting them and four days later he was in the studio with a string quartet. So I felt like, as a vocalist, my job was to take what he had done and match it, take it further and not fight the feeling of the string quartet.”
The actor and filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell features on the song too. How did that come about?
“That idea came because ‘Heroes’ has a teeny little call and response part in the very last verse. I thought it would be awesome to record that bit with someone else. I went down a quick checklist in my head of who I knew who could sing in German, and I thought there is literally none more perfect that John Cameron Mitchell. I mean, he’s Hedwig [Cameron’s Ziggy Stardust-like character in the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch]! He was deep in the midst of editing a film but recorded the vocals onto his iPhone in his apartment and voice-mailed them over. It sounds incredible; when you hear them you would never know they were recorded on iPhone.”
How was the recording of Neil’s cameo on ‘Space Oddity’?
“Neil Gaiman, star of the record! He came into the studio in Sante Fe and he wanted to do the countdown. So he got behind the mic and he did it once. The engineer was like: ‘Listen, the levels were great, you sounded great. Do you want to do it again?’. Neil said: “No, that was a one-take perfection.” They were like: “Are you sure you don’t want to alternate in case you don’t like it later?’. True to form, a week later, when we were in the car and I played him the final mix, he said: “God damn it! I wish I’d recorded an alternate take to that “lift off!” Mr. One Take Wonder hated his own take.”
What made you choose string arrangement specifically?
“I could have done this as a solo project, just locked myself in a studio and come up with piano arrangements – but I didn’t have the time and energy to do that because I had just had a baby. Jherek offered to do the string arrangements, so we divided and conquered. I said to Jherek: ‘Man, if we don’t just put the pedal to the metal literally right now, we’ll say we’re going to do it but never will. Let’s book studio time in Santa Fe on Monday.’ I needed my friend there to kick my ass and help me push the project along. It’s like any creative project: if it’s just you in a room with a gun to your head, it’s easier to put the gun down and leave the room. But Jherek and I encouraged each other.”
Was that quite therapeutic?
“Yeah, we used it as an excuse to fan out and mourn together. We weren’t just indulgently watching David Bowie YouTube clips – we were working and watching David Bowie YouTube clips. We could kind of justify it. Every time a rock star dies, there is always a whole flood of tributes and covers. And I think we do that largely because, as artists, we suddenly feel vulnerable. We know that we are next. We know that at a certain point our number is going to be up and a lot of us cope with that by working. It feels a lot more productive and emotionally soothing to spend your time trying to figure out David Bowie chords than to just gaze at pictures of David Bowie and feel the sorrow of your own mortality. It’s a little less naval-gazing.”