Following his passing last month, Amanda Palmer has recorded a tribute to David Bowie entitled Strung Out In Heaven. Created with her bassist and arranger Jherek Bischoff, the string-led covers feature songs stretching from Space Oddity to this year’s Blackstar (the latter including a contribution from Anna Calvi on guitar and vocals). With opinion on the project divided, Palmer explains in a guest column why for her, it was the best way to say goodbye.
Two days after David Bowie died I was on the phone with Jherek Bischoff, my bass player and string arranger. It went without saying that, before getting down to business (we were working on editing a new song of mine) we’d need to have a Bowie mourning session – we’d toured together and knew what it meant. One thing led to another and 20 minutes we were manically embarking on a surprise Bowie tribute; speed was key or we’d never do it. We did the whole project in two weeks.
Jherek starterd arranging for quartet as fast I could made the song selection. Online, I asked my Patreon supporters (the 7000-plus people who fund my recordings nowadays) for their favorites, and with my newborn on my lap, I embarked on a two-day marathon listening party (wake?), digging through our collective Bowie crossover. Obscure tracks from Hunky Dory and Outside? That didn’t feel right. If we were going to mourn we needed comfort music, well-worn favorites where the strings could etch out the bones of the songs.
The light went on when my husband Neil insisted that Blackstar was forbidden… too fresh, he said, it belonged to Bowie. No, I argued… that’s the one we have to cover, it’s the most fitting goodbye. Then the rest fell together: add Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes and you’ve got a trilogy-eulogy; Heroes to round things off like a viking funeral.
This project was intimidating. Too Soon? But it wasn’t; pulling apart the music to see how it was constructed felt like an act of solemn respect. Jherek said when he tracked the LA string quartet, the players held a moment of silence after every single take. Not too soon; more like a way to cauterize fresh wounds.
I also found myself feeling a new kind of reserved-ness in the vocal booth. These songs already play so loudly in the radio-heads of the listener. I wanted to deliver the bones and get out of the way, and physically singing the words felt like an education in Bowie’s own construction choices, whether I followed or deviated. I asked [actor] John Cameron Mitchell to join me on “Heroes”, because his character, Hedwig [in Hedwig And The Angry Inch], would have cried to be asked… he (she?) had just enough time to send them via iPhone voice memo from his/her New York apartment in NYC.
The architecture of the songs started coming into focus. “Heroes” sounds deceptively new wave, but actually works more like a Velvet Underground song with its drone-like hook and broken vocals. Blackstar, we found out, is constructed like a sonic Russian nesting doll, and I asked Anna Calvi to be a singing partner. In the original its more like Bowie versus Bowie, as if he’s singing a duet with himself from either side of the grave. Anna and I approached it, instead, like a hymn, a love song. We’re not letting him go. We’re just moving into the tower of song he built for us. Goodbye, Starman.
Amanda Palmer @amandapalmer
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