Feature: An interview with Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley on Evelyn Evelyn

(photo by Scott Irvine)

by David Chiu

It’s not often that one comes across a pop musical act whose performers are conjoined twins, especially ones whose musical styles border on cabaret, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, folk and ‘80s pop. This is especially true of twin sister act Evelyn Evelyn, the latest project spearheaded by musicians Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Touted as “the only conjoined twin singer-songwriter duo in the world” by their press reps, and versed in playing instruments from the ukulele to the accordion, Evelyn Evelyn may have emerged as one of 2010’s most interesting and intriguing artists.

Based out of Walla Walla Washington, the twins, Lyn and Eva Neville, both 24, have just released their self-titled album this past spring and are currently on tour. According to their press bio, the twin sisters have traveled the greater part of North America performing with ‘Dillard & Fullerton’s Illusive Traveling Show.’” Later the twins caught the attention of Palmer and Webley, who aided them in the making of the record.

The autobiographical ‘Evelyn Evelyn’ album definitely has a heavy theatrical bent musically, which is reflected on the trilogy of songs “The Tragic Events of September” as well as the title track and “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn,” whereas other songs deviate from that style such as a folk cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and the wild ‘80s arena rock tribute “My Space.” And while the lyrics are certainly about the sisters’ close relationship (figuratively and literally), they also provide social commentary, whether it’s about marketing exploitation and pop culture. Yet there are also moments of whimsy and humor like on the child-like sing along “Elephant Elephant.”

As for Palmer and Webley, the folks behind Evelyn Evelyn, their relationship goes back to circa 2000 when the two met as street performers in Australia, says Webley. “At the time I was starting a collaboration project, trying to write a handful of songs with different musician friends around the world. Amanda agreed to take a stab with me, which I am very grateful for. Evelyn Evelyn and our friendship grew out of that process. “

NewBeats recently had a chance to speak via e-mail with Palmer and Webley on behalf of the twins, about the origins of the project, the music, and the sisters’ future plans.

1. Where did this concept come from? Did famous conjoined twins in history such as Chang and Eng from the 19th century inspired you?

JASON: Well, to be honest, the idea came out of word-play. Amanda and I had come up with the idea of a band called ‘Evelyn Evelyn’ as a twist-up of ‘Eleven Eleven’ before we had any thoughts of conjoined twins. At one point, the twins were going to be male and female – historically Evelyn used to be a common man’s name. But once we had the concept, we were certainly inspired by the lives of conjoined twins: Chang and Eng, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Millie and Christine McCoy.

2. Aside from telling the story of the twins, is there a moral to the story/album? Did you wanted to say something through this record?

JASON: I don’t feel we had a “message” we wanted to convey, but naturally these issues rose out of the project. I think that is what has fascinated people about conjoined twins so much throughout history [is] it just brings up questions of identity, relationship, ostracism and exploitation. But mostly we were just trying to write a collection of fun songs that all held together.

AMANDA: Yes, I think it’s important to point at that this record never had a “message”. But in that Malcolm McLuhan way, the record itself is the message. We are two artists who love games, theater and dark humor. In giving ourselves permission to do a project this ridiculous, we’re probably saying something that we’ve never said with our more self-serious solo records.

3. Could you guys explain the concept behind the trilogy of “The Tragic Events” and the decision to have it in three parts? They kind of tie the story together, don’t they?

JASON: That was the idea! We broke it into three parts to make it a through-line in the unfolding of the album. I’m not sure if people will listen to them over and over again, but I think it really makes listening to the album for the first time or two a lot of fun.

AMANDA: Yeah, it’s a challenge because as a musician making a record you’re often thinking about the “will it stand up to repeated listening” factor. Now with computers everyone is slicing up your track list eleven ways to Sunday, so in a way it matters less. Or more. Depending.

4. To me, “You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister” really speaks about the heartache and frustration that the twins experience living this life, but yet still have this strong emotional attachment.

JASON: I’m not quite sure I understand. This song is one of my favorites, because it straddles a few different worlds. It is about 80% a straight country song that could pass as such, with enough oddball stuff thrown in to know you are in a different world. But mostly it is a song that COULD be sung by any sister, but is made funnier – and also less plausible in a ridiculous way – when you consider that the narrators are conjoined twins.

5. Just as I was getting into the baroque pop throughout the course of the album, here comes “My Space,” which to me is such a great ‘80s homage. Can you riff on how that came about?

JASON: It seemed like the inevitable climax for the album. People have mixed responses. Some people hate it and wish it weren’t there, many people (especially the German critics) see it as the strongest thing on the record. I just think it is hilarious. It was a lot of fun to write, a joy to produce, and I got to e-mail with Weird Al!

AMANDA: And Andrew WK! And live, we get to use lighters! It’s a highlight, for me.

6. I have to say I really dig” Elephant Elephant” because it was such a contrast to some of the more serious tracks. Was it fun for the twins to record that the studio and done with a straight face?

JASON: It took a few takes!

AMANDA: Agreed.

7. The folk cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is beautiful and a nice way to end the record. What prompted the choice to cover that particular song?

JASON: We were looking for a perfect song for the twins to cover, and that was an obvious choice. It is an over-played song, but I think the fact that it turned out so beautiful and sparse made it worth doing. I keep thinking of other songs the twins should cover. The other day I realized “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt would be great!

AMANDA: There’s also “Just the Two of Us.” This song, live, has taken on a whole new level of beauty. Everybody just puts down the joke and becomes really bonded. It’s quite beautiful.

8. More of a comment than a question, but I liked the satirical nature of “A Campaign of Shock and Awe.” I love how you guys name-checked publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, the New Yorker and with particular emphasis on Pitchfork. Was it a commentary about celebrity?

JASON: Sure, it was a bit of a comment comparing different types of exploitation the twins endure in their life, and showing that the music business isn’t necessarily so different from the carnival midway. But it is done with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek – I don’t want the song to be perceived as comparing the music business to serious issues like child prostitution or human slave trafficking.

AMANDA: I was just hoping that by teasing them we could make the Pitchfork people give us one of those notorious “0.0” reviews. That would have gone on the top of our press kit!

9. There had been some controversy regarding Evelyn Evelyn, specifically criticism by folks who felt that it was insensitive to people with disabilities, based on what I read in Spinner (Full disclosure: I freelance for them). Did you anticipate such a response?

JASON: I actually did not anticipate that kind of response. It surprised and saddened me quite a bit, but I definitely can see where the criticism grew from and in a lot of ways I agree with the people who made the early criticisms. Sadly the thing grew into an Internet flame war, with both sides being more than a bit insensitive at times. I agree with our critics that the ways disabled people are often portrayed in the media created by able-bodied people that certain stereotypes and patterns are perpetuated. I think that in some ways our project is guilty of this, but in many other ways I think we subvert and challenge some of these stereotypes. Any way you look at it, we are two able bodied people who have made an album and a stage play from the point of view of fictional conjoined twins, and this is going to bother some people, perhaps justly. I’m happy to see that now that the album is actually out, that most of these criticisms have become quite a bit quieter. Maybe it is arrogant, but I hope somehow this whole business has actually helped make people a bit more conscious of the issue – I know it has for me.

AMANDA: Every time I find myself confronted with some kind of controversy, I find it’s always a good growing curve for my relationship with the fan base, and for myself as an artist. It’s not until someone pushes you against a wall and loudly demands “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS??” that you take the time out of your busy life to stop and really think about it. It’s in these moments that I start understanding, more fundamentally, why I make art, and why making art that’s sometimes controversial is a gift, not a curse.

10. I know it’s too early to tell but is Evelyn Evelyn a one-off project? Do you foresee we’ll hear from the twins in the near future.

JASON: At the end of the tour, we’ll have to see what the twins want to do next. It is hard to say. They will talk one day about all of the albums they want to record, and another time they want to buy a farm and settle down.

11. For those who have not yet seen Evelyn Evelyn live on stage, what can we expect in terms of any visuals? And are there going to be songs performed that are not from the record?

JASON: It is a theatrical music driven stage show. We’ve been working on it a bunch. Right now there isn’t a ton of material planned that isn’t from the record, but you can expect a few very fun surprises.

AMANDA: There are puppets, there is a death, and there is Twix.

12. Lastly, how do you think the twins would react to the amount of attention they have received since the release of the album?

Let’s ask the twins themselves:

EVELYNS: We are happy that people like our music and that we have so many friends. We have a friend in Hungary now and one in Argentina too and a lot more.

Evelyn Evelyn will play a series of dates at the Lucille Lortel Theater from June 8-12. For info, visit www.evelynevelyn.com.

Listen to: “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn”

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