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SXSW: All for a song

March 19, 2009 |  6:20 pm

Palmer350 Amanda Palmer is certainly good with a bon mot. The Dresden Dolls diva is emerging as one of the more vibrant characters at this year's South by Southwest conference and festival in Texas, playing winning sets, offering quotable quotes and even storming the halls of the Austin Convention Center when the keynote by Quincy Jones delayed her panel by over an hour.

Palmer and her fellow panelist John Wesley Harding presented an impromptu mini-set, with Harding playing Palmer's ukulele as she belted out yet another take on Radiohead's "Creep," along with versions of Prince's "Kiss" and part of the immortal "We Are the World," when that single's producer, Jones, let his keynote stretch past its allotted time. Later, she traded insights with Harding about how artists can preserve the ability to make and share the very essence of their craft: songs.

Palmer blogs, Twitters and answers all of her fan mail to keep in touch with the fans vitally supporting her grassroots career. Sometimes, she said, the ideas that were transformed into songs remain at the level of a blog post. "Sometimes, I think silence is going to be the new punk," she said. "We're all going to throw our BlackBerries off bridges and start talking to each other again."

Always attuned to the path of the independent musician, SXSW has become more focused on the idea of the artist as businessperson since the major-label system began falling apart. The panel that featured Palmer and Harding offered powerful guidance for artists who now must be their own engine and safety net.

But things sometimes got a little poignant. "I fear a little world where all the artists, all they think about is business," said Harding. "That would be sad."

For now, artists still think about songs -- plenty of evidence surfaced to prove that today. The writing process was the focus of a panel featuring Jeffrey Steele, Jessica Lea Mayfield and Ed Harcourt, who each played and offered stories about their own favorites, Bluebird Cafe style. Harcourt explained that "Caterpillar" was about his daughter, who was born prematurely and had to be in an incubator after her birth. Mayfield wrote a song about a random sexual encounter she had as a teenager. "It should have been romantic," she admitted. "But I really didn't care."

Steele, who's sharpened his raconteur skills as a judge on "Nashville Star," played his poignant hit, "What Hurts the Most," as well as the rather more ribald "Drunk Girl." The latter had an unexpected inspiration -- "The Accused," the brutal 1988 Jodie Foster film about gang rape.

"I saw that film, and I was really inspired," Steele said. "I thought, this is a woman, this is somebody with a life, this is a person! I was hellbent on telling that story, but finally Bart [Allmand, his songwriting partner] said, 'It just seems like this should be a fun song.' I got really mad." A year later, he dug it up again and decided Allmand was right.

"Sometimes, as a writer you're so hellbent on an idea and you have to step back and let it breathe to really see it," he concluded.

Musical performances throughout the day illustrated the way songs breathe and change. In a live interview with journalist Whitney Pastorek, rapper-turned-songstress Hesta Prynn talked about how she'd turned to a more melodic sound after her female fans kept telling her they liked her -- they just couldn't stand rap. (A sad commentary on rap and gender relations, perhaps.) Alt-country scion Justin Townes Earle began his set at the convention center's Day Stage with "They Killed John Henry," his take on the century-old, often-mutating folktale.

K'Naan, the Somali-Canadian rapper who's another bright star of this festival, closed his powerful set at a National Public Radio-sponsored day party with his Bob Marley-influenced song "Wavin' Flag"; before the band joined in, he rocked an a capella verse about witnessing the murders of two childhood friends in his war-torn homeland. The room was silent, but when K'Naan asked that people join in the song's chorus, nearly everyone did.

Just before that, he'd sung a few verses in his native tongue that turned the room into a sea of uplifted arms. "Who would have thought," he marveled, "that in the Somali language there would be a song, that people would have their hands up in the air like this, in Texas?" That, beyond any business plan, is the preservation-worthy power of song.

-- Ann Powers

Photo of Amanda Palmer by Gabrielle Motola/Getty Images