“It’s the opposite of what I normally do. I’m such a control person,” says Peaches, “but the point of the ‘Cut Piece’ is that the audience get to take away what they want, instead of the artist giving what they want.”
On 16 June, Canada-born, Berlin-dwelling, pervy electro goddess Merrill Beth Nisker, better known as Peaches, will take the stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. She will sit silently, and perfectly still as members of the audience in turn mount the stage, choose a part of her clothing and slice it clean off. She will have no control and no voice, and will be rendered naked but for the ragged remains of her outfit. It’s the biggest challenge possible for an artist who has always been restless, energetic and a bit gobby.
“This is expressing myself in a completely different way,” she says down the line from Berlin, “with complete silence, and with trust, almost like a shaman type quality. I don’t think I fully agree that artists give what they want, I always feel I give the audience so much and this is another way of giving.” She pauses and giggles, “But completely different.”
This is the ‘Cut Piece’, a performance art installation devised nearly 50 years ago by this year’s Meltdown Festival curator, Yoko Ono, who personally asked Peaches to perform it. Peaches is rather heavily involved in Yoko’s Meltdown – as well as the ‘Cut Piece’ she’ll take part in a performance of Yoko and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album, reprise her cover of Yes, I’m A Witch with the Plastic Ono Band, DJ as part of the Silent Disco, and sit for an art and activism panel alongside folk legend Peggy Seeger. Oh, and she’ll perform a one-woman show where she sings all the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, in order, accompanied by nothing but a piano. Yoko Ono really, really likes Peaches. It turns out that the feeling is mutual.
“She’s actually the grandmother of conceptual art,” she says. “All these artists I know who were doing these things, Yoko had done them first.” Yoko’s collaborator Yuka Honda is ultimately responsible; she gave the artist a Peaches record for her birthday. Yoko was impressed enough to invite the singer to remix Double Fantasy’s Kiss Kiss Kiss, eventually making Peaches the sole guest at Yoko’s 80th birthday celebrations in Berlin this year.
She says she first first came across Yoko due to her association with The Beatles, which is true of most people. “Well, not with ultra cool people who say ‘oh I was really into the artistic movement when I was seven’,” she points out. “Anyway, I heard of her because of that, then I got interested in her music, the same time I got interested in Kate Bush, who’s quite different, but for a little Canadian it’s all interesting – Yoko Ono, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, I loved all of them.” It’s not hard to see Yoko’s blurring of the line between performance art and music, along with Bush’s and Anderson’s, in Peaches’ recent career.
After nearly a decade of touring – first alone, then with a backing band – and after four albums of consistently confrontational, consistently bonkers and consistently brilliant electro stompers, the last couple of years has seen the singer stop, breathe and then expand dramatically. There’s been no new album since 2009’s I Feel Cream, and no proper tour since 2010. Instead we’ve had a succession of odd projects that have pulled together all of Peaches’ roots, as an artist, a film-maker, a theatre director, and as a theatrical singer.
“I’ve never really been in that ‘machine’, as a sort of machine,” she says, of the record/touring cycle. “When I started doing Peaches people had a really difficult time working out if I was a serious musician, or a performance artist blah blah blah, and at the time I was really upset by it. ‘This is music – I’m making music, what’s wrong?’ I’d ask, and people would say ‘Your music’s so provocative’ and people would be upset by it, and I’d say ‘I’m just saying what I want, like a rapper says; I don’t understand’. Now I really don’t care if people think I’m a musician because I know I am, and I know I’m an artist and I know I’m a film maker, and I know I’m whatever I want to be, and I think it’s very important to expand yourself, and especially with the ‘collapse of the music industry’ people have to be more resourceful and rely on their creativities. I think that’s good.”
If “relying on creativities” is the solution to the decline of the music business, Peaches should do fine. First there was Peaches Christ Superstar, her one woman version of the Rice/Lloyd Webber rock opera, performed in two runs in Berlin and then as a mini tour across metropolitan America. “I think it’s my most favourite thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I love the music – I mean, I’m not doing it to be ironic, in any sense, and I’m not religious in any sense. I just love the musical, and I think it’s an excellent challenge for my voice. It’s just fun; it’s a crazy time.” The show will make an appearance at Meltdown in place of the billed hits-set, “I think there might be some controversy about me doing it,” she explains “but I’m singing it straight out, I’m not doing a theatrical performance, I’m just singing cover songs. I’m not changing the lyrics at all.”
What came next was surely the ultimate culmination of those “creativities”: Peaches Does Herself, a full theatre production with a massive cast, lavish sets, a songbook culled from all four Peaches albums, and the lead role filled by the woman herself. The move to theatre saw her dusting off some old skills. “I actually went to theatre school to study directing and was quickly disenchanted by theatre and how you had to deal with the cast and actors and crews and all of that,” she explains. “I just thought I’d have a heart attack before I was 30, so I actually dropped out of that and literally fell into music, and realised music was great because you could be your own writer and your own actor and director and whatever, not seeing music as a theatre piece but seeing it as an opportunity to be in it whole. So it was quite an awesome challenge when a theatre asked me to put on a play and I decided to do this musical that was an anti-jukebox musical, that’s not about music but about all of it, using all the skills that I knew already and all the experience and skills that I’d acquired with Peaches.”
The show was recorded and edited into a concert film, overseen and directed by Peaches and currently touring on its own, and there it will stay. “I think it’s a film now,” she says. “If someone who has a lot of money and time falls in love with the film and wants to do it as a theatre piece then I’d consider it, but the fact that all the sets have been crushed now means it’ll be kind of expensive. Been there, done that. It’s awesome and it’s great that we have the movie, someone needs to take it on. If they want to, I’m just saying – show me the money and let’s go.” That said she’s not averse to seeing it performed by a new cast. “I like the idea – then I’d get to see it.” she says, adding “I don’t want to sound like Kanye West though: ‘My biggest regret in life is I never got to see me perform.’” You can hear her shudder down the phone.
The last few years has seen her performing opera in Italy, nailing an amazing vocal on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig In The Sky when the Flaming Lips re-recorded Dark Side Of The Moon, and returning to playing live not as a full rock show, but as a DJ. Of course Peaches could never just be a DJ. “I have a problem with that personally,” she explains “because I’d try that and I’d feel like I wasn’t giving. That’s the point – I always feel like I’m giving, and people would be like ‘When are you gonna sing? Are you gonna sing Fuck The Pain Away, are you gonna sing Boys Wanna Be Her?, these aren’t your songs, why are you doing it?’, and I thought yer – these aren’t my songs. And of course in typical Peaches fashion I wanted to make a point of how 90% of DJs who get attention are men, so I wanted to show how easy it is to DJ and mix, and go beyond that and be completely entertaining too.”
The result has been a ‘DJ Set’ that consists of live vocals and stage prowling, something you’re unlikely to find with David Guetta. “I have a performance disease,” she explains. “I started just DJ’ing, then started singing with it, and it developed. After two years now I have the most costume changes I ever had, but they’re all contained in a suitcase and go in there at the end, and then I roll it off stage. All I need is a USB stick and microphone into a mixer, so it’s even more minimal because I also do my own sound.”
It’s a consistent through-line that runs from top to bottom of her career. Why give a little, when you can give it all? Why hide behind a piano or a keyboard or a guitar when you can strap a flashing light to your crotch and wear your name on a two-feet sign across your body? “When I started Peaches a lot of geeky guys were playing electronics,” she says “and they weren’t looking up, and they had all these visuals behind them, and it’s like ‘come on – you don’t need to be looking down all the time. It’s not like you’re Einstein or something’, and that’s why I said I was going to play electronics and jump on people, and we’re going to have fun.”
As for what comes after Meltdown? There are vague plans for a new record (“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”) an idea about a piano-EP of cover songs (she’s already recorded Tina Turner’s Private Dancer and the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues). “I’d like to do one, and I hope I can be inspired to make a whole record,” she explains “I had a single out last year, I’ve written a few songs and hopefully we’ll have a record and do something fun with it. With [debut album] Teaches Of Peaches it was like, right I’ve got an album. Okay. What do I do with it? With Fatherfucker there was a lot already written during the time of Teaches Of Peaches. Impeach My Bush was ‘I’m going to write a record, I’m taking off a year’, and actually that was the most fun record I ever made, and I Feel Cream was ‘I’m going to make a collaborative record and make tapes with these people’. This one could go a lot of places, couldn’t it?” She pauses a second and laughs. “Got any ideas?”
Yoko Ono says the point of the ‘Cut Piece’ is for an audience to take what they want from an artist. After a decade of being Peaches, you could argue she’s given us quite enough already.
Peaches appears at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown with Cut Piece on 16 June and with her own set on 19 June, both at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Full details of Meltdown can be found at the Southbank Centre site.