Peaches & Cream
Peaches turns the tables. Actually, she doesn’t only turn them, she flips them right upside down. When I first sat down with Merrill Beth Nisker, the electronic provocateur known as Peaches, to discuss her latest film, Peaches Does Herself, she responded to my first comment with a total volte-face: “Maybe I can ask you a few questions… Did you expect what you saw or was it something different?”
I was honest: it wasn’t what I expected. But her ability to defy my expectations is indicative not only of Peaches’ character, but also her work. The opportunity I received to offer my opinion demonstrates precisely what has made the musical persona that is Peaches so continually influential.
Nisker was born and bred in Toronto, Canada. Raised by parents she describes as, “Oh, just normal,” she grew up listening to the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Donna Summers. It was her seemingly mundane upbringing that ingrained in her a love for musicals, something that would eventually add an unexpected element to her later electronic work.
The traditional farce of 50s musicals took on an appeal that heralded an equal appreciation for the less conventional jukebox musical and rock operas. Peaches took to the societal trend when she attended college with the intention of becoming a theatre director. Her goal to direct soon dwindled, though. Something else was taking root: she was becoming a musician.
The artist’s early electronic work was fresh and unusual. More specifically, it was groundbreaking in its fearless brashness and sexual liberation. During initial recording attempts, she had no idea how to actually execute. “With those early electronic bands, it was like—they’re always looking down but half the stuff is sequenced. So that’s why what I did was so strange. People didn’t understand that I was making the music.”
Her unfamiliarity with the process, however, might have been her strong point. Because she didn’t know what she was doing, what resulted was unavoidably unique. Applying her sexuality and ambiguous persona to her onstage character, Nisker became Peaches, the androgynous, in-your-face instant icon who sang with a comic vulgarity and an infectiously liberating mindset. Taking her audience with her into the bedroom proved an effective tactic. Although it’s hard to believe, the late 90s was a less liberated time. Peaches owes much to the work of the Riot Grrrl movement for aiding in the empowerment of a less sexually liberated crowd. While the rest of the world responded to this progressive movement within their own milieus, Peaches made her own creative advancements. She seeks total expansion, eschewing the narrow-minded limitations of traditional pop identities. She asks questions, applying the answers to her work as she goes.
Already a successful musician, Peaches sensibly brought her theatrical background to her music career. Her shows are often borderline burlesque—replete with costumes, dancers, and an interactive relationship with her audience. Performance art with a solid musical center, Peaches’ work blurs the boundary between creative spheres.
“Melodic and timeless, her voice cuts through the sequins, the nudity, and the dildos to offer an intimate privacy.”
In an effort to get back to her origins, Peaches began to perform at Berlin’s avant-garde Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in 2010. Her controversial one-woman rendition of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, titled Peaches Christ Superstar, was well received before the production got the axe from Weber himself. But it was that performance, with the musical opportunities it allowed, that Peaches viewed as her favorite. “That is the most terrifying, incredible experience for me every single time: to sing. Just because I really can sing and nobody wants to hear me sing or whatever. Or maybe they do! But, it’s like a certain thing: you want to hear ‘Fuck the Pain Away.’”
But it’s here that Peaches is wrong. People do want to hear her sing. With the debut of Peaches Does Herself, they finally can. There is a section of the film where everything gets quiet and we’re shown a rarely-seen, vulnerable side of the artist. Melodic and timeless, her voice cuts through the sequins, the nudity, and the dildos to offer an intimate privacy—her singing, clear and strong underneath all the puns and shocking sexual outcries. Here, Peaches reveals something different, something simple: the truth. Peaches can sing. And not just sing—she can really sing. As the director of the film, Peaches finally gives herself the opportunity to do so.
It was lucky then that the film was made—especially considering it was an accident. After having developed a relationship with the Hebbel am Ufer Theatre, Peaches invited filmmaker Robin Thomson to record the stage version of the performance. Night after night, Thomson filmed and eventually they found that they may have enough footage to make something else. Actually, they thought, we could even make a movie out of this.
“There’s an incredible circle to it,” Peaches said, after I commented on the natural progression of her work. In some ways, though, it might not be so accidental. Her ability to seamlessly meld diverse creative fronts has brought her original aspirations back around.
At the heart of it all, Peaches is a bedroom musician, a girl with some electronic equipment and theatrical aspirations. She is who she has always been. But this present incarnation is likely only a momentary return to her roots. “I wish it was 3D!” she proclaimed when I commented on the fully realized scope of the thing, “We’ll see what comes next.” With that attitude, her endless curiosity only affirms that the boundless nature of her career remains cemented firmly in place. At the end of the day, Peaches does do herself. And she does it well.