PHILADELPHIA — It wasn’t until Amanda Blank started making music that she realized what kind of music she was going to be making.
“It was kind of silly at first,” says the fast-talking and even faster-rapping Philadelphia MC, songwriter and singer, as she sits for an interview in a local cafe. It’s a few days before the release, in August, of her stylistically wide-ranging debut album, “I Love You” (3 stars, Downtown Records).
“I still don’t consider myself a rapper in the traditional sense,” says the 26-year-old Blank, wearing short-shorts, a crucifix around her neck, and sneaks bearing Tupac Shakur’s visage, the morning after a hometown show at the Electric Factory, opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “And I would imagine that a lot of other rappers don’t consider me one either.”
That may be so, considering that she has taken a nontraditional route to making a name for herself. Blank, whose given name is Amanda Mallory McGrath, took her nom de rap from Jerri Blank, the 46-year-old bisexual, alcoholic, former-prostitute high-school student played by Amy Sedaris in the 1999 Comedy Central series “Strangers With Candy.”
Blank started making music in earnest around 2004 and has since busily distinguished herself as a hyper-sexual, word-slinging associate of such esteemed Philadelphia-connected dance-club music-makers as Spank Rock and Diplo.
You might have seen her covering PJ Harvey’s “Drive.” Or caught her onstage with one of her buddies, such as Sri Lankan agit-pop firebrand M.I.A., or Santigold, the alt-pop star and Bud Light Lime spokeswoman, who guests on “I Love You’s” title track. Like Santigold, Diplo, and Spank Rock (whose 2006 debut “YoYoYoYoYo” was highlighted by a salacious, warp-speed rap by Blank on “Bump”), Blank is signed to the hip New York label Downtown Records.
And the label has plans to gain Blank the same kind of high-level exposure on TV shows and commercials this fall that Santigold has achieved since her debut album’s release last year.
Blank also has been featured sitting on a toilet; unleashing profane couplets in the R-rated music video for “Loose” by Bangers & Cash, a side project of Spank Rock’s; and adding pizzazz to Britney Spears and Ghostface Killah remixes. Along the way, she admits that she earned a reputation as “a raunchy Gwen Stefani.”
But “I Love You” effectively tweaks the expectation that Blank is merely a foul-mouthed spitfire. Songs like the Depeche Mode-influenced “Shame on Me” and the soul-baring “Leave You Behind” suggest there’s a vulnerability lurking beneath the scandalous exterior. In fact, Blank says, her mother told her, “Honey, I think your album is beautiful, and I can listen to every song!” (Other moms might disagree.)
“I grew up listening to rap music,” says Blank, who was raised in a multiracial neighborhood by now-divorced “hippie parents.” She got thrown out of high school (“I was a bad girl, running wild,” she says) before earning a diploma at home. “I love rap. It would be amazing if I could do what Jay-Z does, but I don’t think I can. But what is interesting is that, when I started to write songs, my brain just went into rapping.”
Blank also sings in the perverse, and often perverted, Thom Lessner-fronted electro-pop group Sweatheart.
She says that band, which includes singer Rose Luardo, “is a really important part of my life. ... People think it’s just a little side project, but it’s just as much a part of my life” as the solo career.
With a penchant for outre stage antics — Blank once dressed as an order of McDonald’s fries for a gig made up almost entirely of Prince covers — Sweatheart is also an outlet for Blank’s instinct for theatrical self-transformation. (Speaking of Prince, “I Love You” includes a quaking cover of “Make-Up,” a song written by the purple pipsqueak for his ‘80s proteges Vanity 6.)
Blank doesn’t write for Sweatheart, whose forthcoming EP “Tell Your Sister” is, she says, “a bit more polished, a bit more rock ‘n’ roll” than its 2006 debut, “So Cherri.” “Thom is the brains of the operation,” she says. That creatively frees up Blank, who has a dust-covered South Philadelphia apartment in which to live when she’s not touring, as she has been in recent weeks with indie-rock duo Matt and Kim.
All that touring turned Blank into an artist of growing confidence, shedding the self-doubt of a period when her rapping persona seemed to her “not as cool as Peaches and not as tough as Lil Kim.”
“Once I started writing songs,” Blank says, “I was like, ‘This is what I should be doing. This is what I love.’ “
Josh Deutsch, the owner of Downtown, says, “There aren’t that many people who can do as many things as she can do.” The label has also signed Blank to its publishing wing and specializes in breaking artists through licensing songs to commercials and TV shows. He said Blank’s ability to reach fans of hip-hop and rock and electronic music has allowed Downtown “to take a multidimensional approach to marketing, like we did with Santi.”
Downtown’s roster, which includes Gnarls Barkley and much-buzzed-about Chicago rapper Kid Sister, became chock-full of Philadelphia artists by accident, says Deutsch.
“I started to work with Spank Rock and Santi at the same time, and that led to signing Amanda and a broad-based partnership with Diplo and the Mad Decent label,” Deutsch says. “I didn’t wake up one morning and say I need to sign everything that moves in Philly. It’s such a talented group of people who all came up together and are so collaborative. From my perspective, there’s something in the water in Philly that’s pretty great. They each have a distinct style, and what I look for in any artist: a significant voice and great songwriting.”
After Moby’s 1999 blockbuster “Play,” Deutsch says, Santigold’s debut “is one of the most-licensed albums of all time.” He won’t confirm a Billboard report that every track on “I Love You” has already been licensed, but says, “We’re taking the same approach, and we’re having an absolutely overwhelming response from the licensing community.”
For Blank’s part, she says that every time she goes to Downtown, she asks if they’ve placed her songs on “Gossip Girl” yet. “I’m obsessed with teen dramas,” she says. “My whole life is like a teen drama. That’s what I should call my next album.” She jokes that she’d gladly don a Budweiser bathing suit if it meant scoring a deal with Anheuser-Busch.
“I’m a rapper,” she says, slipping into an exaggerated hip-hop persona. “I’m trying to make that money!” But seriously, she says, “I feel very confident in who I am as an artist and a performer ...
“I’ve got bills to pay, and I need to make money. I don’t know if people are going to buy my record. So if (Downtown) is going to find something that fits and is cool, go for it. I mean, I wouldn’t license my (stuff) to the NRA or nothing. But I don’t think they would want me anyway.”
// Notes from the Road
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