In 2010, Peaches wrote, directed and starred in a full-scale "electrorock opera" about herself, called Peaches Does Herself. The show (which was filmed and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012) co-stars Sandy Kane, an older performer and comedian who has hosted a cable access show and worked as a stripper. Kane appears mostly naked, handling a dildo and holding lit matches inside (yes, inside) her nipples. "I think if I was born when she was, I would have been her," says Peaches, born Merrill Beth Nisker, over the phone. "Or she could be my future."
Kane had an association with the shock-jock radio hosts Opie and Anthony, who made a point of treating her like garbage – in one clip, Opie smashes her guitar. This is difficult to watch, both because it's footage of someone suffering and it's scary to confront the level of hatred reserved for sexual women who aren't conventional.
"I wanted to give her a different opportunity, where she was more honoured," Peaches says. "And it was very disorienting for her – she was like, 'I'm used to being hated and people yelling at me.' She just wasn't used to a situation where she was respected." The thing is, Peaches has always commanded respect. People like Kane laid the groundwork for her act, but her sheer self-possession seems to will the world better.
After her previous album, 2009's I Feel Cream (she has a new LP due this year), Peaches worked on theatrical productions (including Peaches Christ Superstar, a one-woman version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and a starring role in the opera L'Orfeo) and toured a performance project called Peaches DJ Extravaganza. Her new book, What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches, is a collection of photographs by Holger Talinski, documenting this stretch of her career; it also marks her 15th year as Peaches.
Peaches was created in Toronto, where Nisker, then in her early 30s, had worked as a high school music and drama teacher. She'd been playing for years, but a lot of her musician friends had moved away ("we had this joke, we were called 'Weird Ones Last' – whenever we'd play a night, they'd always put us on last, because they didn't know what to do with us"). So she started making her own beats, over which she chanted raunchy lyrics in lurid costumes and states of undress. Audiences didn't always get it.
"My first review in NOW Magazine – I played one machine, so I went to a soloist night, where everyone else played acoustic guitar. And I think the comment was, 'Peaches made a one-woman, hair-raising throwdown, and then we got back to music.' To me that was a win – I was like, 'Wow, I have broken the mould.'"
At the time, Toronto had pockets of colour and activity: Will Munro, the beloved artist and promoter who passed away in 2010, had just started what would become his flagship party, Vazaleen. It was a point of intersection for all sorts of local communities: "He fused the rock 'n' roll, and the dominatrix scene, and the queer scene, the electronic scene, the art scene, all together," Peaches says. "Which, to me, made so much sense. Some of my wildest shows were at Vazaleen." But Toronto was, and remains, pretty staid, so she moved to Berlin, where collaborator Chilly Gonzales had relocated. The label Kitty-Yo released The Teaches of Peaches in 2000.
It was something to see a woman in her 30s with hairy armpits, hip-thrusting in her underwear and howling about oral sex. It could seem like shock manoeuvring, and partly it was, but it was meaningful and it was fun. Peaches was voracious, freaky, inclusive; she celebrated queerness and gender fluidity and sexual agency and all forms of hotness, in a way that spoke to people who'd been marginalized as well as people who just wanted to dance. She also appealed to the likes of Madonna, Iggy Pop, the Beastie Boys and Elastica, with whom she toured.
I have to admit something: when I first saw Peaches, accompanied by Gonzales, I hated it. The bass was so loud that my teeth rattled and the set seemed to go on forever – just as I thought they'd stop, she pulled a guy up from the crowd and got him to hold the microphone at his crotch while she sang into it. The act seemed to me like a less funny version of the Spartan cheerleaders from Saturday Night Live. I was 14 years old; what did I know? I was there to see Elastica, but I remember very little about their set.
I've come to like Peaches's music, but you don't need to like the music to respect her work, or admire her showmanship, or feel galvanized by her shamelessness. Peaches is an attitude and a sensibility, from her costumes to her videos, which you can find extracted in P!nk and Christina Aguilera, with whom she's collaborated, or Miley Cyrus, who presents a more polished version of what Peaches is still grinding out with a team of close collaborators. She's iconic, and her iconography is important.
"I'll go out, and once a night, somebody in their late 20s or early 30s will say – 'You got me through middle school, you got me through high school.' That's happening a lot," Peaches says. "I think the people who were into what I was doing back then are now coming into their own, and realizing their influences. I think it's just a good time for me."