Even if you don't already have a fear of clowns, the sight of the singer-performer who goes by the name Puddles can be unsettling. Just shy of 7 feet tall, Puddles the clown doesn't speak or smile and seems haunted by an air of melancholy.
His costume, a pale white number with a billowing chiffon collar outlined in black, doesn't pop with goofy, Ringling Bros.-style adornments like rainbow hair, a big red nose or floppy shoes. And his white facepaint is colored by a wide red frown and topped with a tiny gold crown etched with a "P" that sits on his bald head.
Yet whatever terror Puddles could inspire among children or coulrophobics is eased on hearing his velvety, honeyed baritone. Known as the "sad clown with the golden voice," Puddles catapulted to Internet fame after his loungey cover of Lorde's "Royals" (performed with New York ensemble Postmodern Jukebox) went viral last year. The song amassed more than 10 million hits on YouTube as of writing, alongside similarly deconstructed covers of songs by Sia and Leonard Cohen.
His live act, Puddles Pity Party, has become a cult hit, taking gloomy cabaret covers of everything from "I Who Have Nothing" to "Dancing Queen" wherever the clown feels like singing — be it the bars of his native Atlanta to something more formal, like a fringe festival in Scotland, the two sold-out shows at the Troubadour this Friday or his slot at the vintage animation celebration FleischerFest, which comes to Trepany House on Saturday.
But who is Puddles? Like any costumed hero, no one really knows. However, the clown does have a publicist, who organized our meeting via the clown's closest confidant, Michael "Big Mike" Geier. (And, yes, for those unwilling to play along, Geier, a performance artist and veteran of the Atlanta music scene who has also composed music for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, is, in fact, Puddles.)
Although Puddles won't talk, on a recent Sunday afternoon we communicated over Skype, where he greeted me with a wave and a nod while wearing his complete ensemble.
Responses came in the form of nods and hand gestures. Did he have another appearance that day? He shook his head no. Was he calling from his home? Another no. And when I mention my intense fear of clowns, he held up his hands in a gesture of meaning no harm before turning his hands to form a heart and placing a party hat over his computer.
"For me?" I ask. He nodded yes but didn't smile.
What I really want to know is what's behind the act. Is this all gimmick for fame? (Puddles has been around since 1999, and he was once in an all-clown band called Greasepaint.) He grimaces at the notion and points toward me before pretending to type. I tried to make sense of his gestures, and he shook his head with each guess.
"Why do I write?" I finally asked. He nodded and then pointed toward himself, moving one hand to his heart and making a circle with a sweep of the other hand. It's about bringing love to the world, I offered, and he looked pleased I understood him — although he was still not smiling.
I fire off more questions: Does he have groupies? Is there an entourage? How does he decide what songs to cover? The questions kept coming, and Puddles listened to each one before motioning for me to continue as he sauntered to the kitchen. He returned with a cold brew coffee — it was for me, apparently, and he motioned to raise a glass (I had a beverage already in hand, and we toasted).
Puddles is driven by sadness, he said. (He did this by tracing tears down his face and resting a finger on a red triangle painted on his cheek.) I brought up his apparent vow of silence, and he confirmed that he says very little, even to friends.
But getting him to sing? That's much easier. I mentioned I hadn't heard his voice, and he gestured to ask if I wanted to hear a song. He then pulled out an American flag, commanded me to rise from my couch and powered through an affecting version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Puddles, it seems, is a patriot.
And with that, the interview is over. He asked me to get closer to the screen so we can take a selfie with his vintage Polaroid camera before he blew me a kiss and embraced me in a sort of digital hug.
Days later, I again heard from Puddles through email in a note passed along (of course) through Big Mike.
"I'm just a regular guy," he wrote. "I'm drawn to sad songs, beautiful songs. Old or new, doesn't matter. Melancholy is where it's at for me.
"Talking has its place for some. But I tend to put my foot in my mouth," Puddles wrote. "I'd rather sing it than say it. Singing is my thing."
As for his growing popularity? "The attention can be awkward at times, but it's nice meeting new friends. Makes a lonely guy not feel so alone," he wrote.
Who would've guessed? The sad, 6-foot-8 clown with an even bigger voice just wants to be friends. Doesn't sound so scary after all, does it?
Puddles Pity Party
Where: The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday
Cost: Sold out