Puddles, a nearly 7-foot-tall sad clown from Atlanta with a mellifluous baritone voice best known for singing Lorde's hit single "Royals" in a viral YouTube video, won't talk to me on the phone. Instead, Puddles' publicist refers me to Big Mike, Puddles' right-hand man of sorts.
It turns out Puddles hardly says a word except in song, to reporters or anyone else. "We speak occasionally, privately," Big Mike says. I ask Big Mike why his friend stays so quiet.
"The world's kind of noisy enough already. Possibly that could be it," Big Mike says. "I think he's also just a little bit on the bashful side."
It's worth noting that Big Mike — full name Michael Geier, a veteran of the Atlanta music scene and a sometimes-composer for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim nighttime block — is 6'8" and sings baritone, and I would hazard to guess that the two have never been seen in a room together.
Recently, in a story for Grantland, writer Justin Heckert spent two weeks following Big Mike around town hoping to land an interview with Puddles. Big Mike kept stringing Heckert along, at one point texting him to announce that Puddles had a mission for him, then following up with another text: "No go. Location was compromised by itchy characters."
A lot of reporters want to talk to Puddles because he sang "Royals" in a YouTube video with a New York ensemble called Postmodern Jukebox, and that video has earned more than 6 million views since it was posted on Halloween 2013. And by "sang," we mean to say that Puddles ripped the song apart, painted a big black frown on its face, and resurrected it in his own image. With Puddles nearly eclipsing the backing band as the camera operator struggles to fit him in the frame, the performance is mildly frightening and emotionally turbulent. When he finishes singing, before the band even stops playing, he whirls around the room, grabs his lantern and briefcase, and storms out the door.
Puddles' plight appears first as farce, then as tragedy. He is beloved in certain Atlanta bars for showing up at random and belting out the hits, and he books the occasional out-of-state paying gig. He is also quite popular on Facebook and Instagram, where he is known as Puddles Pity Party ("He likes to take pictures," Big Mike explains). But for the most part, no one really knows the man behind the face paint.
I ask Big Mike what, if anything, makes Puddles happy.
"Happy is a funny word, because I think happy is good, but happy is almost a superficial sensation. I don't think happy really happens," Big Mike says. "When you look at something epic and beautiful, it takes your breath away. It's a positive thing, but it can also stir up other kinds of emotions. It can be overwhelming, it can be scary, there could be a melancholy sort of quality to it. Imagine somebody looking at the ocean for the first time, or imagine the first time an astronaut goes into space. What would that feeling be like? It would be this great feeling, but I wouldn't call it happy."
Seeing Puddles perform is a little like watching a storm roll in, only the thunder is his voice and the rain drops are tears and gobs of snot. He usually keeps a box of tissues at the front of the stage, just in case.
Not everyone's a fan, though. Puddles' scowling visage no doubt haunts the dreams of many an Atlanta coulrophobe who just went out for a quiet night at the bar. Recently, for a Valentine's Day show with the Oregon Symphony, Portland chanteuse Storm Large invited Puddles to join her onstage for a song. The Oregonian's music critic was not amused. "Elsewhere, a gag involving a stalker clown, who joined for Elvis Costello's 'I Want You,' fondling his costume's furry buttons all the while, was more uncomfortable than edgy," he wrote.
Puddles isn't asking you to love him, though. As best as Big Mike can tell, his clown friend doesn't expect any particular reaction from his audiences. I ask if the act is directed at adults or children, and Mike replies, "Neither." Puddles sings for his own private reasons.
"It's like giving everybody a chance ... It's sort of like, 'I don't know you guys, so let's see how this is gonna shake out.' There's an excitement there, there's a little bit of afraid, but it's not a phobia thing obviously. So let's start fresh every time. That's just the way it sort of seems to me," Big Mike says. "I've never ever discussed this thing with Puddles before. There's no questions. We don't have that kind of relationship."
It's OK to laugh at Puddles' moping demeanor. It's OK to write him off as an affront to the time-honored clowning profession. But maybe he wants to teach us something. Maybe, if anything, it's that you're not alone when you're sad. Or maybe it's that you don't have to paint a smile on just to save face.