Music Features

Amanda Palmer (interview)

Amanda Palmer has rarely been out of the music press in 2013, and you suspect that’s just the way she’d like it. As one half of avant-cabaret pop duo Dresden Dolls, she delighted and shocked in equal measure, but it wasn’t until she went solo that she began to garner widespread acclaim. In 2012, she released Theatre Is Evil, her album with the Grand Theft Orchestra, thanks to a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, yet landed herself in hot water due to her subsequent request for unpaid volunteers for her touring band.  This year has been no less controversial: a poem addressed to Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and a performance of an anti-Daily Mail song at London’s Roundhouse that culminated in Palmer stripping nude spring to mind.

As part of the promotional tour for her new live album, recorded with her husband, An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, she spoke to Joe Rivers about some of the above, and a whole lot more besides.

Joe: The Grand Theft Orchestra project is now drawing to a close – how have you found the experience?

Amanda: Oh my lord. Well, I spent about two years in total working on this album and with this band. It was a trip. After the Dresden Dolls, I was just so happy to go solo. I got lonely fast but wasn't sure what step I was going to take next, and then I realised that the set of songs I had in my pocket were pretty much eighties-inspired band songs. So I went out and hunted down a bassist, guitarist and drummer, with synth thrown in. And I had no idea what was going to happen, and I'm still not totally sure what happened, except I added a few more people to my family and we laughed and cried and drank a whole lot. And we hugged a lot of people and made a LOT of noise. The Dresden Dolls were loud, but we didn't have amps. Amps are loud. Being on stage every night, being able to step away from the piano, being able to jump like a madman into the crowd and mosh every night; it was heaven. I felt like I was a child finally getting to go to all the punk all-ages shows I missed. As for the music, I couldn't be happier with it. This album is the best I've ever made, technically. I think my best songwriting is on it. The only thing that made me sad was how extremely the Kickstarter overshadowed it. I was more excited about the music than the business, but even the most intelligent journalists couldn't refrain from monopolizing entire thirty minute interviews with questions about crowd-funding and social media. It got frustrating after a while.

J: You came in for a lot of criticism for that campaign and people perceiving that you didn’t want to financially reward musicians in your band. What have you learnt from the whole episode? 

A: That people get very emotional when it comes to money and art, and that the internet is a gossip-cesspool. My full-time touring band was paid handsomely; it was our volunteer horn and strong players who weren't paid, and that's because they had... volunteered… for a non-paying position. They took the gig because they felt it was worth their while, for whatever reason; the hang, the joy, the beer, the connections, it doesn't matter. They chose. I found the whole thing very insulting and I hated seeing our volunteer musicians feeling so patronised, with all these internet pundits speaking for them, as if they didn't have mature minds of their own. We managed to put out the fire and it, like every controversy I traverse, brought the fan community and the musicians closer together and we talked and ranted behind closed doors, but it did leave a nasty taste in our mouths. 

J: It seems like live albums that are characterised by between-song talking and monologues are on the wane, despite those spoken-word sections sometimes becoming as famous and iconic as the songs themselves. Was this something you had in mind when putting together the tracklist for the Evening With album?

A: Absolutely. Some of my favourite records are live ones, where the vibe and the banter and introductions are left in the mix. That's when you really get a sense of who the artist is, when they're not in full song-performance mode. I used to love listening to Tom Lehrer records, and it seemed to me that the songs wouldn't have functioned without his introductions – it was like the set up to a fantastic joke. And I've found lately, at my own shows, that a good introduction, where you give the listener just enough information to put the song into context, can produce full-on sobs where the lack of introduction just produces a single tear. The backstory and the humanity are key. 

J: What made you decide to go on tour with Neil in the first place?

A: Well, this tour started out as a vacation. Then it was going to be a road trip with one or two shows thrown in. Then it turned into a manic tour. We're both like that; we just can't stop working. But at least we're two workaholics in love. If we weren't both workaholics, we'd have probably deserted each other by now.

J: You recently wrote an open letter to Sinéad O’Connor following her own open letter to Miley Cyrus. Do you feel an obligation to speak out on important social issues and do you see yourself as a role model at all?

A: I don't see myself as a role model. That would make me an asshole. If anybody else wants to see me as a role model, that's their business. But I'm not here to be a role model; I'm here to be an artist. Sinéad O'Connor was a role model for me. She gave no fuck, or she was at least damn good at acting like she gave no fuck. Which is to say: she gave all the fucks. She cared about injustice and suffering and she sang detailed songs about it, with graphic descriptions. I remember hearing her beautiful voice on [1990 album] I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got when I was about thirteen and realising that you could sing about any subject that moved you, in any style. She was incredible. As for obligation, the only obligation I have is to be myself and to be as honest as possible. Which means I sometimes talk about shit I see that bothers me, or that excites me. But I don't sit down at my Mac every day, ticking off a list of "important social issues" that I need to make people aware of. How fucking boring would THAT be? I'd be a like a human PSA-machine. 

J: You have a closer relationship with your fans than most artists. How important are your fans to you and how do they shape the art you make?

A: That's kind of an impossible question to answer, since it's so broad and so subtle. It's like asking, "So how does your environment affect your life?" There are too many things to talk about. My fans are a huge group of people who I like and respect; I like talking to them, I like hanging out with them, I like what they share with me, and I generally listen to them when they have something collectively important to say. I trust them immensely, but that's because I sense that they trust me. But I'm generally trusting. I just hitch-hiked a ride from a stranger with one lame arm and a leg in a brace. I held his coffee because he had to steer one-handed. I'm not really sure everybody shares my values, other people would be freaking out and hailing a cab. I'm like: IF I DIE IN THIS CAR IT'S PERFECT.

J: If someone were a huge fan of yours but genuinely couldn’t afford to buy your records, what would you recommend they do?

A: Download everything for free. I've been recommending that for years. Pay me later if you wind up flush and grateful.

J: How did you end up writing an article for The New Statesman [Amanda was one of several guest writers in a special edition of the magazine edited by Russell Brand] and did you enjoy the process?

A: Russell Brand invited me, I think because he'd seen my Daily Mail video and caught wind of my music in general. It was an incredible line-up; I was so honoured to be writing alongside Naomi Klein, David Lynch and that whole assortment of intelligent, forward-thinking weirdos. As for the process; I'm not the world's most disciplined writer. I wound up roping in friend after friend to sit with me and read a new draft. The night the article was due I sat with three friends – one Scot, one Brit and one American – and we emptied three bottles of wine editing the fucker. I was pretty proud I got it in on deadline.

J: As someone who likes to retain their integrity and remain fiercely independent, what advice would you give to emerging artists in the industry?

A: Do whatever works for you, and ignore all the other shit. Ignore the snarky journalists, ignore the pundits, ignore the social media experts, ignore the media, ignore the critics. Do what works for you, your fanbase, your band, your lifestyle, and do what makes YOU happy. Nowadays the bigger problem is that everybody else is trying to define your idea of success and happiness for you. Don't buy it; it's bullshit. And don't read the comments. And since you will anyway, try not to take them to heart. The compassionate people aren't going to chase you down, only the haters will do that. Remember that it isn't who screams loudest who wins, it's he who can decipher the pain and the love through the screaming. When you become an expert in the language of pain, it's actually enjoyable work, even when you're being criticized. You see with a new set of eyes.

J: What does 2014 hold in store for you?

A: A book, then a play. And moving into a house with my lovely husband who I don't fucking see enough of. He's really nice; I'd like a chance to chat with him occasionally.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is available to buy now.