Lots of artists and bands can strike a chord (pun mildly intended), or create something that fascinates and allows their audience to escape for a while; thankfully – and rightfully so. There aren’t too many though, who seem to have connected and remained captivating year after year. That’s an art-form in itself, and well-worth holding onto once you stumble upon it. That’s precisely what AFP means to her vast and ever-growing community of supporters.
From the first time I heard and witnessed Dear Daily Mail, and read into that whole situation, through then obsessively watching the videos for songs like In My Mind, The Bed Song, Runs In The Family, snapping up every opportunity to tell a friend about them, then venturing further; meandering my way through The Dresden Dolls’ catalogue… to reading The Art Of Asking, front to back, and actually utilizing the inspiration and advice I found there… onward through joining the Patreon, and finally, watching a live show last year in the depths of Wales (Carmarthen), and being utterly blown away… It’s been a ride! And an absolute pleasure, to be a part of the Amanda Palmer community – to be a fan; to join her on this journey.
Fast forward to today – it’s an honour to be able to interview her.
For those who aren’t aware, there are still a handful of tickets left for the show at St David’s Hall in Cardiff this Saturday, or click here for other dates and venues. In the meantime – without further hesitation – here’s the conversation in full…
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Hi Amanda – thanks so much for the chat; really looking forward to the show at St David’s! I know you’re neck-deep in the album tour at the moment. Where are you right now, and how are you feeling?
Good lord. The best question to be asked, always. I am literally on a plane from Copenhagen to Stockholm, feeling guilty that I didn’t take the train, because of climate change.
I did two gigs yesterday in Copenhagen, one free one to benefit Open Piano for Refugees and the legit show, and I only got a few hours sleep. Touring is so overwhelmingly wonderful and punishing at the same time. Being out on this tour and attending all the climate marches and Extinction Rebellion events – along with what I’ve been reading – has finally ripped the blinders off. I’m going to have to change the way I tour, travel and work. It’s a really staggering amount of re-thinking and, to be honest, my brain is exhausted, but my heart is full.
I also just watched my Facebook fans eat each other’s souls out this past week over race issues and how to communicate about them. That was a blast. My community, like humanity, is incredible when it pulls together and horrific when it decides to do battle upon itself.
In what ways has this tour been different to experience, for you as an artist, to any you’ve done previously?
I have never done a tour like this, in many respects. First of all: I’ve never done a tour that is so directly solo, just me on the piano, telling stories. My last two album tours had a stage show that included at least three other musicians or performers – I always had a rock band behind me, or a performance troupe of actors, or some band of merrymakers. This is just me, all night.
The show is long: if I have no curfew it clocks in at about four hours. I had to shave it down to three last night and it was frustrating. And this is the first show I’ve done that has an actual setlist and shape – the stories behind and in-between the songs intertwine, there’s a plot. I have yet to sit down and script the show on paper, but after improvising and shaping it over the course of about 50 performances, I’ve pretty much got all four hours of it scripted in my head, sort of like a stand-up show. And it is, to be honest, very fucking funny. And dark. Of course.
Despite your outward confidence and ability to put on an unforgettable show, you’re also consistently very open about your own struggles and uncertainties. What’s been something significant that you’ve discovered or learned about yourself while travelling and performing for There Will Be No Intermission?
Oh Jesus. Well: the above Facebook devolution was due to my careless choice to keep the N-word in the 2007 song Guitar Hero when I dragged it out of the back catalogue to play it at Bataclan in Paris the other night, after talking about Columbine (short story: the word is spouted by a fictional video-game-obsessed terrorist in the song).
Not altering the lyric was an insensitive and stupid mistake (I apologized to the community; it could have so easily just been left out, and I’ll certainly drop it or alter it in the future) but the more important rug it seemed to pull up in my community was shocking. People starting seriously tearing each other’s throats out online over the issue, and my entire team was standing in the middle, trying to figure out how to facilitate a space where people of colour didn’t feel unsafe and people who were shouting “Racism doesn’t actually exist!! it’s a construct!!” weren’t just being deleted.
Racism is real and systemic, it exists everywhere, and artists and communities are having to wake up to certain uncomfortable truths. I find myself really wondering what I can do to help that isn’t just posturing or lip service. This is something I’ve come across again and again in this job I’ve been doing for twenty years now. Sometimes the artist has a learning curve or wake-up call, and sometimes the community must, too: it has to have its own come-to-Jesus moments where it has to stop and take stock.
Unfortunately, any music/fan community right now is very reflective of the whole internet: the loud extremists on all sides tend to bully, gaslight, harass and monopolize the others and derail the train of progress and real conversation, and the more reflective nuance and learning goes out the fucking window.
And that’s just THIS WEEK, my friend. There have been some really heavy moments of reflection and chaos on this tour. My show in Portland, Oregon devolved into chaos when an audience member shouted out her strong disagreement with what I was literally saying on stage (about compassion, and who deserves it). The entire audience started yelling. I just sat down and let them all scream for a while and then I picked up the mic and said: “This isn’t going to get solved this way. Let me finish the show. Question time LATER.” It was fine, it was funny. A few people have left the show and apologized to me for feeling too overwhelmed. I tell them never to apologize. That the show is doing its work, and the audience’s job is to know how to self-care.
So, yes. The show is stirring up a lot of strong feelings, that’s for sure. 99% of them are positive, even though there are moments of pure chaos.
You are, by far, one of the most engaging and striking performers of our time – partly because you’re so willing to completely succumb to the moment and lose yourself in the music. Was this something you built up over the years, or have you always been naturally able to commit and be vulnerable on stage?
Oh no – this has been learned over decades of performing. I would say it took me a good ten years to shed every last ounce of stage fright I grew up with. Then performing became a more enjoyable playground.
It also reflects my audience. My audience has grown with me and understands and trusts me, for the most part. The closer we become, the more comfortable I feel sharing my vulnerabilities. I don’t think I could have been this raw and honest with my crowd ten years ago. But they’ve seen me go through a lot, and there is a lot I don’t have to prove or explain. We can just get straight to it.
I still get occasional jitters when I need to memorize really difficult piano or play with a famous symphony or whatever, but I know I’m going to die, so I honestly have a hard time taking anything too seriously. I mean, why? But that, again, isn’t something I showed up with. I learned it.
Is there a broader meaning to the term There Will Be No Intermission, and does it bother you if people misinterpret or misunderstand your artistic intentions?
Ha. A lot of people have misunderstood me and misinterpreted my artistic intentions, but this album title isn’t one of them. It is – like all my favourite album and song titles – highly interpretable and multi-faceted.
You’ve talked quite honestly about your difficulties getting coverage for the recent album. Obviously with the rise of Patreon though, and the lack of need for a middle man, you’ve got a much more direct relationship with your fans. If you could change one thing about the modern music world, what would it be, and why?
I would change the cultural assumption, especially in America, that art is an unnecessary luxury. The idea that money should be spent on almost everything else first – with funding and resources for art and journalism about art coming in last place – is a real black mark on our era. The culture that trashes its artists and its own artistic integrity is a culture in decline.
Do you think about where you’ll be in five or ten years, or do you live on a shorter term pathway? If the former – where do you picture yourself a few years down the line?
This is becoming a really hard question because of climate change. Neil and I have decided to settle in New York, but Neil doesn’t actually want to live in New York: he wants to live in the UK. And we obviously don’t want to break our family apart. Neil is like: “Let’s move to a remote island in Scotland or New Zealand where there are no guns!” I’m like: “Guns can move around just like people and how safe do you really think you’ll be on a Scottish Island with zero community support and no survival skills!?”.
The arguments and the fundamental fears and deep-rooted defenses that appear during these moments are tragically hilarious. Our skills are so woefully inadequate if the shit really hits the fan. We can use a million apps, but neither of us could survive in the woods for three weeks. So, with the climate crisis in full swing, we are going to have to rethink a lot of things. Especially how – and where – we are going to raise our kid, and everything is up in the air at the moment and we are trying to find the best compromises.
Since getting involved with the climate strikes and meet ups across the globe, what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve made in your daily life, that you can recommend to others in order to create a cleaner, brighter future?
I’ve been moving towards a more vegan diet (I was non meat-eating for twenty years but then started to eat meat when I was pregnant because I was dangerously anaemic; I’ve cut it out again). I’m looking into ways that my musician community can start offsetting the carbon impact of touring, in ways that our fans can actively support. I’m thinking about how to structure my team and business in a way that puts the climate in the centre as one of the largest priorities, especially when we need to tour and travel. And I’m trying to support the people I know who are on the frontlines. Sometimes the biggest tool I have is just as a news channel, and I like handing the mic over to the experts.
Do you remember the first show you ever played in the UK? What have you noticed that has changed significantly since then?
Ha! Oh wow – yeah. It was at Madame Jojo’s in Soho. RIP. That may have been the first Dresden Dolls show overseas, come to think of it. And I remember feeling the energy of the London crowd and thinking: yep, these are our people. Unapologetic, loving, over-enthusiastic art weirdos. That’s still my core group in London. That show probably had 100 people at it. The Dresden Dolls just played to an audience of 6,000 in London for a show that sold out in a day. But it’s still the same fundamental group.
That’s the nice thing about being on the fringes of society and never being picked up as the band of the week by the NME or Pitchfork or whatever. We never went stratospheric, we just grow and grow and grow. There are 3,600 people coming to my show in London – it’s sold out – and The Guardian still won’t cover my album, tour dates or send a reviewer to the show. It’s depressing to say the least, considering they’ve covered me for years and I’ve written for the paper. The current music editor there has written negative things about me in the past, so it’s just the luck of the draw.
However, I think that’s actually a beautiful reflection of how art and people power can triumph over the power that media – especially within feminist media, where there’s a lot of petty grievances and cat-fighting – can have over artists of all genders in all genres. Feeling grumpy about The Guardian wound up being a lemonade moment, and led to this amazing new era on my Patreon: we decided to just hire a really great journalist and photojournalist team and bring them on the road with me to do long-form pieces on the tour and the community. Those three pieces will bring over $50k of income into my Patreon. About $25k of that will get paid to cover the travel and salaries of the two journalists. The rest will go back into my general touring, staff and office costs. Not every musician’s community would green light this, but mine did. My community has gotten fundamentally on board to give two hard-working journalists a chance to earn a salary for a full three months, and it’s a real trust-fall and feels like a coup of sorts.
Media not working out for you? Make your own media! Hire the journalists who are genius writers but don’t want to work for the Man! Hire voices that need amplifying! Given everything I’m learning, I am really excited to take all this money and resource-power and hand these writing opportunities to people – especially minorities, feminists, climate warriors – who won’t be forced to focus on ad revenue and clicks, and instead can focus on making serious, no-holds-barred, un-filtered and thoughtful content that doesn’t have to answer to viral-games or profit-driven bosses upstairs.
What comes to mind if you’re asked to name the single most powerful or memorable moment from the tour?
Berlin gave me a ten-minute standing ovation, and I unexpectedly broke down weeping. Full on ugly-crying. That’s a moment I’ll probably think about when I’m dying.
Have you had much chance to chat with people with different political or social views on this tour, and if so, what advice could you give to those who struggle to find common ground or to strike up a conversation about the bigger issues; without it spiraling downwards into an argument?
Lead with compassion. Listen. If you find yourself getting frustrated, it’s okay to take a break and come back. Remember you can talk to anyone, about anything, without yelling at them. Rage is useful, but not when it drowns attempts at progress. Pick your moments, pick your battles, and see the humanity in everybody.
Also, remember that Facebook and most social media platforms aren’t designed for nuanced conversation. It’s a design flaw full of potholes. Don’t fall in.
If you could sit down to lunch with anyone at all, past or present, who would you invite, and what would you ask them about?
Oh shit. One person? I’d like my Scottish grandmother, Christina, back for a second. I’d like to talk to her about her childhood in Scotland, and what it felt like being married to my closeted English grandfather from Kent for all those years, what it was like to raise my mom, and I’d like to ask whether she ever had an abortion or a miscarriage. I’d imagine if she did, it was kept under wraps.
If you had to choose one song from throughout time that you wish you could have written, which would it be, and why?
Jeez. That feels like stealing. I can’t do it.
What are you the most optimistic about for 2020 and beyond?
Everything. Literally. Everything.
If you could only perform one song from the new album, for a brand new audience, which would it be, and why?
I’ve had to make that decision. It’s an easy one. The Ride. It encompasses the alpha and omega of the record.
What advice would you give to the introverted artists and musicians who haven’t worked out how to build or find their audience yet?
Face your fears and remember that feeling the fear is part of the process. Befriend it. It’s going to be scary for a while until it’s not. You just have to keep on doing it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I love you. Thanks for asking real questions.
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A massive thank-you to Amanda for offering up her time & insight. Can’t wait for the show in Cardiff. See you there!
Header photo by Kenny Mathieson. Grab the album There Will Be No Intermission via iTunes. Find & follow Amanda Palmer on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram or visit her Website. Check out the community & extras you can get by supporting over on Patreon.