For Amanda Palmer, Return to Music Is Like 'Getting in Bed With an Old Lover'
Photo by Kyle Cassidy
To say Amanda Palmer has caught some flak online over the last several years would be a gross understatement. Even if you don't know her music, you might have heard she raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter — then faced accusations of not paying musicians on her tour. (She paid them.) Or you might know she married a famous writer, Neil Gaiman, and got branded a gold-digger, or that she blogged a poem after the Boston Marathon bombings that offended people who thought she was a terrorist sympathizer, or that she wrote an "open letter" to Sinéad O'Connor re: Miley Cyrus that critics thought amounted to butting into other people's business (or piggybacking on an A-list celebrity feud to get attention).
On the other hand, if you don't hate her, you might have loved her now-famous TED Talk or read her book, The Art of Asking, a New York Times bestseller. And you still might not know her music.
"I've missed being identified primarily as a music person," she confessed Monday night over oysters at the John Dory, next to the Ace Hotel.
It's a state of affairs Palmer wants to remedy immediately. Today, in fact.
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Her solution is to launch an ongoing project at Patreon.com, which goes live at noon. She's also embarking on a short, stripped-down solo tour: just her, her keyboard, and her ukulele.
Palmer first gained notice in the early 2000s as half of the Dresden Dolls, the punk cabaret duo comprising herself on piano and Brian Viglione on drums, and lately she's felt the itch to return to playing keys. "I'm very ready to go back and bond with the piano," she says. "I feel like I've really neglected the piano, the poor piano." She likens her return to "getting in bed with an old lover" and admits, "I've been running around, letting that voice get pretty rusty."
Her 2012 album, Theatre Is Evil (the one that Kickstarter funded), was a grandiose, synth-orchestrated record of fifteen tracks written over the course of nine years. In terms of production, it was about as far away from the Dresden Dolls as an album could be. In terms of songwriting, the tunes have become less aggressive, less angst-ridden, and, says Palmer, "more literal." She's aware of the shift. "As you evolve as an artist, you also need to express certain art at certain times," she explains. Her music has been hugely influenced by the ukulele, its portability unchaining her from the piano, and, of course, by the instant-gratification environment of the internet.
But this impulse to share her creative work instantaneously stretches back pre-Twitter, when she experienced surges of songwriting the day before a Dolls gig. "I've always been most excited about making art when I could share it right away," she says. On tour with Viglione, she knew that if she finished the song the night before a show, she could play it for an audience the next day. (The song "Astronaut" was composed this way; it later appeared on her first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, in 2008.) Likewise, her "ninja gigs," the spontaneous, street-theater style performances she announces via Twitter that can take place anywhere (a beach, the front steps of a building, a bar in Iceland), slake her cravings for immediate fulfillment.
This sort of performance addiction, be it online via tweet or at some random locale with a quickly assembled group of strangers, could be easily interpreted as narcissism, as a constant need for attention. Palmer has often been charged with both of those things in the court of internet opinion. But she feels differently. "It feels very real," she says of the spur-of-the-moment interactions with fans, either online or in person. "I enjoy the moments in my life a lot more when it feels like a collective effort. I don't like being a lone diva on the stage."
At this point in her career, it might make more sense to call her a performance artist, rather than simply a musician. Her musings on being a "living statue" — when she shared emotionally intense, non-verbal exchanges with passersby on the street in Boston — inThe Art of Asking
give the impression that Palmer intuitively understood in her twenties the same principles that drove Marina Abramovic to create "The Artist Is Present" at the MoMA in 2010. (Palmer helped Abramovic launch her own Kickstarter in 2013.) When I suggest this to Palmer, she nods and comments on many facets of Abramovic's entire body of work: "They're all different containers for the same thing, which is human connection, authentic exchange." Perhaps the same could be said of all of Palmer's efforts to reach out to her fans. "The whole point of being an artist," she writes in her book, "I thought, was to be connected to people."
But back to the music. Palmer calls Patreon the "obvious culmination" of everything she's learned through Kickstarter and from her fan base. It offers a platform for artists to give content to paying backers on an ongoing basis, which is potentially perfect for someone like Palmer who enjoys sharing creations as soon as they're made. It may change the format of her work. "I don't know what an album is going to be anymore," she says. It could be an anthology of songs released via Patreon, or not.
And while she's always willing to discuss the business side of things, she seems eager for the conversation to return to the music itself. "I never thought about the fact that [talking about the music business] might sacrifice the discussion about the lyrics and the meanings and the metaphors and the songs and the track listings," she says.
"Sometimes I do wish that all of the arguments people were having online [about me] were about the metaphors in my songs than about whether I shave my armpits," she concedes. But she's self-aware enough to recognize that she opened the door to it herself.
"I understand, I think, the level at which it's off-putting to people to have an artist with no mystique...but I don't have to want to be the myth...I just want to be a human being letting it all hang out. You're certainly invited into the room, but you don't have to come in."
Amanda Palmer will perform as part of "The Music of David Byrne & Talking Heads" at Carnegie Hall on March 23. Find ticket info here. For additional tour dates, check Palmer's full schedule here. See also: The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City Staring at Marina Abramovic H. Jon Benjamin's Absurd Kickstarter Illustrates the Absurdity of Most Kickstarters
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