Amanda Palmer: Cult Heroine | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

In addition to all of the amped-up insanity that has happened in the world at large, much has happened in the world of Amanda Palmer since your arts editor last sat down with her, in November 2014.

The now 46-year-old singer-songwriter and cult queen of contemporary cabaret published a bestselling book. She released two solo albums, 2016's Piano is Evil (an acoustic remix of 2012's Theatre is Evil) and 2019's There Will Be No Intermission. And two duet albums, 2016's You Got Me Singing with her father, Jack Palmer, and 2017's I Can Spin a Rainbow, with Legendary Pink Dots leader Edward Ka-Spel. And a collaborative album, Forty-Five Degrees, which benefitted Indigenous Australians affected by the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. She also completed six tours, one of them with her reunited band the Dresden Dolls. And she split with her husband of 12 years, author Neil Gaiman—but not before giving birth to the high-profile couple's son, Anthony "Ash" Palmer Gaiman, in 2015. And, of course, there was Covid. Right now, though, over coffee in her adopted hometown of Woodstock, she's dealing with the conundrum du jour: an early March snowstorm that's bringing with it emergency school closures.

"I didn't quite submit to motherhood at first," she says between exchanging texts about coordinating child pickups with the local mothers' group she belongs to. "I kept running, kept touring. My brain never stops taking dictation, it never stops writing songs. My instinct is to process everything that happens to me or is going on around me through songwriting. But when Covid hit, it was 'game over.' I couldn't keep running. I chose to stop and focus on mothering."

In March 2020, Palmer was in New Zealand with Gaiman and Ash on the last leg of a 14-month world tour for There Will Be No Intermission when the virus decided that no, there would, in fact, be an intermission.

click to enlarge Amanda Palmer: Cult Heroine
Photo by Gabrielle Motola
Over 2,000 people attended a pop-op concert on Karlsplatz in Vienna in 2019 to benefit Open Piano for Refugees.

"I had four shows left in New Zealand when the country went into total lockdown," recalls the singer, whose ex-husband, in a move that saw him reprimanded by UK government officials, left after two months for his vacation home in Scotland. "I'm not some big star with two nannies. I was suddenly a solo new parent with my kid and nothing else except what I had in one suitcase, stranded at an Airbnb in a foreign country. I'd come there expecting to play four shows and stay eight days, and what everyone at the time thought was going to be a two-week lockdown ended up becoming two years and two months. That's how long Ash and I were there. Besides changing my relationship with him, it really put me in survival mode."

Brechtian Buzz

As a street-performer-turned-DIY-musician who's chiseled her own path, "survival" is a mode that Palmer knows well. In the late 1990s the Lexington, Massachusetts-raised artist started the DIY experimental theater troupe the Shadowbox Collective, which staged productions at venues around Boston, and developed a miming character called the Eight Foot Bride, who she performed as to change-giving onlookers—and trash-tossing detractors—in Cambridge Square for five years. After she'd majored in German at Wesleyan University, the singer-songwriter and keyboardist met drummer Brian Viglione at a party in 2000 and the two instantly clicked. They formed the steampunk-y Dresden Dolls, who built a Brechtian buzz on the Northeastern scene and soon signed with major indie Roadrunner Records. Driven by mischievous, outsider anthems like "Girl Anachronism" and "Coin-Operated Boy," their debut, 2004's The Dresden Dolls, hit the underground charts and the duo hit the highway, eventually touring with Nine Inch Nails and playing Radio City Music Hall as part of the 2007 "True Colors" traveling revue with Cyndi Lauper, Margaret Cho, and Erasure's Andy Bell.

But, as any musician will tell you, the music business has its downs as well as its ups. Exhausted from their relentless roadwork, the group decided to take a break. Their singer released the solo Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but soon parted ways with her label. With living and touring costs mounting as the internet decimated album sales, Palmer turned the web on itself: She encouraged her fans to take her music for free while asking that they please make a donation of whatever they felt was adequate in exchange. Overwhelmingly, her followers honored her request and put something in the kitty to help her continue. Then, when it came to time make her self-released 2012 album Theatre is Evil with her new backing band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. The effort netted an astonishing $1.2 million, the most successful Kickstarter campaign by a musician to date, with most of the funds going toward, Palmer says, the production and shipping of the album and related premiums.

News of the phenomenal results led to Palmer's doing a series of TED Talks about her experiences with direct fan support, which in turn led to her authoring the 2014 memoir/artist self-help book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help—which quickly became a New York Times bestseller. In the wake of these big ups, however, came one of the big downs. Controversy erupted when on her website she asked for "semi-professional" musician fans who were planning on coming to shows on the Theatre is Evil tour to volunteer to play a couple of songs with her and her band for beer, hugs, high-fives, and merch, instead of cash.

With the request appearing so soon after she'd made headlines with the Kickstarter triumph, the post generated a firestorm of criticisms from those who saw it as taking advantage of musicians, and, in the end, she navigated the situation by making a point of paying the guest accompanists after all. Palmer maintained that the dust-up was a misunderstanding of the particular artist-fan dynamic that exists between her and her followers, but for some observers the damage was done, and their negative comments lit up the blogs for months after. And yet, as the book's sales would indicate, not everyone was put off by Palmer and her Art of Asking. Many were, as she'd hoped they'd be, inspired by it.

"I read Amanda's book when I was in high school, and it changed the way that I thought about art," says Woodstock musician Storey Littleton, the daughter of Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell of indie rockers Ida. "At the time, I was spending most of my time playing classic rock covers under the direction of a music teacher who took great joy in viciously making fun of anything that wasn't within his personal canon. I developed some really limited opinions about art which made me miserable and judgmental, and altogether completely freaked out by the idea of my own creativity. Something clicked in me when I read Amanda's book, particularly the sections about her time as a street performer. It made me realize how boring it was to shut yourself off from things that you don't understand at first and might make you a little uncomfortable. I became really interested and receptive to musicians who had something to say, and a lot less afraid to take risks creatively." Storey would go on to perform, elatedly, with Palmer for 2018's "The Sounding Joy" Christmas concert at Levon Helm Studios, an annual benefit for social assistance group Family of Woodstock's Washbourne House homeless shelter in Kingston, and at other area events.

Crowdfunding Lifeline

click to enlarge Amanda Palmer: Cult Heroine
Photo by Michael Murchie
Palmer credits crowdfunding with keeping her and Ash afloat during her stressful stretch of being alone and unable to work—outside of an occasional livestream performance of fan-requested songs and podcasts—while the two were quarantined in New Zealand. She does admit, though, that she had many moments of unease at not being able to give the fans more while she was unable to tour or record with her band. "I'd written this bestselling book about it being okay to ask for help when you're an artist and you're trying to do your art," she says. "And here I was, freaking out about my life and feeling guilty that I needed help. My [nearly 15,000] patrons really had my back, though. They continued to donate through Patreon, messaging me with encouraging words and telling me, 'It's okay, it's okay. Here, pay your bills. Do what you need to do. We'll help you and we'll still be here when you start up again.' So that whole time was a life-changing trial, and it's been so incredibly amazing and humbling to have support like that."

Also crucial during her Kiwi confinement was the system of socialized medicine that is a given in the South Pacific nation. "To be able to take Ash to the hospital there when he broke his finger and there not being a bill at the end of the visit—that was a powerful moment," says Palmer. "It reminded me about how back in America we just take for granted the whole state of being stressed and in terror over getting hit with these huge bills for health care and having to figure out how to pay them."

Another dramatic difference between life in New Zealand and America, one that struck a chord just recently, is the contrast between the countries' gun laws. Semi-automatic weapons were banned almost immediately in New Zealand after the horrific 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. "Ash had really enjoyed learning to fish when we were in New Zealand and one day when we were out at the mall he stumbled into [local sporting goods chain], admiring the shiny things," says the artist, who has since her return to the US has been part of a TED-sponsored program that works with inmates at the maximum-security prison in Coxsackie. "We turned the corner into the fishing tackle area of the store, which, it turns out, is right next to the gun department—and, right there in front of me and my seven-year-old kid...there's an actual assault rifle just sitting there for sale." Palmer chokes up a bit, clearly emotional. "So then I'm thinking, 'How do I talk to him about this? How do I deal with having to think about this, after all of these school shootings?', You know?" She shakes her head.

The current assault in America on abortion rights has also been on the mind of the single mother—a veteran of three abortions herself. "One of the themes of There Will Be No Intermission is abortion, and I toured all of 2019 with abortion activists as part of the production," Palmer says. "Watching the direction of what was going on in the US with abortion rights when I was that tour and then getting back to more of it has been a horror show."

But back she is. And while preparing for a performance this month at the Bardavon—one of only three solo shows she'll be doing this year—Palmer has been reembracing and is being reembraced by the Woodstock creative community she'd been away from for so long, bonding with the other new mothers there along with their kids and collaborating with some of the many musicians who also call the region home. Back as well are the Dresden Dolls, who played three sold-out shows last year at town venue Colony and are gearing up for a US tour in May and June (six of the tour's 12 dates are already sold out).

"As long as I can, I want to make songs that make sense and mean something to anyone who hears them," says Palmer. "To be an artist of service."

"An Evening with Amanda Palmer" will take place at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on April 28 at 8pm. Tickets are $34.

About The Author

Peter Aaron

Peter Aaron is the arts editor for Chronogram.
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