On the release of her new book, The Art of Asking, American musician Amanda Palmer talks to Cariad Lloyd about her manifesto for the future of music, women, the Internet and living on planet compassion.
There are many ways to discover Amanda Palmer: through her punk-cabaret rock either solo or with The Dresden Dolls; via her inspiring TED talk, detailing how she used Kickstarter to raise more than $1million for her self-produced album Theatre is Evil; by reading her recently published artist manifesto, The Art of Asking; or simply by following her on Twitter (@amandapalmer), where her timeline is a constant blur of community and fans. All of these facets have a unifying theme: Palmer’s compulsion to communicate her message – as if it’s in the very communication that she exists.
“I think art is so fucking weird,” says Palmer. “We box things up so bizarrely. One thing I’ve learnt is the message in my songs and the message in my TED talk and the message in my book and the message in my soul, when I hang out in my neighbourhood bar with my friends, is all the same fucking thing.”
I first discovered Amanda Palmer when she was part of The Dresden Dolls; a Weimar Republic-inspired punk cabaret duo that are loud and raucous, but with lyrics that could break your heart. Since then, first through her blog, then Twitter, Kickstarter, TED and now old-fashioned paper book (available as an e-book too, naturally), Palmer seems not only to be breaking music clichés but to be actually driving and directing the music industry into the future.
“I’m all for dispelling the myth of mystique, tempting as it is to buy into the romanticism of mysteriousness, when it comes to being a musician, an artist, a performer…” she says. “I think we are rewinding back to the point in time where artists and performers and musicians were artisans who were good at their trade, who had something to offer to the community, but were not special and not put up on some mysterious behind the curtain platform – which is the way our generation has been raised to view such people.
“We grew up with rock stars as rock stars and gigantic acts, and MTV, and that threaded us all together; those days are over,” she continues. “The blockbuster is dead. We will never all be unified by our love of Michael Jackson, and I think embracing that is important. However I choose to communicate to the masses is going to be interesting. I can safely say that every artist is going to have to find their own personal path to freedom.”
Credit: Shervin Lainez
In 2012, Palmer launched her now infamous Kickstarter, asking people to pledge just $1 for a digital version of the record or up to $10,000 for a one-on-one art-sitting and dinner with Palmer herself. For fans like me, who had been following her for years, it was an easy exchange: you were going to buy the record anyway why not help get it made? When it ended, Palmer had raised more than $1.2million. Then came the TED talk about this explosive awakening – and the inevitable backlash from many voices, including fellow artists. She had burst open the door on a new way of exchanging art and money and it was starting to scare people.
“I see a bunch of journalists all running around – condoning or criticising artists for experimenting – and I wish everyone could relax and allow for this era of experimentation and messiness and constant trial by error that all of these artists are adoring, instead of nitpicking and criticising and finger pointing and constant blaming,” she says, impassioned. “Artists are doing a really, really hard job right now trying to figure out the new system. By simply supporting all these artists in their attempts to regain composure after the death of the recorded music industry, we would all be a lot better off.”
She’s got a point: Palmer’s Kickstarter and subsequent TED talk were so powerful that fans were falling for her without even knowing about her music.
“You can look the world two ways,” she grins. “You can shake your fist at god for the fact that everybody knows you for your TED talk and not your music, or you can accept with delight that some people who are watching your TED talk might discover your music.”
“I wanted to fuck every man; I wanted to go to every place; I wanted to find out everybody’s secrets, and I wanted to figure out why we were like this.”
It’s clear that this isn’t an act to sell records or gain publicity; this is how Palmer lives her life. “I’ve written songs while running my Twitter feed,” she shrugs. Her clarity in her own message is something that most mainstream media struggles to cope with: when The Daily Mail ran a picture of her with her boob peeping out of her bra while singing at Glastonbury, its tone was one of embarrassment. They had no idea this was the woman who held a naked signing party after she reached her target on Kickstarter, getting hundreds of fans to sharpie her body. Palmer retaliated with this song.
Credit: Kyle Cassidy
“I never had an awakening about feminism, although I was born aggressively wanting everything and spent a very confused teenaged womanhood trying desperately to reconcile my handicaps as a girl and my advantages as a girl,” says Palmer. “I saw both in my environment and all around me. That bizarre paradox of being a girl and therefore a second-class citizen in certain ways, but also the extraordinary sexual power that you can wield over men when you’re 15, 16, 17 years old. I sat there just mystified by it all, but because I had a maximalist approach to life I just wanted to use everything: I wanted to fuck every man; I wanted to go to every place; I wanted to find out everybody’s secrets, and I wanted to figure out why we were like this.”
Palmer’s immense honesty – and bravery – sings out not only in her music but also in the deep sometimes heartbreaking honesty of The Art of Asking. “In my darkest hour I always try to remind myself and those around me that humankind for many years has put women in a certain box and we’ve just opened the lid a crack,” she says. “The fact that we’re confused is normal; the fact that we are freaking out is to be expected; and for every woman I know going through an absolute mental breakdown and flaming, wailing identity crisis about children and work and priorities and sexism, I feel like I’m constantly giving everyone a hug saying, ‘It’s not you. It’s now.’”
Palmer is currently working with Mass Mosaic in Australia, helping fans who want to buy The Art of Asking but can’t afford it to connect with other fans who then buy it for them. “I didn’t have the personal resources to connect all these people, so I put a shout out looking for an internet system that can do this for me,” Palmer explains. “Finally somebody from a teeny start-up in Australia called Mass Mosaic flagged me down. I set up a page and hundreds of people have now gifted the book to people too poor to afford it.
“I step back and I look at something like that and it may not seem very impressive, but it actually looks like the future to me: one of those moments on the internet where you just stand in awe at how generous people will be if you simply give them the tools to be generous. Every time I look at the page I want to cry: people are bartering; people are trading jewellery and knitted socks and other books. It is an entirely new economy of sharing and it’s amazing.”
This instinct for digital business mixed with pure heartfelt emotion allows Palmer to connect – at times so rawly – with fans new and old and hitherto undiscovered. “Honour those who seek the truth and beware of those who found it,” she smiles. “I love that quote so much: it boils down the meaning of life. We’re not gonna know, but we have to keep looking. It is in the looking and the striving for meaning that we find meaning.”
Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad