Amanda Palmer | Interview
Just sometimes, it must be hard being Amanda Palmer. Not a story goes past without the word ‘controversial’ tagged alongside her name, and reports of the singer’s actions are invariably put on a par – at best – with her music. It’s a self perpetuating problem, too: the talking points just seem to keep coming. Given the chance to talk to the former Dresden Doll, we feel we’d be neglecting a huge part of Amanda’s being by not exploring her topical side: her Boston Marathon bombing poem, that TED talk, or the infamous Kickstarter campaign and its fallout. Hell, judging by Palmer’s recent, wonderful reaction to the Daily Mail’s report on her boobs at Glastonbury (which, sadly, took place just after our interview), the music and the controversy actually become the same every so often. Perhaps that’s even when the singer is at her best.
Her feelings about the non-musical side come out in her interviews, too. Ask Palmer about her art or her music and responses are extended, detailed and friendly. Ask her about her relationship with the internet (“Do you love it or hate it?” “Both”…), or the media world’s determined and faltering attempts to pin her down (“I just do what I feel like doing, I follow my impulses, and I’m easily bored. Do you want to pin me down? If you do, maybe it’s not my problem”), and she becomes a touch abrasive, but, dare we say it, bang on the money. In a world where many major artists are trained to deal impassively with the media, and some scrape through interviews offering all the insight you might gain from reading the press kit biography and hazarding a guess, Palmer’s hugely refreshing. We love her for it.
You suspect that unpredictable flair sneaks through into her artistry, too. The manic Do It Like A Rockstar video, for example, sounds like it was almost made up on the spot. Much like Palmer’s unpredictable live shows and one-off songs, perhaps it was better that way. “It was really nuts, actually”, she recalls. “I was originally supposed to film that clip with Kevin Smith, who committed but then had to pull out for reasons I’ll never know. So I thought about who else would be an awesome director, and I asked Wayne Coyne, who blew my mind and said yes. We went down to Oklahoma city having absolutely no idea what was going to happen, except for the treatment I’d loosely written, and the whole day wound up being a giant improv. Which luckily worked. You win some and you lose some. That one was a fucking winner.” It certainly was, but what fascinates about Palmer is also lobbed into that particular answer: a huge part of her personality lies in risk. Quite simply, in an industry where risk is already at a terrifying high, she goes out there and pointedly makes the odds still higher. Clearly, she’s prepared to lose.
That quality inspires tremendous loyalty, as do many of her other actions. Palmer signs autographs after every single show, for example, arguing despite her fame, that “Things haven’t changed in scale THAT much from five or ten years ago. I sign after every show until people have everything they need. When I hit London and the venue capacity is 3,000 people, it just takes longer. But I still do it and try to give everybody a personal thank you for coming.” It’s simple, sure, but in a way that’s all too rare amongst today’s stars.
The stage show certainly helps, too, drenched in a heady theatricality that Palmer sees as a perfectly natural part of her identity. “I think I just write theatrically”, she explains. “I don’t separate music and theatre, in my head. In fact, you could blame MTV for that. I grew up seeing performers delivering their music with a heavy dose of theatre, and I never saw a difference. I think the very idea of “theatrical” is funny. People have strange ideas of what that means. In my opinion, The Doors were totally theatrical. But they usually don’t get categorized that way – since the costumes weren’t flamboyant.” Palmer certainly is flamboyant, and never, ever dull.
Art, we suppose, is art, and that’s certainly the way Palmer seems to see it. With such a positive, emotive outlook, money almost seems like something that’ll get in the way, but it’s also turned out to be Palmer’s area of greatest criticism over the past few years. If you follow crowdsourcing as a new artistic principle, you’re almost certain to have come across Palmer’s huge highs and lows: the unprecedented income generated for oddly-titled (given her love of the art) release ‘Theatre Is Evil’, and the voluminous negative press that haunted her when she initially hired unpaid musicians to perform the album with her.
Money, in fact, remains something of a sore point, both to Palmer’s listeners and the lady herself. “I think money and people’s feelings about money are really complicated especially around ART, and especially in a time of economic panic. I just try not to take shit too personally, and I try to focus on the important part: making things. Explaining myself ad nauseum is a waste of energy and will, if I keep doing it, suck the very life out of me.” Indeed.
Another aspect of the industry that Palmer seems to have become analogous with is a fan-based form of marketing. In the Twitter era, there’s a fine line between promoting yourself and over-exposing yourself, one that’s often blurred heavily alongside a need to pass opinion. “I am hyper-aware of myself as an art object and I’m hyper-aware of myself as a community-connector, and sometimes it’s fun to use my own image and my own body to convey meaning”, Palmer explains. “And if it isn’t fun, I don’t do it. I don’t like to feel enslaved…not by people, or by the machine in my hand filled with people. Sometimes I’m consciously marketing, like when I’m tweeting ‘HEY THESE ARE THE NEW TOUR DATES’ surely more than when I’m discussing my feelings once I get on that tour. But I understand that you could look at things in a really cold, mercenary way and say ‘It’s all marketing, all of this energy spent is just money in the bank’. But you could look at any romantic relationship that way and tear it apart the same way. I think one of the problems with artists nowadays is that they’re so AFRAID to be seen ‘marketing’ that they shy away from basic, natural shit, like sharing information. Sharing information is just that.”
The open approach, though, can lead to sizeable fall out, like with the singer’s angled poem on Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Speaking of the poem, she suggests “regret is the enemy of love, so I don’t have any regrets. It said a lot about the level of hate and violence that is acceptable nowadays, and I was really sad to see it, whether I was the subject of the discussion or not.” She’s right about the abuse, of course, but equally it’s hard not to ponder what kind of response Palmer expected from a sympathetic poem on a recent terrorist attacker. Those missteps – regretted or not – have become part of a kind of open-doored enigma.
Palmer’s clearly intelligent, often provocative and there is a certain sense she’s playing to the gallery sometimes. Why wouldn’t she? It’s not all a love in, though. The media circus doesn’t always do it for her: she uses the words ‘horror’ and ‘amazing’ as sharp contrasts, to describe the product and the change. What she likes, of course, is the chaos of the media’s changing world. “I view the media with horror”, she argues, “The Media is freaking out as much as everybody else, as they scramble to figure out how we’re going to all exist into the future. And who will have control is in the balance right now. It’s amazing.”
Palmer’s own future is equally uncertain, and to tell the truth, we’d be disappointed if she were to lay it out for us. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t. “I don’t know. I’d just like to be remembered as someone who chose to live authentically even it meant having a difficult life”, she explains. We don’t know either, but we know it’ll be a wild ride. And that’s exactly how we like it.