Return to Amanda Palmer


Saturday, May 30, 2009
Badass musician Amanda Palmer
The fact that Amanda Palmer is fucking awesome has long since been firmly established. She is perhaps most noted for being half of the Dresden Dolls, but since the band decided to take a break a couple years ago she has been carving out a solo career on her own... with the help of a mind-bogglingly dedicated fan base that has helped her weather storm after storm. Most intriguing was the incident in which her label wanted to cut clips featuring her bare belly from the video of her first single because they "thought I looked fat", as she said on her blog in a post that sparked a ReBellyon: legions of her fans took photos of their own bellies, sent them to her record label, and even started a website. Any artist with fans like that has got to be of at least some interest, and Amanda Palmer, with her theatrical leanings, does not disappoint.

Where are you at the moment?
I’m at home.

Where do you live?
I live in Boston.

Oh, cool! I know you’re coming down to NYC next week for the Liner Notes event, which you’re co-headlining with Neil Gaiman. How did you meet him? I know you two have collaborated.
We were first introduced by Jason Webley, who is a good friend of mine, and Neil found out about him online; one of Jason’s videos got sent to Neil, and he really loved it. We were introduced through email and we found that we really get along.

I know he’s done the text from your book Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, right?
Yeah, he wrote stories to go with the photos in the book.

How exactly did that project develop? Was it directly correlated to the album?
Yeah, it came about in a funny way. Um… I had this small collection of dead photographs of myself, and I was going to use them in the album artwork but then I was told I didn’t have a packaging budget.

Oh dear.
[laughs] Which ended up being really lucky, because that’s what inspired me to do the book instead.

Well, your label has a bit of a history at this point of being less than kind to you. [laughs]
Yeah, they really suck. So I had learned at that point that it was pointless to argue with them and that it probably wouldn’t get anywhere. So instead of arguing, I said, “Fine, we can have a four-panel thing with that booklet, but I’m going to go and make a book and sell it on my own.”

Well, clearly in this scenario it turned out for the best. You took lemons and made lemonade.
Yeah, I’m trying to do that in general. [laughs] So that’s what originally got me thinking about doing the book, and Neil had really loved the record so I asked him if he would write the stories and he really surprised me by saying yes. So one thing led to another and it turned into this whole thing.

Obviously you had the photos and that’s how you decided to make the book, but how did you decide what form the content would take, what with the stories?
You know, I never did, actually. [laughter] I actually never did. I just took the photos that I had and started taking new ones and decided that, you know, the book would shape itself. And Neil would help shape it, and the photographers I invited to work on it would help shape it, and it would just be what it was going to be.

And now, again, you’re co-headlining the Liner Notes event with him. How’d you get involved with that?
Well, they asked. And we said yes. [laughs] It’s pretty simple.

But, I mean, was it just a coincidence that the two of you ended up co-headlining after he worked on your book?
Um… well, we’ve been trying to spend as much time together as we can, and that has meant kind of following each other around in different cities. We did a similar event in Dublin several months ago where we just went to a bookstore and showed people teaser photographs from the book and Neil read some stories. And I had a show in New York to do this week and Neil had some stuff to do, so we just decided that we were both going to be in New York and we would want to do something together. Then the Liner Notes thing popped up as a possibility and we grabbed it.

Tell me a little bit about what the event actually is.
It’s a benefit for Housing Works, so all the money raised from the tickets is going to go to Housing Works.

Yes, Housing Works is a really great organization. I’m excited to check out the bookstore because I’ve never been.
Yeah, it’s wonderful, and actually Neil and I were just watching footage of Augusten Burroughs doing an event a couple months ago or something. It just seems really great. I’m looking forward to it, and I think Neil and I both feel more at home in a bookstore than at a rock show. [laughs]

Would you say that you’ve sort of always had literary influences on your music?
Well… yeah, I’d say for as long as I’ve been reading books they’ve probably been influencing me—for as long as I can remember. [laughs]

Well, I know your album was released in September 2008 but considering it’s your most recent I was wondering if you would discuss how your sound developed as you took a break from the Dresden Dolls to do solo work.
Well, the break from the Dresden Dolls was a necessity because we were making each other really unhappy, and it had gone on for too long with neither of us being happy enough, so we decided that taking a break was essential. But I never want to stop creating, so it just made sense to me to keep moving forward with a solo record—but at the time my solo record was just going to be a dinky little project of solo piano and voice, and that’s what I was working on when Ben Folds got in touch and offered to produce it, so that sort of upped the ante. And what was supposed to be an acoustic record turned into a full-on rock record.

And thanks to numerous controversies, the hype inevitably grew.
…Yeah, the hype wasn’t my fault. [laughter] But it didn’t hurt. And, you know, it was interesting: I had a really wonderful and difficult year with the record. I was terribly broke because of the situation with the label, because I basically spent my life savings and then also went into debt making the record. Then I also chose to tour with a lot of people, so even though we were not touring luxuriously there were a lot of people to get around and pay for. And my fans really stepped up and were incredible and donated money to pay the actors every night, and… it was a really… fucking… beautiful DIY/punk-rock thing. You know, after having done expensive tours with the Dresden Dolls, it was just totally back to basics: eight people to a room and stuff.

The thing is, you might not be on par with, like, Christina Aguilera in terms of name recognition but you have something most other musicians don’t in the level of dedication from your fans. It’s astounding.
Well, I think huge stars like that don’t realize it’s an actual relationship. I really try not to look at my fans as fans so much as a giant collection of friends who are helping me out and whom I’m helping out in my own weird bizarre way. But it’s a really committed relationship, and you can’t go on grabbing things and taking things from it without expecting to give things back, which I think is what a lot of celebrities expect. I think a lot of them expect people to continue worshipping them and taking care of them because they’re awesome. [laughs] And it doesn’t really work that way!

I think another side of that, though, is that even among the stars with good intentions it must be hard to keep up with so many people.
Yeah, but it’s doable. There are definitely bigger bands out there that manage to keep up with their fans, and it’s easier than ever nowadays because you can get direct contact with them. And if you know how to organize and prioritize, I really think you can do so much more than you used to be able to do, and it’s essential now because all the musicians and artists in general—if funding dries up, we’re all going to be going directly to our fans for dear life. They’re going to be paying our rent. [laughs] The money’s not going to be coming from anywhere else.

Well, given the state of the music industry—I mean, the record industry’s just in a shambles these days.
Yeah, but something beautiful is growing out of the ashes. Things are just getting reorganized.

Yeah—well, sometimes things have to get really bad before they can get really good again.
Well, given the fact that we’ve entered into an economic hellhole, on top of the fact that it’s done what it has done to the music industry—but that’s kind of beautiful. That sort of thing can herald a real golden age. And it weeds out the musicians and even the fans who aren’t really committed, because it just won’t leave any room for them. So I think it’ll only be those who are really dedicated to wanting it and to loving their fans and loving the process even when it’s really hard and being willing to make a living wage as a musician, instead of assuming that if you play the right cards you’ll finally get that stretch limousine and be snorting coke off a hooker’s ass. The sooner that image disappears the better off we’ll be. [laughs] People need to realize that it’s just like a job—if you want to be a hard working musician people will love you and take care of you, but it really is work. It’s not like if you work hard enough you get to not have to work; it’s that if you work hard enough you get to keep working! [laughs]

The reward isn’t getting to slack off later; it’s to be able to make a living doing—well, work, but work that you really enjoy doing.
Yeah, exactly. You know, I think that’s going to change. I mean, I think what it means to be a musician, what it means to be a rock star, what it means to be a successful musician and artist… I think it’s gonna change completely. I think it’s going to become much more realistic. I think it kind of turned into a cartoon for a while, and now it’ll hopefully back down. And I think that’ll be great for the art and for everybody.

I think there’s a chance we might see a second coming of the punk/DIY aesthetic—which has never really fully gone away, but I think we might see it coming back in a bigger way now because that’s what has to happen if you want the community to keep going.

Another artist known for having a good relationship with her fans is Margaret Cho, whom I know you’re friends with. Didn’t you tour together recently?
Yeah, we’ve done a bunch of different things together. We did the True Colors tour together, and she was on the last Dresden Dolls DVD, and we just stopped by SXSW together because we both share the same publicist now. We have a lot in common, is what we keep finding. [laughs] And, you know, that’s one of the things I’ve been loving about my life recently: finding and capturing and nurturing these relationships with people you’d never thought you’d find. You move through this lifestyle thinking that it’s only you, and how could anyone else possibly understand the weird, complex, strange problems of your life? And then you meet people like Neil and Margaret. [laughs] And I praise, uh, I praise Jesus that I’ve finally begun to find my own freaky little family. They’re people all invariably like each other, too, which is really fun. There’s something wonderful about that, especially when they aren’t musicians. Neil and Margaret and I, if we had anything in common it would really be that we love our fans and we love nurturing them and that can be a real bonding experience.

That and the fact that you all have similarly off-color aesthetics.
Yeah, we’re all weirdos. [laughter]

Exactly. That’s probably the easiest way to bond with someone.
Yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely been a sense of “weirdos unite”, and strangely a lot of that’s been happening over Twitter, which is really awesome because not everybody knows about it yet, and I think it’s just reaching that critical point where it might tip and fall over.

It feels like it came out of nowhere and completely changed the internet.
Well, it still kind of has the feeling of being like a clubhouse. You know, not everyone is on it yet. And I’ve just had so much fun fucking around and seeing what’s possible, you know? I had an entire party spontaneously two Friday nights ago where I was supposed to be packing because I was going away, and I made one joke about calling all the people on their computers on Friday night to order, and after two hours I had gotten no work done and I had not cleaned my apartment and I had gotten thousands of people following the party on the internet and I made these cool T-shirts! As I pointed out to a journalist earlier today, I made more on the sale of those T-shirts than I have all year in record sales! [laughs]