Artful provocateur Amanda Palmer comes to Lincoln Center
The former Dresden Doll and current Internet lightning rod opens up about aspirations, art and adulation
Mon Aug 5 2013
Few performers inspire such opposing passions as Amanda Palmer, the former Dresden Dolls singer who is equal parts loved and loathed across the Internet. In the past year, Palmer made history with the gigantic success of her Kickstarter campaign, then caused outrage by asking musicians to play her shows for free. She gave a lauded TED talk; writhed naked in a bathtub in a Flaming Lips video; and posted a controversial poem about the Boston Marathon bomber. TONY chatted her up by phone ahead of her Lincoln Center Out of Doors appearance this week.
Where are you living now?
It’s a little bizarre. Neil [Gaiman, Palmer's husband] has two houses; one is in Scotland and one is in Wisconsin, which is where he has lived for the past 20 years raising his American kids. We are currently renting a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and looking for a place in New York. When I get off the subway from Brooklyn into Manhattan, I feel this excited sigh of release to finally be in the fucking city. I actually love noise and the sound of people and the sound of shit happening, and I love walking down a crowded sidewalk. I love the swarm of humanity.
In your song “In My Mind,” you sing about not being the person you thought you would be. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a director and a rock star and a theater maker. Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and Prince were super formative. I grew up creating shows in the backyard after school, and there was also the community aspect of “everybody, let’s get together and do a thing”—that’s something that really turns me on.
How much has performing changed as you’ve grown up?
That’s a good question. I’ve pretty much improvised my way through adulthood as a performer. I was never trained, I never went to art school, I taught myself most of what I know. I went through rough patches in my twenties, thinking, Maybe I should really go back to school and study piano so that I can actually play an instrument. [Laughs] But I was always more interested in making things than I was in learning things, and I found that I learned things while making them, even if they were nontraditional and fucked up. I think the only thing that’s changed is my acceptance that I don’t have to follow a certain path.
How do you feel about getting attention for something other than your music?
I don’t find that problematic at all, because mostly I do a lot of things other than make music. If I wanted people to simply focus on my songwriting, I wouldn’t go do a TED talk and I might not even use crowd-funding. Since I do a lot of things and I freely share and express my opinion about tons of topics other than music, the line between Amanda Palmer the person and Amanda Palmer the musician has now become irreparably blurred. But I think that’s absolutely fucking fine. The performance artists that I respect, a lot of them have to deal with that in some aspect—you can’t separate Madonna the musician from Madonna the icon.
But who really knows what Madonna’s like at home? Whereas it feels like you’re offering a very direct expression of who you are.
Yeah, that’s totally true, and it’s actually one thing that really irritates me about Madonna, because she’s so smart and she’s so sharp that you would think one day she would turn around and actually expose herself—it’s like the ultimate trump card. But it’s almost like she’s incapable of doing that. I feel like I have approached my career from the polar-opposite direction, and I practically made an art form out of sharing myself.
None of it is free, and I’ve been taking a retrospective stalk of how I’ve spent the last 15 years. I now have plenty of dots with which I could make a trajectory and take a look at it, from the Dresden Dolls to my solo career, and all the extra things I have done. When you think about the 10,000 hours theory and where you’ve actually become an expert, I was never the kind of person—still am not—who would choose on any given day to go sit at a piano and write songs. I have not put a fraction of the energy into songwriting and producing that I have into communicating with people. And if you stacked up the number of songwriting hours in the last 15 years against the number of hours touring and blogging and discussing and connecting, and also testing the boundaries of my own willingness and ability to share and expose myself and make a decision, that’s actually what I’ve become an expert in. I still consider myself a good songwriter and a good performer, but this is where I’ve honed my craft. It’s almost like I stepped back and inadvertently created an entirely different job by accident.
What job title would you give yourself?
Oh God, I don’t know. A spiritual impresario.
How do you feel about being adored?
I love it. [Laughs] Yeah, of course I love it.
Do you? Because some people it makes feel terribly awkward and blush.
Oh, you’re British. [Laughs] Americans have no problem with this. I do love it, but of course I want people to love me authentically, and I actually get really upset when I feel unjustly worshiped or put on a faulty pedestal. The relationship with my fans, [that] feels like a very authentic kind of love they have for me and I have for them.
Do you feel the same pleasure in having a very adored husband?
I do. He and I were such strangers because we come from incredibly different backgrounds, but we’re also strangely cut from the exact same cloth.… The difficult thing about being a person who is publicly shared and loved is it can really fuck with and dismantle your personal relationships, because if the balance isn’t correct, what you have in your private sphere can really be compromised. Neil and I understand each other so deeply because we see each other and we recognize each other so easily. And that goes for the pros and the cons: If one of us had no interest in being online and didn’t want to connect with the world that way, it would be a lot more difficult.
Was there a specific moment in your life where you decided not to care whether people thought you were being appropriate or offensive?
I grew up really reveling in the act of inappropriateness, for lack of a better term. I loved breaking the rules, it was so much fun. I was just a weird, punk kid. I was a disruptive student, I was a practical joker, I was a tomboy. I insisted that people be totally honest with me and totally honest with themselves to the point of being, I’m sure, incredibly irritating. But I was also, at the same time, not to paint the wrong picture, I was incredibly insecure as a teenager—very, very selfconscious about my sexuality and the way I looked, and wanting to appear as absolutely nonchalant and cool and I don’t give a fuck as possible, while giving all the fucks in the world, clearly, because I was really concerned about everyone’s opinion. Being a performer was a really important way to channel all that energy and had I wound up going into some other kind of work, I don’t know if I would have come out the other end quite as healthy.
In a recent interview you talked about pulling your tampon out at a party. Does it thrill you to shock?
We were very drunk, first of all—I should have pointed that out. I never like to shock people; what I really like to do is surprise them, and hopefully surprise them delightfully. I was never interested in faulting my audience or causing them any pain, and everything about my early shows and the Dresden Dolls was mostly about how I could catch people off guard and get them to feel something they weren’t expecting to feel.
Was that what motivated the poem you published on your blog about the Boston Marathon bomber? Did you know that people were going to be up in arms?
No, I didn’t see that one coming at all.
How do you feel about it?
I still feel upset and sort of cosmically let down. It felt like a very typical mish-mash brain dump of emotions that I threw onto the page, which is what I do on my blog. And to get the blow of heat and criticism from the kinds of people who never heard of me and practically came to my door with pitchforks telling me I should have bombs shoved up my vagina to see how it felt—the reaction was pretty absurd, and also underlined a bigger problem which is, I am worried. I felt the same way when I saw the huge controversy over Rolling Stone putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, and watching my city going up in arms, saying, You need to ban the sale of this magazine. And instead, I look at the whole trend of fear and anger and think, don’t you guys realize that this is how you get in trouble in the first place?
What about the Flaming Lips video where you’re naked in the bath and the band is fully clothed? You stepped in after Erykah Badu pulled out of the project. Did you not feel compromised?
I think it always comes down to intention and that’s why these long, drawn-out, semantic arguments can get so tricky. What were the intentions of the art makers, and what is the context and how do they assume it is going to be interpreted? The great thing about art is that everything is allowed: You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to approve of it, you don’t have to approve of it politically. But as long as nobody is being harmed in the making of it, and as long as the intention is pure, you have to let artists express outside of the bounds of your own comfort, because that is pretty much the definition of what art is. And if all art were lovely and safe and approvable by feminists and right-wingers alike, we wouldn’t have good art.
And what was your intention in that video?
To have fun. And actually, as simple as it may sound, to celebrate being naked in a bathtub in a Flaming Lips video. How awesome is that? And the song itself is so sensual; it's about absolutely being smitten with and falling in love with someone’s face and smile and eyes and body. And it’s a purely sensual song and celebration, so it doesn’t need to go any deeper than that.
Tell us about this week’s show.
I am going to bring my fucking new band to New York City, which I am very, very excited about. We have a new drummer, Thor Harris, who is also the drummer in Swans, and he is absolutely incredible. We just got off a monthlong tour in the U.K. and America, and by the end of the tour we were sounding wonderful, and the shows were really magic.
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