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Many know AMANDA PALMER as one half of iconic duo THE DRESDEN DOLLS. And many across the world now know Ms. Palmer as the artist who took our breath away at her recent TED talk where she talked passionately about the importance of artists asking for help. She’s an engaging artist and an engaging human being. And this is why she is much loved.
Amanda Palmer is touring with The Grand Theft Orchestra and is about to hit Manchester’s Ritz and London’s Roundhouse among other venues across the UK and she’s also doing Glastonbury this year. Nothing is going to stop the Palmer whirlwind from spreading her industry-savvy gospel and holding the odd ninja gig here and there. A firm believer in the power of the individual as well as the power of the supportive community, with a fabulously intimate relationship with her audience, Amanda remains an essential voice in the increasingly distorted arts industry – a calm voice of reason and guidance in turbulent times.
In addition to legions of adoring fans, she has her fair share of critics and takes any comments gracefully on the chin. Her historical Kickstarter campaign that exceeded an incredible 1 million pounds to fund her latest album “Theatre Is Evil” was followed by controversy over non-payment of volunteer musicians – a heated issue which was eventually resolved. Controversy or not, the campaign set the bar for artists in terms of appealing to fans for voluntary funding.
We catch up with Amanda ahead of her UK dates and we find that she’s more than ready to get up close and personal with her people.
You’ve talked recently in a Guardian article about the struggles you had as a child, fitting in, being in a family where you felt isolated. Can you talk a little bit more about that isolation? It seems that it may have led you to discover other things in life…
Well, I think it’s really typical for people with artistic temperaments to feel either alienated or isolated as kids, especially if you’re not in an incredibly artistic environment, because things can feel as though they just don’t make sense. And it was always my dream as a kid, as a teenager, to wind up as an adult living in an artistic environment. I didn’t want to be like my parents, I didn’t want to be like most of the people in the town I grew up in, where there was very little art and culture. So, I was really drawn to the city and I was really drawn to the idea of artistic communities. I was fascinated and obsessed with the 20s and the 60s and art movements and Weimar and cabaret any historical depictions of scenes where there was a real artistic hotbed that I was really drawn to. And I think that’s pretty typical of most artists.
Do you remember the moment when you realized you were maybe really different from people around? Was there any moment where you felt “This is going to be exciting” or did you just feel “Oh no, this is tough…”?
I had one moment that was a turning point, and it was literally a seismic sea change in my life. It was the night before 8th grade, so I would have been 13. And I had spent my childhood and most of 6th and 7th grade just desperately trying to fit in, desperately trying to belong and impress the popular kids – I was imitating their behaviour and my sister in a bid to find acceptance: shopping at the mall, matching my hair scrunchie with my socks, and stuff like that. And I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “This really isn’t working and it’s a no-win situation.”
And I sort of decided overnight to reject everything that I’d be trying to align with. So I went, overnight, from being a kid who was trying to fit in to being the kid who was loudly separating themselves. I dyed all my clothes black, bitched about all the kids I was hanging out with that I didn’t like, rejected my sister and her way of life, and went down a very committed path of being punk rock and ‘other.’ I was always a weird kid, but I finally decided just to embrace it, instead of fight it.
I saw of course the recent TED talk you did that has done really well online. The point you make about artists asking for help made some people, even artists, feel very uncomfortable, it seems – and there’s been some backlash to the speech. But how do you feel about the arts community in terms of how it’s embracing or rejecting what you stand for?
Well, the majority of the art community stand in recognition of the fact that the system is changing. And we don’t necessarily know what direction it is headed in. But, we’re starting to sense some of the new guidelines, because money and distribution and digital sharing and the factors that are just chaotically shifting right now mean that pretty much every discipline is redefining itself. And the way forward isn’t necessarily going to be crowdfunding per se, but there is a universal truth in that if the machine or the machinery behind traditional distribution systems like publishing or labels really is going to collapse and something else is going to take its place, artists can either proactively align with it and control it or they can just bitch and moan about the fact that it’s not the 80s anymore.
And the talk about asking wasn’t even really supposed to be a solution or a roadmap to some golden age and magic bullet of how arts will be funded and how all artists will be okay, but it was more a discussion of, as artists and as people, why we are so afraid to ask for help, and what does that mean about our culture right now that we’re afraid to ask for help.
I wrote that talk specifically aimed at musicians who I had discussions with who told me they were really impressed by my attitude and by my Kickstarter but they felt like they were unable to ask for help because it was too shameful, or they felt too embarrassed, or they felt too inadequate, or they felt too privileged, or they felt something that was blocking their ability to just ask for help. That talk was really meant for them, but then it wound up resonating more universally, which was surprising to me, but it also brought up some interesting questions about what is happening in culture right now that it resonates so much with people.
We’re living in quite unsettling times… just seeing the way that so many artists are afraid to engage say with the Pussy Riot cause or who are engaging with social issues but only in a detached manner. From your perspective, where are we at right now with the link between society, politics and music? Do you think it could get better? Do you think musicians need to be better networked, be more open about these links?
I think there’s a lot of fear right now. And I think especially in the States, the way it’s manifesting is squishing out in all sorts of odd shapes. Just seeing what’s happening politically, right now, last night, just the kind of deep divides that are happening between the desire to stay staunchly conservatively in the past and those trying to evolve the agenda – it’s frightening.
I was at an event in New York a couple of weeks ago and was really excited to meet a couple of the girls from Pussy Riot which was fantastic, and one of them was a Dresden Dolls fan, so I was deliriously happy! But you look at the situation that they’re in and you look at the statistics of their culture’s take on that situation, and some of the things happening in the States right now, even just around the topic of crowdfunding – I’m finding myself astonished that people in America are following an agenda that is so fear-driven, that is so conservative, even the people who are identifying as liberal.
But, in my opinion, it always comes down to fear. And when you’re living in a decline, when the economy is frightening, the environment is frightening, the ability to actually make ends meet is a challenging reality – it’s just traditionally what happens. People become afraid, and as soon as you start working from a place of fear, everything goes down the drain – arts, culture, the progression of politics – everything suffers, because people refuse to take risks and then you get the snowball effect of all of those things meeting each other.
I was talking to a Manchester musician yesterday and we were agreeing that now is actually the time for all groups who have been undermined in the arts industry to get together now, that it’s important for people to network globally now, to tour and remain open, to learn how to network and understand their evolving industry and the world around them. With your tour coming up, are you feeling very pumped to see how people respond to you now in these difficult socio-economic times?
One reason that I love touring and that I think it’s so important to constantly go and physically connect, is that as I tour, it’s not just about my band getting on stage and people buying a ticket and seeing our show – it’s about the community that gathers around that show. You know, being able to look around The Roundhouse and see 3000 people and feel that you’re not alone, and feel that there are others who aren’t working from a place of fear and don’t have a negative agenda and believe in art and truth and messiness, and the things that we spend hours and hours discussing on the Internet – and discussing things on the Internet is one thing and actually getting together and being with that community in person is another – that’s really important.
People need to remember that a connection can be a connection, but a connection in person can supercede all value. And I love that people use my shows to find each other, and to feel not alone and to find their community and make new friends, and it’s a communion of sorts in an era where religion has gone crazy and none of us really trust it – this is kind of our replacement. We follow bands and singer-songwriters and artists, not just because we love their work, but because when we go to a show, it’s akin to going to church. We want to be with our congregation and we want to be with the artist themselves.
What words of advice, or words of comfort, do you have for artists out there who admire what you do, and also admire other musicians who are working to make the music industry more open, more diverse?
I would say don’t forget that it’s not a competition, and that you need to help each other! I think one of the things that can really destroy the fabric of a community, especially the music community, is bands and artists feeling that there isn’t enough pie to go around and if someone else is succeeding it means that they’re failing, and it’s just not true – and that attitude kind of weakens the ecosystem. So you need to help and support your fellow artists and give them a lift up if they need it and applaud their success if they bypass you. Remember that acting competitively weakens the artistic ecosystem – you need to act cooperatively.