In combat boots. In heels. With a fist, an open heart and a spirit of soft steel, Amanda Palmer is a musician harnessing the power of collective community and creativity. Changing the game, challenging commercial models, and making history with her $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign for her new album, she’s like a swift kick in the gut with an honesty that will break your heart and expand your mind. Rock on Ms. Palmer. Rock on.
Maranda Pleasant: So I wanted to talk about what you have done. You’ve made history. It’s revolutionary. It’s giving artists a voice. It’s really changing the whole game about not needing corporate backing to make an album. It just changes everything. What inspired you to put this together?
Amanda Palmer: I’ve been creating my whole career this way from the beginning. It’s not as if I woke up one day and said, “It seems like a good time to start taking care of my fans.” One thing begat the other, and it started with my band coming out of a real tight-knit art community where we took all those things for granted and just did them anyway. I think the thing you’re seeing now with the music industry is that the people who have tight-knit communities are now able to really hold each other up because of the internet tools. And the really top-down pyramid scheme of major labels and typical superstars isn’t sustainable anymore because the system has collapsed.
AP: So, I’ve been like this forever. It’s just sort of showing up now. (laughs)
MP: Right. What is the figure now?
AP: It closed at the end of May at almost 1.2 million dollars.
AP: Thank you!
MP: I love the idea of collaborating with other artists and getting other artists behind your project. It’s how I believe we build our communities and our tribes, through mutual support. Not being fragmented but coming together, supporting each other. Who are some of the artists on this project? Who are some of the artists that donated to this campaign?
AP: The money wasn’t donated. All the money that came into the Kickstarter was pre-sale money, so everybody was buying something. And the art is actually the same way. None of the artists donated their work. I commissioned them all and paid them.
AP: And I had to borrow all the money and had to bet against myself that enough people were gonna order the book, but it worked out.
MP: Wow. Where did you get the idea?
AP: Bundling art together with your music is an old idea. (laughs) That’s not a new idea. Doing a big, fine art book, I don’t think is a truly original idea. I think a lot of musicians out there have looked at the situation and said, “Okay, if I really want to make it worth someone buying a piece of physical music, which is clearly an unnecessary thing since they can get the music itself for free, how do I create something physical and beautiful that they’ll want to have?‚Äù So, in that sense, I kind of rely on my artist friends to make my physical music worth buying by having them all come together and create beautiful artwork that everyone is gonna want to own to support my record.
MP: Brilliant. What has been the most vulnerable part of creating this album for you?
AP: The songs themselves on this album are strangely like a step forward and a step backwards for me because a lot of them are really simple pop songs if you compare them to the stranger stuff I’ve done. And I feel like they take me right back to my roots and the music I grew up on, which was really simple pop music. I feel like I’ve gotten to the point in my career and in my life where I can allow myself to write whatever comes into my head and not judge it too harshly. And sometimes, I get really fantastic results when I just get out of my own way, and this album is a great example of that. I sat down. I turned out the songs over three or four years that wanted to come out. And then I handed them over to the band and said, “Okay, let’s arrange these.” I think because of that it sounds like the most fully realized record I’ve ever made.
AP: So all these things coming together at the same time as the Kickstarter being really successful is insanely lucky. ‘Cause if the Kickstarter was really lucky, but I had kind of a mediocre, shi*tty record, I’d be really screwed. (laughing) But I have a great record to back it up with, thank God.
MP: That’s really great. Did you ever feel like an outsider in the industry?
AP: Sure. I think I’ve always felt as a band and as a musician and a music business person, I’ve always felt like an outsider, period. I’ve always felt like an outsider across the board, since day one. The challenge has been to simply not pay attention to my outsider or insider status and just do the work and play the shows and connect with the people. And not even bother to play this game of keeping score, which is what destroys you. Comparing yourself to the people like you, comparing yourself to the people who aren’t like you, looking at how many records you’ve sold, looking at the venue size you’re selling out. None of that can even remotely measure how happy you are.
There’s a part of me that is really, really happy with all of my success lately because of what it can get me and what it can buy me in the fact that my music will hopefully reach more people. But it also makes me a little bit miserable because the minute the spotlight is on you, people start flinging sh*t at you for whatever reason.
MP: (laughs) Yes.
AP: You know, there are so many snarky angry critics out there who are just sort of looking to tear down whoever is getting talked about.
MP: And they don’t even know you! They’ve never met you. Yes, I know it well. (sighs)
AP: Yeah, or don’t even know the music. The challenge is to just focus on what’s actually happening, focus on the people who get it, and focus on the people who are listening. And the minute I spend any energy defending myself, explaining myself, or in the worst case scenario, trying to please those who are criticizing me, I will, you know, just fall off a cliff. (laughs) If I simply do what I’ve always done, it’s never failed me. I do what I want. I try to be nice to everybody. When I fail, I try to apologize. And I make the music that I want to make and make the show that I want to make. If you like it, you come. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to. That’s the philosophy that I’ve had since day one in the Dresden Dolls. I don’t try to make anybody outside happy.
MP: That’s powerful. I’m just gonna take that in. I love it when you said, “focus on the people who get it.”
AP: All of my music, my stage show, my personality, my blog, my twitter feed, anything that’s made me me, and a huge part of why people like and respect me, is that I just don’t spend much energy on that other stuff. It’s not worth it. It’s a losing battle too. You’re just screwed the minute you engage.
MP: Yeah. I can just feel my life energy seeping out the second I let it affect me.
AP: Yeah. The cool thing too, as you get older, you get way better at identifying who’s an ally and who isn’t. And who has good, positive, ‚Äúlet’s make all this sh*t better and let’s try to have fun and fix sh*t‚Äù people as opposed to ‚Äúlet’s sit around and b*tch and berate‚Äù people.
AP: And you know, I remember being a teenager and being really impressed by‚ Äúlet’s sit around and b*tch‚ Äù people, and I have so little time for those people nowadays. When I find myself having to share a meal with someone who simply wants to complain about the world, I almost feel myself wanting to crawl out of my skin and just sort of scurry away. But being able to pick up on that stuff and being able to easily identify the people walking towards the light instead of walking towards the darkness, that’s a skill I’m very, very glad to see growing in myself. You know, just identifying all the negative stuff and just one by one cutting it out and cutting it out and doing the same work on yourself. You know, the thing when you’re getting in your own way? All of that stuff. It gets easier and easier.
MP: How does your art, your music help you process pain?
AP: It totally depends on the situation. I have a handful of really close relationships in my life and I depend on those people heavily to carry me through and to help me stay steady. I nurture my close relationships like priceless lamps. That’s part of why the job itself is inherently difficult and kind of a paradox, because you’re out there touring and traveling and going a million miles a minute, but the things that are keeping you steady and stable can be really hard to nurture when you’re going fast, and your relationships, which are the number one thing that help me through.
MP: This is turning into a counseling session for me.
AP: (laughs) Me too, actually.
MP: You can bill me later. Not only do I see you as this pioneer and visionary and this strong voice for artists but also this female voice and redefining the rules and the industry. Is there anything about being a woman in the music industry that makes this harder? Do you feel like you have to be a little bit tougher or you have to have a thick skin?
AP: Yeah, I think being a woman in any business that’s dominated by men, you have your garden variety pros and cons, where you learn how to focus and harness your various powers and weaknesses for better or for good. One thing about being a performer is you’re not just doing an intellectual job behind a desk; you’re out there performing and being looked at, being assessed for really superficial stuff. How you sound. How you look. Are you fat? Those are things that could be really irritating. My way of coping with that has been to kind of play the game but bring a bunch of blindfolds and occasionally blindfold myself and blindfold those around me and go, “Ha ha ha! Isn’t this fun? We’re f*cking it all up!” That at least keeps it interesting.
I feel like if I were to play the game completely and just get myself in a giant bottle of nail polish and put myself on display, I would feel like I had somehow cosmically lost. I feel like I’m taking a bunch of the ingredients and using some of them but not all of them and shuffling around and making people think I’m doing my job. I think I can define my entire life, virtuosity and business philosophy down to the core fundamental that I absolutely hate being told what to do. But like any artist or any human being out there, I desperately want to be loved, and I spend my entire life trying to balance those two facts. (laughs) And that’s it. My life and my art is the tightrope between those two truths. And being a woman just means I’ve got a different set of dishes to walk across that tight-rope with. If I were a guy, it would be, you know, just a different set of problems I have to carry along. I don’t think of myself as particularly cursed or blessed. I think I got dealt a set of cards, and I’m playing with them, sometimes in heels, sometimes in combat boots. (laughs)
Photos: Kyle Cassidy