Your Musical Guidance Counselor Amanda Palmer Will See You Now
Her first solo album in six years, There Will Be No Intermission, is out today. It’s also International Women’s Day, and there’s no songwriter more unabashedly feminine.
It’s hard to interview Amanda Palmer because she’s already answered every question in the known universe. There’s almost nothing new to discover. I’m aware that she doesn’t shave her body hair; I know the last ukulele song she played for her best friend before he died from leukemia; I understand how she and novelist husband Neil Gaiman balance their competing artistic inclinations. She’s shared these things with me inadvertently via long Patreon blog posts, chunky Instagram captions, and a “companion book” to her first solo effort in over six years, There Will Be No Intermission, which includes photos of Amanda in various states of pagan revelry on beaches and in between trees, plus a deeply specific mid-length essay about every one of her album’s ten lyrical tracks (the other ten are instrumental). When she writes, she only uses lowercase letters.
“I think my propensity to arming my songs with context is probably partly a defense mechanism from having been so misinterpreted for so long,” Amanda tells me of the companion book. “I would prefer to write a correct set of CliffsNotes myself than to watch the Daily Mail write them for me.”
When Amanda says “there will be no intermission,” she means that life is unrelenting. There will be an intermission on her upcoming tour, where Palmer is set to appear solo with a piano and ukulele but no band accompaniment. There Will Be No Intermission is operatic and dramatic and painfully personal, with songs that begin quietly and swell into screams. Before and in-between writing the record, the singer-songwriter dealt with a lot of life-snuffing: Her best friend Anthony died of cancer, one of her exes killed himself, she had two abortions and one miscarriage, and Neil’s much-loved dog passed away. She also gave birth to her first child, Ash (short for Anthony), at age thirty-nine in the woods with no drugs. So there was some life-ignition, too.
Becoming a mother transformed her previously roughshod creative process. With drastically shortened free time, Amanda had to become more focused and precise, a disciple of the “first thought, best thought” church. “Part of it was also trying to prove to myself that I could have a child and continue to have interesting things to say—because I was terrified that I wouldn’t,” she admits.
This album feels more vulnerable than anything Palmer has done before. Maybe motherhood has softened her—maybe it’s just the passage of time. There’s a harrowing love song for “Judy Blume,” an ode to the power of reading and to the pubescent-girl guru of first-time menstruation and masturbation, who influenced Palmer growing up. There’s a piano ditty called “A Mother’s Confession” about panic over keeping baby Ash alive, wherein Amanda sings of forgetting him briefly in a car with a trembly refrain that is both funny and frightening and honest: “At least the baby didn’t die.” And there’s “Voicemail For Jill,” a song taking the guise of a tender message left for an abortion-getting friend, tracked by Amanda the day Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in to the Supreme Court, when every woman in America was feeling a little raw: “No one’s gonna shower you with flowers / The doctor won’t congratulate you / No one on that pavement’s gonna / Shout at you that your heart also matters.” There has never been a better song about abortion. It insists the act isn’t one of immense tragedy or shame—instead, it can be something sensible. Kind. Necessary.
As for the album’s unusual noisemaker—the ukulele—Amanda wields it because it’s uncomplicated. “Sonically, visually, it’s just the tiniest instrument on which you can actually make a chord,” she says cheerily. “It’s so unassuming, as stripped down as it gets.” She likes the contrast of pairing the uke’s sweet simplicity with words about cancer, abortion, and death.
“Part of it was also trying to prove to myself that I could have a child and continue to have interesting things to say—because I was terrified that I wouldn’t.”
There Will Be No Intermission was entirely crowd-funded by over fourteen thousand Patreon patrons. She first got the fan-fund train rolling in 2012 with the solo release Theatre Is Evil, still the most well-funded music project Kickstarter has ever seen (she asked for $100k and received almost $1.2 million). Amanda made headlines in 2013 with her TED talk “The Art of Asking,” on why freely shareable digital content isn’t the end of the music biz, but rather a new beginning; she expressed her belief that artists should be straightforwardly compensated by their fans. The talk has since been viewed ten million times and was turned into a book of the same name with Palmer’s byline and the subtitle How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Let People Help. She joined forces with Patreon in 2015, pioneering her own model of community support, slicing away the middlemen (labels, publicists, distributors) and feeding art directly to the fans, who pay to be patrons.
Amanda isn’t afraid to ask for money, and some people find that presumptuous. There’s been fair criticism of her methods: namely, that she can fail to acknowledge her privilege in receiving what she asks for. It’s a class thing and a race thing, not merely a “plucky can-do attitude” accomplishment. She also came under fire following the very successful Kickstarter campaign, when she blogged about seeking tour musicians willing to play voluntarily and be compensated with “beer, hug/high-five[s], and merch.” She took the resulting uproar into consideration, and later announced that she would be paying the tour musicians after all. But then, volunteers at film festivals don’t get paid—they do it so they can watch movies and meet other people who love watching movies. Amanda envisioned a similar atmosphere.
Some artists are too introspective or unconfident to self-promote, but Amanda is neither of those things. She’s figured out how to utilize social media with startling efficacy, advertising her projects and requesting everything from babysitter recommendations to Nutella from her followers on Twitter, and somehow it all feels natural. “I came out of the DIY punk and folk scenes, where promoting your shows was part and parcel with being a musician who played in basements and swapped gear with other struggling artists,” Palmer says. “Self-promotion, when you’re a teeny DIY artist, isn’t considered weird. It’s the only way you get the job done. I’m grateful for that. If someone had waltzed into my life at the age of twenty-two and given me a record contract, if I had skipped the entire experience of being in a tiny band with very few resources, almost no money, but a whole lot of goodwill and art and sharing, I’d be a really different person.”
Amanda Palmer is a lot. It’s why so many people like her, and also why some do not. She first amassed an army of rabid fans as one-half of punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls (before that, she was a street performer who posed as a statue) and her marriage to cult fantasy author Neil Gaiman in 2011 didn’t hurt either. Most celebs keep their private lives as private as they can, but Neil and Amanda write blog posts so intimate, you feel as though you’re snuggled in bed between them. Their co-mingling was somewhat unexpected, since Gaiman is mysterious, British, and elegant, and looks like he’ll soon scurry back to a hollowed-out tree trunk to write stories, while Amanda is earthy, ribald, and vaudevillian, less delicate and far more performative.
Affectionately dubbed the Queen of Feelings and the King of Dreams by one of Amanda’s friends, the married pair sometimes collaborate on whimsical side projects, like an animated video inspired by a voice memo Amanda recorded, describing one of Neil’s dreams. Last year’s Mermaid Parade was another highlight for the couple, who appeared regally content dusted in glitter and bedecked in aquamarine seashells and sequins, riding amongst scores of half-naked costumed partiers on Coney Island. Both their fan bases are rife with misfits and angsty creative types.
At first blush, you’d assume Amanda is the cool one, an outspoken badass who goes naked and talks openly about non-monogamy and doesn’t give a fuck. But ironically, “The Art of Asking”—and for that matter, Amanda’s entire shtick—is about being vulnerable. Emotionally sloppy. Asking for help and showing your cards. Neil is aloof and somewhat taciturn in public, while she’s always bleeding all over the place.
One thing Amanda Palmer struggles with is the media. Her skin has yet to harden into armor, despite years of chastisement. She recently tweeted about an “anti-choice feed” who wrote an article on “Voicemail For Jill,” calling her a demon—presumably for encouraging abortion. “I’ll need you all,” she told her one point eight million followers. It’s not clear precisely what she needed them for. Maybe just support.
On steady-strum Intermission track “Bigger On the Inside,” Palmer laments the fact that her critics don’t know her and never will: “I am bigger on the inside / But you have to come inside to see me / Otherwise you’re only hating / Other people’s low-res copies.” She doesn’t sound bitter, just frustrated. Like most everyone famous, she thinks journalists misunderstand her; unlike most everyone famous, she “overshares” her life and work and thoughts and feelings to compensate, trying to reclaim the narrative.
“It’s a common thing with women; if you were to run the test of what journalists write about us, you’ll find women are judged and scored much less frequently on the merit of their work.”
“I wish they would cover the music,” she tells me. “I’m happy to talk about this stuff, but I’m also an artist. I find it much more fulfilling when people cover the craftsmanship and the choices I’ve made in my art versus everything surrounding that. It’s a common thing with women; if you were to run the test of what journalists write about us, you’ll find women are judged and scored much less frequently on the merit of their work.” (She definitely has a point—just ask Taylor Swift.)
In the album’s companion book, Palmer acknowledges that while she is first and foremost a songwriter, part of her has always been a memoirist, too. “I don’t just want people to know my songs, I want them to know…me. ME, not just the songs. ALL OF ME,” she wrote.
I’m pretty sure that if Amanda could rip out her heart and lay it on the table for us to get a better look at, she would. And she hates that she can’t. But since she can’t, she makes music.
Amanda has a lot of people in her life, and many of them are strangers. She couchsurfs. She crowdsurfs. She reads every comment on Patreon. And while plenty of celebrities do Reddit AMAs, they’ll post a short paragraph or single line of response to questions—whereas Amanda writes gigantic, meaty text nuggets. She’s stayed at fan’s houses and hosted “listening parties” for patrons in places like Catskill and the New York Public Library. And she wants her art to be collective, rather than solipsistic in nature: she included fans in her songwriting on Intermission, penning lyrics for three tracks based off comments she received on Patreon posts (with permission). “Trying to capture that feeling of collective compassion in a song felt like a sacred task,” she says of the collaborations. “Everyone was entrusting me with all of these feelings, and I had to try and thread them together.”
Compassion has gotten her into trouble before. When the Boston Marathon bombing happened in 2013, the police went searching for the surviving terrorist in Amanda’s neighborhood (she spends a lot of time in Boston) and she felt inspired to write “A Poem For Dzhokhar,” an attempt at imagining herself in nineteen-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s shoes. Nobody liked it. Media outlets labeled the poem exploitative and egotistical; why did Palmer have to weigh in at all, they wondered? She was surprised by the response, though she felt fans understood her intentions. When they told Amanda it wasn’t her best work, she accepted it—but stood by the poem.
“Sometimes the people calling for progress the most loudly are also displaying the most hypocritical lack of compassion,” Palmer tells me of toxic Internet discourse. “Not only for the people they’re fighting against, but ironically, for the people they’re supposed to be fighting side by side with. That’s always a frustrating aspect of activism—when the flood of hatred and criticism and lack of nuance goes up like a wildfire in two seconds.”
In Intermission’s “Bigger on the Inside,” Palmer sings of an email sent to her by a fan whose father raped him. The fan asks her how she keeps fighting, and she replies via song that she hasn’t felt much like a fighter lately—but still wants him to know that “somewhere, some dumb rockstar truly loves you.” Her voice cracks, and there are sniffles. You believe her.
I ask Amanda how it’s possible to love so many people. How can she interact with fans to the furiously generous extent she does. Does that level of humanity ever threaten to destroy her?
The short answer is no. The long answer is one she tells me after stalling for time with “that’s a good question”—not a compliment for me so much as a moment of genuine self-reflection for her. “One thing I’ve learned to do over the years is make sure I have some boundaries so that I can take care of myself, to continue to be of service to others,” she says thoughtfully. “It doesn’t help anybody if I’m completely exhausted and fried and desperately trying to answer every last tweet and blog comment. I know that’s not possible, so I give myself massive latitude and blanket forgiveness for not being able to answer everyone, help everyone. That was something I really had to figure out in my twenties. All the Dresden Dolls fans in Boston and New York had my email—and eventually, I changed my email.” She laughs here, as if to convey: I liked their emails, I just couldn’t keep up with them.
“It doesn’t help anybody if I’m completely exhausted and fried and desperately trying to answer every last tweet and blog comment. I know that’s not possible, so I give myself massive latitude and blanket forgiveness for not being able to answer everyone, help everyone.”
Amanda considers it her duty to sit and listen to horrific and graphic and heartbreaking details of her fans’ lives whispered in her ear after shows and at book signings; abuse, rape, incest, the darkest of the dark, she says. Something about her invites confession, and she doesn’t feel that it’s a burden—on the contrary, she’s honored to act as a receptacle. She does have to remind herself it’s not her job to fix people or be anybody’s therapist. But now that she’s a mom, she’s hunting for a happy medium. She has less time to give.
“I really like being an ear for people,” she concludes. “If there is a burden, it’s that it’s so difficult to get the balance right. I always feel I could do more. I often need to shut everything off and go take a bath or sit in the yard with my kid and play with snow. That was one of the reasons I found it so difficult to make a decision about whether or not to have a child—I really loved this job and I was enjoying my life, and getting better and better at learning how to serve a community as a musician. I knew having a child was going to cut my time in half, at best. I had to sit down and think about whether I wanted to spend all of those living hours hanging out with and entertaining and changing the diapers of one person—or if I wanted to spend that energy and those hours working on my art and being a musical guidance counselor for my fans.”
Of course, you know the rest: she figured out she can do both. This album is the proof. FL