Amanda Palmer: “this is the future of music”

Amanda Palmer has nurtured her passionate niche of fans for a more than decade. When she raised $1.2 million through Kickstarter in 2012 to fund her new record, the former Dresden Dolls singer became a poster child of crowdfunding. INSP’s Laura Kelly catches up with Palmer to talk about her new book The Art of Asking as she races down the Massachusetts Turnpike… and discovers the admiration she has for a veteran Spare Change vendor.

When the music industry finally gets its act together, finishes going through its painful digital rebirth and settles on a formula that works for the future, you can bet there’ll be a chapter in the text book on Amanda ‘Fucking’ Palmer.

The former Dresden Dolls singer, purveyor of insatiably emotional ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and owner of a pair of eye-popping eyebrows, has had a passionate niche of fans for a decade. But the reason the world sat up and took note is that she, more than anyone before her, worked out a way to turn her tribe into a viable business plan.

When she raised $1.2 million through Kickstarter to fund her album Theatre is Evil in 2012, proclaiming “this is the future of music”, the world beyond ‘her people’ sat up and took notice. She became a poster child of crowdfunding, TED (her talk’s had in the region of 10 million views), Twitter (more than 1 million followers) and feminism. Palmer also became a lightning rod for controversy and one of the most hated figures on the internet.

Talking to INSP as she races down the Massachusetts Turnpike from Boston – after visiting her friend while he went through his latest round of chemotherapy – to upstate New York – where she is about to launch a work-in-progress musical called The Bed Show that she’s based on her music – Amanda says both her philosophy and thick skin goes back to her days as a street performer in Boston. As a human statue called the 8-Foot Bride, she’d busk for cash in Harvard Square and was part of a ‘street eco-system’ that included “buskers and vendors and newspaper hawkers and homeless people”.

Prominent among these was the local street paper vendor. “I loved that guy,” says Amanda. “He’s been selling copies of Spare Change newspaper in Harvard Square for 20 years. He sells them operatically. He was often my company as I stood there as a statue.

“He was part of that landscape that was a huge part of my life in my 20s. We all lived in a somewhat different stratosphere. I loved, absolutely loved, those years of my life and feeling like I was really part of the architecture of the city. We all kind of took care of each other.

“That was part of what really informed my philosophy about the music community and what is possible when you build and enter and maintain an ecosystem like that.”

Handily for future scholars, Amanda has spent the last year locked away refining her world view into The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help). The memoir-cum-instruction manual explains how she went from street performer to digital pioneer and why asking for help is “an act of intimacy and trust”.

Reading it feels very much like a passionate late night conversation, putting the world to rights with a good friend over bad red wine. But then, as someone who was there when The Dresden Dolls first played the UK, I know what side I’m on.

Does she worry about how critics will react? “Yes, I’m terrified,” she admits. “I’m incredibly proud of the book – but I also discuss a lot of really difficult personal things in this book, especially revisiting old controversial traumas and reopening those doors and discussions.

“The idea that I could put this book out into the world and it would simply by ripped to shreds or misunderstood, or waved in the air as yet another example of how I am a flaming narcissist who doesn’t understand the real world is a profound fear. But, by that same token, it’s why I had to write the book.”

Combining the personal and the polemical, while using the author’s own life as case study, The Art of Asking sits among a new wave of feminist writing that includes Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham. Like Lena and Caitlin, criticisms of Amanda have been widespread and mostly centred around her supposed self-obsession and her “unexamined privilege”, as though her comfortable upbringing precludes her right to take help that is willingly given, or to tackle misogyny when she runs up against it.

Amanda refuses to make life easy for herself. She’s mouthy, bolshie and forever wading into the latest debate – her sympathetic poem for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comes to mind. But if you don’t believe that much of the criticism is bound up in sexist ideas about how women should behave then you need only look at how differently her husband (author of Coraline, American Gods and Stardust) Neil Gaiman is treated. Spoiler: it involves significantly fewer death threats.

Amanda with (some of) her fans

The intimations that Amanda secured her book deal because of Neil – or that he wrote it for her – have been as predictable as they are depressing. Neil did have some input, Amanda says, but only to help tell the story of their relationship and how they became the geek world’s equivalent of Brangelina.

“We are a bizarre couple of people,” she explains. “We work constantly, we travel constantly. We have our ups and downs, we have our relationship troubles. But there is a profound support when it comes to our work. We may be standing there arguing about who was or wasn’t supposed to pick up so-and-so from the airport but when it comes to standing by, understanding and defending each other’s artistic choices, we are each other’s biggest champions.

“It is the rock on which our marriage is built. I wish it for any artist in a relationship with another artist.”

Since Amanda and Neil travel independently so much, parts of their relationship are carried out through Twitter – gold for their legions of fans, who follow them like a fairy tale happily-ever-after. “All I try and remind people who idealise our relationship is, there are plenty of conversations we don’t have on Twitter, guys,” laughs Amanda. “As Amanda Palmer, the Queen of Too Much Information, I find it really difficult to look at the internet and watch people waxing romantic about Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s perfect marriage. I want to slam my head against the desk.”

To navigate the choppy waters of intense love and infamy, Amanda returns again and again to the lessons learned on the streets of Boston, painted white and dressed in a second hand wedding dress. Her strategy for the “future of music” – studied by fledgling musicians, artists, record label executives and Bono alike – is, she says, the same as the tactics the Spare Change vendor followed. The advice for vendors, buskers or anyone trying to crowdfund on the internet is that same.

“Don’t focus on the people who are walking by and ignoring you, who have absolutely no interest in you. Focus on the small sliver of people who actually are engageable,” she says.

“Don’t get caught up in the painful dialogue of the other 99% of humanity who are walking by. If you focus on the people who are engaging with you and who are stopping, who are open to the conversation, you’ll keep your head about you. Ultimately you have to ask who are your people? If it’s one in a thousand people, that one in a thousand people is your audience. Love them.”

With this in mind, Amanda has pledged to her husband, her editor and her mum that she’ll avoid all reviews of the book. Which is fine in theory, but following her own advice is more problematic when the mud starts flying. “My job at the end of the day – hopefully – isn’t to be a defender of Amanda Palmer, but to be an artist,” she says. “Sometimes the former job can be more tempting because there’s a greater sense of satisfaction in it or there’s more ego tied up in it.

“All of my role models – and especially all of my female role models – grapple with the pain of controversy and anger. The ones I see succeeding succeed because they prioritise their actual work. On my bad days I forget that. On my good days I remember that the ability to have emotions and synthesise them into art is the gift I’m able to give back to the world – otherwise I am just a whinging bitch.”

The Art of Asking is out now (Piatkus).