“Do me a favour. Don’t centre your entire article about ‘controversial Amanda Palmer’. Write about my music, I’d really appreciate it.”
Though her tone was relatively jovial, Amanda Palmer wasn’t kidding. She has reason not to. It’s been a strange few months for the New York native. On one hand, she is currently enjoying a creative purple patch; with 2012’s Theatre Is Evil earning critical acclaim even as Palmer brought new definition to the term “difficult second album”. On the other, she has emerged as a deeply polarising figure, thanks in part to high-profile incidents that would ultimately overshadow her work.
Following a lengthy row, Palmer successfully cut ties with Roadrunner Records and turned to Kickstarter, seeking $100,000 to fund her sophomore effort. In the end, she would receive over ten times that amount as fans contributed nearly $1.2 million before the deadline expired – it took a mere seven hours to hit the initial target. As Fight Like Apes and Zach Braff have learned in recent months, not everybody is convinced by crowdsourcing. In Palmer’s case, she broke a record and appeared a pioneer, highlighting a new way for independent artists to operate. Her next move destroyed goodwill and opened the floodgates as she led a recruitment drive for additional touring musicians, offering beer, hugs, high-fives, merchandise and gratitude but, crucially, no money.
The subsequent backlash saw everyone from journalists to bloggers to fellow musicians (notably Owen Pallett and Steve Albini) air their criticism. Palmer would eventually relent and pay the musicians but the damage was done, the gloss tainted. And then there was ‘A Poem for Dzhokhar’, published on Palmer’s blog in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing as suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid from police. Suddenly, Amanda Palmer, musician and artist, ceased to be a thing. Vitriol followed as she found herself accused of sympathising with a terrorist and trivialising a national tragedy despite protestations to the contrary.
The truth is that despite the polite request at the conclusion of our time together, Palmer’s music is perfectly capable of speaking for itself, when she allows it to. Ten years on, the Dresden Dolls’ brand of punk cabaret still charms while Palmer’s assertion below that Theatre Is Evil stands as her strongest work to date is a fair claim. But whether Amanda Palmer means to or not – and she is quite adamant that she does not – she has a knack for creating headlines outside of her art. It’s a complicated career, more than a little fucked up, the press clippings sometimes unfair, sometimes unsympathetically spot-on, but the siren that arrived shrieking in mime make-up over a decade ago shouldn’t expect to have it any other way.
The Grand Theft Orchestra is the latest in a long line of projects you’ve put your name to. How does it compare to past exploits?
Well, being in a band and being the front person or lead singer of a band is really different to playing solo or working in theatre because it takes a lot more energy, but it can be a lot more fun too. It’s definitely like performing at eleven because the band is huge and loud and bombastic and it’s more strictly planned. When I’m playing solo I can decide what I’m doing from one minute to the next, but with a band there’s more of a schedule but also a bigger noise.
There is the sense that Amanda Palmer, the artist, will never be fully realised, that there’s always a missing piece and that you’ll keep branching out in different directions. Did you feel any pressure when you were on Roadrunner to conform to certain ideals?
I never felt any pressure from them to be a pop star or anything, but I certainly felt really misunderstood, just in terms of the kind of paths we wanted to take and the sorts of resources that I thought we should put into the fan base, stuff like that. I never wanted to be a mainstream success at the cost of my happiness or the band’s happiness and that’s something that the label had a hard time understanding, so I was very happy to get away from that kind of environment.
Do you still feel misunderstood?
Sure, but if I was completely understood all the time I’d be a terrible artist!
It just seems that at the moment, whether it’s lazy journalism or something you’ve courted, you can’t read any kind of blurb or news story about Amanda Palmer without the word ‘controversial’ being attached.
I think journalists are going to say what they’re going to say and they function on the assumption that using the word ‘controversial’ means that their blog is going to get more hits. I don’t really let that bother me … there’s not much I can do about it. On a bad day I get depressed and irritated. and on a good day I feel like I’m in the absolute best company because all of my favourite artists caused some degree of controversy through what they were doing. So, I wind up feeling like I’m part of a very honourable lineage.
You seem to be able to deal with it pretty well but the last few months have been particularly rough in terms of reaction from journalists and even fellow musicians. When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d be talking to you, he remarked, ‘Oh, everybody hates her now…’ which is obviously quite a flippant statement but do you ever feel that way?
No, I don’t because the impression that the media gives and what actually happens in real life at my shows and in my work are two distinctly different things. I think people like to seek an extreme. I think the media likes to think that they can paint me into a corner but until the day that I’m making music nobody actually likes and nobody is coming to my shows, it’s just a losing battle for them.
That’s the thing, it’s kind of a strange juxtaposition given how well Theatre Is Evil was received. Was it a relief just to get it out there and see the reaction it got?
Yeah. I was ecstatically happy that the record was so critically well received because if it hadn’t been after getting so much controversial press over the Kickstarter itself … I would have been really fucked! (laughs) If I had delivered everybody a sub-par record that my fans were actually disappointed in, then I would have really been in trouble, but I really believed in this record. I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made and there’s a reason I’m still continuing to tour on it; there’s a lot of demand out there. So as long as those things are happening and my fan base is strong and supportive I can pretty much weather the critics and chalk it up to sour grapes and jealousy and all that kind of stuff.
It’s a victory of sorts. It looked like the album itself would be overshadowed.
Yeah, well, the triumph of the record is that everyone wanted to hate it and they couldn’t because it’s too good. The band was too good, the songs were too good, the production was too good. It was impossible to pan because the record was just too good! So that made me happy…
You mentioned the Kickstarter backlash. Were you at all relieved when Zach Braff stole some of your limelight recently?
No, because the thing that separates me from all the haters out there is that I find it impossible to take joy in somebody else’s pain.
Right… Kickstarter is a pragmatic system though it’s easy to see an established artist looking for money and assume the worst. It seems like a lot of people took you up wrong as to why you got involved in the first place.
Any new technology or system is going to have its growing pains, and if it means that there are a lot of artists out there that are going to see success and use tools that are going to help them to connect with their fans so that they can quit their day jobs and actually make a living playing music, and in order for that to happen, I have to take a bunch of the heat? I’m happy to take it. I’m happy to take it if it means that somewhere down the line when these systems are finally understood and fully accepted and everyone stops grumbling and complaining, that it’s actually a better world and a better ecosystem for the artist and I had to slog through the mud in order for that to happen … I think I’d look back on that and say that I didn’t regret it one bit.
You eventually put up a massive breakdown of what every cent would be spent on which exposed, to some degree, the financial aspect of what it means to be an independent musician in this day and age. You put yourself front and centre but did you anticipate such backlash?
No. I’ve never wittingly stepped into any kind of controversy, which is funny given that it happens time and time again, but I’d also rather be the kind of person who takes risks and who shares herself and pulls back the curtain and open myself up to criticism than to be the kind of artist that is cowardly and just toes the party line. When you take risks, the reason it’s a fucking risk is that you just don’t know what could happen. Sometimes it’s fantastic, sometimes it’s ecstatic and sometimes it’s devastating but I’d rather continue to take the risks than to play it safe and hide.
The pros and cons of being an artist doing new things and trying new things are never simple. I think a lot of it is also complicated by the fact that I’m a woman and people find that threatening and/or annoying. The thing that’s most interesting to me is to take the outside perspective on all of this and wonder what it says about the climate. All the criticism, pretty much the vast majority of it, has come from the American press. There’s been very, very little from the UK or Australian press.
I think the climate is really strange here right now. The income divide is getting more and more extreme. The resentment in all directions is at an all-time high, the economy is tanking, people are frightened, artists are frightened, everyone is frightened about all sorts of things, and I think the effect of that is that it comes out as targets – sometimes political, sometimes artistic – and finding myself in the line of fire, I just have to remember not to take it personally but to look at the greater context and ask why it’s happening. Why now, why here, why in this country and in this context? You come up with interesting answers.
You hinted there that it might be gender specific. Do you think that’s still an active prejudice?
Well, that’s always impossible to say. I’m not the kind of feminist who points my finger and says: “You’re just doing this because I’m a chick”, because you just never know. You can’t measure those things and to think they’re that simple is just idiotic. But… there’s definitely an on-going thread in my life and in the lives of the women artists that I’ve noticed where it does ruffle people’s feathers just a degree or more when we take situations into our own hands especially business-wise and financially and some people really love to celebrate it and grumble about it but we’re certainly viewed differently from our male counterparts.
I have noticed that you rarely see ‘male’ next to ‘singer/songwriter’ but you do occasionally see the female distinction made.
Yeah, and once every ten years Rolling Stone has a ‘Women in Rock’ issue. (laughs)
Do they still do that?
Oh, they used to do it back in the glorious ‘90s. Maybe they just don’t have enough women in rock now and they just have to do it once every 25 years … but yeah, we’re considered a minority in a strange way or at least a specimen worthy of a different kind of study at best! Again, in order to be the correct kind of artist, I could obsess about all of these things and let them get me down, or I could look at the lineage that I’ve come from and accept the fact that all of the artists that I grew up worshipping and revering all went through this stage of their career, and sometimes they went through their entire life being sort of reviled by the mainstream or reviled by the press because they were doing challenging work or people didn’t accept what they were doing or what systems they were using.
If that’s where I need to sit, especially surrounded, luckily, by a lot of really supportive fans and an extremely supportive music community and an incredible infrastructure behind me and a bunch of like-minded people doing things the way I do them and understand why I’m doing them the way I am, I’d actually rather be in that position than to be fully embraced and accepted because I chose the easy route.
Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra play the Academy, Dublin on Thursday, 18th July. Theatre Is Evil is out now.