Amanda Palmer on being a “social musician” in the crowd-sourcing era
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In June 2012, Amanda Palmer became the first musician to raise more than $1 million on a Kickstarter solicitation. Having left her label, Roadrunner Records, she needed funding to release and promote her new solo album, Theatre Is Evil. She asked Kickstarter funders for $100,000. They pledged nearly $1.2 million.
The scale of the response was a surprise, but the enthusiasm wasn’t. Palmer has long been heavily engaged with her fan community. These days, she maintains a voluble presence on Twitter, where she solicits fans for ideas, lyrics, and local help with shows. But even in her early career, she was inviting fans to dress up in costumes and participate in and around her stage shows, and creating personal art packages for people who bought her albums. That commitment to fan interactivity has followed her through multiple collaborations (as half of The Dresden Dolls, with drummer Brian Viglione, and half of Evelyn Evelyn, with Jason Webley) and solo albums, plus an EP, Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele.
Heavily influenced by cabaret in her past music and presentation, Palmer moves in a poppier direction with Theatre Is Evil, but it’s still full of the alternating raw, screaming emotion and plaintive exhaustion that characterizes her previous music. She recently spoke with The A.V. Club about accessing all that emotion in writing and performing, performing private shows for fans, and how her marriage to bestselling fantasy author and Sandman creator Neil Gaiman works for them both.
The A.V. Club: Even more than most people who work in a variety of media simultaneously, you always seem to have 50 projects going at once. How do you keep up?
Amanda Palmer: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’ve always been a creative workaholic. I have never had a period of my life where I didn’t have at least half a dozen projects going on at once. I think it’s just the gasoline I run on. I actually find myself going crazy if I don’t have projects coming up. The minute I get a little bit of free time and space in my life, I am apt to cram it with new ideas and new projects. In fact, it’s a pretty terrible fucking habit, because it means I can often flood my own psychic inbox. [Laughs.] And wind up really feeling overwhelmed. The challenge in my life really is keeping the balance between feeling creatively energized and fulfilled without feeling overwhelmed and like I’m in the middle of a battlefield.
AVC: Do the projects you’re working on at the same time tend to feed each other or interfere with each other?
AP: Well, actually, the most beautiful times in my life—and it’s actually happening right now—is when everything collides, and every creative impulse can live under one umbrella. It’s one really nice thing about being a rock star. There aren’t that many other genres and umbrellas out there where you can attack a single project, and under that project, create theater, create music, create visual art, create social gatherings. Basically, you can work in any medium and it serves this larger project, which is called “the album.” But actually, the album is kind of a red herring. I love music and I love writing songs and I love making music, but sometimes I feel like I’m getting away with murder, because the album is just an excuse to do all of this other shit. [Laughs.]
AVC: You said in an interview back in 2010 that the album was finished in your mind, but you weren’t ready to record it, because you knew it would consume a year and a half of your life. What happens in your creative life when you focus on one thing for a long period to the exclusion of everything else? Can you do that?
AP: Well, yes, I can. And sometimes I have to. The largest example of that was going to the studio. I’ve been in a recording studio enough times to know that it is not the best place to multitask. Doing a couple of takes of a song and running out to check your email to talk to someone about video production really is not good. For the recording, I really thought about that strategically, and I was like, “Well, okay, where are we gonna record our record in order to actually have the most productive work environment?” And there was a part of me that would have been really excited to make my record in New York City, but I took the larger perspective and thought we’d be absolutely insane to do that. We’d be completely distracted. We would be around all of our other collaborators. We would be running a mile a minute to try and get other things done. We needed to go away. Usually what musicians do in that case is, they go out to the mountains. They go off to the country. They go to the desert island with the fancy recording studio. But I actually hate being in isolated places. Especially when I’m really trying to work creatively. That’s exactly why we decided to make the album in Melbourne, because Melbourne was very, very far away from real life. But it had fantastic city energy, and we didn’t feel like we were unplugging from society. We definitely focused. And a big part of that, funny enough, was just the time change. While we were working in the studio all day, everyone in America was asleep. We felt like we were working on another planet. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you select Melbourne specifically? What was the appeal there?
AP: I just had a love affair with Melbourne from day one. There’s something about the city and weather and the people and the cultural climate over there that just spoke to me. It was really like a love-at-first-sight kind of situation. I used to always complain in my 20s that I need to be somewhere warm, where it’s never freezing cold, but the cities in America that don’t get cold don’t speak to me. I don’t feel at home in them. I don’t feel at home in New Orleans. I don’t feel at home in Austin or L.A. And I just felt immediately at home in northern Australia. A lot of it was just about the people. Australians are—they’re crazy fuckers. The general stereotypes about Australians, you know, they’re very blunt. They’re very no-bullshit. They know what they like. Their art is out there. It’s a very supportive artistic environment. Melbourne is a really artistically energized city. And it’s also really small. It’s sort of village-y enough that you don’t feel like you’re getting lost. It just sort of had this magic about it that fit me like a glove that I didn’t need, because it was warm. [Laughs.] Also, Melbourne happens to have an absolutely fantastic state-of-the-art studio right near the center of town, where a lot of my heroes, like Nick Cave and so forth, have made some records. So I felt like I was pumping into the correct continuum.
AVC: You had the album planned in your head going in, but was it affected or reshaped by being made in the middle of that artistic community that spoke to you? Is that early-version album in your head the album we got?
AP: Yeah, I think going into the studio, my job was just to clear my desk as much as possible, get all of the psychic debris out of the way. Leave all of my notes for all the people who might come in wondering where I was. So that I could just focus on serving one purpose, which was, “Make this record sound the way it is in my head.” And anything for those two months that wasn’t serving that purpose, I put on the backburner. Which really ate away at a couple of my relationships, unfortunately. [Laughs.] My friends and husband didn’t take to that one too kindly, but I tried my best.
AVC: You talk specifically about getting psychic debris out of the way and the necessity of being comfortable and happy and supported in your environment, but so much of the album is about psychic debris.
AP: Oh, the irony of it all. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does having outside sources of stress or pain or disharmony help in any way to produce all of the anger in your music?
AP: Yes, when writing. No, when recording. Recording and touring, I think, is much more of an athletic feat. It’s not so much of an emotional marathon as it is a physical marathon. By the time I went into the studio, I already knew what I had to fucking do. I just had to make sure my body and my brain were in shape to do it. I think that’s the mark of a professional entertainer or recording artist, the, “I do not need to be miserable to sing a miserable song. I do not need to be angry to sing an angry song.” I can access that shit anytime I want to, but I have to be in shape to access it. Ironically, if I’m miserable, I can’t necessarily access my most miserable self. [Laughs.] It’s kind of like being an actor. You have to keep yourself in absolute tip-top shape so you can collapse in the correct way. That’s sort of what I did in the months leading up to going into the studio. I treated myself like an athlete, and I actually ate well and tried to clear the desk. And tried to get enough sleep, and just prepared for those moments where I knew I was only going to have one shot to deliver, and if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to get another shot.
AVC: How many of these songs are drawing on personal experiences?
AP: Pretty much all of them. I write from experience, and in the moments where I’m not writing from direct experience, I’m pulling my own experiences into a broader section, but I’m never writing about something I don’t understand or that I don’t feel.
AVC: When you left Roadrunner Records, was there an internal debate about whether to make the break? Did you have to add up pros and cons?
AP: Fuck, no. That was such a bad—[Laughs.] Once I really pulled the wool away from my eyes and saw what was really happening there, I had no doubts. I had to get out of there as fast as possible. Unfortunately, it took a few years to extract myself from the relationship, but I knew it was a bad one. I didn’t ever get drunk and in the middle of the night want to call them. [Laughs.] That never happened.
AVC: At that point, did you foresee this future of crowd-funding your work? Did you have a plan? Or was it more about getting out of the abusive relationship than planning the next relationship?
AP: It was more like, “Get out of the abusive relationship and don’t worry about what’s coming next.” I knew whatever was coming next, I was going to be fine, because I had a direct line to the fan base. And the fan base was there, and ready and willing to support me. So whatever I was going to choose for the next step, be it another indie label, or crowd-funding, or pulling it back and releasing my music on sheet music only, I knew the fan base would be there to catch me whichever direction I decided to fall in. Really, my relationship with them and their unflagging support was what gave me the confidence to give Roadrunner the finger and walk out that door without even remotely glancing back.
AVC: Is it true that they hold the rights to any future Dresden Dolls releases?
AP: Yeah, that gets kind of legally complicated. But technically, the band is still more shackled than I am. And I’m even still slightly shackled. Sometimes I worry about that. There’s miles of legalese involved in all that stuff. That was also just a cosmic timing issue. If I had been putting out this album as a Dresden Dolls album, I would have a whole different set of problems. But luckily I’m not, so I don’t have to worry about it.
AVC: You’ve gone to your fan base for ideas and lyrics as well as money—where did the crowd-sourcing process first start for you?
AP: It’s funny, you know… I think looking back, The Dresden Dolls always did some form of crowd-funding in the way I’m doing it now. Because there’s a difference between crowd-funding on Kickstarter and saying, “My goal is $50,000, and if I don’t reach it, I’m not going to make an album.” I’m going to make music no matter what. I’m basically using Kickstarter as a giant pre-order mechanism. The number of pre-orders just determines the scale of the project. But I was going to make this album, obviously, come hell or high water. The fans were just going to determine whether I had money for publicists and really simple nuts-and-bolts stuff like that. Because if we had budget X, we were going to be able to do this number of music videos, and if we had budget Y, it was going to be less. The Dresden Dolls, our hands were tied because of Roadrunner, but we could always buy albums from Roadrunner and repackage them ourselves. [Laughs.] We did that. I remember one Christmas, we did a giant crowd-fund, and we said, “Okay, we want to put together a Christmas package. Here’s the pre-order. We will go out and buy all of the supplies and see how many people want it.” We put the call out on our website, which was a forum. This was all, like, way pre-Facebook and pre-everything. This would have been way back in 2003 or 2004. We just simply did it through our website and through our mailing list, which we were diligent about keeping up-to-date at our live shows.
And we got a few thousand orders and Brian [Viglione] and I sat in my fucking kitchen. [Laughs.] We ordered a bunch of CDs from Roadrunner, and we packaged them along with really cool cards and really cool wrapping, and we did it to order. Musicians have been doing that since day one. The moment I left Roadrunner, and I really could see the power of my direct connection with the fans, I just started selling music to them directly. I put out my Radiohead record, and I basically did it with kind of an internal version of Kickstarter by putting the album up with five different packages, starting at a download for a dollar and going up to a really fancy package with vinyl and painted ukuleles for $500. I watched as the orders came in, and then we went into production after the orders came in. It was identical to what I just did through Kickstarter, I was just doing it off the back of my website. But then when Kickstarter came along, it was a logical next step, because artists were doing this all over the place. And Kickstarter just gave us this legitimized marketplace to do what we were already doing, but with a name and a system everybody can understand. There is some psychological jump that people have to make to go to an artist’s website and directly give him their credit card and spend money. The most hardcore fans will do it, but the casual fans won’t. Kickstarter, I think, just serves as a really benevolent middleman for those who might be slightly suspicious about whether this is a genuine transaction.
It really is psychological. There is no difference, quality-control-wise, between ordering a CD from Kickstarter and ordering a CD from an artist’s website. If the artist is a flake, you’re not going to get it either way. [Laughs.] But there’s something about doing it through Kickstarter that really does feel like you are working under the umbrella of a larger community and philosophy. I love that. And I’m happy to help it. I sort of felt like I was throwing my hat in the correct ring with Kickstarter, instead of just doing it through my website.
AVC: Kickstarter’s tiered reward system also inspires artists to get more and more creative about what contributors get for different levels of donation. One of the things you’ve done a lot with your premium packages is give fans direct access to you, through personal phone calls or doughnut meetings or private concerts. Have any particularly memorable experiences come out of those donation-related fan meetings?
AP: The one cool thing to point out is that it’s a snowball effect. You can sell cool, weird, creative access to your fans, and poetically, those moments of connection actually bring them closer to you, and make things even bigger and beautiful for the next time around. When I do a house party for $5,000 in Melbourne for a crazy loft filled with 50 kids who worked really hard to put the party together and pooled their money to buy it, the experience that I have with those 50 kids in that loft and hanging out with them from 6 p.m. until the early hours of the morning when I have to crawl into a taxi and go home—that’s an experience I never forget, and they never forget, and it really serves to feed the relationship in a way that it doesn’t get fed when it’s just me and 2,000 people in a theater.
In a way, if you look at the whole thing like a real relationship—i.e. the kind of relationship you would have with a lover or husband, or between two people, the parallels are all there. If you’re going to have a real relationship with someone, you need to spend real quality time with them. Those house parties and direct moments of connection that I do with the fans, whether it’s backstage or at their houses or wherever, it’s kind of the equivalent of taking the time in your real relationship and saying, “Let’s go off for the weekend and hang out and spend some time really talking, because all we’ve been doing for months is working and hanging out strictly with other people, and we haven’t gotten a chance to connect one-on-one.” When you do that with the fan base, all it serves to do is strengthen the communion. It’s a ripple effect, too, because those people then go forth and tell the rest of the fan base they had this really fantastic experience. We all got to hang out. It tightens the community, and then more people want to do it.
This brings up this other weird discussion, which is like, “What does that have to do with songwriting and being a musician?” And this is where things are getting really interesting right now. And really blurry. Because the critics and the naysayers out there are kind of looking at this and scratching their heads, saying, “Why should you have to go out and prostitute yourself doing all these things that you musicians shouldn’t have to be doing?” I look at that and just find it hilarious, because this is the part of the job I like. I love hanging out with the fan base. I love being social. I love trying crazy parties. To me, the music is almost an excuse to get to that part. This is not true of all musicians, and I think that’s what people have to remember. There are social musicians, there are antisocial musicians. There are musicians who love doing business and running their business, and there are musicians who can’t stand it. You cannot make a blanket statement about that. What’s been really fascinating to watch is, there’s a new paradigm and a new marketplace, and musicians and artists are having to now approach it from a new angle. There’s a new set of skills. Putting together a cool, artistic Kickstarter with a bunch of backer levels that are actually cool and creative and worthwhile and not cheesy is a skill in itself. Some people have that skill and some people don’t, and some people hate doing it, and some people love it. It’s like anything else. It’s truly the next step in music. You look at rock ’n’ roll, it’s like those who wanted to plug in and play and make a lot of noise, hooray for them when it happened. [Laughs.] And those who wanted to continue singing quietly around a campfire, they had to find another path.
AVC: You mentioned rock and being a rock star, but a lot of the pre-press for this album has been emphasizing you stretching yourself with ballads and pop. Musically or emotionally, does this feel like a markedly different album for you?
AP: I think it does, but not in the way that makes it feel like I’m making a bid for pop stardom, because I’m not. I actually can honestly say I can think of no worse living nightmare than being an actual pop star. It seems like a terrible job.
AVC: What’s your definition of a pop star?
AP: I go by the old-school definition. When I think pop, I think the stuff everybody—your big mass of humanity. The mainstream. Whatever the fringe isn’t. The other thing. [Laughs.] Right now, that’s Top 40. I listen to my music against Top 40, and there’s just no comparison. My music is still weird enough and challenging enough—you’re never going to hear it on pop radio, because it doesn’t speak that language. I would be perfectly happy and very excited if my music does reach a wider audience, because it’s somehow an easier leap for people to make, listening to the sound of this record vs. the sound of The Dresden Dolls. It’s certainly wasn’t that I’m trying to become huge.
In a weird and kind of ironic way, I really let myself—I hit an apex of confidence in 2009, 2010 when I was feeling very, very strong. I was leaving [Roadrunner], and I was in control of my life, and I had artistic credibility, and I could do whatever I wanted. “Whatever I wanted” actually ended up being giving myself permission to just write simple songs that came into my head. I didn’t have to out-clever myself anymore, which I think is my continually bad habit with my songwriting. I was really a fierce editor and filter if I thought stuff sounded too boring, or too simple. I’d deliberately go in and tweak and fuck things up. On this record, I just let myself be. And what came out the other side was not surprising to me. Not surprising to me that when I finally hit my songwriting stride, I was basically writing replicas of the music I fell in love with when I was 15 and 16 and the music that shaped me and made me want to be a musician. I let myself do it in a way I don’t think I could have let myself do it when I was in my 20s, because I was just too busy trying to prove myself as an original voice. But with this one, I felt like I had bought myself enough cred that I was allowed to just do what I wanted. It’s just a psychological jump, and of course I always could have done this. But there was something about hitting the step I had finally hit that somehow unlocked me to give myself permission to just write the simple songs that were coming into my head. That all combined with the freedom to put out the record the way I wanted…
Like, my first few solo years after The Dresden Dolls really were like watching a fucking, absolutely slap-happy crazy person get drunk on freedom and running around alone onstage going, “I can do whatever I want! I can do whatever I want! I’m all alone up here!” [Laughs.] It served its purpose. I definitely had friends taking me aside after shows saying, “Amanda, do you realize you talked for half of that entire show?” [Laughs.] And I would say, “Ooh, yeah, I know! It’s just so exciting, I can talk onstage. I can do whatever I want. I’m not in the band anymore, it’s just me.” I kind of got it out of my system. Now it’s time to go back and tighten things up and do a more presentational stage show. I’m ready. It’s just sort of a cycle.
AVC: With things like Wired’s story calling you and Neil Gaiman “geekdom’s power couple,” has it been weird for either of you as existing celebrities suddenly having part of your life be publicly defined by your relationship to another person?
AP: It’s a little weird. And I bristle at it, but I also don’t think it could possibly work as well with any other person. Everybody knows both Neil and I are extremely independent. If anything, I just feel the urge to make sure I run out there and yell at the crowd that I’m definitely doing my own thing, and I do not want to be defined by my relationship. The more confident I feel in my own work, and that I have my own independent voice, the more I feel like I actually can also collapse into the label of a relationship and feel absolutely fine about it. Because it’s Neil and it’s not some other random person, I think it actually works better. For some reason, Neil and I are remarkably similar when it comes to how we deal with our fan bases and how we deal with the Internet. I mean, I’m like, “Clearly keep that ring on while I’m posting naked pictures of myself,” but he does have a constant connection with the world out there, and with the net. It’s kind of like how I was talking about earlier—it’s its own relationship. I have my own long-term relationship with my fan base, and it’s something that would be so hard for someone else to accept. But since Neil and I are both experts at having a huge relationship with a lot of people, we can give each other the space to do it, and it doesn’t feel too weird. [Laughs.]
I was having dinner with a friend of mind the other night, and we were talking about how a lot of people think my relationship with Neil is extremely modern, and I actually think it’s incredibly old-school. It’s like these two—like the House Of Gaiman and the House Of Palmer [adopts a British accent] decided it would be an incredibly logical union to merge. [Laughs.] Our tour last year that we did together was sort of like a seven-night wedding reception, and our fan bases met and regarded each other—there is a lot of overlap as well, but not as much as you might think. It was like, “Okay, Neil fans meet Amanda fans,” sort of like, “Meet the parents.” I’ve been in other relationships when I’ve been on the road and had a huge fan base, and it’s a really specific thing to accept and handle. The fact that not only is Neil not threatened or jealous by my long-term obsessive relationship with my fans, but actually understands it, and one step further, is actually supportive of it and can take joy in it—I think that’s extraordinarily rare, and I don’t know where else I would have found that. I’m glad I found him. I like him. He’s nice.
AVC: Is there any plan to expand or repeat the Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer tour?
AP: It was really fun as a one-time thing, and I think it’s like a fantastic trick that we can pull out anytime we need to when we’re both in town at the same time. But I wouldn’t expect a Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer world tour anytime. We have enough relationship itself to collaborate on that we don’t need to pile extra work on it, if you know what I mean.