Monday I first heard an Amanda Palmer song. By Tuesday I was trying to help her find a venue for a free concert in Chicago and on Wednesday we spoke.
Fast world, this.
The song, "Ukulele Anthem" was in a YouTube video sent by a Cleveland friend. Palmer, a "punk cabaret" singer, is seen standing on a platform before the Sydney Opera House, wearing some kind of a harness, and trailing white streamers in the stiff harbor breeze, whaling away at a ukulele, this humble near-toy of an instrument, which she turns into a metaphor for bravely creating whatever it is you feel like creating, unpolished though it may be. "Ukulele small and fierceful, ukulele brave and peaceful," she sings. "You can play your ukulele too."
Works for me. I posted it on Facebook and tweeted it and sat down to listen to a few of her other songs, which range from a bawdy romp in praise of pudenda ("Map of Tasmania") to a confessional ode to the teen fiction icon Judy Blume to the tearful "Bigger on the Inside," whose opening lines are a spot-on indictment of online snark ("You'd think I'd shot their children, from the way that they are talking. And there's no point in responding, 'cause it will not make them stop.").
What intrigued me first about Amanda Palmer is the honesty, humor and intelligence of her lyrics, underscored by the sense of her pushing the limits of her ability. It's one thing to caper around nearly-naked in a music video when you're Miley Cyrus, or sing when you have the pipes of Lady Gaga. Quite another when you're, as she once put it herself, describing her initial critical reception as half of the Dresden Dolls, "the fat, hairy, obnoxious attention-getter" with a vocal range of about half an octave. That takes guts, and after hearing a few songs I wondered if she ever came to Chicago. Tap, tap, tap: yes, Friday in fact, speaking to the HOW Design Conference, going on this week downtown, in her role as a crowdfunding guru—in 2012 she turned to Kickstarter, ending up with $1.2 million from her adoring fans, which led to a TED talk, seen 6 million times, on the power of drawing sustenance from others, leading to a best-selling book, "The Art of Asking."
She slept through our appointed time to talk, but two hours later had a good excuse. Two good excuses, actually.
"Pregnant rock star," she laughed. "It's the worst. I don't recommend being a pregnant rock star."
She and her husband, hugely-popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman, are expecting their first child in September.
At a performance in Dallas in April, she said she would be "disappearing into motherhood." True?
"I am not," she said. "I'm about to embark on a five-week trip to the UK, to tour and record my little ass off."
"Why!?" I asked, in a tone of sincere horror.
"Good fucking question," she replied. "I don't know. I decided it would be a good idea to go over and promote my book."
She married Gaiman, who's 15 years her senior, in 2011. I wondered how that came about.
"Finding a partner who's supportive and enthused and unthreatened by my career was not easy," she said. "Finding a guy whose very manhood is not threatened by the hugeness of my universe was no easy task. That's one of the real attractions of Neil. He didn't even register as a potential romantic partner. I met him and thought, 'He's weird. He's old. Who is this guy?' As we got to know each other, we recognized each other in a deep, fundamental way. We come from very similar emotional backgrounds. We developed the same desperately-loving relationship with our fan bases. Though our genres are totally different, we both get each other."
With a million Twitter followers, she periodically finds herself in the middle of the usual nasty Twitter kerfuffles-- particularly the $1.2 million on Kickstarter, by far the most ever raised there by a musician, which cast a new, harsh light on her practice of sleeping on sofas in fans' homes while on tour and paying local musicians in beer. She told Salon last year that "a little bit of the magic drained out" after that, and the unfair slur "millionaire who doesn't pay her musicians" stuck to her like an ill-advised tattoo—it's the most common reaction I got to floating her name. Although, as often happens with Kickstarer, by the time she got done sending the incentive gifts back to those who funded her, and paying for the album it was underwriting, there wasn't anything left. But when I asked if Kickstarter had been a poisoned chalice, given the ill will it engendered, she disagreed.
|Photo by Shervin Lainez|
Well, glad I did then. Palmer said that, in general, the online world seems less vile than just a year or two ago. "The conversation feels like it's shifted," she said, suggesting people are beginning to suspect, "maybe human beings are on the other side of this snark." (I hope to tuck myself into that group of sympathy-worthy humans, since I imagine that writing about Palmer as an outside observer will strike many of her fans as Bad Form, though I would point out to them that the right to honestly assess the world is not her exclusive domain; others may partake, too).
Being so new to her huge universe, I thought I'd better seek out expert judgment, and consulted Marty Lennartz, the veteran DJ at WXRT. He called Palmer a "polarizing and controversial artist mainly because of her extracurricular activities. But she's a really interesting artist, both musically and visually. Her work with Dresden Dolls was a cool and weird goth cabaret act."
That sounds right. Now she's on Patreon, where an artist's online community bankrolls his or her efforts in an ongoing relationship: kind of a mob Medici.
"I now have 5,000 people in my life, lifetime subscribers , supporting me. I'll never need a label again," she said. "Never need press again."
"And yet we're talking," I said, in a crushed little whisper that she ignored. I'm proud of my art too.
Her HOW conference talk isn't open to the public, and I wondered why she didn't slip into town, deliver it, and leave. Why bother with a free show, being pregnant and all?
"You'd have to be me," she said. "There's no money involved. Literally no money. These venues, the friendly ones, just open their doors. I play. Everybody leaves, everybody's happy. It's pretty amazing. I have a bunch of fans who are practically family in Chicago. They said we would love to come to see you, but tickets [to the conference] are 700 dollars. It's an emotional level of showing up in town and not seeing your old friend. You carve out time to have lunch."
She put out an appeal for concert venues on Tuesday and, easily sliding into the spirit of the thing, I phoned The Hideout—they seem a pretty ad hoc kind of place—and they pointed me toward Schuba's, and Lincoln Hall. She's right, I thought, realizing I was making calls in the middle of the day for somebody I didn't know, people want to help, if you ask them. She ended up settling on the Old Town School of Folk Music, whose students noticed her request and lobbied to host the show. The administration there was delighted to be involved.
It's a very appealing notion: you fall, and trust somebody to catch you.
In Palmer's sharp, well-written book, she says that, among her early jobs, she was briefly a professional dominatrix, and I wondered if that didn't help her develop the approach of being supported by a community, since doms have a variety of clients who underwrite their lifestyles in return for being allowed to hang around.
"I don't think it's a stretch" she said. "It is an unusual but very interesting exchange of energy between a dom and a client, a freelancer in a room with a dude, and incredible amount of trust involved, not abusing that trust, and then dealing gratefully with monetary exchange, It can be beautiful. Those skills are useful in rock and roll, it's the same attitude, You want this thing, I have this thing, How can we gracefully exchange with each other?"
We were getting along so well, that I asked her how she would describe her voice. When I played her songs for my wife, she grimaced as if tasting sour milk. I told her it's a hurdle to get over, but once you do you hardly notice.
"As far as vocal stuff goes, that blindsides me," Palmer said. "I came out of fronting a cult cabaret band. For years and year, nobody ever criticized my voice. That was the voice I sang with, unschooled, unpolished, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey. I assumed that was a great voice, totally raw and unpolished. I actually have an allergy to pop vocalists. That doesn't sound real to me...There's a bunch of people out there who hear me and think I sound like a howling cat. People schooled in indie rock, they listen and they hear authenticity. I'm certainly never going to be everyone's taste."
I asked my Cleveland friend, who sent me the video on Monday how she knew about Palmer, and she said from her 16-year-old daughter. Since the teen started this, I suggested that she ask her daughter if she has a question for Palmer. and she did: "What do you do about imperfection?"
A good question. But she sent me the question after the interview, alas, though, having talked to her, I feel emboldened to guess how Amanda Palmer might respond. She'd say: You embrace imperfection. You are not only proud of it, but you are strong enough to put it out there for all to see, and hear, because everyone has flaws. Be strong enough to take the barbs and generous enough to return the hugs that come from being yourself, imperfections and all. I believe that is what she's saying.
At noon Friday I jumped on the Divvy bike and rode over to the HOW conference at the Sheraton, to listen to Palmer chat with blogger Maria Popova about crowdfunding. I was impressed with what she had to say, about being an artist and staking out your territory, and the way to find support for what it is you want to do. It was reassuring, in the sense that if an old system of creativity, like the "be-paid-by-a-newspaper" model, goes South, as it seems to be heading, there might be another way to skin that cat lurking around the corner. Palmer used a phrase that I liked, "baked in" several times, implying that certain difficulties are inherent to particular situations. I might assemble an edited transcript on the blog in the near future, if I decide it isn't dwelling in an unseemly and fanboyish fashion. Then, she whipped out a ukulele she had brought and played her "Ukulele Anthem," which I really savored, both because I enjoy the song, and second because there seemed a come-full-circle quality, to seeing her on a YouTube video from Australia Monday morning, to seeing her do the same song live 10 feet away Friday afternoon. Afterward, I went up and asked her to sign her book, and introduced myself, and wished her well with her pregnancy, and then blurted out, "You can sing," which was an awkward and inept thing to say, but from the heart, and a kind of apology, for playing my squint-and-judge media guy role, and she took it graciously, or maybe indifferently, and either way she hurried off and I jumped on my bike and blew down Randolph Street back to the newspaper, feeling very much in the zone on a warm day in May.