Hold On Tight, Darling: Amanda Palmer Interviewed

"It’s about an entire culture pulling itself out of the dark..."

The voice is everything.

At the heart of every culture war, every lover’s discourse, every dissection of privilege and power, we are irresistibly drawn back to the question of who is heard or not heard, the politics of who shouts the loudest and who is kept silent.

“I'm not gonna match you,” Amanda Palmer once sang on ‘Ampersand’, a paean to the importance of retaining your own identity, “’cause I'll lose my voice completely.” On the 16th June 2015, the day that Donald Trump announced to the world that he would be running for US president, Palmer was already anticipating a new voice shaping the next chapter of her life. Her son would be born exactly three months later.

It wouldn’t be the last time that a major political event juxtaposed with personal events in the artist’s life; more recently, her new album ‘There Will Be No Intermission’ was recorded as the Kavanaugh trial was playing out across the world.

“We were literally glued to our phones in between takes, watching this cosmic battle of the sexes play out in Washington DC,” she tells me over the phone from upstate New York. “I’ll never be able to separate those events, the way I’ll never be able to separate the arrival of my child and the arrival of Donald Trump in my life; they showed up in my life at the same time.”

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Throughout her career, Palmer has never shied away from nailing her colours to the mast. As one half of self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo The Dresden Dolls, her work in the early-mid 00s already demonstrated her ability to combine the personal and political to dramatic effect, with a later string of solo albums continuing to challenge assumptions and tell stories around controversial topics. Nonetheless, the Boston-born musician still feels like she didn’t do enough at the last election.

“I was a rampant supporter of Sanders: I raised money, I gave money, I tweeted up the wazoo, I wrote songs… I mean, I did everything I could do to get the vote out for him. When Hillary won the nomination, I supported her, but I didn’t support her with full thrust,” she admits. “I feel incredibly guilty about that now. I should have tried harder and worked harder to get her elected, and I feel like we all let her down.” This time, she says, she’ll throw her weight behind whoever gets the Democratic nomination, regardless of whether she feels it’s the best choice. “I’m not going to make that mistake this time.”

‘There Will Be No Intermission’ is arguably Palmer’s most personal album to date, though that hasn’t stopped some of its songs being thrust into a political arena. ‘Voicemail For Jill’ isn’t her first song about abortion, for example, though it’s the first one where she feels has truly done the subject justice; regardless, a couple of far-right evangelical blogs declared it the devil’s work.

“There were a lot of songs that ended up on the cutting room floor, because even though I thought they were really valid contributions to my canon of songwriting, they just didn’t fit,” she says. “This is an autobiographical folk record, and the super on-the-nose political stuff and the really trashy punk stuff that I’ve written in the last seven years just didn’t fit.” It seems that the act of being Amanda Palmer out loud is enough to provoke.

‘Voicemail for Jill’ is one of several songs on the album to feature lyrics essentially crowdsourced from her fans, mostly through her Patreon community. “it’s not that I looked for lyrics to cut and paste, but I looked for a feeling that I could capture in a song,” she explains. “And then I went into my very solitary songwriting state… but feeling very accompanied. And I like that; even when I’m alone and in the bowels of solitary songwriting, I really like to feel accompanied. That’s what the Patreon has done really beautifully.”

Palmer has built her career around this kind of community-driven approach to making art. For her second solo record, 2012’s ‘Theatre Is Evil’, the project was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $1.2m; even the horn and string players were volunteers, though she ended up paying them retroactively anyway. It’s the kind of philosophy that’s so embedded in her work, she ended up writing a book about it.

“When I wrote my book The Art of Asking, I went to Twitter really frequently to ask for help on turns of phrase; things that that the thesaurus just wasn’t capable of, but I knew a bunch of human minds could help me solve.”

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On her Facebook fan groups, members will often post to say they ‘have an ask’, whether it’s life advice or help towards paying rent, something they see reflected in the musician’s work. Palmer certainly recognises it in her artistic DNA: “I’m so deeply social, and deeply collaborative, at my core that the idea of making art in a complete vacuum never really appealed to me.”

A book of photography, also titled ‘There Will Be No Intermission’, is being released simultaneously with the record, something that seems to have started life as a happy accident. “Poetically, it came about in almost as unplanned a way as the album itself. I hired these local upstate New York photographers, Khan & Selesnick, a very unique art design and photography team… I hired them to just do a couple of photoshoots from which I could pull some press photos and some album artwork.”

As it turns out, the resulting session was “incredibly fruitful” and soon began taking shape as an artwork in its own right – albeit one designed to accompany the record. “Guess it’s time to figure a way to put out a book,” she recalls thinking, “because there’s no way I’m going to fit this into album artwork.” She toyed with the idea of not making a full-length album at all (“Why fucking make a record? Why make a record at all in 2019?”) but decided against it.

“I learned the difficult lesson over the last four years that all sorts of people – the far-out mainstream people, the casual Amanda Palmer fans, and even my immediate, card-carrying, super tuned-in patrons – everybody really likes the experience of a record, the experience of taking one consolidated moment and sitting down with a bunch of songs,” she says.

And herself? “Oh yeah, hypocritically, I’m also one of those people; even if I’m a massive fan of an artist like Nick Cave or Lorde, I’m probably not going to tune into their output if they’re releasing it every three weeks. But if they give me an album I’ll sit down and listen to it.”

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As such, Palmer went into the studio and laid down her soul. ‘There Will Be No Intermission’ is an astonishing record: 20 tracks long, half of which are interval pieces, the album journeys from the epic dread of ‘The Ride’ through to the beautifully sad ‘Death Thing’, with songs in between covering everything from Judy Blume to her young son Ash. Understandably, she wanted a team she could trust around her for such a personal project. Long-time collaborators John Congleton and Jherek Bischoff fit the bill.

“There was no fucking way that I was going to go into the studio with a stranger on this record,” she tells me. “John and I have become quite close friends over the last collaborations that we’ve done, and I really trusted him. Jherek and I are really close friends…”

“I didn’t really think about much until I got out of the studio, but once I was finished with that three weeks of dream fever that was making this record, I realised how profound it was that it was a couple of men that I’d chose to doula and midwife this record into the world. And I actually feel like that’s very important and significant, that I had these male allies creating this statement with me.”

Does Palmer believe men have a role to play as feminist allies? “Oh god yes. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t some kind of battle about gender. If there are two sides to this battle, it’s about truth and compassion vs. bullshit. It’s not a gendered battle. And men have been… what do I want to say? Not really victimised, but…”

She pauses, obviously aware that these are heavy words, especially once they’re at the mercy of the internet.

“Men have suffered the consequences of patriarchy right along with women. And I might get myself into deep shit for saying that, but when women suffer, men suffer. And when men suffer, women suffer. And if you’re following the plot here: when anyone suffers, you don’t have general peace and harmony.

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“I think the important thing that everybody has to remember is that #MeToo is not strictly about women,” she continues. “It’s about an entire culture pulling itself out of the dark and evolving into a status where we are not afraid of the fucking truth… And I think it’s everyone’s job to fix it. Women have been absolutely pulling their weight in a really admiral way lately, but men have also been stepping up. I watched that beautiful clip from the Brit Awards the other night. I don’t know if you saw it…”

The 1975 reading that Laura Snapes quote, from the Ryan Adams piece? “Yeah. And you know, watching men slowly shutting out their own fear about standing up and demanding equal pay, equal rights, and equal treatment, it’s beautiful. I think part of the problem with feminism is that it’s been left up to women for decades, and it just doesn’t work. Everyone needs to work on it to fucking fix it.”

Palmer has seen her fair share of industry bullshit over the years. Looking back, I ask whether there’s anything she’d advise a young artist starting out today.

“One thing I think applies to everything, and I feel like I’m still learning at 42, is that I really believed for a long time that there was a higher authority: when it came to music, when it came to touring, when it came to packaging,” she says. “And I gradually found out, after lots and lots of runs around the rodeo, that every time I believed someone at a record label, I was wrong. Every time I believed them instead of going with my artistic gut decision, every time I believed them and put faith in their authority because I felt insecure, I was always wrong.”

“And I always turned around thinking, ‘Why did I believe these guys? Why did I not actually listen to my gut? Why did I not follow my obvious instinct? Why did I believe these guys – and it was always guys – why did I believe that these guys knew what an Amanda Palmer show was supposed to feel like when I already knew? And bit by bit, I just lost all of that faith off my table, replaced with what I now have, which is a really, really unshakeable faith in my own convictions: that when it comes to my artwork, my community, my tour, my recordings, that I actually know better than fucking anybody, because I created it.”

Even then, it stayed with her: “I had to hear that eye-rolling, mocking laughter so many times that my faith in myself was always shaken, because it’s very hard to be a woman sat in a room of seven men who are all rolling their eyes at you, and not wonder if perhaps they’re right.”

Above all else, Palmer wants to see action. She’s sick of the Weinsteins, the Trumps, the fiddlers stalling on climate change talks while Rome burns. I mention 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s speech at Davos, and her rejection of the soft, easy platitude of hope. Palmer agrees.

“I don’t really believe in blind optimism. I believe in a global humanist compassion, and hard work and perseverance to hold each other through this experience called life. I don’t think optimism or pessimism have much to do with it – there’s only action. And you can pontificate all you want, and you can have all the opinions you want, but it doesn’t really matter what your fucking opinion is. It matters what you do.”

We return to the voice: its operations, its vitality, its limitations. You still believe things can change though, right?

“Oh yeah. I am Amanda Fucking Palmer,” she says very carefully, “and I am made of hope.”

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'There Will Be No Intermission' is out now.

Words: Matthew Neale

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