Amanda Palmer interview: music, marriage, Taylor Swift, Neil Gaiman

Amanda Palmer chats to us about her music, fame, family, controversy and Shaun The Sheep...

Amanda Palmer is very, very pregnant when we chat, and in anticipation of the birth, she, her doula, and her husband (novelist and sci fi-icon Neil Gaiman) have retreated to the rural backwoods of Tennessee (she has since given birth to her son, Anthony).

It’s a rare departure from the public eye for Palmer who, over the course of her long career as an author, performance artist, singer, and songwriter, has continually drawn attention, both positive and negative, for her fearless commitment to saying and doing whatever she damn well feels like. Her no-filter emotional honesty and complete disregard for political correctness is especially refreshing in an era in which music seems so antiseptically packaged, when a listener can almost imagine the multiple takes it required Taylor Swift to get a giggle between verses just right.

But Amanda Palmer is not Taylor Swift: she appears naked in public, (most recently at 8-months pregnant, in full body paint, as a living statue in order to promote the New York Public Library’s early literacy program); she will sing about abortion; she openly identifies as bisexual.

Most controversially, Amanda Palmer had eschewed big music labels in favour of raising money straight from the fans. She famously raised $1.2 million from Kickstarter in 2012, and now she’s turned to a site called Patreon, on which fans can choose to donate on a continual basis, sponsoring Amanda every time she produces a ‘thing’. Perhaps it’s the purest representation of the principle she put forth in her TED talk and book, The Art Of Asking: an artist working as a direct result of support from her audience.

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Even after making her name as the lead singer and songwriter of the Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn, the most famous duo she’s a part of might be her marriage with Neil Gaiman. Like rulers of medieval kingdoms combining their land, their wedding brought together two massive internet fandoms that can get a glimpse into their lives through their active presence on their respective blogs and social media. Eventually, pictures of their child will make their way to the internet. But for now, Amanda and Neil are enjoying some time alone with their newborn. Even the most public figures sometime need a little private time.

So why did you decide to do the baby thing in rural Tennessee of all places?

We really wanted to get away from life as we knew it, you know, one of the blessings and the curses of being two freelancing artists is we can go where we want and do what we want, but we always have work and chaos hanging over our heads. So we wanted to treat this birth like a retreat, and so we wanted to get as far away as possible from the stresses of work, and life. We can’t really take maternity and paternity leave – we don’t have bosses. So we really had to carve that space and time out for ourselves, and this was the way we chose to do it.

Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?

It’s a boy!

Congratulations! Do you have a name picked out?

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Yeah, we’re planning on calling him Anthony after my friend who just passed away.

That’s beautiful. Do you have dreams for your child? If he turns out to be a Wall Street banker….

I hope he’s a really creative Wall Street banker. I hope he’s a happy, fulfilled, compassionate Wall Street banker. They need them down there.

Do you have plans for when or how you’ll introduce your son to you and Neil’s more controversial art as he grows up? Is there an age where you think, “Okay now he can read Coraline without getting nightmares”?

Oh god. You know that is not something I have given a lot of thought. My guess is we will follow the interests of the kid and not the other way around. And the day he looks up at me and says, “Can I read one of those weird books that everyone is always talking about that Dad wrote?” I’ll deal with it then [laughs].

But other than that, I think our lives, and our environment is so filled with people and reading and art and music being played and there’s going to be a certain amount of it that’s just in the environment. It’s not going to be like all of a sudden we just set Saturday aside for ‘art time’. This kid is going to be living in an art house, so it’s going to be a little inescapable. If anything, I’ll want to hope he doesn’t get inoculated.

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Are you nervous about the day you have to explain Oasis or any of the more controversial aspects of your career?

Nope! That doesn’t worry me. I’m much more worried about him accidentally knocking someone up when he’s 16, and I really don’t have to think about that for a while.

I remember reading somewhere that you said you wouldn’t create art in a vacuum. Does the audience affect the type of art you do?

Well I think art is always fundamentally a relationship. And for some people it can be a relationship with God and the Internet, and for some people it can be a relationship with a bunch of tween girls, but it’s always a relationship somehow, and you know, there’s a big blurry mess of beauty when it comes to what the art is, versus how the art is exchanged and what relationship that then creates between the maker and the receiver.

Would you still create art if you weren’t being paid for it? If you needed a day job?

Sure. I mean, I think I was making art from the very beginning, from the time I was a little kid. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about capitalising on the art in a monetary way when I was a kid, or a teenager, or even in my twenties writing songs. To me, the important part wasn’t ever earning money as it was finding my place in the world, and in society. And also hoping, and figuring that if I hit that right, that if I figured that part out it might out. So I was never leading with the cash register.

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You bring up your history as a street performer a lot and how it’s affected your work. Are there any lessons from being a street performer that you think are essential to all art?

Yeah, I mean, I think one of the big fundamental lessons you learn as a street performer is that the entire world isn’t necessarily your audience, but some sliver of the world is. And your job as an artist is to find and accept whatever that sliver is and pay no attention to the rest.

So who do you think your audience is?

[Laughs] I don’t know – you’ll have to ask them! I mean, certainly the 6,000 people who are supporting my Patreon are the closest thing I have right now to an official tribe. But my audience extends way beyond that – when I tour, people buy tickets to come see me. When I put up videos, people watch them. That audience extends far beyond the 6,000 patrons. But that’s fine. You know, the fact that I have thousands of CDs, and listen to the radio, and can hum a lot of songs, I think necessarily makes me a fan of all of those people even if I am not constantly engaged with them on a 24/7 basis.

You know, I think it’s not really useful to strictly define who is a fan and who is not, and who is a supporter and who is not, because there are so many spots on the spectrum where you can be engaging with an artist. And the fans can go in and out, and that’s fine, and part of the continuum.

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Taylor Swift had that open letter to Apple music, saying she was going to withhold her music until they paid artists for the first three months. Did you read that, or have any thoughts?

Yeah, I read that. I think Taylor Swift, as does every artist out there, from her blockbuster size on down to the garage band on the corner, has every right to run her business the way she wants to. I’m a music business libertarian in that sense. I think if Taylor Swift wants to do nothing but release her shit on 8-track and demand that her fans pay $50 an 8-track, that’s her prerogative. Just as it is my prerogative to release everything totally free on my website. And really everything has to be acceptable.

And if Tay-Tay wants to release her stuff on 8-track only, and I want to release my material totally free on the internet, the most ideal situation is that we can regard each other and respect each other’s choices. You see very little of that in the music industry. Mostly what you see is artists just spending all of their time criticising each other, and it doesn’t help anything.

As far as her letter goes, I think one of the things that’s so difficult nowadays is the general audience of people that artists are trying to educate, and especially if you’re talking to 14-year old girls. I don’t know if you can really explain the subtleties of how the industry works and why things happen and why certain things get promoted and why people get paid, but in a certain sense Taylor Swift waving the flag of Apple and condemning Spotfiy is like trying to make a progressive health argument that everyone should go eat at McDonalds and not Burger King. It doesn’t necessarily move the entire agenda forward. And one always has to bear in mind what’s in it for this artist, what kind of deal does Taylor have with Apple that she doesn’t have with Spotify, and you know, those things are harder to explain to your average young, dumb music consumer.

But, at the end of the day, she’s allowed to do what she wants, and every artist is, so good on her for carving her own path and making her own decisions. I think that’s great.

On your Twitter you’ve definitely been a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Do you think there’s a parallel between the way he’s run his campaign and The Art Of Asking?

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Absolutely. The Art Of Asking can be applied so easily to the systems of music business, politicians, and non-profits, and national public radio. Because we’re all in the same boat: we are trying to create something from scratch and it requires a groundswell and a grassroots, if the money is not going to be coming from a corporate parent. And I am so excited. Election season coming up is so fascinating to me, but it is I’m so just dumbfounded on the one hand that so many people in this country could be supporting Donald Trump. Who are those people?!

Yet on the other hand, watching the legacy of Occupy, and the fire it has lit under this generation’s ass to try to turn things around manifesting in something concrete, like support for Bernie Sanders who’s not afraid to stand up and say, “This is ridiculous. Money and a billionaire class are running this country. We need to fix it.” is just as inspiring as Donald Trump is terrifying.

You’ve collaborated with both of your parents, your mom in The Art Of Asking, and you’ve posted about recording with your dad. What’s that been like?

Highly therapeutic [laughs]. My folks actually divorced when I was a baby and so my dad and I didn’t have a close relationship until I was in my twenties, and we sort of rediscovered each other. And making a record with him, especially while being pregnant, felt like a cosmic, karmic win.

And also putting my mom in that chapter in the book felt like a really important thing to state, especially because my mom, as far as the book is concerned, my mom represents the person who is creatively bent but isn’t considered an artist, which is such a vast part of the population. And that anecdote in the book about really having my own ‘come to Jesus’ about my mother’s own artistry, and her lack of recognition as an artist, was really an important realisation, and such a universal issue in a world where we as a culture draw such a nasty boundary between who an artist is and is not.

You’re in an interesting position, where both you and your husband are both well recognised, famous in your fields. Do you have different approaches to fame?

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We’re on the same page about mostly everything. We make a very different kind of work. Neil’s work isn’t performative, it isn’t stage work, and I think we compliment each other incredibly well, and I think one of the biggest and most beautiful telling differences between Neil’s work and my work is that he tends to spend his creative energy shifting and mixing things in such a way that they’re beautifully unrecognizable, into the world of fantasy and sci-fi and other universes.

And my approach tends to be the opposite – I’m constantly setting myself the challenge of how literally I can bare my soul without getting into trouble and in a sense we’re sort of yin and yang that way, but I think it’s also probably what really attracted us to each other. Because you don’t want to partner up with an exact version of yourself – you want to find someone who’s going to compliment you, and in that way we’re almost perfect compliments.

In that way, we can also challenge each other. We love reading each other’s work and listening to each other’s thoughts and supporting each other’s bizarre ideas. And very luckily we’re never in direct competition with each other. There’s something really nice about that, that we kind of get to hang out in the same house but we’re never in the same chair, or trying to take up the same space.

Do you have a favorite Neil Gaiman book or story?

Yeah, I have a couple. I love, I deeply love The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. I also got to watch that one come into being so I have a special relationship with it. But some of his older stuff… As a person having met him as a non-Neil Gaiman fan, I still get to discover his older work, which is nice, and I get to piece together the puzzle of historical Neil Gaiman as I get to know him in the present, which is a fun project.

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He wrote a comic, there’s Sandman comic called A Game Of You that he gave me [when] I think we had only known each other a year or so. It was the first comic that actually made me cry. And I remember at the very, very end, the closing scene in this comic, I remember thinking, “Fuck! This is a comic! It’s not supposed to make me cry! This must be that masterful Neil Gaiman shit they were talking about.” And so being able to really admire him is wonderful, and I really take great joy in being able to admire and appreciate and respect his work. I think that’s so important.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that the two of you have an open marriage. Is that still the status of the relationship?

That’s sort of the overall status of the relationship, although being nine months pregnant in rural Tennessee out here, neither of us is doing much sleeping around [laughs]. It’s like a lot of other things in both of our lives, things are flexible, but there’s a heavy-duty level of communication involved. Our open marriage has been the polar opposite of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. We’re just totally honest with each other, and we’re very, very careful with each other’s feelings.

I think when people hear about an open marriage, they assume jealousy must come into play.

Well, guess what? It does. And that’s part of why it’s more difficult in some respects to try to maintain an open marriage than it is a closed one, because you have to grapple with all of those emotions, and you have to be willing to have the hard conversations, and constantly redraw boundaries and revisit rules, and have difficult, emotional conversations. Whereas if you’re in an off-the-shelf monogamous relationship, a lot of people just don’t discuss those things – it’s too scary, it’s too volatile, it’s too hard. And while there’s difficulty in it, it also makes for a very strong bond when the agenda at the end of the day is you put each other first and you take care of each other.

In your career, you’ve obviously been no stranger to controversy. Are there any things you’ve done that you regret, or that you’d do differently?

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No, I don’t think that’s ever useful. I mean, there’s definitely decisions where I look back and it’s fun to imagine what would’ve happened if I had turned left instead of right or vice versa, but I really don’t think regret is useful, and I’m certainly very happy now, and the biggest lesson to be learned is, as long as you’re moving forward and you’re mindful of being happy in the present, going back and trying to fuck with the space-time continuum in retrospect just doesn’t serve you.

Leave it to the sci-fi.

Exactly. And while we can live a life of woulda, shoulda, coulda, and ‘if only this’ and if only I had grown up here instead of there, and had these parents instead of those parents, and been educated here instead of there, and had dated this person instead of that person, I mean, one could drive oneself absolutely nuts. Relationship choices, artistic choices, whatever… I think it’s much more healthy just to look at yourself as the sum of decisions that you’ve made and be very pleased that you still exist [laughs] and move forward with whatever it is that you’ve learned from that entire stew of decisions.

So are you consuming any media while you’re out there? Any movies you’ve seen recently, or TV shows you’re catching up on?

We’re reading a lot. I’m generally not a TV person, and we don’t really have internet access out here, but we brought a ton of books, and we’ve been reading a lot.

So what’s your favourite non-Neil Gaiman book?

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I don’t think I have a single favourite. I have some standbys that I love giving to friends, but I don’t have one single favorite book or author. Things tend to shift through time. There’s a wonderful book on Zen called Dropping Ashes On The Buddha by Seungsahn, this wonderful Korean Zen master. I’ve probably bought 25 copies of that book over the years and given it to various friends. And we’re going to try this weekend to see Straight Outta Compton.

I’ve heard good things.

Yup! And Shaun The Sheep. Those are the two movies on our to-do list before I go into labour.

If you were to teach a course for those who wanted to be artists, what would the class be called?

‘Don’t Come To Class And Go Out And Street Perform Instead’. Show up at the end of the semester and tell me what you’ve learned.

Amanda Palmer, thank you very much! And congratulations on the safe delivery of young Anthony!

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