Interview: Amanda Palmer On New Music, Being Misunderstood, & How Nick Cave Changed Her Life

Amanda Palmer is currently calling Melbourne home, recording at Richmond’s famous Bakehouse Studios, embarking on a three-month residency at The Gasometer, and this week performing at the Sydney Opera House this week. The solo artist, author, former Dresden Doll and frontwoman of Grand Theft Orchestra front woman and solo artist is perhaps one of my most beloved artists, and it was a true honour to chat with her in person at Bakehouse Studios. As we set up for the interview we chatted about her son and how her family were enjoying their time here in Australia. Although just an interview, her warmth and candour immediately made it feel like we were old friends having a chat.

During our 40 minute conversation, we spoke about her music, her fans, her marriage to beloved author Neil Gaiman, love, hate, Nick Cave and the power of creativity among other things.

You’ve got a five year visa to live in Australia, will you be staying for the whole time?

*laughs* No – the purpose of getting the visa was to solve a bureaucratic nightmare that comes from not working and gigging full time. Every year that I wanted to come here and not be just gigging, it was a real pain in the ass, because the Australian Government couldn’t understand why I would want to come here and not work the whole time – but it’s because I like it here. That said, Neil and I are sniffing around for a more permanent place to settle, and Australia is on the shortlist.

You’re a fan of couch-surfing, has that changed since the birth of your son?

You know what’s funny, it hasn’t changed since I’ve had the baby, more since I’ve met Neil. Neil is not a couch-surfer, he’s more particular about his surroundings. It’s been a project in our relationship for me to even get him to stay at friend’s houses, rather than hotels. It’s much easier to couch-surf as an individual than bringing your whole entourage, so I’ve had to reduce my couch-surfing as I’ve added more family members. That said, I’ve probably slept on friend’s beds and couches more with that baby than the average mother, because I’ve taken him travelling all over the world. We slept wherever there was a soft spot: on futons, on trains, with friends. But now that he’s getting bigger, it’s a little more difficult.

You’re playing at the Sydney Opera House, what can the audience expect?

Yeah, it’s my fourth time playing there. A very very stripped down, no frills, intimate show. One of the things I’m trying to do with my tour this fall and winter is to just remind everyone that I’m a songwriter. I’ve gone off track a bit with the TED talk, the book and more longform writing, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to pull the narrative back and say, ‘Amanda Palmer is a songwriter and that’s why this shit all happened in the first place.’ I also have quite a bit of new material that I haven’t played at all to this crowd, so it’s going to be me, a piano, a ukulele and some stories.

You’ve been very collaborative over the last few years; working with The Grand Theft Orchestra, Jherek Bischoff, etc. Is this new record solely Amanda Palmer?

Any time I play any of my songs on solo piano, they’re stripped down just by me. I have a touring album on sale that’s just piano versions of Theatre Is Evil, so I’m gonna be playing a few of those. I’ve put out a bunch of music through my Patreon, some of which is solo, some of which is collaborative, but the running theme is that I wrote it all. I’m also going to take requests, which is fun to do in a place like the Sydney Opera House. Hopefully I can make it feel like a bar, it’s pretty huge.



Something I really enjoy about your live shows is that you introduce your support acts on stage in person. What made you decide to do that?

That’s a good question. Since the dawn of The Dresden Dolls I never understood the point of doing an entire evening with other bands, and ignoring the fact that you were all together at the same time. I remember the first time we opened for a larger act and they didn’t even say hello. I found myself thinking ‘why are we even here?’ You know, naively with my inner theatre dork and community minded person. I just naively thought it was supposed to feel like a night where we were all together and everyone gleefully acknowledges that fact. And then I felt like my dream was crushed.

I think people really like the feeling of going to a venue and feeling like they’re a part of something larger. Having been a support act myself, I want to drive the point home to my community that the support act isn’t just there as an afterthought, they’re part of the family and you introduce the new member of the family. You remind fans that they should be paid just as much respect as the main act because they’re on this stage and that’s what we do in this family. And I think when you do that it just breeds a kind of respect that touches everything. And, if you’re an asshole to your opening act, what does that say about you and how you wanna be treated by other musicians and artists?

It’s also about crushing unhealthy paradigms about what live music and rock stars are expected to do. One of the things that always mystifies my promoters and venue people, is that I don’t mind at all walking around, chatting, being seen. I’m supposed to be this huge surprise at the end of the night, and as far as I’m concerned it’s much better to be connecting with people throughout, rather than hiding in a dressing room until you make your grand diva entrance at 11 o’clock. That’s fucking lonely. When you actually really think about that, it means you’re alone until 11 o’clock, with your rider, backstage. I don’t want to be a diva in my tower, I wanna be with my community.

Theatre Is Evil is still the biggest crowdfunding for music of all time. Today it’s far more common for artists to crowd fund projects, did you foresee this happening or was it a leap of faith?

There was definitely a leap of faith in launching the Kickstarter, but not that much. I had done Kickstarter before with two other projects, a piano album I produced for my housemate, and one Neil and I did for our big tour. I learned enough from that to know that people would get on board. What a lot of people may not know about me is I’m a lot more conservative than they think. I test and I really strategise, and even then I’m often wrong.

It reminded me how great my fans are, how weird I am and it reminds me that you can’t take anything for granted in the music industry. I try to be very careful when it comes to music, crowdfunding and even when it comes to me. The most important thing to remember is that the basics don’t change. People love music, people want music and people will help the people that want to give them music.

I was amazed that you were criticised for using Kickstarter. It’s not different to buying music. People are electing to buy your music, they’re just setting their own price.

Well, add permanent truth number four: people will criticise what they don’t understand. In a world of crass consumerism and crass capitalism, the Kickstarter was really hard for people to get their heads around. I’ve come to accept that fourth truth as a part of life: do things a little different and you’ll be criticised, no matter what. You just have to have your thick skin like a coat at the door. You just put it on.

Speaking of being criticised because of misunderstandings, from the Oasis song and video, to asking musicians to play for free or for the chance to play with you, and now to Donald Trump, do you feel you’ve made a career out of being misunderstood?

I don’t think I’ve made a career out of being misunderstood, but I think it’s very possible that I’ve made a career out of dealing with the experience of being misunderstood. It’s never my intention to be misunderstood, I don’t like being misunderstood. I actually can’t stand it. But the longer I stick at it, and the more work I do and the more books I read, the more time I really spend examining the human condition, really exploring why the world in 2017 would react to a woman saying a certain thing. It all makes a lot more sense to me now, in context, than when I was younger. The double standards are just rampant. One of the things I love about being married to Neil is that we’re so similar, and we say such similar things. And it’s really gratifying to finally have a control in the experiment of my life; to have positive proof that people are just getting angry at the things I say because I’m a woman.

I literally say one thing and Neil says the same thing, and I get a heap of criticism and he doesn’t. I turn to Neil and ask ‘am I crazy or did that just happen?’ and Neil goes, ‘Nope, you’re right, that happened because you’re a woman.’ We’re not identical, he has his way of saying things and he can receive his fair share of criticism. But the world is a very fearful place, and for whatever reason I trigger a lot of fear in people. So that’s where a lot of the anger, hate and criticism comes from – I upset the status quo. It’s certainly a lot easier to understand now, but I’d never reverse the clock and live a less interesting life.


Something I’ve noticed is that when people interact with you, and they get to meet you, they’re very emotional because your music has touched them. What is that experience like for you?

I feel like I’m in a piece of continuum, because I felt the exact same way when I listened to Nick Cave‘s last record. And when I see him next week, I’m not gonna be able to express eloquently or effectively what listening to his last record did for me or helped me, how it unlocked me and healed something in me. I’m going to be grateful and lay some platitude at his feet and say, ‘There’s nothing I can say but thank you for making this piece of art.’ The reason we have art and music, is there’s things you can’t articulate in chat and speech. It’s why we do it. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of the incredibly therapeutic power of music, and I don’t really care at any given point where I am in that continuum. As long as I’m in it.

On Nick Cave and his film Once More With Feeling, he said ‘Trauma is a terrible thing to write about, people wish they had more interesting things to write about but the mundane is more powerful.’ What’s your take on that?

I totally agree with Nick, I watched that film the day it came out in the States. It changed my life, because I was really battling my inner critic. It was like getting hit with a brick of reminders that we cannot be precious or sentimental of the reality of our lives: whatever is happening is happening. Criticising your own inspiration does such a disservice to anyone who could benefit from the art you’re going to make from your experience. I was also impressed with his ability to be vulnerable authentically, but still play the persona of Nick Cave, all the while being aware of what he was giving creatively.


You’re currently occupying the Gasometer Hotel in Melbourne. How is the residency going so far? Also, could you talk a bit about the plan to write songs with the audience?

We opened the roof up, and it was just, ‘crazy Amanda drinks wine and tries to figure out what she’s gonna do for the Opera House gig.’ I’m treating [the Gaso residency] like a little workshop. On Thursday night I handed out 300 index cards and I asked them anonymously to write down their most painful, intimate, untold relationship memory. I haven’t read them yet but I have them. I have a project in me that’s a relationship cycle, and I need to disguise my own marriage. So I’m gathering coats and hats from everyone else and sticking them in a blender so you can’t tell what’s about someone else and what’s about me and Neil.

Do you feel that’s an important thing, separating the reality of your marriage and personal life with your public image?

I don’t really have the fanbase who picks my music apart and I tend to be very forthcoming about what my songs are about. That being said, there are some songs on Theatre Is Evil that are fully disguised and no one will ever know the truth about them. I’m willing to give some away and explain them, but some will always remain a mystery. That’s the weird thing about being married – when I was in relationships that were crashing and burning, I would write openly and fearlessly about my exes. But clearly there was nothing there to protect, but that’s not the case with Neil. I’d really like to stay married!


Amanda Palmer: Australian Tour Dates

Jan 20: Sydney Opera House, NSW
Feb 3-4: Melt Festival, Brisbane, QLD
Feb 10-11: Festival of New and Old Art, Hobart, TAS
Feb 15/22: The Gasometer Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Feb 24-25: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, SA
March 2/9: The Gasometer Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
March 10: National Gallery of Victoria, VIC
March 11: Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns, QLD

Palmer’s latest release, Piano Is Evil, is available only at these shows.

Image: Kambriel