Louder Than War’s Cazz Blase catches up with Amanda Palmer as she interviews her about her new album and accompanying book.
Aside from last years collaboration with Jasmine Power, ‘Mr Weinstein will see you now’, the music world hasn’t heard from Amanda Palmer for a while. It’s not that the former Dresden Dolls singer hasn’t been busy: She has, just not with music so much. The aptly titled There will be no intermission, Palmer’s first album in six years, is released on the 8th March.
A foreboding and atmospheric mediation on the past six years, There will be no intermission is not the easiest of listens, covering as it does everything from abortion, to fear, to US politics, to death, but it does feel very 2019. There are cultural references to Bill Hicks, Judy Blume, and a cover of a Dillie Keane song. The sound is sparse piano and vocals, brooding and with classical flourishes.
The album has been funded by Palmer’s 15,000 supporters on Patreon and is accompanied by an artbook of narrative photography which acts as a companion piece to the album. The first two singles, ’Drowning In The Sound’ and ‘Voicemail for Jill’, are both out now, and Palmer has just announced her tour plans for 2019.
I spoke to Amanda by phone towards the end of February.
In terms of the book and the album, I know you’ve done them as companion pieces, I just wondered how important it was to provide the context with each of the albums that you do, almost like a commentary on the art itself?
Yeah, that book sort of happened by accident. I didn’t plot it out. I mean, I didn’t plot the album out either but, once I had done a few of these photo sessions with this incredible pair of photographers, Kahn & Selesnick, I just realised that we had way more material than would just fit in your standard album artwork. Which has happened to me before.
And I also… I’ve become more of a writer. And the more time goes by, and the more I tour, and the more I write songs, the more I enjoy putting things in context.
And some artists really don’t work that way, they would much prefer to just let the songs speak for themselves but… There’s something really fulfilling about giving the quiz notes to my fans (laughs) and telling them if they really wanna understand every nook and cranny of what this album means, there’s a guidebook, and I can make it for you, and give it to you, and I think it’s just going to make your experience of the record more powerful.
‘Cos obviously the connection with the fans is very important to you and not just, I’m guessing, from a crowd sourcing point of view. But I was thinking the book probably enhances that connection as well because there is that context there and that companion piece there.
Yes, and I also think photographs speak in a way that other mediums just don’t. I think looking at these photographs alongside the songs, something happens emotionally that doesn’t happen just from the oral experience. And when you put all those things together, the stories, the photographs, the music, you get something that’s a little bit more than the sum of it’s part. Did you have a chance to look through the book?
I did, yes, I was very impressed with the photos, but also with the little stories and pieces in there as well, because it became something more then.
Yeah. So it’s one thing to sing about miscarriage, it’s another thing to show a really beautiful photograph of yourself pregnant with that baby that you lost. There’s something about the power of looking at those images, and knowing the entire background, that just makes it, for me, way less detached and way more immediate and way more personal, which is how I like my relationship with my audience. I don’t wanna be enigmatic, I wanna be real (laughs) and this is about as real as it could get.
You said in the writing in the book that it was your most personal set of songs you’ve ever written. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
Well, I’ve been known for writing personal songs since I first started in Dresden Dolls, but I’ve only just really discovered how much I was censoring myself. And, I think, when I was in my teens and twenties, and into my thirties, I allowed myself access to a certain set of topics that I thought were relatable, that I thought were necessary, that I thought I needed. And, I always subconsciously knew that there were places that I didn’t wanna go. Or that I didn’t feel I was a good enough songwriter to attack. And I discuss this in my stage show, which I’m about to tour in North America.
A lot of it had to do with being a woman. A lot of it had to to do with just being young and scared (laughs). But the combination of everything that’s happened around me in the last five years, personally, reproductively, politically: I just don’t see any reason anymore to not dig as deep into the dark as I can go, and tell the truth. It doesn’t scare me anymore.
Dread comes across almost as a theme, and it was interesting that you said about not being scared anymore.
Yeah, well it was a scary seven years. I faced a lot of… difficulty. I went through two abortions, I had a child, I had a miscarriage. I lost my best friend after a very, very complicated and relentless cancer fight, an ex boyfriend of mine shot himself in the head. It was just one thing after another, after another, after another. It’s part of why I picked the album title I did; I mean, there is a theatrical side to it, but also life was just relentless. And, all of that was kicked off by the hell year of 2012, where it felt like the entire internet and all of the music press were just… ganging up on me and clobbering me.
Yeah, I remember that period…
That was pretty brutal. And while all of that was happening, I was dealing with all the personal stuff at the same time. But the silver lining is pretty fucking silver, because I came out the other side of those experiences… Fearless.
I mean, I really got to a point in the last year where I just shed the last layer of concern about how I was coming across and what others thought and what critics would think of my music. And I just, finally, let it all go. And it’s so liberating. And a huge part of why I was able to do that was because I had the knowledge that my 15,000 patrons would have my back.
It didn’t just come from some magical place inside (laughs). It also came from my community rallying around me, with such force, and such support, that I really hit peak liberation as an artist, with what I’ve wanted to say and how I hoped I could say it.
I know you’re using Patreon at the moment, and that you used Kickstarter when you first started crowdfunding. What do you think the pro’s and con’s are of each of those as platforms?
Well, I think Kickstarter is absolutely fantastic for giant, one off projects. I think if you are trying to run your business, and pay your bills every month, consistently, month after month, year after year, Kickstarter can be a little too exhausting. Because you don’t want to continually go back to the well and re-convince everybody once a year that your art is worth supporting. And that’s really the biggest difference, for me, between Kickstarter and Patreon.
And I would happily use Kickstarter again if I had one big, giant thing that I needed to fund and I needed capital. But as far as my every day life and career goes, there are enough people out there. You know, there’s 15,000 people out there, who just consistently want to support me and wanna hear what I have to say. And they’ve given me blanket permission to speak how I want, when I want, through whatever medium I want, and you can’t find that kind of expansive freedom and liberation on a platform like Kickstarter where it’s just all about raising money for one single thing.
I suppose with Patreon you’re building a longer term relationship than you would have done on Kickstarter. I’m guessing with Kickstarter it can be relatively long term, but not in the same way.
When I joined Patreon and I was trying to explain it to my audience I said Kickstarter is like dating and Patreon is like going steady.
Yeah, that’s a good analogy.
Like you’re giving me your credit card forever. It’s a big commitment. You can always leave – we’re not married – but this is a deeper commitment and I’m ready to jump and accept my side of the responsibility if you are.
Are there any other tools you use alongside Patreon? Or is that your main one at the moment?
(Pause) Well, I have a fantastic internet team, so I run my own site and that requires a lot of time and thought, and energy artistically and technologically.
I’ve been using the internet as a tool of artistic and emotional communication since I started doing the Dresden Dolls in 2000. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. And the main thing that’s defined me is that I’m very slutty (laughs) I will just go and use whatever platform will serve me and my community, and I’ve watched it go through five iterations, I’m sure it’s going to change again.
But the core platform that I use is an honest, authentic two way communication with a bunch of people. It doesn’t matter if we’re using Live Journal, or Myspace, or Twitter, or Patreon, or my website. We’re going to find each other, and we’re gonna connect with each other, and we’re gonna try and do it respectfully and with thought and with grace, and all of the things that we see falling apart right now on social media.
One of the things that I’m loving so much about my Patreon and daily discussions over there, and the hundreds of comments, and people chatting with each other, and supporting each other, is that it’s such an antidote for the cesspool that Facebook and other social media has become, where you just see everyone so afraid to speak because of the clobbering they might get. My Patreon feels like a nice throwback to the internet where people were kinder. And I’m really enjoying that.
I’m going to do a bit of a topic swerve now. I was actually trying to find an answer for this earlier on when I was looking you up, and I couldn’t find the answer, so I thought I’d ask. In terms of piano, it’s your main instrument, isn’t it?
Were you ever classically trained?
I think it depends on how you define “trained”. I learned to play the piano when I was very young. We had a piano in the house and I took to it immediately, when I was my son’s age – I was three. And sitting there and banging it out and trying to figure out what notes went together. And my mother sat me on her lap and let me watch her play Bach and simple Mozart and simple Debussy. And that’s how I learned. I learned by watching classical music getting played. But I was terrible at sight reading and, as much as I tried to do it, I was such a slow reader, I was practically sight reading dyslexic. But my ear was fantastic. So when I was a teenager I would sit around listening to Beethoven on tape, and playing it, by ear, on the piano.
So I was trained by classical music, but not in the ordinary way – I didn’t go to Juilliard, I didn’t ever play recitals as a teenager. I got a very unusual musical education, and I followed my ear. And I can still play that way. I’m playing a bunch of covers on this tour, and I don’t have the sheet music. I’m just listening to things on YouTube and transcribing them using my head.
The reason I asked was because the style of piano that you play has that kind of echo to it. It does sound like you come from a grand tradition in that respect.
Well there’s a couple of songs on this record, like particularly ‘The Ride’ I think, ‘Voicemail for Jill’, where I throw in these really classical sounding decorations. And they’re there for a reason. (Laughs) None of that stuff isn’t on purpose, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, I think the whole album, as a complete work, feels very atmospheric and very soundtrack-y, and almost filmic. But, at the same time, it doesn’t feel state of the nation ish. Although, politically it has that aspect to it, some of the stuff you’re writing about is much smaller and much more personal, so it doesn’t feel like some grand manifesto in the way that it perhaps would have done if it had been a straight forward anti-Trump album, if you get what I mean?
Yeah, you know what’s interesting about that?
The most anti-Trump thing you can do as a woman right now is stand up and shamelessly tell your personal story. That’s how women are fighting back right now. Like it’s becoming so clear that, while it’s still important to march and it’s still important to sign petitions, and it’s still important to click for change, and it’s still important to rail against the system and to talk about voting, and talk about the importance of reproductive rights: The biggest political statement, and the biggest political shift, that a woman can contribute right now is standing up and talking about what’s happened with her. Talking about abuse, and rape, and abortion, and sexism, and everyday bullshit that she goes through. That is the stuff that is changing the world right now.
You mentioned being a documenter in the notes. It kind of feels like, not just for you, but in general I think, with a lot of other stuff that’s going on in the US, it’s almost like observing and notating on an unfolding disaster and tragedy
Sometimes, the role of documenting something is a bit under-appreciated, and because activism is such a big thing and is such a noisy thing, and is such a visible thing, that tends to be valued more than the sort of the quietly documenting and observing side of it. I just wondered what your thoughts would be on that?
(Wearily) Aaghh… Well, you know, it’s funny, documenting and history, and documentary has actually been coming up in a lot of my interviews. Where we talk about who writes history, and what do they write, and who get’s to tell the story. There’s something about art that hits us as human beings. That hits us and reaches us in a way that documentary information doesn’t. And I don’t know exactly what it is, and I think if I understood that alchemy I would hold the keys to the universe, and I know I don’t.
But there’s something about writing a song like ‘Voicemail for Jill’ where it’s a story of one woman calling another woman on the way to an abortion. And there’s some emotional chord that that strikes when you do it, and you put lyrics to it, and you put it to music. That touches and reaches something, that the most touching documentary about women’s reproductive rights and abortion doesn’t touch.
And, when you really get down to it, that’s at the core of why we make art. And don’t just talk about information. Because art has the capacity to convey a different frequency of information on the emotional spectrum, that just facts and figures and statistics do not.
I was intrigued by the ‘Judy Blume’ one [song] because I was reading what you wrote about Judy Blume, and how important she was, when you were growing up, and as a role model, but how you discard some of your earlier role models as you get older because it’s not ‘cool’, and then you don’t speak about them.
Yeah, or you don’t even realise.
And in the case with Judy Blume, it wasn’t like I was holding back (laughs) and every time I would go through my list of influences I would think to myself “I can’t mention Judy Blume, she’s just not cool enough”. She didn’t even register in there. Certain things that have such a profound impact on you, are such a part of an inner landscape that you don’t recognise how massive they are because it’s just like looking at the sky: It’s there but you don’t see it.
And I think there’s something so significant in that, the way the kind of progress we’re trying to make as a society, and as women, it rests so necessarily on understanding what it is we have to do for each other. And what it is that someone like Judy Blume did. And I just took so much of my life for granted, until I stopped at a certain point in my thirties and looked back and thought ‘Wait a second’, like ‘How did this happen? Why did I think this way? Who gave me access, to the truth? Who made me feel like I had the right to stand up and say this and do this?’ and I started to untangle it.
And she was there as this huge force, which might sound silly to some people who aren’t familiar to her work and stuff; they would just flippantly discard her as like ‘Oh it was that young adult author who wrote about periods and boobs’. But actually, what she was doing, is she was giving me an education that nobody fucking else was giving me. And she was giving me the blueprint, and the template, to not be afraid of the truth.
I was never a big Judy Blume fan, my sister read them all and I read a few of them… I don’t know how big she is in America now with tweenagers and kids. Is she still fairly widely read there now?
That is actually a really good question. I don’t know how read she is right now by the 13 to 15 year old [kids], or probably ten to 15 year old, as I was. But I think the more important thing is that if you talk to the women who are carrying the mantle, the men and women who are now out there writing young adult fiction, I think you’re going to see Judy Blume’s DNA all over their work.
So whether or not these kids are actually reading Deenie and Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret, they kind of are. Because I think Judy Blume unlocked me, she unleashed a wave of honesty and writing that a bunch of young adult authors went along and followed because she had waved the magic wand of permission at them.
I say it in the article, but one of the things worth mentioning there is, I didn’t know, when I was a teenager, that only a few states away her books were being censored and banned from libraries. I didn’t know. Especially in the bible belt. I didn’t know, I just assumed, when I was 12, that Judy Blume was run of the mill average kid fiction. But it really wasn’t. What she was doing was groundbreaking.
Is there anything that you’d like to mention? Or that you’ve got coming up? Or that we’ve not discussed [but] that you’d like to mention?
I think if I wanted to add anything it’s that it feels like working on the tour show has been as much of an artistic endeavour as the album itself. Because I wanna do it right. I don’t wanna just get up and play the songs and take my cheque and go home. I’m trying to make this show a really powerful experience. And it’s kind of scary. I’ve never done anything like this before.
By the time I’ve finished up the North American tour, it’ll hopefully be in really beautiful shape and by the time I get it over to the UK, in the fall, it should be finished. (Laughs)
It’ll take me the spring to really bang it into shape, but that’s great for the UK because you guys will get the show when it’s, hopefully, in really fiery shape.
And I’m really excited. The record feels like what it is, it’s a record, but there’s something about the experience of actually playing the songs live to a room full of people that’s really special.
There was one more thing I was going to ask: The Harvey Weinstein song [‘Mr Weinstein will see you now’] with the video. I’m just wondering if it was not on the album for a reason? Did it feel too much like a separate piece of work?
There’s been a number of songs that I’ve released through my Patreon that I guess I could have included on the album. But that [song] was a really finished piece of work. It was a huge standalone production, [with a] different producer, and it was a duet with another artist. I considered adding it to the record for about two seconds, and then I thought… It stands apart, that song is a unicorn… It came out of a spontaneous moment. That video was one of the most powerful things I’d ever made, and I did it with a huge group of women, and it really felt like… A fait accompli. It didn’t wanna live with those songs on this record, it didn’t fit.
There’s a universe in which it might’ve fit and there’s a universe in which [it didn’t.] I hope that song doesn’t get lost to history because it didn’t make it onto this record.
But one of the most liberating things about Patreon, like I was saying, is that I’m able to create a song like that really quickly from scratch, and without any approval, without any corporate interests, without commercial interest. [I can] throw a bunch of money at it and make a video that powerful without anyone telling me what to do and how to do it. And, at the end of the day, that’s the thing that is the most revolutionary about the Patreon: I have an uninterrupted voice over there, I don’t ever have to talk to Steve in Marketing, I don’t ever have to worry about whether the sponsors, or the advertisers, are gonna pull their ad… I don’t have to worry about fucking anything. Except the art. And that’s really, ideally, the way it should be.
I’m guessing that you’re going to get asked about this, and I’m sorry if you inwardly groan when I ask this, but… The Ryan Adams allegations: Is this going to be a #MeToo moment for the music industry do you think?
(Pause) Oh that’s a good question. No one has asked me that.
I think you might get asked that one quite a bit.
Yeah… I dunno, I mean, the music industry has as much #MeToo in it, I’m sure, as the film industry. As does the culinary industry, as does the insurance industry, and the medical industry, and the academic industry, and the industrial military complex industry. Anywhere you’ve got men and women right now, that is happening. And anywhere where men have had power over women, you’ve had Ryan Adams, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein type shenanigans. Everybody knows it. Like Leonard Cohen said, “Everybody knows”, there’s nothing new under the sun happening here.
But women are just becoming incrementally less afraid to tell the truth. And every industry is going to galvanise every other industry, and I don’t think that this progress is gonna be a straight line, I think it’s gonna be a complicated game of dodgeball (laughs) where certain women in certain industries are gonna surge forwards and try and take back the ball and their hands are gonna get smacked. But then other women are gonna pick up the ball, and it’s just gonna be this… Arduous, relentless, battle to win back equality. But, it’s not gonna stop.
It’s just gonna get easier and easier for women to come out of the closet when they’ve been taken advantage of, or bullied, or abused. And I look at the entire situation with something like Weinstein and Ryan Adams, and just like Trump, it’s so important to remember that it’s not just about That BAD MAN: It’s about an entire culture that doesn’t have it’s head screwed on straight, it’s about an entire culture that doesn’t care about taking care of everybody. And it goes in all directions.
I have the often unpopular opinion of thinking that we have to have just as much compassion for the people who are perpetrating everything from minor offences to heinous crimes as we do for the victims, because that lack of… Un-distinguishing compassion, and that lack of ability to have general empathy is what has gotten us into this fucking mess in the first place.
It’s like the level of debate online, well, not just online actually, but where you have two sets of people screaming at each other and nobody is listening to either side, they’re just screaming abuse at each other, and then you just can’t move forward from that then.
Yeah, well, it’s been the death of nuance, especially with the way the internet rewards binary behaviour. And… to tie up our fucking interview with a bow, one of the things that art has always been really good at, is bringing nuance back into a conversation.
And reminding the listener that life is never binary, and you’re bananas if you think it is. And that there is a whole grey area of thought and emotion that goes into the experience of being a human that you can’t just tap out in a Facebook comment.
There will be no intermission is released on 8 March. Details of Amanda Palmer’s tour dates can be found on her website.
Cover image for the album There will be now intermission by Kahn & Selesnick / Portrait photo by Allan Amato