Amanda Palmer: Getting A Kickstart
Amanda Palmer and her fans don’t do things by half. In 2008 when her record label wanted to trim her Leeds United promotional video because she looked “too fat,” Palmer’s subsequent blogging ignited an online shit-storm that culminated in a published book with over six-hundred photos of loyal fans' midriffs. When seeking to get out of her contract (due as much to musical and marketing differences as the ‘ReBELLYon’ incident) she played a song called Please Drop Me to the tune of Moon River at a gig, her fans ensuring the footage was uploaded on YouTube that day. And when the Dresden Dolls singer, free from the label, opted to launch her new solo album on crowd funding website Kickstarter, well, she only went and broke the site's record for a musical project, raising over one million dollars.
Sitting in the rustic garden of her adopted Edinburgh home, herbal tea in hand and dressed back in her civvies after an interesting photo shoot, Palmer is happy to reflect on the public chain of events that led to where she is now. “It was a painful, long, excruciating and complicated process,” she begins of her spat with Roadrunner Records. “There was never a moment where I got that triumphant phone call from my lawyer. It was like I escaped my prison but then I had to get out of the house, then the yard and then down the street for several miles until I finally felt free. But life is infinitely better off without them, that is certain. Everything’s better. Nothing is worse.”
As if to illustrate the point, Roadrunner all but shut down the very week that Palmer launched her record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. Validation enough it would seem, yet she isn’t one to gleefully ring the death-knell for record labels. “If they’re going to survive, they’re going to have to evolve,” she offers diplomatically. “There used to be a black and white divide between what your label did, what your management did and what your PR did. Now, with the Internet, that’s all intermeshed. Your distribution is on the Internet. Your PR is on the Internet. You’re on the Internet.”
Palmer is certainly someone ‘on the Internet.’ As well as being a consistent blogger, she has performed countless impromptu shows using her forums. She also released an EP direct-to-fans (her Radiohead financially-modelled ukulele cover of Radiohead songs, naturally) and even has a popular Twitter meet-up called Losers Of Friday Night On Their Computers, a group who hang out, make jokes and, apparently, buy individually chewed postcards from the singer.
She makes no bones about the fact that she likes to Google herself. At the aforementioned performance of Please Drop Me, she instructed fans to immediately upload their footage so she could see it for herself. “Musicians are all on-line and they’re generally watching what’s happening,” states Palmer. “A lot of them will deny it, but if you’re on the Internet, you’re more or less paying attention to what’s happening in your music community. And if you’re not participating, then you’re just a voyeur in your own life.”
That said, Palmer is aware that even if her proclamations are correct, it doesn’t mean the path she has forged for herself is open to all artists. Heads were certainly turned when she raised almost $1.2 million on Kickstarter in May, but, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Fans were able to pledge standard sums of one-dollar for a digital download or a crisp twenty for the deluxe CD, but the options didn’t stop there. $300 got you a ticket to an art opening and performance show, whereas $5000 would find the enigmatic singer and her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, invading your home. Ten grand and they’ll even throw in a makeover and photo shoot. It’s all very... Amanda Palmer.
“Not every musician on the planet has a structure built for it,” she admits. “Something like Kickstarter makes sense for me because I want to run my own label.” It also makes sense because she has fans willing to spend three months’ wages on her. “Yeah, but if you don’t have management that’s willing to organise forty house parties, then you need to scale differently or choose a different path. Figuring out how to monetise what you would do anyway is the key to being an artist. It’s one of those things you think about; what’s artistically-driven and what’s financially-driven? You can drive yourself crazy with those questions, but if I could get given a regular pay cheque and do what I wanted as an artist, I’d probably do a lot of the same shit.”
The resultant core of all these endeavours is a new Amanda Palmer album, Theatre Is Evil, due for release this month. It was recorded with her hand-picked band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, in Melbourne, Australia and was a “lonely and depressing” experience according to Palmer, partly due to the lack of spotlight on the process. Yet the finished article is an ambitious, sprawling somewhat epic record, an outcome which Palmer had planned from the start. “Doing [debut solo album] Who Killed Amanda Palmer was bizarre because that was supposed to be a little, acoustic piano record, and then I ran into Ben Folds,” she laughs. “He offered to produce it and from there it just grew and grew. It was like having a little cottage and then building all these additions onto it.
“With [Theatre Is Evil], it was more like a mapped-out fucking mansion. Everything was strategy to serve the songs best. The album was finished in my head before we even entered the studio. I just had to have endless meetings with my ‘architectural plans’ laid out, telling people involved ‘no, this is the fucking colour of the wallpaper in the bathroom – it has to be this green’. It was a totally different way of approaching record-making for me.
It naturally follows that the album is exactly what Palmer wanted, from the ambitious and expensive art-work of the now-mandatory accompanying book, to the lavish production and healthy track-listing. “I had a moment while we were mastering it, where I thought about cutting the album down to ten songs, literally taking all the ballads off so that journalists could say ‘nice, tight, forty-five minute record, way to go!' But I thought, ‘I’m finally in control of my fate, these are the songs, this is the record, fuck it.’ It’s not as long as The Wall and that’s one of the best records ever, so who cares?”
With her previous studio album, Palmer enlisted a revolving door of musicians and toured with yet more. For Theatre Is Evil, a core band was formed, The Grand Theft Orchestra, comprising Jherek Bischoff, Chad Raines and ex-boyfirend Michael McQuilken. “It’s a bit awkward but we can at least make fun of it,” says Palmer, who married author Neil Gaiman in 2010. “I wanted a ‘band’ to go into the studio, make the record, be proud of it and then carry it out to the world on tour. I can’t think about making a record without thinking about touring it because, to me, they’re just opposite sides of the same coin.”
This resultant tour will come to Glasgow in October, but for now Palmer is in town ahead of an Edinburgh show with her illustrious husband. “Neil gives me this weird, broad emotional safety-net where I feel like even if everything else goes to shit, this will be OK,” she says of the crossover influence of their respective careers. “He’s given me an extra shot of confidence, that I don’t know if I needed, but I got it and it’s made me feel invincible.”
Having written the bulk of this latest album in the aftermath of her previous relationship breakdown, what does this new, contented Amanda Palmer mean for any future projects? “I’ll just have to feign a divorce,” she laughs. “I’ve been with Neil for four years now and my songwriting’s only gotten better, so I’m not worried. Some artists are at the mercy of their lives. If your early career is dependent on you being angry or angsty or sad or even worse, being young, then you’re gonna have problems in your forties and fifties. If you’re still writing about partying, and dancing and fucking at that age then you’re clearly out to lunch. The artists who’ve always written weird and interesting music are more likely to be lucky as they age because their brains aren’t trapped in a particular songwriting box.”
With that, she can rest easy. As someone who has always operated on her own devices, from the dark cabaret of The Dresden Dolls to her current incarnation as a solo provocateur, Amanda Palmer has never been trapped in any kind of box.