June 12, 2012
Interview: Amanda Palmer
Portrait by Megan Howland
Back in the halcyon days of the early-nineties, ramblin’ country music star Willie Nelson got in a little hot water with those suit-and-tie folks at the IRS. It transpired that Nelson’s accountant had forgotten to pay the singer-songwriter’s taxes for a few years and that a hefty $32,000,000 (later reduced by half) was owed in back payment. Nelson turned to his fan base for support, auctioning off a few personal items and releasing The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memoriesalbum — all proceeds from which went to the taxman.
It took three years to clear the debt, but it was the way in which it was done that holds a very particular kind of relevance today. It could be argued that Nelson’s situation was an early, analogue example of an artist turning to crowd funding to remain active — a method now becoming commonplace in today’s digital environs. Numerous platforms, from Sellaband to PledgeMusic, allow musicians and other creative types to go direct to their fans for the cold, hard capital needed to fund artistic projects, often rewarding sponsors with limited edition or exclusive pieces of work relative to the amount pledged.
The likes of Jack Bruce, Gang of Four, and Stool Pigeon scribe Emmy The Great are among those that have wielded fan power effectively in the past, and even chart-botherers like Daniel Bedingfield and Charlie Simpson have had a pop.
But none have seen the kind of success currently being enjoyed by the charismatic queen of dark, brooding cabaret-rock, Amanda Palmer, whose Kickstarter campaign for an ambitious new album/art book/tour broke all records. On May 30, the one-time Dresden Doll cracked $1m (and celebrated by tweeting a topless picture of herself). By the time the campaign finished at 11.59pm the following day, the tally was set at a staggering $1,192,793.
It’s a week before and Palmer is taking time out of a pretty hectic schedule to chat to us from her Boston home.
“I’ve just finished yoga, and I’m about to go get a fuckin’ sandwich,” she says. “You’re in-between.”
Despite Palmer initially enthusing about both the album and the accompanying book of visual interpretations of its songs, conversation quickly turns to the Kickstarter success.
“Uh, I just made it up,” she admits, when asked about the initial $100,000 target set for the campaign. “It seemed like a nice round number. I was 99 per cent sure that we would beat it, but I also didn’t want to make it so low that it was ridiculous.”
Yet Palmer is adamant that she’ll see little-to-no profit from the scheme.
“I broke it down from a million,” she says, referring to a couple of recent blog posts that outline her plans for the cash. “You can see how expensive the process is, and how it absolutely doesn’t leave me with a million — it puts me more or less back where I started. But it puts me back there having put some incredible products into the hands of my fans, you know? And I’ll spend the next year on the road actually making money, knock on wood!”
Reference to Palmer’s fans crop up time and time again during the conversation, and it becomes clear how much she means to them — and how much she relies on them. Is this relationship part of the reason for the record-breaking totals?
“Oh, it’s not part of the reason; it is the reason. I’ve been in a relationship with my fans for 10 years and it’s a really solid relationship. I famously struggled to get off my major label [Roadrunner Records] about four years ago, and since then I’ve been playing with different ways of releasing my stuff independently. And then Kickstarter showed up at just the right time — the perfect platform. You know, before that, I was basically doing Kickstarter via my own website, just like a lot of other artists — basically saying ‘I’ve got an album coming out, I need you to pre-order it so I can pay for it!’” She laughs. “The system isn’t new, but as a platform it’s so cool.”
It’s clear that Palmer has enjoyed the process, adorning her pledging fans with everything from the customary free MP3 downloads (for $1 donations) to having a “ukulele-wielding” Amanda invade your home for a house party (for those prepared to give $5,000 or more).
As enjoyable as it’s all been, we get the distinct impression Palmer is starting to tire of the attention she is receiving for the Kickstarter project, or at least the amount of attention it has diverted away from the music and art that it was set up to fund. And when discussion turns to the album, Palmer’s excitement levels audibly rise.
“It’s totally fucking incredible. I’ve never been more proud of a piece of music,” she says of the as yet unnamed record, recorded over the first few months of the year with new band The Grand Theft Orchestra. “I’m just giddy as a dying fish to get it actually out into the world. Everyone’s focusing on the business model, and yeah, that’s all great — it’s all fantastic — but you haven’t even heard the record! I’m gonna feel fully, fully satisfied when it actually comes out, and people actually understand why I’m jizzing in my pants all the time!”
The art book she has compiled to go alongside it — prints from which will form the basis of an exhibition that will follow Palmer and the band on tour over the summer — seems to provoke similar exclamations of enthusiasm. Put together with the help of flatmate (and featured artist) Cassandra Long, the book contains work from both established figures in the art world, and musicians with artistic side-projects, some of whom were personal friends, others strangers.
“That’s why I reached out to Robyn Hitchcock, who’s one of my all-time heroes. He paints his own album covers,” Palmer enthuses, her validations gaining pace. “And Kristin Hersh [from Throwing Muses]… I read her memoir, and a lot of it is about visual art. And my old friend Conrad Keely from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, who designed his own album artwork. And I said, ‘I know this is a little weird, but can you make album artwork for me?’ [laughs] Here’s the idea, here’s the budget, here’s the deadline.”
The list of contributors also includes designer and street artist Shepherd Fairey, graphic novel illustrators David Mack and Hans Rickheit, and an eight-year-old Amanda Palmer superfan by the name of Gavin.
“Once a week [Gavin] would send me one of his crayon drawings,” says Palmer, giggling. “So when I did my [previous] album with Ben Folds, Damian Kulash and Neil [Gaiman, Palmer’s husband], we reached out to him to draw the album artwork, ’cos we figured a kid would be the perfect person to draw the artwork for a record that we made in eight hours. We just told him the title, which was Nighty Night, and he made this beautiful little picture of someone going to bed. I’m still hoping that Gavin makes the deadline though, because he’s had writer’s block!”
Even the most blissfully naïve of artists have their troubles.
Portrait by Walter Sickert
Palmer herself is due to submit a piece — an interpretation of ‘The Bed Song’ drawn on sheets with her trademark Sharpie — and, as we speak, is in the process of writing the book’s foreword.
Yet, despite the vocal fervour for her artistic endeavours, conversation returns to the Kickstarter million. Palmer is unyielding in her opinion that it is the model of the future for realising projects, musical and otherwise.
“Oh, fuck yes. I envision that the development is really more on the part of the attitude of the artist, and the attitude of the general public, as people realise what’s possible, and realise that we don’t necessarily need the old systems that we’re all used to in the art world: the way that government art funding works; the way that museums work; the way venues work.
“I think it’s all gonna change a lot; I think it’s gonna be a cosmic change. And I think it’s fantastic, but I also think it’s gonna require a shift in attitude on the part of the audience where they realise they’re actually actively responsible for taking care of their artists and the art. On the other side of the coin, the artists have to take responsibility for communicating this and taking care of their audiences in a way that they’re not used to. Because the minute you have direct-to-fan anything, it’s a two-way street — and both people sort of have to play the game.”
It’s certainly a positive outlook, but maybe it’s a positivity based purely on Palmer’s own experiences with the Kickstarter system, as an established artist with a loyal and expansive group of fans that have been mobilised by the direct approach she has taken with them since her tenure with The Dresden Dolls. Palmer makes it sound very easy to raise a quick million and hit the studio, but the real test will come when artists far, far below the radar attempt similarly ambitious work. As for Palmer’s opinion on the matter, she took to Twitter soon after our interview to make her point clear: “I’m kind of sick of seeing the ‘Amanda Palmer Kickstarter Success: is it repeatable??’ headlines. Are people that asleep?”
During our interview, the overall total of Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign rose by $952.
Read this interview in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON