‘Never going to be everyone’s taste’
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Monday I first heard an Amanda Palmer song. Tuesday I was trying to find her a venue for a concert. Wednesday we spoke.
Fast world, this.
The song, “Ukulele Anthem” was in a video sent by a reader. Palmer, a “punk cabaret” singer, stands before the Sydney Opera House, trailing white streamers in the stiff harbor breeze, whaling away at a ukelele, this humble near-toy of an instrument, which she turns into a metaphor for creating whatever you want, unpolished though it may be. ”Ukulele brave and peaceful,” she sings. “You can play your ukelele too.”
Works for me. I found a few more songs, from a bawdy romp in praise of pudenda (“Map of Tasmania”) to an ode to teen icon Judy Blume to “Bigger on the Inside,” whose opening lines are a spot-on indictment of online snark (“You’d think I’d shot their children, from the way that they are talking.”)
What intrigued me about Palmer is the intelligence of her lyrics, underscored by the sense of her pushing her limits. It’s one thing to caper around nearly naked in a music video when you’re Miley Cyrus, or to sing with the pipes of Lady Gaga. Quite another when you’re, as Palmer once put it, describing her reception as half of the Dresden Dolls, “the fat, hairy, obnoxious attention-getter” with an octave vocal range. That takes guts. I wondered if she ever comes to Chicago. Yes, Friday in fact, speaking to the HOW Design conference, in her role as a crowdsourcing guru — in 2012, her adoring fans gave her $1.2 million on Kickstarter, which led to a TED talk on asking people for support, seen 6 million times, spawning a best-selling book, “The Art of Asking.”
She slept through our appointed interview start, but two hours later had a good excuse.
“Pregnant rock star,” she laughed. “It’s the worst. I don’t recommend being a pregnant rock star.”
She and her husband, fantasy author Neil Gaiman, are expecting their first child in September.
At a show in Dallas in April, she said she would be “disappearing into motherhood.” True?
“I am not,” she said. “I’m about to embark on a five-week trip to the UK, to tour.”
“Why!?” I blurted out.
“Good f—— question,” she replied. “I don’t know. I decided it would be a good idea.”
She married Gaiman, 15 years her senior, in 2011.
“Finding a partner who’s supportive and enthused and unthreatened by my career was not easy,” she said. “Finding a guy whose very manhood is not threatened by the hugeness of my universe was no easy task. That’s one of the real attractions of Neil. He didn’t even register as a potential romantic partner. I met him and thought, ‘He’s weird. He’s old. Who is this guy?’ As we got to know each other, we recognized each other in a deep, fundamental way.”
With a million Twitter followers, she periodically finds herself in the middle of kerfuffles — particularly the $1.2 million, the most raised on Kickstarter by a musician, which cast a new, harsh light on her practice of sleeping on sofas in fans’ homes while on tour and paying musicians in beer. She told Salon last year that “a little bit of the magic drained out’ after that, and the slur “millionaire who stiffs the talent” stuck on her like an ill-advised tattoo. But she denied Kickstarter has been a poisoned chalice.
“No, I would never do it differently,” she said. “My fans have stuck with me. The people who understand me have never gone away. The exercise of Kickstarter wasn’t to impress Rolling Stone, Spin and the New York Times. It was to directly connect the people in my community, cut out the media, cut out the labels, cut out the middlemen, and for all the yelling and screaming, that part worked. I made 25,000 people really happy.”
Her HOW talk Friday isn’t open to the public, so she planned a “Ninja” concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music Thursday night. She posted a request, and the students there pushed for it.
“We’re really happy to be part of it,” said Dave Zibell, marketing director at Old Town.
Why a free show? Why not slip into town, give her talk and leave?
“You’d have to be me,” Palmer said. “There’s no money involved. Literally no money. These venues, the friendly ones, just open their doors. I play. Everybody’s happy. It’s pretty amazing. I have a bunch of fans who are practically family in Chicago. They said we would love to come to see you, but tickets [to the conference] are $700. It’s on the emotional level of showing up in town and not seeing your old friend. You carve out time.”
We were getting along so well, that I asked her how she would describe her voice.
“As far as vocal stuff goes, that blindsides me,” Palmer said. “I came out of fronting a cult cabaret band. For years and years, nobody ever criticized my voice. That was the voice I sang with, unschooled, unpolished: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey. I assumed that was a great voice, totally raw and unpolished. I actually have an allergy to pop vocalists. That doesn’t sound real to me. . . . There’s a bunch of people out there who hear me and think I sound like a howling cat. People schooled in indie rock, they listen and they hear authenticity. I’m certainly never going to be everyone’s taste.”