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Amanda Palmer: No Rules

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As Amanda Palmer sits down at the table I've reserved for us at a Tribeca bistro, she's completely consumed with the contents of a Huffington Post article posted a few days earlier by MSNBC-TV journalist Mika Brzezinski called Don't Forget to Have Kids. In the piece, Brzezinski counseled young women on life and career, advising them to make the most of their talents, facing rejection, working long hours, and oh by the way, don't forget to get married and have kids, calling motherhood "the greatest gift a woman can receive."

Amanda is beyond horrified by this presumptuous conservative claptrap. "Mostly it just seemed to ignore the fact that everyone's life is completely fucking different - and that there's no rule. And giving blanket advice like that is so fucking stupid because then you scare the shit out of someone who's 23....Your situation is completely unique no matter what anyone says. And you may never have kids and be the most happy and fulfilled person in the world. Really!" she states unequivocally. And, by the way, she notes, who ever says that to a guy?

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A few days prior to this interview, Amanda had played a transcendent concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. She opened the show by marching from the back of the floor through the audience with her band, singing and brandishing a megaphone, while the other musicians played wind instruments and drums, as the sold-out crowd went absolutely insane. She clambered up onto the stage and took charge with a full on joyous assault of the Dresden Dolls number Missed Me from their first album. For stage, she was dressed in a postmodern burlesque outfit, and the word YES was scrawled across her chest in big black letters.

The audience, which varied in age from the very young (16 and up - which Amanda had insisted on) to jaded scenesters in their 40's and 50's, was all hers from the get go. The front of the floor was packed with young fans who sang along word for word to every song. The material ranged from selections from her 2008 solo record, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, to Dresden Dolls favorites to covers of The House of the Rising Sun, Pirate Jenny from the Threepenny Opera, Jacques Brel's In The Port of Amsterdam, and the Ting Tings' punkish soul shouter That's Not My Name!. Two paintings were auctioned off; at every show on this short northeast tour, a painting of Amanda done by a local artist during the show is auctioned off to the crowd. There was the "Ask Amanda" section, where a few questions are chosen onstage from audience members who submit them before the show, queries usually ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. And after the concert, Amanda stays until the last fan is seen or hugged or photographed with, until the last CD or book is signed. Heading home, I shared a cab with a kid who had come all the way from South Jersey that night. He was ecstatic that he had met Amanda and gotten his book signed. He narrowly made the last train back to Toms River at 1:19 a.m.

Which brings me to my next point; the fact that this artist, incredibly, has done more to break down the fourth wall - that quivering boundary between audience and performer - than any other I can remember. I would like to note the fact that Amanda is - and I don't think anyone could argue this, no matter if you like her music or not - the social media queen of rock and roll. Speaking to the power of this new medium and audience connection in general, she says, "As I get older and I think more and more about why I wound up doing this in the first place, and why I wanted to, that stuff to me is not a side effect - it was my motivating factor. I started writing songs and wanted to be a rock star and all that stuff because I wanted desperately to connect with people. Not the other way around," she explains. "I think the music was an accident - not an accident, but it was one of several choices where I looked at possibilities and it was like, well I could do theater, but that's not as immediate a connection... and it's a lot of logistics and work. And I think, you know, I wanted to be at an art party with as many friends as possible. And this was the way to do it."

Amanda admits she never cared much about music, about learning how to sing or play piano in the traditional sense. "I was trying to learn how to find people through whatever means necessary....My driving force was to be proficient and effective so that I could get out there as quickly as possible and start finding friends." Twitter is something she's quite obsessed with and extremely good at and she has built a following that hangs on her every word and interacts consistently with her. "I consider myself really lucky because all these things that have happened, it's almost like it was built for my personality. Instant connection with gazillions of people all the time, it's like, woo! I'm in fucking heaven."

Her fan base is engaged, passionate, and growing all the time. "I'm very engaged. I look at the fan base in almost every way as it resembles a regular relationship that you have with a friend or a lover or a family member ... where there are certain things you cannot take for granted. You really have to be present and check in and care. And not take advantage of time and energy. But if you put the time and energy in, especially when your agenda is very authentic, the payoff is just huge." The music industry, if we can still call it that, is currently at a loss trying to figure out how to deal with this new phenomenon of artists interacting directly with their fans. And if you try to interact directly nowadays, Amanda explains, this new paradigm has its moral code. "The flip side of that is now artists have to be held accountable. If you're going direct to the fan, you HAVE to do it. No one else is gonna fucking do it. And you can't rape them, and you can't trick them." She is well aware that there are plenty of artists who can't be bothered with all this. "For them it's a nightmare, for me it's a playground. I feel like I'm definitely in the right place at the right time, because if it was 1985 and my record label decided that Amanda Palmer's record was a little too weird, I would just be fucked. ...I feel insanely lucky that I'm here now."

Recently Amanda made social media headlines around the world for making $19K in 10 hours using twitter. She'd gathered a large virtual group of followers who hung out together on Friday nights on their computers, hashtagging it on twitter, and they decided to create a t-shirt to commemorate the group. One of the participants was her web designer, who threw up a web page during the chat which immediately started taking orders for the limited edition shirt. The shirts themselves were printed up quickly and ended up netting $11K in two hours. A few nights later Amanda decided to do a web auction in real time via twitter. She auctioned off personal items to an eager audience and made $6K in 3 hours. A few days after that, she twittered a free, guest-list only gig at a Boston recording studio. 200 people were in the audience. Asking for donations from the crowd to defray expenses for holding the gig, she ended up netting $2K.

Re Twitter, she says, "Neil {Gaiman} and I talked about this alot, one of the things that's best about it is that you are not beholden to the information within. No one holds you accountable for anything they send your way. It's like a river and you can just sort of dip your toe in and catch whatever you want and then take off ... you can be completely spontaneous and it doesn't hold you responsible." In fact, just the week before, she had an encounter with Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi that could only have happened via Twitter. Amanda had finished rehearsing with her band for this tour, the Nervous Cabaret, and was out having a glass of wine before heading home. She checked her twitter feed and saw that Zee Avi knew she was in town and had sent her a message that she was playing a show. They had never met before. "But because of the brevity of twitter it makes things like that possible. Because if there was too much information I wouldn't have seen that." She went to the gig - which it so happened was close by - and joined Zee onstage.

Let's roll back a year and just count on our fingers a few of the things Amanda Fucking Palmer (a name given her by producer Ben Folds and recording engineer Joe Costa when she was recording her solo album) has accomplished in the past twelve months:
  • Releasing the album Who Killed Amanda Palmer
  • Touring, touring, touring - all over the world
  • Publishing a coffee table book with Neil Gaiman based on WKAP
  • Having a video ("Oasis") from her solo album banned from British TV
  • Writing and producing a play with the students at her former high school in Lexington, Mass.
  • Making a short silent film with Neil Gaiman, Statuesque, inspired by her years as the Eight-Foot Bride living statue in Harvard Square

Although eventually she wants to settle in Manhattan ("I feel more at home here than anywhere in the world...the speed of things and the attitude of the people is the closest I have found to being Amanda Palmer. Everywhere else I feel like a visitor"), she's pretty much been living out of suitcases since the recording of WKAP two years ago with Ben Folds at the helm. "I've learned how to live life placelessly. I think I've gotten it down, it's a science."

WKAP was released a little over a year ago. The Ben Folds connection happened because of an email that she received from Ben who admired the Dresden Dolls' work. She mentioned that she was thinking of recording a solo album, after which he offered her his recording studio in Nashville and asked casually if she needed a producer. The record mashes up a number of different genres, but does so seamlessly. You'll find power pop, ballads, rock and roll, even show tunes (the sole cover is "What's the Use of Wondrin'" from Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel - reimagined here as a study on domestic abuse). The continuing thread is her piano, her voice, and her deeply felt lyrics on subjects ranging from school shootings (Strength Through Music) to date rape and being ostracized (Oasis), to swaggering rock stars (Guitar Hero), to drugs (The Point of It All), and the strong ties of family and friends (Runs in the Family). The record is very powerful. In the spirit of sharing her process with the audience, Amanda has put it all out there - you can read about how it was made here, including song lyrics, plus watch all the videos from the album.

And by the way, I should mention here that if you want to buy the record, the book, or any other merch that Amanda's got going, do her a favor and buy it direct from her - not from the record company who flagrantly withdrew their support from her work earlier this year. In other words, don't buy her materials from an aggregator like Amazon.

So, what's next for Amanda, who by the way grew up listening nonstop to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. "Before I had any other music, that was my record. I listened to it every day after school and I still think that album is the one musical entity upon which everything else is built." She later listened to Abba, Stray Cats, Beach Boys, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and when the teenage years kicked in it was Cure, Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Legendary Pink Dots. In college, experimental music drew her in - Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass, John Cage.

"I have a lot of things coming up. I have the Evelyn Evelyn record which is my collaboration with Jason Webley, we co-produced the record. It's a record of two conjoined twin sisters, they're attached at the side, they have three legs, they share a single liver. They wrote all the songs together, they play all the songs together, and we're taking them on tour this spring and Jason and I are opening up for them." There will also be a graphic novel next fall about the story of Evelyn Evelyn. And there are other things in the pipeline. "I've got a lot of things. Bring on the things!"

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Ironically, or perhaps not, for someone who's record is titled Who Killed Amanda Palmer, I've rarely met someone who is more alive and full of excitement at the creative ideas that she comes up with constantly. She merges music, performance art, social media, and theater in a new, passionate, and vibrant way. "I have been discovering there's no rules in every department more and more every day. It's so interesting how every facet of my life seems to teach me that in a different way."

Photos by Ronnie Farley