Around the corner of an unassuming shoe shop off Camden High Street, there’s a door. Its bell makes an old-fashioned sound, ringing out in a melodical ding-dong ding-dong fashion up a set of narrow stairs. When the door opens, Amanda Palmer peers cheerfully around the corner with a welcoming “hellooooo” and leads us up the staircase to the flat of a writer’s dreams.
On Halloween last year, the Dresden Dolls played the second of two sold-out shows at The Troxy. They were their first shows in more than a decade. For the freaks, the outcasts and the misfits, the punk-cabaret duo - consisting of Palmer and Brian Viglione - from Boston were a huge part of our musical upbringings. Seeing them live on the holiest of days on the Weirdo Calendar felt like a no-brainer.
What struck me about the show is what strikes me about Amanda Palmer’s solo shows: The sense of community. Although attending with one of my best friends as cross-dressing iterations of the Dolls, I met plenty of strangers that night, too. Some I’d never see again, others at the next. We all linked arms at the end of the set, singing along to tunes that were more prevalent than ever. Together.
A theme that travels through Palmer’s work is openness. Whether for the Dresden Dolls or her solo work, her lyrics are relatable, honest, and never shy away from what’s going on in her life and the world at large. Her words are a testament to her ability to say what she wants to say. Never has it been more evident than in her latest record, There Will Be No Intermission, a grueling 80-show tour of which she’s currently on a couple of days break from. (But, she says in earnest, she loves it.)
“I’ve just got a couple of outfits in a bag,” she explains, wearing a loosely-buttoned white shirt and blazer she says she wore for her most recent shows and photoshoots.
Palmer is radiant; silver flecks in her hair and eyeliner just-so. She also looks completely at home in the flat owned by some artist-and-writer friends with walls built with books from Pound to Sontag and Gaiman to Tolstoy in alphabetical order. It’s a flat where even the coffee tins are fascinating, interspersed with wooden posing mannequins and upside-down glasses.
Last night, Palmer went to the release of Margaret Atwood’s new book, The Testaments. “They had little cupcakes,” she says as she shows us the photos of the night and there was indeed adorable tiny green-and-black cupcakes and, she adds excitedly, handmaiden all over Waterstones. It feels pertinent she’s touring There Will Be No Intermission now.
This is a world of #MeToo, powerful abusers all over the news and class and gender warfare. It’s a world where there are unelected politicians, party in-fighting, propaganda, and a sexual predator as POTUS. It’s also a world where enraged young white boys can get their hands on AK-47s and, equally, one where teens are the ones showing us what we’re doing to our planet.
This is the world Amanda Palmer is writing about. On There Will Be No Intermission, she covers all topics branded as taboo when they shouldn’t be.
Abortion (“Voicemail for Jill”), death, gun control, climate change, loss, grief, birth, internet politics (“Drowning in the Sound”); the works. And Palmer is no stranger to any of it. She’s been toeing the line with grief and brutal honesty since 1996.
At the beginning of the There Will Be No Intermission stage show, she talks about the four people she lost as a teenager. Over a period of six months, she lost her recent ex-boyfriend, grandmother, grandfather, and her brother, Karl. “I was 19 and had really no capacity to handle that gracefully,” Palmer confesses. “I mean, the boyfriend dying and Karl dying were such extraordinary circumstances. Your grandparents dying, you sort of expect. And it really was too much for my little brain to process. Before that, I’d only dealt with the loss of pets and old people.”
The beginning of this string of losses strangely coincided with her decision to move to Germany. "In the film, it's almost hamfistedly scripted," she explains. "It was all consequent. I get the phone call on Christmas that the boyfriend is dead. Two days later, my grandmother goes, and two days later, I got on a plane." That flight? Palmer laughs. “I remember there were free drinks and then I don’t remember much else.”
The only reason she went abroad was because she was miserably unhappy in college. "[Germany] seemed like a good alternative.” She adds: “And I was in love with a German guy. It all sort of fell together and there's a way in which I'm really happy it happened that way. It was sort of my way of ameliorating the pain."
“I didn't have to deal with my family, I had left my tribe, I had left my society,” she continues. I was an expat student living among strangers who had no preconceptions about me; no ideas about me, no connections to my family. And I actually found that incredibly liberating, because I got to process [everything] on my own terms.”
There was also “free and easy” access to a lot of alcohol. “I just became a drunk for a year. I was I was pretty hardcore lushter most of my 20s, too. But I really I just got drunk every single night.”
"Up until then, I had just been living in the weird whim of my somewhat stifling suburban family. And all of a sudden, there I was with a map and no plan.”
It was, however, Germany that also taught her the ins-and-outs of Adulting. What they should teach in schools instead of Religious Studies or the History of Medicine. “That year of my life really shifted my sense of independence,” says Palmer. “It was the first time I went out into the world and figured out how to do everything. I figured out how to live on my own, figured out how to get a job, figured out how to find and lose and find an apartment, like, figured out how to deal with insurance, I figured it all out. Because up until then, I had just been living in the weird whim of my somewhat stifling suburban family. And all of a sudden, there I was with a map and no plan.”
As to whether she wonders what life would have been like if she hadn’t have gotten on the plane? “Sometimes,” she admits. “But I'm happy it worked out the way it did, because I also think leaving America was important. I think every American needs to leave America to understand what America looks like, from the outside. I'm 43 and I'm still learning that. It's very hard to see it when you're there.”
1996 and the wake of those four losses marked Palmer experiencing her very first creative dry spell. “There was about two-and-a-half or three years where I couldn't access my creative muscles,” she confesses. “ I just could not write and I had difficulty accessing a piano. I was just generally disoriented. I was a strange combination of paralytic and disoriented. And I did not write a song until I graduated from college.”
In her stage show, Palmer speaks candidly about how everything got better. She details with exuberance: "I left college! I started the Dresden Dolls!" Then, lulling back to a somber admission. "I was really prolific for a long time until about 2012."
Mention Amanda Palmer and you might unfairly be met with a mention of Kickstarter. In 2012, the media held her under fire for asking for volunteer musicians to join some shows on the tour for Kickstarter-funded album, Theatre is Evil. That was nearly a decade ago and opened up conversations for creatives the world over. Palmer herself didn’t shy away, instead becoming part of the conversation as orator and author of The Art of Asking.
That same year, her best friend and mentor, Anthony, died.
“Everything came sort of crashing down again,” she says. Her tone, solemn. “I think these are really critical turning points for artists. Every artist I know struggles with this. The paradox that even when you're standing in the experience of grief or trauma knowing that, as a good artist, it is technically part of your profession to harvest your experience, you often still find yourself unable to do that in the moment. And that can be crazy-making.”
“But also,” Palmer goes on, “the more I experience mundane human suffering on the scale from stubbing your toe to losing a child, I have become much more patient with my own creative process. I now know that it is not necessarily the wisest form of self-care to sit down while you’re sobbing to try to harvest fresh grief out of the depths of your soul.” She continues: “In fact, that can be an unkindness.”
“When tragedy strikes and illness comes, death comes, loss comes it's really difficult when you're an artist and you actually have these cathartic tools at your disposal. And yet, I have found that the fast track to healing is to simply sit with the suffering, allow it to do its work, and then after you've actually allowed yourself to feel the grief, feel the loss, feel the pain, then it's time to pick up the brush and let go of the self-flagellating ‘be a good artist’ whip that you carry around.”
"Even when you're standing in the experience of grief knowing that it is technically part of your profession to harvest your experience, you often still find yourself unable to do that in the moment."
That isn’t to say Palmer has never found the inspiration to write in the darker and more crippling moments. On the contrary, she says. “Sometimes that can be effective and important, but grief and loss also spiral in temporal waves that don't make any sense.”
“Not everyone is Charles Bukowski and can drink three bottles of wine and then write a great book.” She laughs and I have to ask about the myth of the struggling artist which ought to be trademarked at this point. “I drank that Kool-Aid as a teenager with an open throat. I really bought that my life had to be about as black as black could get if I was going to be a credible artist.”
“Culture has also not done a great job at combating the myth of the tortured drunk artist,” she states. ”Being a famous drunk male writer you'll find yourself in way more favour than a drunk female writer. It's an incredibly sexist myth.”
“Leslie Jamison wrote a great book called 'The Recovering' about her struggle with alcohol and sobriety. There's long passages in the book dedicated to the ‘romance’ of the suffering artists and I get into some interesting arguments with people who point out that it's a lot easier to be motivated when you're upset.” She pauses between words. “And I agree. But, I would also point out that life is fundamentally difficult. You're just not going to be able to escape suffering, so don't bother to manufacture it. Just wait fucking five minutes, the train will come and hit you.”
Since doing her There Will Be No Intermission shows, Amanda Palmer is realising the performances are all part of that grieving process. And not just grieving those she’s lost, but all manner of things she lists: “My old life as a single person, grieving the abortions I've experienced; grieving miscarriage, grieving my friend, grieving America. Like,” she laughs, “there's just grief up the ass.”
“But there are all of these processes and even in the attempt to grieve artistically like writing the songs, demoing the songs, making the songs, putting out the songs, traveling around the world, playing the songs every night for people while they think about their own grief and they cry. It's all a really important part of the grieving process.”
“The collective experience [of the show] is so much bigger than my story, my songs, my record, my loss, Because you get 1,500 people all in one space who all have their own shit show through which they are surviving at that moment,” says Palmer, inching closer in a forward, comforting, and sagelike manner. “I am acutely aware of this.” We lock eyes. “And they know that I know that they know that these moments are not just about me standing there with a megaphone talking about my shitty life.”
Something else she’s been contemplating during her time on the road this year is the privilege she gets to go out on stage every night. To let go of all the pain she feels or has felt into a crowd willing to listen, an experience she describes as incredibly therapeutic and deeply cathartic. “I find myself wondering ‘God, like what do other people do?’” She laughs, surprising herself with a vivid revelation. “You know, if I need to sit in communion with thousands of people every night to feel this okay, what do people who don't have a community do? How do they grieve? Like, what is the water that flows over their stone of sorrow and grief? How do they get it out?”
But, Amanda Palmer knows the answer: A lot of people don’t.
“I have never felt more like my job as an artist - especially as a live artist - is a service position. Like, and now that I know what I'm able to offer people in the palliative care department, I feel - not a responsibility to do it, but - called to it.” Because of this, she confesses that she’s never felt more excited to invite “her friends, the moms and the feminists and the exhausted, depleted activists” to one of her shows before.
“The collective experience [of the show] is so much bigger than my story. It's 1,500 people in one space who all have their own shit show through which they are surviving."
With time (a lot of it) and energy (even more), she’s even started to realise how changeable the media is. One day it’ll love you; the next, you’re the scourge of the earth. Or for Palmer, “there are years where they can't stand me and there are years where I'm the prominent feminist, and then there's years where I'm just Neil Gaiman's wife”.
I posit that if she were a straight, white, cis-male rockstar, the media wouldn’t have held her under as much scrutiny. She agrees.
“The thing that I'm experiencing right now in this moment in time is that I've never felt more relieved to not need authentication from the media,” says Palmer. “It's really not up to the media to act as the arbiter about whether or not my work has value to anyone, I see that it does.
“That doesn't mean that it still doesn't hurt my feelings or that [those moments] aren’t still frustrating, but I'm at least able to contextualize them in a much bigger truth. And honestly, because I have been around the block 18 fucking times, I have a much healthier measuring system than I did when I was 25.” That system is, undoubtedly, her audience. “If I had to choose between the media kissing my ass and trying to convince the world that I have the most worthy record on the planet versus looking out at a crowd of 2,500 people at the Beacon Theater who are crying and laughing along with me, I would always choose the latter.” Shrugging joyously, she confides in me: “I just don’t give a fuck.”
“Learning how to not give a fuck has been my Zen training as an artist. It's hard because you want it to matter, and you want to believe in the Church of the Media and Public Opinion and it’s great to have a bunch of critics out there loving your record and loving your shows. Of course, it is. But, it's not as important as the fundamental relationship I have with the people who listen to the music. It's never as important. And that is why I pay less and less attention to the media and more and more attention to the people. Because at the end of the day, I will have built my house out of brick instead of straw.”
Community is so vital to Amanda Palmer that, through Patreon, she’s not only been able to emancipate herself from the larger recording business, but has found ways to involve her patrons in her work. Palmer developed and workshopped There Will Be No Intermission through her blog on Patreon. Releasing each song as demos to her patrons, their funding paid for everything from getting long-time collaborator John Congleton behind the mixing decks again to the album artwork and beyond.
"There were three specific songs where I used a blog in the comments as kind of like a writing lab." Like a Roman forum, I joke? "It was almost like a game.”
For one of the songs, "The Ride" - one of Palmer's personal favorites - she posted a blog asking people what they were afraid of. More than 1,000 comments later, each of which she read and took notes on, the song began taking shape. “I saw a lot of equal-opposite suffering in a way that was almost uncanny.”
“There was an equal number of people dealing with abortion or miscarriages, that there were dealing with the inability to conceive an idea, failure, and on and on and on,” she furthers. “I just went, ‘You guys, there is a theme here and the theme is we're all suffering and we just happen to be in different spots in the cycle.’”
One commenter mentioned a monologue by the late comedian, Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer at 32. His monologue, "It's Just a Ride" confronts the bizarreness of the human experience and life in all its glory. It was this monologue that gave Palmer the metaphor for the song which mirrors Hicks’ words. "I put all of the details in the seats on the ride and set it off. So, it's not a stretch to say the community co-wrote that song with me."
“If I had to choose between the media kissing my ass versus looking out at a crowd of people who are crying and laughing along with me, I would always choose the latter."
The tour for There Will Be No Intermission is a grand undertaking. With the first part of 2019, Palmer played 40 shows across the United States. For the second half, she's taking on Europe and the UK, often throwing impromptu 'ninja gigs' at not-so-secret locations across the globe. After Australia and New Zealand, she's going to take to the US a second time, playing only the states with abortion bans. (Sickeningly: it's seven, so far including Alabama which has banned abortions completely).
Once that’s done, she’s going to take the show to New York for a long run in the theatre. By then Ash, her son, will be in kindergarten, she says with the stunned tone of a loving mother whose child is nearing school age, Then she’ll be able to work from home.
I’ve also heard rumblings from a very credible source that there’ll eventually be new Dresden Dolls material on the way. By 2021, the rumbles utter, perhaps.
Until then, Amanda Palmer wants to give people the gift of There Will Be No Intermission by continuing to put her heart and soul into every single night; a show that, despite some of its subject matter, is closer to a stand up show than a morose flurry of swan songs. “It’s the most accessible show I’ve ever done. You don’t need to be a card-carrying Amanda-Palmer-weirdo-fan to come.”
“It’s actually a really good show to come alone,” she adds. “And if you're processing anything, don't be afraid. I'm really good at taking care of the audience and the community is really good at taking care of the audience.”
I concur: Back with my fellow weirdos on Halloween, I came in from the smoking area where a stranger came out to me. After huddling together to shelter each other from the rain, I crept back indoors to, no shit, see Oasis on stage. Or so my bourbon-addled mind would have me believe. That night, Palmer and Viglione dressed up as the Gallagher brothers for a joke. Those surrounding me didn’t try to correct; instead, we sang together.
For more than 20 years, Amanda Palmer has had her ups and downs, her triumphs and her falls, her losses and her gains and knows life will always ebb and flow but the one thing that’ll still be there is the community.
I mean, it’s just a ride.