Amanda Palmer: ‘We can get lost in suffering, or we can carry on without fear’

The US singer-songwriter on her stolen ukulele, losing her best friend and why it was important to make an album with her dad

Amanda Palmer, 40, began her musical career as one half of the punk cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, and has also performed in another duo, Evelyn Evelyn, and with Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. Her solo albums include Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and Theatre Is Evil. Her new album, You Got Me Singing, is a collection of cover versions performed with her father, Jack Palmer, which includes songs by Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and Sinéad O’Connor. She is married to the writer Neil Gaiman, and the couple have a nine-month-old son, Anthony.

I’ve been following on Twitter your anguished hunt for your ukulele, lost in transit. What’s the latest?
It’s not over until it’s over! Heathrow thinks it’s at Terminal 3, Virgin thinks it doesn’t exist, I want to believe Heathrow. Ten years ago, after a gig in London, three drunk teenage fans stole my ukulele from my dressing room, and I tweeted my despair. Three days later they showed up where I was staying, like frightened rabbits, holding my ukulele and apologising for having gotten drunk and stolen it. And I had such a wonderful time with them. I made them tea and sat them down and told them about my teenage shoplifting years, and it was a moment of true universal healing. And this is that ukulele, a $19 ukelele I’ve been touring with it for 10 years now, and it has seen some times. [Update: Palmer has since been reunited with her lost ukelele.]

What have you been doing in the UK on this visit?
I just wrote and arranged and recorded an entire album with Edward Ka-Spel, who used to be in a small cult band in the 90s called the Legendary Pink Dots that I just worshipped. When I was about 19 years old, he and I happened to be at the same after-party for a show of the band’s, and he was listening to a demo tape of mine and told me that he thought I was a phenomenal songwriter and that I should keep going. And that was one of the life-changing moments where I really felt legitimised; this was my hero, telling little me that he actually thought I had talent.

What’s the album like?
It’s really different from my usual stuff. It’s much more electronic, which is Edward’s MO. He’s an electronic, synthesiser kind of person, whereas I am a much more organic, piano person, but we married them together beautifully. It really felt like a bucket-list moment, to make that record.

And you’ve also made a record with your father. How did that come about?
It was another kind of bucket-list project that we got the idea for seven or eight years ago when I first invited my dad on stage to play a simple song with me. My dad is a good, solid amateur guitar player and a semi-professional choral singer. I first invited him to hop on stage at some of my solo shows because that’s the Amanda Palmer way; I always invite my friends and my family to play with me if they play.

And my dad was a really obvious one, because we had a faltering relationship all my life. He and my mom split up when I was a babe in arms, and inviting him on stage was one of the ways I opened our relationship back up. He and I had a far from intimate relationship until I was in my late 20s, and we started hanging out because I was touring.

What was the experience of working with him like?
Every time I would see my dad, we would chat about what we might do, and how we might do it, and what songs we might pick, and we got to bathe and linger in the beauty of the idea for a long time. That in itself was really healing – the fact that we had this musical common purpose we were building our relationship around. And by the time we actually walked into the studios together, I was pregnant, and at 39 I felt closer to my dad than I ever had as a child. There was something really profound about having a baby in my belly and going into the studio with my father to do this ultimate act of healing. It felt like it was all happening in its own time and in the right way.

Watch Amanda and Jack Palmer performing Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning at Koko, London.

You’ve also just released a cover of the Bat for Lashes song Laura.
That song was recorded two years ago in Australia and I’ve been keeping it in my back pocket. It took on extra special meaning because the widow of my best friend, Anthony, who died a year ago, is Laura. I played that song for her on a piano on her birthday, when we all gathered at Anthony’s brother’s house, and it became infused with a new meaning.

You had known Anthony for most of your life, and it was clearly an intensely painful loss. At the same time you were becoming a mother. How did that feel?
Anthony was my greatest mentor and teacher. He spent 20 years teaching me how to deal with impermanence. One of his biggest lessons to me was about non-attachment and the ability just to accept what is and sit with it. Not feeling the fullness of grief and the massive circle of the universe in terms of his death and this baby, not facing it head on, would be disrespectful to his memory.

You’re a keen advocate of the crowd-funding platform Patreon. Why does it work for you?
Because it pays me a little bit of money each time I make music, it all feels incredibly authentic. I’m able to make music with my family and music for my friends and cover songs that I feel like, and crank out a bunch of Bowie songs because I feel like it and a Prince song because I feel like it, and an album with my dad because I feel like it. I just get to do what I want! I feel like I’ve spent my whole career trying to find this particular utopia.

Tell me about those tributes to Bowie, and to Prince.
The beauty of Patreon means that I have an immediate disposable pile of capital to make music with, and so when Bowie died and I happened to be on the phone with Jherek [Bischoff, with whom Palmer recorded Strung Out in Heaven] and we dreamed up the idea of doing a really quick and dirty string quartet tribute, I thought why not? Music has a practical purpose; we use it to celebrate and to mourn and to process and to grieve and to love.

The same thing with Prince. Prince was my idol, and no better way to grieve and send a message than to get into a studio and wrap my mouth around the words that he wrote.

We live in pretty scary times. How do you deal with that?
The world has never not known its share of suffering, and we can get lost in it and lose hope, or we can just commit to compassion and then carry on without fear. And we need a lot of that nowadays, especially in the States. I stand committed to the idea of moving forward with as much fearlessness as possible. I told Neil I want to get a couple of T-shirts printed for me and the baby that say: “We are determined to enjoy ourselves.” As the shit hits the fan, as the globe warms, as Manhattan sinks into the ocean, we are determined to enjoy ourselves.


Interview by Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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