Back in Luxembourg in support of her There Will Be No Intermission tour, Amanda Palmer has a natter with Isabella Eastwood before the show at the Conservatoire.
Amanda Palmer and I started off our conversation discussing how tired we were – her because she had been talking about art and abortions all morning and I had just completed my degree (clearly on a par). So what was there to do but to continue the talk about all the difficult things we tend to avoid?
Isabella: The current streaming model the music industry is working on means a lot of musicians are struggling. I recently watched your TED talk “The Art of Asking” and your entire philosophy is built on the fundamental concept of asking people for help and support – is that the only way forward there, do you think?
Amanda: I mean the music industry is just a convenient metaphor for what’s going on in global politics, and the world at large. I think that human beings are going to have to get a lot better at asking and interdependence, because clearly this “you take care of yours and I’ll take care of mine” fucking capitalism is not working out for anybody.
The relationship between the arts and asking is really interesting because artists don’t provide a measurable manufactured product for humanity. We do something else that’s … weirder, and since the beginning people have had a hard time figuring out how to measure the value of art, or of an artist’s time, so figuring out how to do that has been driving me and everyone else that I know crazy. The internet has been both and a blessing and a curse in that sense, for mining a different artistic interconnectivity but I do think it can become a financial model that makes for a braver, more liberal process of art making.
In trying to figure that out, when does asking become exploitation? And how do we protect ourselves from that?
That’s a good question actually because people have been chatting on the internet, especially the last couple of weeks, about feeling this fatigue in continuously being asked from their family members and from all sides for support. All of these, to me, seem like really typical growing pains when you’re trying to build a new exchange system from scratch.
People are going to feel disorientated, and at the end of the day the answers are actually pretty simple: you can only have a limited number of friends you can support. There’s no way you can be everything to everyone, but creating a language of asking and expectation is on all of us in society. People complaining that you use crowdfunding for something is like complaining about telephones because people can call you all the time, and yet we figured that one out.
I sympathise with the growing pains. I feel them as well. I’ve had to hack out a path in a totally unknown jungle with a crowdfunding machete without having any fucking clue where I’m going. Yes it’s hard, but it’s so rewarding to be supported by 15 000 brave individuals who are willing to afford me complete artistic autonomy, rather than to be shackled to a board of 12 men or a government. To me it feels like the most creative way to work.
How did you first get to this mindset of giving and asking?
The thing is, at least philosophically, my ideas come from punk and folk. Punk and folk people have been interdependently crowdfunding since the 60s when they decided the system was full of shit, and there might be a better way of doing this.
And you know the Dresden Dolls have this weird musical theatre sound but we were a punk band. We played with punk bands, loaded our own gear, passed the hat around, we helped out our friends, they helped us, and we went into this not to get famous, or make money, but we were doing this because we wanted to build a tight community.
On top of this I was a street performer and I got really, really good at asking into the void of the universe. There’s no better training ground for an artist than the street, because you just need to deal on a minute-by-minute basis with rejection and being ignored, and you really learn to treasure and appreciate that 1 in a 100 people who stops to connect with you. And from that I had an approach to interdependency and creative exchange that most artists don’t necessarily have, because music school doesn’t teach this.
So what it the first step towards asking? Especially in a society that really seems to value individualism and “doing it yourself”… Culturally speaking I think asking for help is often seen as a weakness, maybe even more so for men, or people with mental health issues, it can be even more difficult because you’re made to think you’re just not supposed to show that you might need help?
I think the first step is the most difficult. After the first step you understand that we as human beings are actually stronger and better when we are interdependent, and that flies so hard in the face of the cultural narrative that tries to force-feed you the opposite Kool-Aid. But we work better as a tribe when we ask and receive in flow. And if you look all at the tribes over time and in the end, it’s the collaborative ones that got shit done. Isolationist meritocracies did not.
And what this means in your little weird world, is that asking for help is not wrong. Every question you ask contributes to a greater, more independent and healthier society, and nowhere do I see this more at play than with the other mothers that I hang out with. You can just drown in this wackadoodle society that wants women to get pregnant but then doesn’t value them, and it’s a shit show! But all of these things have to do with all the other things.
© Amanda Palmer
Now that you mention motherhood and its difficulties, you sing about a lot of really heavy topics in your music, especially your last record, such as abortions and miscarriage. Are you hoping to make these things easier to talk about?
Yeah I think when you make material like this, tour the stages of the world, perform and talk about this stuff openly and shamelessly and with humour, in a way that makes everyone a little more comfortable with their discomfort, you gradually chip away at the giant edifice of shame and stigma attached to abortion, miscarriage, shame, grief and depression that everyone knows happen all the time, but are too uncomfortable to discuss it at your local cocktail party. But even just doing this tour and talking to you about talking about this stuff helps.
We don’t really seem to have the vocabulary for it to begin with – I was going ask if we can ever really ‘normalise’ these things but that doesn’t feel right either. Can we, or should we normalise it?
It’s not so much that we want to make depression or grief or abortion normal, but to know that as long as we are human beings tripping around on this earth, there’s going to be suffering. There’s just no fucking way around it. And the question is: can we normalise a recognition around our mutual experiences of suffering, of loss, of accidents or struggle happening? Because there’s no fucking way that you’ll wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be fixed. It’s just not gonna happen.
So our job as writers, as artists, as poets, is to remind humanity that we’re not alone in the basic mundane struggle of being human. That’s what our job has been from day 1! This place is weird, terrible things happen, you are not alone.
In fact, “this place is weird, terrible things happen, you are not alone” has been the driving force behind every artistic creation from cave drawings through to Shakespeare, to today, it’s the fundamental building block of why we make art. And it’s good that we do, because without this we would not have a language to talk about these experiences in the first place.
Moving towards some slightly less abstract topics, let’s talk about touring. What does it feel like to perform in smaller countries like Luxembourg? Is it really different or can you not really tell because you’re touring and just moving from place to place on a schedule?
I mean I can only speak for myself, but my community is a pretty tight knit international community. Everyone in my pre-existing community has been around for like 20 years at this point, and we’re all on the same page about the fact that these tours are an opportunity to communicate about the human experience, and I just happen to be sitting at the head of the table, but it could just as well be anyone else.
And the thing that I have found defines my experience in a city isn’t so much how big, or foreign, or any of those factors; but the quality and the flavour of the show are usually defined by how often I’ve been in that city, and how many meals we’ve already shared at this collective table. I’m coming up to my 30th tour or something to that effect, I’ve played New York 70 times, and those shows have an even more familial feeling than the shows in Luxembourg or Bexhill or any other cities where I’ve only been once if that.
And in the cities where I play less frequently, well there has to be a little more caretaking to remind people that this is a very wild ride we go on, but I swear I’m a very safe, sober driver who will take you to the deepest darkest corners of human emotion, but I know what I’m doing and I will get us out of here by the end of the night.
So what is the first foreign country that you felt most welcome and most at home in?
I mean with the Dresden dolls the UK was really, really welcoming but when we went to Australia we were being embraced as prodigal children, there was just something absolutely electric about the degree the Australians embraced us and our message.
© Amanda Palmer
I think I have one last question – and I reckon we’re nearly out of time now anyway – but I’ve been reading up on the concept of lying recently, about its place in society and whether it’s ever good to lie. What are your thoughts on that? Is it ever acceptable to lie?
Oh yeah! It’s totally acceptable to lie, and I think the older I get and the more I learn about the subtle art of compassion, I see that lying is important. Especially when you’ve got a 3 year old!
There’s a great Buddhist story about a monk who’s hanging out in a forest, and a hunter comes along and asks the Buddhist where the rabbit went that he’s chasing, and the monk points him squarely in the wrong direction. I think those sorts of lies that are based on a higher truth and hopefully on a higher sense of compassion, are important. And knowing when to display them is equally important because the truth is not always compassionate, nor is the truth simple.
I think the more relationships you need to tend to, and the more varied those relationships, you learn that the truth has many, many, many layers and it’s never binary, never simple, and to quote my husband, “all art is basically a lie” and it’s true, and sometimes lies can be incredibly nourishing. So there you go! All of fiction is a lie.
But based on universal truths!
Exactly! To further what you said, all of art is a lie that touches on a higher truth.
And with that fantastic and incredibly satisfying sound bite, we said our goodbyes and ended our interview.
Amanda Palmer is coming to Luxembourg to perform at Conservatoire de Luxembourg (Den Atelier) on Friday 27 September.