There’s almost no perfect context for art. It’s almost always sloppy, always messy, and we have to be forgiving of our audiences and we have to be forgiving of ourselves. You can either waste your energy spending your entire performance filled with hatred — and I know because I’ve done that — or you can embrace [imperfection] and remember that everyone in the room is in it all together, whether or not they know that.
BY WILLIAM KOSH
Amanda Palmer has worn an increasingly ridiculous number of hats over the course of her genre-spanning career including musician, street performer, author, public speaker, controversial poster child for crowdsourcing, ukulele queen and, as of fairly recently, mother. But when asked how she thinks of herself, the veteran singer/songwriter/provocateur better know as Amanda Fucking Palmer has a simple answer: “I’m an artist,” replies Palmer, who splits her time between her solo career and bands such as Dresden Dolls and Evelyn Evelyn. After thinking a moment, she goes broader. “You could take it one step higher and say I’m a ‘connector’…I connect metaphors and ideas and people and feelings.”
You can get a glimpse of the solid structural role that Palmer plays in today’s rapidly changing artistic landscape just by scrolling through her Twitter mentions. You can also find her manifesto, The Art of Asking, at your local bookstore. Or check out her infamous 2013 Ted Talk on the polarizing topic of crowdsourcing, which has over 4.5 million hits on YouTube. That’s well over three times the population of her native Boston.
On top of all that, Palmer has recently been collaborating with fellow former-street-performer-turned-musician/current Evelyn Evelyn member Jason Webley on songs for a stage play. Palmer describes Jib as “a threaded-together melange of three or four different stories about how the fates of human beings are interwoven by the psychic majesty of music making.”
So there you have it. She’s working on a play, caring for a young child and planning a tour that will pass through Chicago this November. How does she do it? Well, it’s complicated, but chaos is key. “I’ve learned to embrace the sloppiness of constant productivity,” she says, sounding genuinely excited. “It’s part of why I use Patreon and I have this group of 8,000 fans that are willing to fund me in my bizarre chaotic land of productivity. Actually one of the things I’ve learned using my Patreon is that…artwork has volume knobs. You can choose with any given artwork to simply hand it to the hardcore fans or to climb out to the mountaintop and shout it to the world that you made this thing.”
Beyond this, we don’t talk much about the divisive issue of Palmer’s crowdsourcing, but that controversy feels somewhat put-to-bed anyway, at least on her end. (Re-watching it three years later, the Ted Talk plays an awful lot like a victory lap.) Still, we sideswipe Palmer’s issues with the establishment while talking about Radiohead, a band that, like Palmer, is known for its dramatic break from the major label system and its unorthodox approach to disseminating its music.
“I respect their incredible principles,” she says of the band. “They still don’t sell out. And now it would be so easy. Everyone would forget them, and they still don’t, and it makes me so happy. And I did get to meet Thom Yorke! Maybe a year after the ukulele covers record came out.” (Palmer has a brilliant little album of brave and peaceful Radiohead covers packed into ukulele-sized bursts.) “I ran into him at a bar in New York. He hadn’t heard about it so I had to inform him. Then we had a nice conversation about ukulele and how beautiful it is!”
The one thing Palmer regrets about that album is the cover art. It’s just about the most un-Radiohead thing you could imagine, a Doris Day-ish image of her holding the ukulele and flashing an ironic, ham-and-potatoes grin at the camera. “I of course thought that was hilarious and that everyone would get the joke,” she sighs. “But in retrospect, maybe no one did.”
Palmer’s much-loved “Ukulele Anthem” serves as the finale for her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, one of the coolest live performances on YouTube. She and her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, excelled in the restrictive TDC format in no small part because they’d had plenty of practice performing guerilla-style. “We had been playing teeny little gallery shows for my Kickstarter supporters where there wasn’t a stage,” Palmer explains. “We were just playing acoustically in the middle of the room on the floor. So we already had a system of playing without amplification. [An office] is a really weird place to play music because as enthusiastic as those people in those offices are, they still can’t usually make the leap and act like an audience.
“But…what is your job as an artist? It’s to constantly hold back judgment of your audience…There’s almost no perfect context for art. It’s almost always sloppy, always messy, and we have to be forgiving of our audiences and we have to be forgiving of ourselves. You can either waste your energy spending your entire performance filled with hatred — and I know because I’ve done that — or you can embrace [imperfection] and remember that everyone in the room is in it all together, whether or not they know that. Speak to the people in the audience who are tuned into the art channel and ready to receive.”
Leave it to the freakishly prolific Amanda Fucking Palmer to accidentally write the perfect conclusion to her own profile. The beautiful chaos continues.
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