Amanda Palmer Talks Pandemic, Patriarchy, and Patience

Thursday (September 23), famous folks like songwriter and artist, Amanda Palmer, and The Daily Show co-founder, Lizz Winstead, will be performing, singing, and telling stories for the new event, Do Re #MeToo: Sexist Songs Sung by Righteous Feminists, in the name of stomping out the patriarchy and raising money for abortion access.

Also in attendance for the virtual event, for which you can buy tickets here, will be Busy Phillips and Sandra Bernhard. This is now become an annual get-together, with past Do Re #MeToo showcases scheduled in 2020 and 2019. This year, the show has special significance after the recent abortion law passed in Texas.

We caught up with Palmer, who is known both for her solo work and collaborative work in the band, The Dresden Dolls. Palmer, who has a large and passionate fan base, is also known for her social justice commentary and ability to wear her emotions, thoughts, and beliefs on her sleeve.

American Songwriter: It’s been a tumultuous pandemic over the past 18 months. How have you been navigating it

Amanda Palmer: I am taking an actual SABBATICAL for the first time in my career. This last lockdown in Aotearoa, New Zealand, was the final straw and I realized I had to rip a page out of my own book and put self-preservation before productivity. I asked my patrons for support and they showed up in full force. It’s been, no kidding, the most profound era of my life, as I fall back fully onto the community and allow them to support me in a time of quietness, retreat, reflection, and motherhood. That being said, “dormant” for me means still releasing one or two projects a month, so don’t take me too seriously. I’m releasing a patron-only music video this month and also working on the edit for a live concert that we filmed last month. I’m still working, just at a very, very slow pace. I’m writing songs in my head and taking constant notes, and those will probably comprise the bulk of the new Dresden Dolls album which may not see the light of day ‘til 2024.  

AS: What was your immediate reaction when you saw the Texas abortion law news

AP: Sadly, I wasn’t shocked. Nothing shocks me lately. My naivety about what evils are impossible has been shattered.  

AS: How did you get to be a part of the Do Re #MeToo event

AP: Lizz Winstead called and asked! And I’m always honored to be invited into this particular coven. Lizz knew that I spent the bulk of 2019 touring a solo show which delved deep into abortion stories and advocacy, that’s how we met one another. 

AS: What are you looking forward to most about it, the skits, singing “sexist” songs or something else

AP: Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but I grabbed a local kiwi indie star, Reb Fountain, and we did a sort of mashup of one VERY sexist song and one VERY feminist song. It was a real thrill to “Tetris” those two songs together and I’m so proud of the work we did. The film is fantastic. 

AS: Do things like this inspire songwriting? How do you write about politics

In all your work, do you ever worry that you’re risking your own mental health by participating or feeling anger

AP: I’ve turned my hardcore songwriting brain faucet off for most of the pandemic, and it’s been interesting to see when the leaks cannot help but spring into my life. I just cannot stop writing words in my head, and that’s been the case since I was fifteen. I’ve been confronted with some particularly horrific emotional twists in my life plot lately, some real shockers, and it’s really interesting to stand outside of it, detach, and notice how my brain goes to songwriting as a form of solace, and of comfort. And even that instinct is worth examining. I’m slowly evolving away from the songwriter who had to scream her truth—and the truth about the patriarchy, abuse, sexism, betrayal and so forth—to the world at the top of my lungs. I’m finding a quieter and more powerful outlet lately. I’ve noticed that a lot of things will self-destruct without your screaming, if you simply stand by and wait. But only time and experience will give you that perspective. And sometimes it’s still nice to grab a mic and scream at the top of your lungs. If nothing else, catharsis makes you feel better.

The older I get, the more I realize that generalized political writing has its place, and the highly personal has its place, and the mark of a great songwriter is knowing exactly where to set that dial. Songwriters like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Sinead O’Connor, Jeff Mangum—they have this uncanny ability to enmesh the hugely general with the searingly personal details, and when a song-chef can get that right, it’s ambrosia. But get it wrong and you burn the soup. The more I feel political despair, the more I wonder if the world needs the dial more turned towards the personal, as a secret mainline to the universal. Watching a new artist like Phoebe Bridgers straddle that line and tap into the Zeitgeist gives you a clue. Songwriting like hers would have been great at any point in time, but especially right now, that particular “I am going to quietly scream into this pillow while divulging almost everything” is what people have an appetite for. 

AS: Prior to this interview, we asked Lizz about her relationship with you and the upcoming show and she said, “This event really lays out just how relentlessly male-driven pop music has defined women as worthy only if they appeal to the male gaze—not to mention how often we have gleefully sung along to them, reiterating the message. To have such sexist lyrics coming out of the mouths of feminist artists like Amanda Palmer, they are heard and processed in a whole new way. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s painful but it’s always cathartic.” When you hear what Lizz says, what comes to mind:  

AP: [Laughs] Well, Lizz is going to be pissed, because in the mashup I created, I let Reb Fountain be the mouthpiece for the total sexist trash lyrics, and I provided a foil. I’m the kid who never did the assignment but would always convince my teachers to give me A’s anyway because I was so good at breaking the rules. Nothing’s changed. But more to the point, I think appropriating terrible sexist songs is a strong move. It’s a form of musical jiu-jitsu, to grab your opponent’s sexist weapon and strike them down. As we try to figure out who we are as a culture, moves like this are so important. I’m a big fan of putting things in a larger, more nuanced, and satirical context, rather than “cancelling” or eradicating them. We don’t necessarily have to take down every statue of every war general. We can, instead, re-decorate them with glitter and silly costumes. When we are able to lob humor love-bombs at the giant patriarchy tower, I think we stand a better chance at dismantling it from the ground floor instead of trying to pretend the past did not happen.

AS: How are you working to keep connected to your own audience these days

AP: Patreon, Patreon, Patreon. I’m slowly moving away from Facebook and other for-profit algorithm companies, I think they’re slowly destroying us. I currently have about 12,000 patrons, and that’s where I go to be with my people. I still use all platforms; my mailing list, the usual socials, but Patreon has been my emotional and financial bread and butter lately. It’s so comforting, my Patreon, and reminds me of the early days of the internet, back when it was just a delight to be online with kind, supportive like-minded people from around the world. AND I’ve been doing little gatherings here in my new adopted country of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Patreon has been a wonderful avenue of paring things down to the core community. I had a party at my HOUSE a few months ago for patrons only and welcomed 50 people through my front door for a potluck and hootenanny. We all took a walk on the beach and tooled around town together. That sort of thing used to be possible on Twitter back in 2008-2012, back when it was more of a clubhouse, but Twitter lost that magic seven or eight years ago when the whole world joined. Patreon has sort of taken its place.

AS: What do you love most about music

AP: It can heal what no other thing can heal. It can touch where nothing else can reach.

I had my first panic attack since being a teenager recently. I got some horrific news about someone I deeply cared about, and I just couldn’t sleep, and sometimes couldn’t breathe. I’m wise enough now to know not to reach for drugs to get to sleep, even though I have an old bottle of Ambien kicking around somewhere. I know it’ll just blank me out and spiral the problem. And I found that the only thing that soothed my panic was music, and allowing whatever music wanted to play on my inner brain radio to take over the steering wheel of my thought car.

Strangely, almost comically, what came was “The Blue Danube”, the waltz by Johann Strauss. 

The main leitmotif just played over and over in my head for about an hour, comforting me, and I eventually calmed down and fell asleep. I don’t think we understand the first thing about music and why it does what it does to us. But I know it does what nothing else can. 

(Main photo credit Simon Melber)

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