Amanda Palmer Grieves, Writes, Helps Others Find Solace From Woodstock
The songwriter spoke about her writing process, the liberating potential of crowd funding, and using art to countenance grief.
Photos by Kahn and Selesnick
Amanda Palmer has never held back. From her earliest punk songs to her star-making work with the cabaret-influenced Dresden Dolls and subsequent solo work, the songwriter, actor, and Woodstock resident has bared herself and her world for fans to see. Literally, like on the cover of There Will Be No Intermission, the grandly intimate album of piano ballads and ukulele-driven confessions Palmer self-released back in March.
Intermission finds Palmer at a curious point in her life. It chronicles abortions, a miscarriage, personal losses, and the child, now three-years-old, that she had with her husband, the acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman.
Recorded in Los Angeles with Grammy Award-winning producer John Congleton, sweeping strings give way to startling confessions, the profound and the private layered one atop the other. It is also a serious vindication of Palmer’s proudly independent ethos, supported entirely by fans on the crowd-funding site Patreon, and comes accompanied by a gorgeous photo-book, a collaboration with the Hudson-based photography team Kahn & Selesnick.
“Nowhere in the plan did we think we were going to be living in Woodstock with a kid, it was not in the stars and it was not in the script,” laughs Palmer. “But here we are six years on after having bought this house, and we’re both actually living in it, and we have a three-year-old, and it all worked out very strangely and beautifully, but definitely not according to plan.”
We spoke on the phone about her writing process, the liberating potential of crowd funding, and using art to countenance grief.
Was this the first album you have written since moving to Woodstock?
Amanda Palmer: There are songs on this album that actually predate our move to Woodstock, because some of them were written as early as 2013 — I guess we did get this place in 2013, so actually, when you back it up, the origins of the record and the origin story of our upstate world are about synchronous. And funny enough, one of the first songs that I wrote that ended up on this record was written in a borrowed house that I lived in in Red Hook, and the first time that I actually stayed up in the area for awhile was when I was teaching at Bard, and we borrowed a house from someone in Red Hook.
The house didn’t have a piano in it, but I had my ukulele with me, so I wrote this song on a ukulele. That’s The Thing About Things. I had the inspiration in Boston but wound up at Bard, and wrote that song on a combination of a ukulele at that borrowed house and in a practice dressing room at the Fisher Center. All of it seemed like a huge mistake. I had no idea what I was doing up here, I didn’t have any friends up here, it wasn’t part of the plan, but I got sucked into doing a project at Bard and that was exciting, and one thing led to another, and this area just became this magnet for me. It was only after deciding to have a kid and ending up here with my child and shuttling back and forth between Woodstock and New York and really feeling the soul weight of what it’s like to have a child in the city versus have a child in the woods that I started to realize that maybe the cosmic plan had been to draw me up here to chip away at my stubbornness, that the city was the only place for me.
I am an incredibly city-oriented, cosmopolitan-loving person, and I never imagined in a million years that I would be living outside of the city. But now with a three-year-old I’m embracing it whole-heartedly.
How did that affect your writing process for this album?
Every single song on this record was written in a different location. I think there were maybe two songs that I wrote in the same place, in my apartment in Boston, which I still keep — that’s a long story, I don’t pay rent and it’s part of a crazy artist’s collective, and mostly my old apartment has turned into a bohemian rock-and-roll hotel for a lot of people — and when I got up here and really started digging my heels in, which would have been about 3 years ago, I also started my Patreon, where I have unconditional support from my fanbase to write and get paid. So I get paid a pretty fantastic salary every month just to be Amanda Palmer and make media and work.
I find it very difficult to write in this house in Woodstock, because it’s a hive of activity and there’s no privacy, and there are children running everywhere, and Neil — it’s very hard for me to focus. I started making friends and following up every possible connection, and I wrote a lot of this record in a series of borrowed studios and borrowed homes. So I wrote one of the songs, almost the keynote song on the album, at Marco Benevento’s house, because he has a little studio built right next to his home where he lives with his wife and two kids.
I just needed a piano to work on, so I borrowed his place for two days, so I wrote one song there, I wrote one song in Kingston at a rented studio and used the engineer there to demo and track the song. I also wrote one of the songs at Applehead, which is right near downtown Woodstock. Because I have a budget to write, now, I basically just paid to rent the studio as a writing space for one day, and I brought the engineer in on day two, because I gave myself a hard, 24-hour deadline to write the song, with my fan’s watching on and following my blog, and day two I tracked the song and gave them the demo. So this is my process, it was really, really fast, deadlined writing, a quick deadline to capture the song and send it out to my patrons, because I really like the instant gratification of showing them what I’ve done even if the paint is still wet and messy on the canvas.
How does it feel to have that constant connection with your fans on Patreon?
It feels immensely satisfying. I was the kind of person who came to music because I wanted to connect with and hang out with people, and music seems like a really good medium to choose if what I really want to do was have a deep and lasting connection with a tribe. And that’s always been my M.O. since the beginning of the Dresden Dolls, Brian Viglione and I used to sign after every single show, even when we were playing in venues of 1200 people, we would sit at a table at the end of a show and meet every single person that wanted to meet us, and sign everything and hear every story.
I still like doing that, and it’s the reason I have a really vibrant social media community. Patreon has a low paywall, you can join mine for a dollar a month, and even that type of support, knowing that people are in for a dollar to hear what I have to sing, have to say, I’m doing a podcast now with these really beautiful profound interviews with artists and neuroscientists and social justice warriors and all of these people — it all feels like one big piece of work. In a way the Patreon has been the most artistically liberating era of my career. I no longer feel like I have to take all this work into mainstream media or some asshole at a major label and convince him that it’s worth putting into the world. I'm pre-approved by my community, and it’s given me an incredible amount of freedom.
So it would be fair to say it’s liberated you to follow whatever creative impulse you have?
Yes, in whatever medium. And especially important to note, a lot of these pieces of content would have no commercial value, and no sellable value, because it’s very hard to make money from a Youtube video or a podcast or a blog. But, if I now want to spend four days on a podcast and a blog, I can draw a salary for that four days of work, instead of just eating it financially because I want this thing to exist on the internet. And that’s immensely satisfying.
How has the instant connection with the fans affected your writing and creative process?
It’s affected it directly. One of the things I’ve been doing, especially on the latter songs on the album and most of the ones that I wrote up here, I actually used my patrons as sources of inspiration, as a source of lyrics, and as a sounding board. For instance, both The Ride and Drowning in the Sound were written after giving my patrons a prompt. For The Ride, the prompt was “What are you afraid of right now?” And I read all 1600 comments and wrote the song based on those comments. And before I wrote the song Voicemail for Jill I went to the patrons and asked: “If you could say one thing to a woman going today to get an abortion, what would you tell her?”
And again I got thousands of comments, and I read those comments right before I sat in the chair to write the song, and I took all of that passion and all of that sentiment with me into the writing process. IT’s hard to describe exactly how it works, but all you have to do is join the Patreon and unlock those posts, and even just reading those blog comments is an overwhelming emotional experience. Reading the comments on The Ride — my god, it’s probably like a four hour process. But it gives you a really intense look into a cross-section of humanity right now and what they’re dealing with.
When did you first learn about Kahn & Selesnick?
Through my neighbor Caroline Wallner [of Tivoli Tile Works]. She was pals with them. Caroline is a potter and she was staying in the barn of that house I was borrowing in Red Hook, and the two of us became pals and she moved in next to me in Woodstock and now she makes pottery in my barn.
She knew these photographers and told me to look them up because I was on the hunt for collaborators here, and once I saw their work I knew that there was an instant connection. I find it so incredibly poetic, that Kahn & Selesnick work with nature as their subject. Almost all of their photography is taken outdoors, they use the landscape as a character in all of their photographic storytelling.
And the fact that I was actually very resistant to my new life in the woods, that they came in almost as art therapists, because all of the work that we did at my house in Woodstock connected me to the land and began creating a history that connected me, my abortions, my miscarriage, my child, my relationship, my own journey with myself, it connected all those threads together in these photographs that used our land as a backdrop. I’m not even sure any of us realized at the time how significant these photographs were going to be, but they really tethered me to the property here in a way that I was really resistant to.
Part of the story is that, when I first came to Woodstock, I was incredibly unhappy here. I did not want to be in the middle of nowhere, I don’t like being isolated, and I didn’t have a single friend in town. It’s been a hard-won battle to actually make peace with this place and find my way into a loving relationship with this house, with this land, with this town. But, like any good relationship, like when you have a really grumpy, disobedient dog that you’re totally invested in having a relationship with, I finally have put in the work and found a way to really embrace my life and livelihood here, in this spot. It’s taken a lot of work but it’s been incredibly satisfying.
Kahn & Selesnick typically try to tell a story with their photographs, even if it’s a strange or oblique one. Do these images tell a story together?
They tell the story of how I use art to transcend grief. That’s the main thread in the entire book. The book starts out with me just listing the relentless events of the last eight years, two abortions, my best friend dying of cancer, one of my exes committing suicide with a handgun, a miscarriage. Neil and I just did not get a break for awhile, it was just one thing after another.
Anyone who has made art in any medium during or after a time of grief or trauma, knows there’s a medicinal quality in the art, using your grief as a the palette that heals like no other balm, especially if you make that art in collaboration with other loving individuals. And we forget, in this crazy, fast, careless society that we’re living in, that human beings have had really good rituals for millennia, involving art, involving song, involving dance, involving creation, that help us get through the dark. We’ve lost the plot so hard in that department that I almost feel a kind of guiltiness that I’m an artist and I had all of this therapeutic support at my fingertips, because I chose to dive headlong into my own form of art therapy, and I had thousands of people holding the space for me, thousands of supporters who had my back as I went through this, so the public grieving process with all of this support, all of this love, and all of this non-judgmental embrace that all of these patrons and all of these collaborators gave me as I howled my primal scream. Not everybody gets that.
I’m certainly not the only person on the planet who’s had a sustained, relentless tragedy. I’m one of eight billion. But I also know, as an artist, that the act of doing this as a form of public offering has helped others, and I know that because I’m on the road right now and I’m holding a lot of crying people who are finding solace in the work. That’s how it should work.
As far as I’m concerned, that is the most satisfying moment of being an artist, is holding someone in your arms who has lost or who is grieving or who is confused and know that you’ve provided them even a molecule of solace, and this record is giving that back to me in a tsunami. And that’s also why putting out a record is like putting out a twelve-step process. [laughs] I’m in the step where you go out on the road and you deliver all of this information by hand, and you also hold the space for all the other human beings who are fellow travelers who have something to say about how this record relates to their lives.
I love listening to those stories, because as an artist you want to feel talented and beloved and accepted and admired, but most of all you want to feel useful, because it’s such a weird fucking job to be an artist and to have to stack yourself up against the engineers and the doctors and the lawyers. And you’re constantly scratching your head and wondering: how am I of any use here? [laughs] And when you put out a record like this it’s really satisfying because you really feel like you’re of use to somebody.