Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking is a two-way street

Image credit:  © Kambriel
Image credit: © Kambriel

*Warning: Contains swearing, so bear this in mind if you’re easily offended.

Anyone who is familiar with Amanda Palmer will tell you this: that she gives her all to her fans, that her performances transcend the heights of every emotion you experience at her shows and most importantly, that she continues to make her mark in a compassion-fatigued world with her trademark empathy, compassion, humour and forthright honesty and fierceness.

She’s currently in South Africa at this moment and has been giving much of her time to both her fans and media. The Dresden Dolls singer recently performed in Cape Town and judging by the responses on Twitter, fans simply adored it (much like they do here).

We had the opportunity to chat to her about everything from her book and music, to the changing nature of the Internet and the heart of crowdfunding.

you horned?

A post shared by Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) on

In ‘The Art of Asking’ you're extremely passionate about the Internet, especially about Twitter, seeing them both as good ways to connect with your fans directly. But this book came out in 2014. I was just wondering if you still feel that way today?

Well, the Internet evolves, and it's always so difficult to figure out where the internet ends and you begin. I’ve been doing a dance with the internet since my career started, because my band and my blog started the same year. I don't take that for granted.

There was this amazing alchemy where I was born as a touring performer the exact same time the Internet was exploding.

So we sort of grew up together, me and this infantile internet. And I've also changed as a human being in the last twenty years as my relationships have shifted and my priorities have shifted. I've spent years absolutely constantly on the internet, and then years where I have focused more on my flesh and blood relationships.

I think the Internet sort of reflects us as a society - we desperately want to be connected with each other, but we're not always sure how to do it, and we're easily confused.

... when you can find a community and a tribe, it wins its way past capitalism, and that's been my main takeaway of the year since writing the book.

I know that more recently you've gotten very involved on Patreon.

Yeah, I feel like Patreon has sort of been the antidote to Facebook, because social media was very exciting in the beginning when it felt tribal,  important, positive, educational and revolutionary, and then one by one all of the media outlets and the celebrities and the Donald Trumps hopped on board, and that really clouded the clarity of what was happening.

And at the same time that I was getting very frustrated with social media, I also found, like many other bloggers that the golden age of blogging was just disintegrating before our eyes.

Neil used to blog as well, and now we look sort of sorrowfully at this amazing time when artists were all reading each others' blogs and commenting.

There wasn't the noise and the terror of all traffic being driven by social media, because people would bookmark blogs and go read them instead of relying on Facebook algorithms to tell them where to get their information.

So I'm really cherishing the return to a group of people who all actually have each other's backs, and can engage in this whole discourse. None of it is driven by virality, none of it is driven by algorithms, it's all just driven by commitment - that's really what I missed about my blog, and I'm just slowly starting to recreate it with Patreon.

And it's a pity that it needs to involve money, but at the same time these two things aren't happening in a vacuum - my Patreon also came into being right around the time streaming fully ate into the profits of being able to sell music to people, so I found myself thinking wow, if I'm not touring, and if I can't sell CDs to people anymore, how am I going to make a living? How am I going to pay for all this art?

I’ve stopped many times in my career and thought “Should I really be saying this? Is this really helpful? Or is this just going to add to the noise of the world?”

The optics of the internet is very strange, the world is a very frightening place, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed, but when you can find a community and a tribe, it wins its way past capitalism, and that's been my main takeaway of the year since writing the book.

READ MORE: How the cultural diversity of Bassline changed the face of jazz in South Africa

These days we all know what it's like to deal with all the toxic trolling, anger, waves of fury, especially if you're a woman, or any minority. How do you know for sure when there's legitimate criticism?

I think the most important thing is to remember that there's no way to generalise life, and there's no way to generalise the internet, and you never know what has happened to who is speaking.

And I, like any warm-blooded human being, respond a lot better to being discussed at as opposed to being yelled at. So my first red flag goes up if someone is yelling at me in all caps.

Anyone who's yelling at me about anything in all caps, and shaking their fist at me, demanding that I do things differently, and demanding that I examine my white privilege “YOU FUCKING CUNT”, those people are just very easy to ignore.

But even then, it doesn't mean that there isn't possibly something valuable in what they're saying.

And this is the issue that everyone faces all day every day - which is how can you tease out the message? And how can you tease out the progress and the evolution from the screaming, yelling, upset, disenfranchised, fearful chaos of the mob?

Because there definitely is progress and evolution even coming from the people who are screaming at the top of their lungs - they're just not doing it very effectively.

So I think the most revolutionary thing you can do now days is to not buy into the idea of all this polarity.

WATCH: Disarm with love - Amanda Palmer

Everyone is becoming so divided, so polarised, issues are becoming so black and white, and I find myself constantly standing in the middle, just refusing to point my finger and say “Yes this is a fucking asshole, yes this person should just be burned alive, yes all these people should die”.

It's so clearly not progress to do that.

At the same time, you don't want to tell a bunch of disenfranchised women, or disenfranchised people that they have no right to be angry, because that's not fucking progress either.

You know one of the things I actually do, to really, really, specifically answer your question - sometimes when I get called out or yelled at on Twitter, sometimes all I need to do is scroll back through that person's feed, and if all I see for their five years of twitter is that they've been sitting behind their laptop finding people to yell at, I can take that anger with the handful of salt that comes with it.

Because some people are just obsessed with their own powerlessness, and they literally spend their lives trying to figure out who they can yell at.

And other times, someone will call you out for something, and it will stop you and you will pause, and reflect, because it's someone who really has a firm grasp on progress and evolution.

love, cape town, south africa.

A post shared by Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) on

I’ve stopped many times in my career and in my life and my writing and thought “Should I really be saying this? Is this really helpful? Or is this just going to add to the clutter and the noise of the world?”

And sometimes I can't even stand by what I even said yesterday, but you know, you also can't spend your life apologising for who you were when you were twenty-two and who you were when you were twenty-nine.

And I have such an ongoing blanket philosophy of forgiveness, compassion, self-compassion, and general global compassion to the point where I get yelled at for being too compassionate.

READ MORE: Have we become obsessed with a culture of online shaming?

I think we live in interesting times, because we're trying to understand how to be with each other on a global scale, and it's absolutely bending people's brains.

I wanted to go back to the theme of the book as well, which is obviously asking, but you give a lot on your side as well. What do you consider to be the difference between an artist asking their fans for something, and an artist exploiting their fans?

I think anything that you discussed under the umbrella of the artist/fan relationship, the artist/audience relationship, you can just as easily apply to any human relationship.

So I wouldn't just turn the tables on you and say “What's the difference between when you're asking your partner for help, and exploiting your partner's good will?”, but it kind of is the same question.

So much of that just has to do with the quality of honesty, and transparency, and authenticity of the relationship itself. If the relationship isn't a healthy, communitive, grounded relationship, the chances that one of the parties is being exploited is a lot higher.

If it's a good, solid relationship, and the two parties of the relationship really trust each other, really talk to each other, really see, respect and understand each other, then the chances are that the asking going in either direction is pretty whole-hearted, and the exchange is a healthier one.

And this all brings me back to my perfect metaphor of not wanting to be the friend who's only calling up when you need to borrow twenty bucks or your car is broken down. Because if you're only calling or touching base when you're in need, then you're not really in a friendship.

You're not in a relationship, you're just a taker. And I sort of feel the same way about artists.

But, it also really depends. I never want to stand here with hands on my hips saying to any artist “You need to be in a super communicative relationship with your fans, you need to be tweeting every day and blogging every day like me”.

Nothing can be further from the truth. I would defend any artist's right to just live in a cottage at the top of a mountain, play banjo, make recordings, and sell them to their label. But if that artist comes complaining that no one is buying their records or no one is supporting their Kickstarter, that opens up a different discussion.

Because you can't expect a giving relationship if yourself as the artist haven't given yourself, or of yourself, and created a relationship, and created a discussion, and created a universe of mutual support.

Now, obviously you're a musician first, and when you wrote the ‘Art of Asking’, you had never written a book before. Did your experience as a musician influence your creative process as a writer?

I found writing the book very difficult, because it's just impossible to do fast. And one of the things that I love so much about my job as a performer and songwriter is that there's almost nothing that you can't accomplish in a day.

I'm a sort of a closure addict and an instant gratification junkie, and that is very dangerous territory when you crack open a process of book writing, which takes up to at least a year.

I thought I knew what it meant to be a book writer, until I sat down to write a book

And there's no applause at the end of the day, there's no instant gratification for having written your five thousand words. They're just sitting there. So I had to find a very deep discipline within myself to write the book.

I found myself structuring the book almost the way I would structure a song. Returning to certain themes, asking the refrain that the stories kept coming back to, and I wanted the book to have a rhythm to it.

I think as an artist you always bring your entire toolbox to any project, whether you are painting, drawing, writing, singing, or performing.

I think if I learned anything really new from writing the book I learned about economy of language and my propensity while writing to repeat myself. I had to allow myself to believe that saying something once was enough.

And that helped my evolution as an artist, because once you start thinking in terms of economy you never go back, or at least you’re aware of your own bad habits.

One of the things that I was not exactly expecting to happen was that the act of writing a book really helped me understand my husband. Because I thought I knew what it meant to be a book writer, until I sat down to write a book.

Then all sorts of things about Neil's behaviour and psyche and patterns came into much clearer focus, and my empathy for him went up considerably.

I don't know if it really affected my song writing, but I know I found it really difficult to write music while I was writing a book.

I found it really hard to switch gears from super long form to super short form. I'm really only just getting back to songwriting after a long, long break, and that feels wonderful.

LISTEN: One of our favourite songs - Machete

Amanda is performing in Joburg on the Friday 23 February at The Fox Junction (presented by Bassline live).  Tickets are available from Ticketpro.

I went to her Cape Town show and can thoroughly recommend it. She’s a phenomenal performer – if you love Amanda, or piano, or even just a great show, it’s not something you’re going to want to miss.

Have you had the pleasure and joy of meeting Amanda while she was in Cape Town? Share your experience with us - we'd love to hear from you.

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