Frances Salter joined Amanda Palmer for the London leg of her There Will Be No Intermission tour, to chat about our feelings towards our countries, the discourse surrounding abortion, and new material from punk cabaret icons, The Dresden Dolls. Spoiler: there did turn out to be a 20-minute intermission, during which the author bought a beer.
It’s the afternoon following the general election, so I already feel quite weird, and now Amanda Palmer is staring very deeply into my eyes. It signals the start of a deep-dive into some of life’s most taboo topics, which will culminate tonight with four hours of solo piano and ukulele in the sold-out Union Chapel: a show so sad that she will give the audience permission to jump up and shout “Amanda, I’m too sad!” at any time. She’ll momentarily stop talking about death, and instead play the introduction to the Dolls’ hit, ‘Coin-Operated Boy’, to cheer us up. Two people will take her up on this offer.
Palmer has been in London since August, writing, parenting, and playing kazoo with Brian Eno (amongst other activities). So how’s she feeling about the UK, especially in light of today’s results? “I’m feeling complicated, for a lot of reasons. My feelings about London and Britishness have changed, even since arriving here in August. I’m married to a British person, and have a child who’s a British citizen – plus, I’m frightened for my own country. It’s complicated by the fact that I don’t just live in one place. Instead of living in one stable place, I’m moving around between all of these sinking islands.”
Her feelings about the political landscape are both complicating and clarifying her role as a performer. “I’ve spent my career thinking about whether it adds anything to anyone’s life to make art, or whether it’s just a privileged, entitled position we happen to have tricked you all into joining us in. And while I’ve spent my career trying to defeat imposter syndrome, it becomes a herculean task to play piano while you’re reading headlines about the sea level rising. And it’s a paradox. Because while that’s hard, I also still get on stage every night and play these songs, and cry, and stand in the signing line every night to meet people who cry too; who tell me that they need me to continue playing piano while they work at the food bank.”
Carving out a meaningful space as an artist in desperate times, politically and environmentally, has lead Palmer to lend her voice to external forms of protest and organisation: such as Extinction Rebellion, and, most recently, a fundraising drive for UNHCR.
But the performance itself is intended as an antidote to a culture that feels increasingly fragmented and incapable of nuanced, compassionate conversation. I ask her about this in relation to abortion, which is a fundamental theme of There Will Be No Intermission. “I think that the battle around reproductive rights is an easy metaphor for everything else going on right now,” she says.
“It’s about power and control. The most frightening thing to me is that the so-called progressive liberal section of society seems unable to take care of its own. We’re unable to foster a rational, calm, civil conversation: we are so divided within our own home that we are letting something larger slip away.
‘The thing that I’ve learned on this tour is that at the end of the day – political arguments and Twitter storms aside – there is one inarguable truth which each person and artist has which is the control to deliver your own story. While the right is coming into power, there are also constantly-connecting grassroots movements of people sharing their stories, and their data, and their experience in a way that – if it all could magically Tetris together – could sway things towards a sustainable future.”
Palmer has always championed the idea of art-as-service: that artists aren’t idols to be worshipped, but servants of their communities. “That’s your job as a member of the community: not to take what you feel you have earned but to offer them the truth. And I think artists are getting better and better at taking more and more risks doing this because the stakes feel higher and higher.”
Purely in terms of logistics and infrastructure, though, it’s getting harder and harder to do this. The closure of indie and DIY venues, as well as the rollback of music media, is well-documented. And even on social media, it’s become markedly more difficult for artists to reach their audiences without the use of paid ads. How does Palmer suggest that artists serve those around them if they can’t be heard?
“I think you always have to start from the same basic fundamental, which is that these ephemeral platforms are only tools which serve a larger end, which is to connect authentically with people. If you don’t authentically want to connect with people, I don’t have any advice for you. I’m still a purist: I won’t boost my posts, I won’t stick ads on my youtube videos. I don’t want to put my community in a position where they are lining other people’s pockets. And yet I will still defend any artist’s decision to use money, branding, boosting, selling, trading, you name it, because the world is crazy.
‘I would rather an artist be entrepreneurial and figure out a cockamamy way of doing things than not proffer up their art because they couldn’t make ends meet. I know that for me, in order to be able to sleep at night, I have a set of rules and boundaries that I stick to. That being said, Victoria’s Secret never has come calling to say they’ll give me seven million dollars to put on pink underwear.”
I tell her that it’s not too late and she reminds me that, with that sort of cash, she could buy an entire election.
Palmer has often centred her live shows around improvisation and a DIY, it-could-go-anywhere aesthetic. There Will Be No Intermission, though, has a more structured feeling, as she has built the songs into a narrative structure guided by anecdotes from her life, her career, and the careers of the artists she’s admired. I’m curious about her feelings towards improvisation, which prompts the following exchange:
It turns out, she has not. “I’ve been touring for 20 years. A lot of shit has gone down. Power has gone out, keyboards have collapsed, strings have broken, people in the audience have fainted, lights have been cut, band members have fallen over, amps have caught on fire, costumes have come off.”
So it’s about embracing that whole aesthetic? “Yes, but I also think that there’s not a professional entertainer out there who has not learned how to roll. That’s the job. If you want to be a professional stage performer in any realm, you quickly start to understand that it is about holding a constant understanding that catastrophe is predictable. If you don’t clock that pretty early on in your career, you’ll be unhappy.”
Last year during their reunion shows at the Troxy, the Dolls hinted at some possible new material by joking about how disappointing it is to find that, as time goes on, the band’s flamboyant depiction of the world’s dysfunction and pain has only become more relevant.
“We are working on a new record very slowly and deliberately,” Amanda confirms. “Given what is going on politically, I cannot think of a better time to roll our sleeves up and become The Dresden Dolls again. The ripples that The Dresden Dolls created moving through the world on tour were a very different height and flavour than the ripples I have created moving as a solo artist. It’s apples and oranges because I love solo touring and being able to sit with an audience in the dark for four hours and talk about the hard stuff. But The Dresden Dolls provide a different kind of medicine. And it does feel like a well-timed moment to bring the radically inclusive message of the Dolls back into places where people can gather.”
Circa 2007, alone in a bedroom in Plymouth, the Dolls were my introduction to DIY music. Although they subsequently signed to a major label, they emphatically maintained their DIY principles while touring the world.
Before streaming services, before my house had an internet connection, living in a place without an indie music scene – or indeed the money to participate in it, had it existed – the CDs of an obscure band from Boston alerted me to the fact that anyone, anywhere can participate in art. And what’s more, they can do so joyfully, without embarrassment, and in a spirit of resistance. It’s something to hold onto and to hope for, at a time when we’re ever more aware that elections can be bought, and we struggle to tell what’s true and what’s not.
That night, before closing her set with a cover of ‘Let It Go’ (beloved anthem of her little boy, Ash), Amanda asks the audience whether any of them are creatives, and about a third of us raise our hands. “Be the light,” she tells us, because in the darkness, it’s hard to see.