Interview: Maranda Pleasant

Maranda Pleasant: Last time we hung out was at our SXSW party in Austin years ago. Our shirts were off, we were dancing, and you grabbed the ukulele and started singing spontaneously on the table. The entire place went wild. Your awesome hubby, Neil Gaiman, sat in the corner, reading his book and smiling.

Two years later, you’re a crowdfunding legend—$1.2 million for your album—and a New York Times best-selling author, and you have a top TED talk on top of your successful musical career. I’m tired just thinking about it. You’re also a catalyst for social change and an outspoken feminist.

Now that you’re really becoming quite a household name and you’ve got this New York Times best seller and your TED talk, is there any part about it that feels vulnerable to you?

Amanda Palmer: I mean, yeah, the whole thing. There are two continuums you can follow. The first one begins with The Dresden Dolls in Boston in 2000. We were by no means embraced by the music scene here, or by the arts scene, or by the bands that were popular at the time. We were still outcasts, for lack of a better word. We were a drums-and-piano duo, these dramatic and flamboyant freaks in face paint and costumes in a sea of indie rock bands wearing plaid shirts and jeans, and people did not like us, bands in Boston did not like us. We were the irritating gay-mime band.

People resented the fact that we gathered a fan base, and it was an uncomfortable situation because Brian [Viglione] and I never wanted to be hip. We never wanted to beat anyone else at the cool game. We desperately wanted to have fun and be inclusive and feel a sense of belonging because we both grew up feeling more or less on the fringe of society and our high schools and feeling very much like outcasts ourselves, and we didn’t want to inflict that on anyone else. We all wanted to create that bohemian circle of glee where everyone could finally feel that sense of belonging and we could somehow create that invitation. We always went out of our way to connect with other bands and create alliances with as many artists as we could, but we felt a real sense of coldness.

I never wanted to grow a thicker skin; I felt a real sense of pride in my thin skin, and in a weird way, I still do, because it’s my thin skin that allows me to empathize with other people. It’s the thing that allows me to create vulnerable art. It’s the thing that allows me to create other feelings and make songs that actually grab people and touch people. I feel like I’ve spent my life fighting that thicker skin because I don’t want to become an embittered asshole. I just don’t. And at the same time, you can only live in the battlefield for so long before you start thrusting your shield out and covering your eyes because you’re afraid that an arrow is going to hit you. I feel like sometimes the only thing you can do is be mindful of those reflexes and accept it as part of the job.

I’ve talked to so many women about this. This is particularly true of female artists and writers nowadays. It’s just part of the job; there’s no way out. If you’re going to make work and you’re going to write and you’re going to put yourself out there and perform, you will be belittled, you will be insulted, you will be called a standard collection of names, you will be accused, and you just have to stand there and continue to work and find a way to not let those things poison you. And on many days, harder than the act of making the art itself is the act of sharing it and living in a culture that you know is built to tear you down.

I’m a New York Times best seller right now, but if you look at certain places on the Internet, it’s still just because I married a rich, famous writer. There’s nothing I can do, there’s no book I can write, there’s no song I can write, there’s no hall of five thousand people I can sell out, and there’s no number of standing ovations I can get for my ability to write songs and touch people without having people on the sidelines cheering that I have my success because I’m a narcissist, because I’m an attention whore, because I married Neil Gaiman, because, because, because.

I feel that part of my life’s artwork is creatively dealing with all this negativity and anger and rage and hatred coming from whatever corners it’s coming from and somehow manifesting all of that anger into something positive, which is such a hard job. And I’ve watched so many women, from Kathleen Hanna all the way up to Taylor Swift, whether they’re pop artists or rock stars or fine artists or writers, it is the subhistory of female artists that if you’re going to make art, you’re also going to have a full-time job of defending your right to make art. It is not something I used to spend a lot of time thinking about. I think the Internet really sussed things into perspective. Because twelve years ago, I could spend my days on writing and running my band and touring and making posters and practicing with my band and working on my vocals, but I didn’t spend a large pie chart of my time sifting through criticism as well, and nowadays I do, and all female artists do, because to be able to promote your work, you need to live in those spaces. Just like Gamergate.

It’s fine for people to say, “If you can’t stand the heat and if you can’t stand the criticism, then just don’t use the Internet”; unfortunately, that is not an option. The Internet is where we make our living and where we make our work, especially if we’re independents and we cannot afford to not engage, because that’s where our business is driving from. It’s just not an option. And I watch all these women coming up with all of these really fantastic jujitsu strategies to cope with the constant onslaught of anger from other women, from other artists, from the press, from the patriarchy, from every single corner. On a good day, it’s inspiring to go out there and watch Margaret Cho and Laurie Penny, Elizabeth Gilbert, and whoever, name an artist. I’m inspired by their ability to use humor to deflect the arrows that are being aimed at them on the battlefield, and I’m inspired in my own work to charge out onto the battlefield and give no f—ks and make my art shamelessly and proudly. And on a bad day, you just want to crawl into a cave and die because it just seems like so much work for so little understanding and it can get tiring thinking, “Really? All of this? All of this just to write a f——g song? I have to deal with all of this just to write and post a song on the Internet? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

But that’s kind of the way it is nowadays, and it’s also become its own art form. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift’s gigantic hit right now is about this. She’s an artist writing about the shit she’s going through, and the shit she’s going through is, “Gee, I’m Taylor Swift, and all these people hate me. I can’t turn a blind eye to it. I’m an artist who writes about what she’s experiencing. I’m going to make art about the difficulty of embracing my haters and dealing with criticism.”

MP: I think that this is something that has been a big thing for me, and it was either going to crush me or I had to learn to adapt. I realized you can never do anything big as long as you care about what other people think. As long as you’re going to let a lot of your energy be drained, as long as you need people to like you.

AP: Oh, you’re so f—d.

MP: Instead of putting that energy into your art, all of a sudden I would find myself in a fetal position reading. I’m like, “You don’t understand what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to love the world and change the world, and you’re making me, like, this bad guy.” And it would break your heart. I don’t think men get attacked the same way we get attacked.

AP: No, there’s nothing more threatening than a powerful woman, and there’s nothing more threatening to the current order of things than women powerfully owning their own narrative. It’s so threatening to people, to women as well, and it’s threatening the order of things. And there is a reason people are freaking out, because it is terrifying to people when women step up and start owning the story that they have not owned. And I’m seeing so much of this, and it is a seismic shift. Even in the last six months, the trend of stuff that’s being published and the inevitable backlash against any woman that stands up and just boldly, honestly shares her story and experiences, it’s just becoming so predictable that it’s insane.

MP: And it’s nasty and it’s personal.

AP: It’s so nasty. And I feel like the degree to which women are clawing at other women for misguided reasons and the amount of competition that’s deeply ingrained is astounding, the amount of competition that women feel sitting at a table with one another, working in the same field. When you really look back and take the wider perspective, it makes total sense that if the status quo is to remain the way it is, women will not be lauded and applauded for bonding with and helping each other, because it would destroy the world order if women organized; it would topple the whole thing.  And so, it makes perfect sense to me that the current order of things would encourage the cat fights and encourage the comparisons and encourage the girl-on-girl hate that you see just being promoted everywhere.

I feel like I have such constant awakenings in my own consciousness. As I get older and realized all of these things in my early twenties upon leaving college and then I realized all these things through touring and traveling, and you know I’m almost forty now, and now I’ve been married and I’ve been through this whole other iteration of life and, honestly, it wasn’t until my early to mid thirties that I slowed down enough and did enough yoga and meditation, actually inspecting my own thought process deeply and going into those dark, scary places where I feared to tread that I realized how constant and relentless my own judgment of myself was in relation to the woman standing next to me and how heartbreaking that was.

Especially because, like, here I was, Amanda Palmer, like Land of the Free, everyone embrace your own inner freak and everybody bounce off to buy a ukulele and be your true self, and the truth was, I was frightening myself when I really inspected how I was comparing myself to other female musicians and how resentful I was when they  were more successful and how judgmental I was when they were making choices that I wasn’t making in terms of the beauty standard, in terms of singing, in terms of their songwriting choices, but I stood back and was like, “What the f—k? Why am I thinking this way? Who is this helping? Why am I like this?” I was, like, really astonished at myself. And then did what you do with a mindfulness practice. I was like, “OK, Palmer, game’s up. This is who you are. You have to constantly step back and notice when you’re doing this; it’s your only way out.” So that’s what I started to just try—be very mindful when I was comparing myself with other women, and slow down and ask why, and then come at the situation again with compassion, and it’s still hard to do. It’s like deflecting the hatred. It feels like it is a daily work and an ongoing task to undo all of the f——g programming that I have had all my life about who I am supposed to be and how I’m supposed to look and that I’m supposed to win. It’s a daily deconstruction of all that bullshit.

MP: Last night, I was walking home and I wasn’t particularly in a great place, and I was like, “God, some days, I feel like I’m just getting punched in the face with work.” Then I started listening to my own self-talk, and I was like, “Of course you are. You, like, f——g punch yourself in the face every day.” It was just this battle, and I’d like to think I’m a conscious woman, and here I am, attacking myself.

AP: Right, but that is the consciousness, right? This is why I think it’s so important to have a practice, because the consciousness isn’t perfection or enlightenment or any of that bullshit. The consciousness is, “Oh, I’m walking down the street and I’m doing nothing.” That’s the only exit door, to just be mindful of the fact that we are crazy and we do these things to ourselves and it’s a constant—like they say—it’s a practice. You’re not going to be perfect, you’re not going to stop berating yourself, you’re not going to stop the comparisons, you’re not going to stop the judgment, but you can become evermore mindful of it, and that has to be good enough.

MP: If we could just get this out to a million women, I really think it would be like a tidal wave, like a tsunami, of awareness, just the part you said, if women could start protecting each other and supporting each other and holding each other up instead of attacking each other and it’s not a competition.

AP: Oh, we could defeat climate change, we could end hunger. I was with Naomi Klein just two days ago. I don’t know if you know her. She’s an amazing woman. She wrote No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, and she just wrote an incredible book on climate change [This Changes Everything]. I had a real come-to-Jesus a couple of years ago when I started to see the direct line between feminism and everything else—feminism and climate change, feminism and poverty, feminism and hunger—and it was almost like I was born again and started walking down the street and was like, “Oh, my God, there are women everywhere! They’re just everywhere you look. There’s women all over the place!”

There’s a fundamental disconnection in society in the way we live, this way we live that we take so for granted, and we’ve become very separate from one another and we don’t really take lot of time to realize that. And the math is overwhelming to the point of despair, but the answers could be so simple. And I do believe that, at the core of it, if we can repair things emotionally, a lot of other things would follow. We cannot live in fear of each other, and we cannot live in anger and in aggression and in constant judgment and expect to get that shit done. It’s just not going to happen unless there is enough of a shift in consciousness and enough of a revolution, I believe, where women just really do throw up their hands and say, “Enough is enough. You guys have f——d it up. We need to figure out another way or the planet just collapses in on itself, and you guys have had a fair shake. You need to let us try this for a second, anyway.”

MP: I’ve been wanting to ask you this for three years. So many women feel like we have to keep making ourselves small to be in a relationship with a man. And you and I parallel a lot. There are a lot of women I know who have a very big presence and they have so much love and they’re brilliant and they’re beautiful and they’re creative, and then they talk about their romantic life, and the one thing I hear these smart, educated women that I would marry in a second say is, “I feel almost like I have to make myself smaller if I’m going to be in a romantic relationship, because I cannot meet a man who can hold all of this color, all of this life, all of this personality.” And the one thing that I was so affected by, like three years ago, was at our party. You ripped off your shirt, danced all night, and got up in the middle of the crowd and started performing. You were busting your heart out singing, playing the ukulele, up on a pedestal high up above everybody, and I looked over at your partner, Neil, and he had such admiration, and he was like, “That’s my girl.” He had such love and affection, and he wasn’t threatened by you and your bigness. For me, that dynamic is one of the most emotionally moving, that you could meet someone—and maybe give the rest of us hope that you could meet a partner—that could really love you in your fullness. That relationship gives me and a lot of women hope, and I haven’t really seen a dynamic like that before.

AP: He’s a very, very special dude. I think you can’t have this discussion and you can’t have a discussion about feminism and the consciousness of the world without having a discussion about what has happened to men lately. They’re holding the other side of the bag. While we’re over here blocked up in our departments and locked up in our own judgments and dealing with our own crazy problems, they’re over there dealing with equivalent problems. One of the things that I am so frightened by lately is that men are having just as difficult a time striking a balance as we are.

There was a dance that everyone was doing that was heavily skewed with the power in one direction, but the dance was basically working, and then the dance got really disrupted with the first wave of feminism, and nobody found their footing yet—not the guys, not the women. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Neil was, I had met a guy that was really in love with women and not threatened by powerful women. And by that, it doesn’t mean that the guy was a submissive, subservient, spineless, milquetoast, pathetic little man. I’ve met those guys. I’ve dated some of them; that wasn’t him. He just wasn’t threatened. He was stable enough in himself as an artist that he could encompass me. And it was why, against all odds and against all my friends’ mystified looks, I went for this guy who I had very little in common with, who was from another place, who was sixteen years older than me. I had not yet in my life met a guy who was such a sincere, not bullshit, feminist, and it was so attractive. Because I really felt like I could be myself. I didn’t have to earn his respect; I just had it.

And that was worth everything and anything, especially when you’re a woman who wields power in your job or as an artist or as a creator. Men find powerful women so threatening, and finding a partner was starting to look laughable, because I would be really attracted to guys and they would just be so threatened and I didn’t like feeling threatening, I didn’t want to feel threatened, I didn’t want to feel like I was towering over anybody. I wanted to feel like I could extend someone else’s joy and not crush it, and that is the giant paradox nowadays of being a powerful woman: you want to live in a space of compassion and helpfulness and joy and expression, and the world is standing there, pointing the finger at you and telling you that you’re greedy and domineering and attention-grabbing, and all you can do is shrug and just say, “Hopefully, someone out there understands and isn’t misinterpreting.”

I discuss this a lot in the book, and we were just talking about this earlier in the interview. I feel like I could talk to you for two hours. The key is to just focus on the spots where the love is real, because you can just drive yourself crazy focusing on the negativity, focusing on the relationships that are irreparable and just aren’t going to work, trying to convince the haters that you are indeed lovable. So much of that is wasted energy. What I have found is, so much of that is like a Chinese finger trap: the more you play to the dark, the more you will get trapped in the dark, and if you just play to the light and focus on the people that don’t misunderstand you and focus on the audience that does celebrate you and focus on the people who aren’t trying to tear you down, all that other stuff eventually erases itself because it has nothing to feed on. And it’s so tempting to go and feed all of that stuff, and I am as guilty as the next person, because I will, especially in moments of late-night masochism, go read the comments and go engage with the trolls and go try to convince everyone that I’m totally misunderstood, but I feel like I’ve been doing it enough years that even as I’m doing it, I know it isn’t going to work. It’s like I’m having this drink and going, “Yep, I’m going to be hungover tomorrow,” fully destroying myself, more or less consciously. “Yep, that’s me, the masochist in the corner,” but with a healthy dose of forgiveness at the same time, that we are human and our nature is to air and that our nature is to desperately want to believe and to take what we believe is the quickest path there even against our better judgment.

MP: In your TED talk, you talked about showing up and putting it out there that you needed a place to stay with your band, and you’d just show up at a person’s house and knock on their door, having no idea what to expect, but you would actually stay with your fans when you were touring.

AP: Yeah, we did that a lot. And on the flip side, we hosted a lot of people. Still, to this day, I live in a big, communal living space in Boston, and there’s always someone bizarre sleeping somewhere, for some reason. It’s a two-way street. It’s an attitude more than it is just a way to run a rock band. It’s a general life attitude that you are living in a sharing economy. It may be a pain in your ass to have fans crash on your floor, but you say yes because it’s going to be you on the floor next week in a different city.

But that’s also just the way my f——g friends are. It extends way beyond the band and beyond my quirky little way of running my life, the people that I know, and the people that I befriend, the real ones. They all run their lives this way, and they open their homes and share what they have and offer what they’ve got. They want to help. They want to be involved. The band’s just an obvious extension of that. But it’s also why I found myself so dumbfounded when I ran up against people who didn’t understand that way of existence, who raised their eyebrows at us like we were freaking weirdos. From where I was standing, I didn’t think it was so weird. Everyone I know shares toothbrushes. Everyone I know sleeps on each other’s floor. Everyone I know uses what they’ve got and shares what they’ve got.

It was a real rude awakening to me especially, around the time of Kickstarter, to realize that a lot of my philosophy which was born from the arts communities that I came from and the street-performing community where I came from, to see that I took a lot of things for granted that the rest of the world did not and that I was in some ways, perhaps, very naive to think that the rest of the world functioned on the same clock that perhaps me and my band did.

MP: You raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter for your new album. You made history. People are still talking.

AP: I think crowdfunding bust onto the scene with sites like Kickstarter, and I think it was and still is somewhat misunderstood by people. I don’t think people totally understand how crowdfunding works and why it works; even the musicians who use it tend to have a misunderstanding of basic Crowd Building and Capitalizing 101. This is why I took a wider perspective and really connected my experience as a street performer to why I was able to run my band the way I did and then crowd-fund the way I did.

I could go off on a million tangents about this, and I have a lot of strong feelings about crowdfunding, as you could imagine, but the biggest misconceptions about crowdfunding are that, number one, anyone can do it and there’s just free money falling from trees if you know where it grows. That’s misconception number one. Number two is that the people who run large Kickstarters are swimming in money. Even really intelligent business people who understand the nature of running a business and nets and grosses and economics have asked me, what did I do with my million dollars? Because they thought that the Kickstarter was just a big charity pot, a preordering mechanism for stuff that I had to then design, manufacture, and ship out. And those sorts of misconceptions have hurt crowdfunding.

I didn’t have any of those misconceptions when I went in. I fully understood how Kickstarter worked and was like, “Oh, I get it. It’s just an Internet platform that allows me to whip together a crowd that is going to preorder my record, and I’m going to have to deliver it.” But there are certain misunderstandings that have kind of poisoned the well a little bit, and then there’s also been crowdfunding fatigue because there are so many people, so many artists, so many magazines, so many theater companies, so many people trying to raise money for so many things that it’s easy to look around and just feel powerless or helpless, because even if you have some resources, you can’t help everybody. The golden age of Kickstarter, when there was only a couple of your friends using it and you got to feel really good about giving them all fifty dollars, those days have kind of passed. I feel really lucky because I launched my Kickstarter right in that sweet spot before the fatigue had set in.

But as far as the lead-up to crowdfunding, a lot of my book is about this. I started a band with Brian in 2000, and The Dresden Dolls played every city bar in Boston. The first club shows had five, ten, fifteen people at them, and then there were fifty, and then there were a hundred, and then there were two hundred, and we grew really, really slowly, and we didn’t even tour in a van until we’d been a local band for about a year and a half, two years. We made friends with all of our fans, real friends. We slept in their houses, we hung out with them, we ate with them, we talked with them, we asked them to help us sell merchandise or load our gear. We ran our band the way we ran our arts community where we came from because we came from an environment where people lived in lofts communally and everybody helped with each other’s shows. And it wasn’t really about the money; it was about the scene, and that was the philosophy we came from, so it logically followed that when we called for our community to help, they were there for us because we’d invested a lot of our time, energy, and love into the people we were asking.


Photo: Allan Amato, Makeup: Miho Suzuki, Hair: Kevin Hughes, Painter: David Mack

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