Audience members crying and hugging is a recurrent theme on her tour – which comes to Australia in January – but it’s not, Palmer promises, as bleak as it sounds. “A lot of people do cry, even though, poetically, it’s the funniest show I’ve ever done,” she says, “but it’s almost like stand-up.”
“It has to be, right, because of what I’m talking about.”
People also laugh a lot. “And everyone tells me they leave feeling lighter. And more connected. That’s why I’m doing this – because I actually think that hearing this stuff can help people.”
A lot of people do cry, even though, poetically, it’s the funniest show I’ve ever done.
Is it the healing power of art? “I think so. But then I’m not allowed to say that, because I’m never able to see the show – I can only ever deliver it.”
She credits three performers with inspiring her: Hannah Gadsby, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave.
“I saw them all while I was working on my record and … they all pushed me one step further into making a show that was more about storytelling and going very, very deep into the dark with the audience. I thought, if they can do it … and they’re not even addressing the sorts of issues I’m addressing. I would rather talk about anything else right now on stage than my reproductive history; I really don’t want to. But, I can. And because I can, at this moment in time, given what is going on politically, I feel I must.”
While deeply intimate, the show is also universal.
“I don’t know anyone on the planet who can’t relate to confusion, loss and grief,” she says. “It’s the most intense, riskiest show I’ve done, but it has reached the widest audience, demographic-wise.”
Some fans have even brought their grandmothers. “And they come up to me after the show saying, ‘I’ve never heard your music before and I cried five times during your show and I want to … thank you for saying everything you are saying’. That is worth 1000 reviews in Rolling Stone.”
Connection to her audience has always been Palmer’s schtick – from the early days of her impromptu ‘Ninja’ gigs announced via her blog, to playing roadside shows for people who can’t afford tickets and couch-surfing at fans’ houses. During her recent tour to Ireland, she even visited a fan on her deathbed.
As she puts it, she’s “been in a relationship with my fanbase since the year 2000”.
For the past few years, her fanbase has been elevated to effectively being her employer. Her entire creative output is now funded by more than 15,000 ‘patrons’ who subscribe to her Patreon, a membership platform for artists.
Palmer runs her own label and production company, and has cut out “the middlemen” from the traditional music industry equation; the bulk of her creative output is shaped – and paid for – by her patrons, most of whom pay $1 “per thing” that she produces. In her Patreon’s tiered system, patrons can pay up to $1000, with perks varying along the scale.
Each time she posts a new song, video or performance piece on her website, their money is deducted. She keeps her patrons up to date with what she’s doing, even soliciting advice about works in progress.
Since her 2014 memoir The Art Of Asking: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (and a companion TED talk), she’s almost become as well known for crowdfunding as for music – and it’s made her even more of a divisive figure; while some hold up Palmer as a radical visionary, others consider her an unabashed egotist.
When Palmer first embraced crowdfunding in 2012, she raised an astonishing $1.2 million on Kickstarter, before putting a call out for local musicians to perform with her in exchange for “beer and hugs”. Understandable criticism followed, and ultimately she paid her guest musicians in real money.
Earlier this month (after this interview took place), she again stirred things up on Twitter (where she has more than a million followers), questioning why The Guardian had “snubbed the most feminist album and tour of my career”, and entering into a protracted – and nasty – spat with a Guardian journalist.
Palmer also bemoaned a lack of general media coverage, announcing that her Patreon was now also paying for a “dedicated reporter” to create a “piece of long-form journalism” about her world tour.
She says she is “creating her own media”, although detractors point out this is publicity, not journalism.
Palmer likens people distributing their writing through Patreon to her music career.
“There are a lot of feminist journalists who, instead of writing for the major papers, are … starting their own Patreons, going directly to their audiences for funding, because the systems to support independent media now finally exist, without gatekeepers held up by the patriarchy,” she says.
“And people want to hear voices in independent media, in independent music. I don’t mean to poo-poo The Guardian and the great indie labels out there but there’s so much out there that doesn’t get through the gate.”
Being free from a record label has been “incredibly liberating”. “My songwriting has been on fire since I started my Patreon – I just feel so supported being able to write the kind of material I want,” she says.
And she no longer needs to seek approval for what she produces.
“It’s not like being on a label where I have to walk into a room with a bunch of men and convince them that this art deserves to go out into the world.”
That part of being signed to a record label was soul-crushing, she says.
“Especially when you’re a woman and you’re writing really intimate material,” she says. “There was something unnerving about having to sit in a boardroom with 12 guys sitting around a giant table, talking about will we or will we not market this record.”
Or the fear that her material was no longer “fashionable” and the label would move on to the next artist.
“My Patreon acts as a constant reminder that you do not need to go out there and suck corporate dick in order to be a successful musician – it’s not the last stop on the train,” she says. “There is an alternative that actually works, at scale – and I’m doing it.”
Amanda Palmer There Will be No Intermission is at Arts Centre Melbourne, January 22, artscentremelbourne.com.au. She also performs at Mona Foma in Launceston, where she invites women to share their stories in Confessional (January 16-18), for use in a song that will be performed at the show on January 20. monafoma.net.au
Kylie Northover is Spectrum Deputy Editor at The Age