The Art Of Asking, released last week via Grand Central Publishing, is Dresden Dolls frontwoman, Kickstarter-exploder and multi-talented artist Amanda Palmer’s first non-fiction book, an exploration of identity, art and commerce and human connection. It reads as a moving and shockingly honest part-biography, part-self-help guide where ultimately, through Palmer's experiences, readers can learn that the act of asking isn't shameful and that gifts we're offered by others can and should be taken to enhance a continuous circle of human trust, respect and creation.
[Photo Credit: Kambriel]
AP called Palmer on her train ride through Baltimore to Philadelphia to discuss empathy, navigating the changing landscape of the digital world as an artist, airing out the bad vibes and making authentic connections.
Your book just came out and you’ve had a lot of other stuff going on: Your theatrical production The Bed Show at Bard College just wrapped up, so how are you doing right now?
[Laughs.] At the moment, I’m popping a second champagne bottle because my publisher has finally ended their arduous negotiations with Amazon, meaning that you can finally buy my book on Amazon. That’s hopefully really going to help with sales. It was a real handicap and a giant bummer, so I’m glad that’s out of the way. I went straight from the Bed Show to one day off and started a book tour; I’m still about three months behind on my emails but apart from that, I feel fantastic!
The empathy that you displayed in this book and having opened yourself up is going to help others open up, too. You share a story where your friend Anthony talked about the concept of the “Sin-Eater” [a person within a community who absorbs the sins of others and turns them into so something useful and comforting—traditionally through ritual meals]. Are you up for all of the “Sin Eating” that this might bring on for you?
I’ve already been a professional Sin-Eater for 13 years. I’ve gotten really used to that job and I love the fact that my writing has allowed people to open up to me. I feel the greatest honor, actually.
You mentioned, perhaps, having to organize some apology dinners in the wake of your book coming out. Have you had to do any yet? Do you think you’re going to have to?
No. There’s no score-settling or anything like that in this book. It’s pretty much anybody in my life with whom I’ve had a relationship with, maybe with the exception of Roadrunner Records.
Did they know about the lie you told to get out of your contract? Did they know that you made up that story about wanting to start a family?
They know now! Well, ironically—or poetically—enough, that label hasn’t existed and that A&R guy is no more since Roadrunner Records pretty much went out of business a couple years ago.
[Roadrunner Records was acquired in full by Warner Music Group in 2010 and continues to function under the major-label umbrella.—ed.]
In the book, when you reflect on the time when you were on that label, some of the things you mention they were saying as far as marketing, like, “No don’t use this Twitter thing,” felt so far out of touch.
Yeah, they were pretty out of touch.
A lot of what you bring up in the book—something a lot of people just don’t get—is that connecting with your fans first is what gets them interested. There was a line where you said you could “boost the signal but you couldn’t build the bridge” for an artist you wanted to help, because their community wasn’t there yet. So, if you were speaking to a band stuck in the drudgery of the marketing world, who wanted to see people instead of just telling them to buy things, what would you advise them?
It is really difficult. There is no off-the-shelf prescription or solution. It’s like giving someone relationship advice. You really need to know who they are, what they’re looking for, what their partnership with their lover is like, and then you take it from there. There are some global pieces of advice to give to someone in a relationship like “listen to your partner” and “be compassionate” and “communicate.” But by and large, every relationship is different, and every person and band is unique, so I would give a completely different set of advice to a solo folk singer songwriter who just wanted to get into her car and travel than I would give to five guys from Berkeley who want to be the next NSYNC. Those are two entities who want different things from life. And their social media’s going to reflect that. But the blanket rules are going to apply to both of them. Use your authentic voice, and actually communicate with your fans, and they will appreciate you.
We see these studies left and right about social media strategy and how people use those platforms, and it gets a little frustrating, because everyone uses it differently and everyone connects in a different way. It’s not something that you can teach someone.
Even though I’m hailed as the Queen of Social Media, not everyone likes the way I do things. I get complaints on Twitter every now and again about how I’m retweeting too many people or how I’m tweeting too much or for having conversations that are too large. As far as I’m concerned, I can use Twitter however the fuck I want to. If someone doesn’t want to be a part of the conversation, that’s totally fine. It’s their choice to mute me or to tune out. If I wanted to know what Taylor Swift was up to every day, hell yeah, I’d be following her Twitter. But I don’t, so I don’t. I don’t complain if she doesn’t run her Twitter feed like I do. And I don’t complain that there are musicians out there who are Instagramming pictures of their nails every day, because as far as I’m concerned, there’s a segment of their base out there who are really interested in their nails.
I think that our job as artists is not to listen to other people’s opinions of what and how we should be. That’s why we chose to go into this creative line of work. People can scream at the top of their lungs, “I don’t like the kind of songs you write, I don’t like the kind of art you make. I don’t like the way you blog” and if you’re a really authentic artist, you don’t respond to and try to please those people. You try to do what you’re inspired to and hope that what you do will resonate and stick around and the people who don’t like your art or don’t like your voice will go elsewhere. Your failure as an artist begins the day you look around and start doing what everybody’s telling you to do, because then your creative voice isn’t of interest anymore.
Even if you aren’t necessarily taking heed to those things or listening to them in a way that changes you, it can still be hurtful. That’s something you talked about in your book.
Oh, yeah. It’s incredibly painful. That’s why you have to be a really strange combination of brave and narcissistic to fall into this line of work.
Talking about paying for art, which is a large theme in your book: In the years since your experience as The Bride [Much of the Art Of Asking tells the stories and lessons Palmer learned working as a living statue in Harvard Square dressed as a painted bride who gave out flowers and made connections with those who tipped her—ed.], do you think that it would be different now? Do you think that the landscape has changed and there are more or less people interested in being art consumers?
Well, I know things haven’t changed very much on the street because I still have street performer friends who have made their living and prospered. That economy is relatively sustainable. I think what we are seeing on the internet is that there is a shift in public consciousness about our own responsibility about manifesting the kind of art we want to see in the world. Kickstarter and crowdfunding have been a part of that revolution where people are waking up to the idea that perhaps the music they listen to doesn’t have to be spoon fed to them through the mediums of television, radio and giant record labels who designate with their magic wand who is or isn’t going to create the soundtrack of our lives. That’s incredibly liberating on the one hand, but it also comes with a frightening responsibility that if we are going to choose our art, we also need to directly support our artists.
A lot of that recalls your “We Are The Media” campaign. In a time when you’re able to reach out directly, what role do you think that someone like me, who works at a media company, is going to play in the future?
I think even though the landscape is shifting, old media isn’t dying, it’s just evolving. Even more than ever because of the loud noise that exists on the internet. More than ever, we need trusted filters, good journalists, good music critics—people who understand the contexts of content and are able to lead us where we might want to go. I love seeing systems like Patreon and sites like Brainpicker, run by by Maria Popova, because these are people who have decided that instead of working within the system, they’re just going to create their own voice and ask people to help them. I think there’s going to be a huge shift in how mass media works. I would still trust on articles written in The Guardian for fact-checking and accuracy more than Facebook comments because I trust the entity of The Guardian to hire a journalist who doesn’t post assumptions based on gossip or hearsay, but someone who actually spends time and energy on researching the content and shares it with us. I worry about books, journalism, music and film all in equal measure because while we have these really powerful tools to now create and share stuff with each other, it’s more important than ever to remember that it takes time, money and energy to write; that it takes time, money and energy to make a record; and it takes time, money and energy to make a film. And things like that don’t happen by magic. If you want good journalism and film, then the money and energy need to come from somewhere. The shift in consciousness is just beginning and it’s really terrifying. Even if you’ve been watching the Spotify and Taylor Swift thing or the hubbub around U2, it is like we are watching history get made. And we are praying that the victor isn’t some giant Disneyland Internet mass media conglomerate that controls everything that we do share and see, but that the voice actually stays with the people, the passionate people who put their time and brains into art, art-making and journalism. That’s what I hope happens.
In the book you talk about how in you used to post hate mail on the Dresden Dolls’ website.
I still do that! I still occasionally wave bad energy in the air just to get it away from me.
That’s the thing, so much has changed. When you were posting the hate mail on the site then, did you ever think we would reach the current online landscape where that sort of reaction is the standard and is immediate and everywhere you turn?
Back in those days, we had the band forum, we had shadow box, and that was our proto-social media phase where we would hang out. But it was an inner sanctum; it was a family. There would occasionally be spats and occasionally trolls, but mostly it was us, and it was impossible at that time, or if it was, there weren’t comments under the hate mail. It was just there for me to use, and that was the end of the line. I think that the ability for every voice to rise up and be heard is such a blessing and such a curse, because negativity amplifies quickly. Positivity, not so much. That’s the most heartbreaking thing about the internet nowadays. If you’re an alien coming down from another planet, you would think that 99 percent of the Earth’s population, from looking at YouTube comments, is this schizophrenic, psychotic, murderous asshole—and it just isn’t true. I know the people of the world. I travel all of the time, and most people I know are decent people who don’t talk like that and who don’t treat others like that. But the hate and the negativity and the anonymity available to people on the internet is unfortunately rising to the top. I don’t think we’ve figured out yet an etiquette system to balance things out. I feel like part of my job, which I’ve stepped into without knowing it is using my voice on social media to calm the hatred with my jiu-jitsu, zen-cool thing. Never thinking to the level of the trolls and the haters, but opening my arms and saying, “You seem really unhappy, do you need a hug? We’re all here, and we’re going to crush you with kindness whether you like it or not.” That truly is the most important lesson. It’s so disarming to people who come at you with hatred to tell them that you aren’t angry with them for being angry at you. It just takes the air right out of their hateful end.
It’s hard. Our stories that are something that people can rally angrily around, whether it’s productive or not, are always the most popular. Every now and then, I’ll try to put something up and the energy is just so much sometimes and I’ll just post, “Gosh, can we just be positive, please?” Usually, the right people will come to the surface and say, “Yeah, let’s be nice!” That’s always really refreshing.
Well, and nice doesn’t have to necessarily mean to sugarcoated society with unicorns and rainbows. It could just be a matter of focusing on a forward motion instead of on attacking and being negative. War has also been popular in human society for thousands and thousands of years, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to remain a human way of life.
In the book, you said that you were in a time where you were really blocked with writing. What does the future of Amanda Palmer hold as far as music, have you been able to write?
I have barely written any music since starting the book, although I did write a handful of new songs with The Bed Show, which just reminded me that my inner songwriter had not fallen off a cliff, and that’s a nice feeling. At the end of this book tour, I’m headed back to Boston to do a gigantic clean-out and apartment de-cluttering and usually, when I get enough off time like that, songs start floating to the top, and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to start releasing my music on Patreon as soon as the book maelstrom dies down, so anyone interested in getting new music from me should just come to me. I’ll be talking about it on Twitter and my blog and so forth. I think that’s going to be the next era. ALT