We Are Upstate NY With Upstate Groover Amanda Palmer
She’s a songwriter, punk cabaret icon, pianist and ukulele enthusiast. A feminist, an abortion activist, a TED Talks superstar, podcaster and patron saint to every Patreon and Kickstarter crowdfunded artist. She’s been a New York Times best-selling author. She was also once a busker earning her keep performing on streets from Boston to Berlin as a living statue called “The Eight-Foot Bride.”
The above just puts a modest dent in the encyclopedic artistic biography of Amanda Palmer.
One of the most shapeshifting, multi-hyphenate artists of this century, Palmer is yet another bold-faced name who has recently chosen to call the Hudson Valley home. She resides with her young son, Anthony “Ash” Palmer Gaiman, in one of our area’s grandest and most legendary residences. It was the former Bearsville home of Albert Grossman, the rock mega-manager who brought Dylan, The Band and further generations of rockers and other creators to the Woodstock area.
Palmer first came to prominence in the early aughts as one-half of the dark cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls. Their heavily theatrical performances, which could include fire breathers, stilt walkers and the like, powered three acclaimed albums and a multitude of tours before the duo officially parted in 2008. But Palmer and her musical partner, drummer Brian Viglione, frequently do mini-reunions to the delight of their fans. Their most recent was a trio of sold-out shows at the intimate Colony Woodstock in November 2022.
Palmer’s solo career has proven equally brave and boundless. She is perhaps most noted for Theatre Is Evil, her 2012 sophomore release which was supported by a headline-making Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $1.2 million from 25,000 backers. Still the most successful original music project on the crowdfunding platform, it led to Palmer presenting The Art of Asking at the annual TED conference, a high-entertaining and informative lecture that has been viewed more than 20 million times to date. Palmer expanded upon this philosophy in the New York Times best-selling memoir from 2014, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. And since 2015, she has used Patreon and her 15,000 micro-supporters on the platform to fund her many artistic adventures.
Other intriguing projects under her belt include You Got Me Singing, a 2016 collaborative covers album with her father Jack Palmer; the EP Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on her Magical Ukulele; the 2017 album I Can Spin A Rainbow with Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots and her third and most recent solo album, 2019’s There Will Be No Intermission.
It was while on a 14-month international tour promoting the album, that Palmer, her son and then-husband writer, Neil Gaiman, quarantined in New Zealand when COVID-19 shut down the world in March 2020. She would remain there through the end of 2022 when she returned to her home in Bearsville.
In this interview, Palmer speaks at length not only about her career past and present but of her life as a mother raising a young child in the Hudson Valley. She also discusses her active involvement in local charity efforts, her creative collaboration with art-minded neighbors and, of course, the wealth of groups and offerings here for young families.
On Friday, April 28th, you can catch the irrepressible Palmer in all her theatrical and harmonic splendor when she performs a solo show at The Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie. Beginning on May 19, she will join Brian Viglione as they reunite for a 13-date Dresden Dolls tour.
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Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Oof. It’s a long story. I was born in Manhattan but grew up between two divorced parents – one on the Upper West Side, one in the suburbs of Boston. Then I studied in Connecticut (at Wesleyan) and abroad (in Germany) and settled in Boston but spent a good deal of my late twenties and early thirties living out of a tour bus with my band, The Dresden Dolls.
Upstate? The easiest answer is that Melissa Auf Der Maur sold me on moving to Hudson, right around the time she opened the Basilica Hudson. But my whereabouts became a little fragmented for a while because I had a best friend dying in Boston, tours to do, and never really took root anywhere.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician, and how did you get your start?
I can’t remember wanting to be a musician – I just was one. I started playing piano when I was three and it just made total sense to me that playing music was part of being human. I started writing songs when I was very little and wrote endless material throughout my teen years, though I rarely shared my songs. They were too personal and sharing them was too frightening. I think about that a lot lately. I grew up pre-Internet, so I was able to live in a real vacuum as a songwriter for a long time. I often wonder what kind of songwriter I would have become if I’d been able to upload my fifteen-year-old material to MySpace because I would have been an Internet addict as a kid, there’s not a doubt in my mind. But instead, I crafted my songs in private, letting them grow in the dark. Whatever that led to, it worked.
I still love the alchemical process of writing a song. Who knows where those magical combinations of words and sounds really come from, but they’re always right there in my subconscious, like a faucet I can never really turn off. In a way, my songs help carry me from moment to moment. I never stop writing in my head. My songs organize my thoughts, my struggles, my pain, my growth. I love them deeply.
How did you go from doing street theater and working as a “living statue” to founding your longest-running project, The Dresden Dolls? And why did you forsake that for the new duo, Evelyn Evelyn?
I have bounced from project to project for my entire career. I’ve never been focused purely on success, or profit, or prestige, even though all of those things have their attractions. I’m always liable to choose the project, or tour, or collaboration that I find the most delightful. I love being in the company of other artists. And if I find out that they’re no fun to work with, or don’t have integrity, I quickly bounce away.
To me, success is about whether or not I’m enjoying my time on earth and bringing delight and joy and comfort to others, not about my chart position on Spotify. If I wanted to play that game, I would have written and performed pop songs, worn make-up and fashionable clothes and danced around. I would have been a decent Madonna. But that didn’t interest me very much.
You were a real pioneer of crowdfunding with your 2012 Kickstarter which raised $1.2 million to support your first solo album and tour. How did that lead to your famous Ted Talk and memoir, The Art of Asking? And is it still an important part of your life as a creative artist, your established Patreon account in 2015?
I was horrified at the values of my major label. I just could not believe how small-minded they were, especially in the face of the new Internet tools that were emerging around 2000-2005 to aid musicians and their communities. Breaking away from my label in 2009 and deciding to be a fully independent and crowdfunded artist began as a practical financial and business decision: it was about control over my work and community. But the tables really turned in the pandemic. My 10,000+ patrons saved my life. I was unable to tour, stuck in New Zealand alone with a small kid and my crowd just supported the hell out of me, financially and emotionally, for the better part of two years. There is no major label on earth that would have done that.
You’re a musician, theater person, author and podcaster to name a few. Which of these disciplines are you most drawn to these days and why?
I love all kinds of media and art, but I am most drawn to storytelling, communicating deeply and finding ways past barriers of shame and secrecy. The more I see the direction that culture is headed – especially in the wake of Trump and the abortion rulings – the more I think that art is a critical tool to make space for women to tell their horror stories. My whole last tour was built to give women more access to their shitty stories; the dark and unpleasant ones that culture so often demands they swallow. So, when I sit down to make a piece of art or media, that’s what attracts me. Doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a play, a book or an essay. Will it inspire someone to feel more deeply, be more truthful, even if it’s uncomfortable? If so, I follow the feeling.
You picked the ukulele up as a fluke but it now seems to be an important part of your identity as an artist, especially the album you did of Radiohead covers. Why the ukulele when so much of your work is a huge, stylized production?
The simplicity of the ukulele is its power. It’s the most disarming instrument you can possibly play. I was mostly just delighted when I realized that I could play a portable instrument that wasn’t a guitar, which – as a pianist – I’d always had trouble learning. The ukulele schtick started as a joke, really. But then I started writing songs with it, because I didn’t always have a piano at hand. And chords are just chords. Give me any instrument that can make a couple of chords and I’ll give you a song in a few minutes. My brain can’t stop making them.
When COVID-19 hit you were on tour in New Zealand and got stuck there for quite a while. Tell us about that and what it was like to finally get home to Woodstock.
Well, to be honest (and why be anything but honest), I have found the transition pretty difficult. I had created a really nice community for my kiddo in New Zealand and found the tight-knit community of Kiwis to be so welcoming.
Woodstock is a hard world for me to understand, in many ways. In many ways, it’s like the suburb I was raised in, but it’s also filled with elements that give it a kind of schizophrenia. So many new people, so many people with houses who aren’t in them most of the time, so many people with strong ideas about the past and what the town and the history means. Even though I’ve technically lived here for ten years, I feel I barely qualify as a local. I’m also pretty traumatized by the last few years, as many people are. I have mostly tried to sit back to try to understand how an animal like me can be of most use to a community like this without disturbing the ecosystem too much while bringing some fresh ideas to the joint.
There are so many parents of young kids in the area, as well. Trying to find a groove for the kiddos is one of my passions. In that way, I’m a classic folkie. I want to figure out a way to involve the kids in the art that the adults make. I think that’s critical to our collective survival as a species.
You’re a big part of many local events in the Hudson Valley, from the fundraiser for your good friend Melissa Auf Der Maur’s Basilica Hudson to the various holiday parades on the Woodstock Green. What are some of your favorite memories of these events?
Oh, what a wonderful question. I think my favorite moment yet has been marching with my friend Chris Wells’ parade for Secret City. Nothing feels as good as parading down the public streets with a bunch of my queers and weirdos and making a joyful noise. I live for moments like that.
In your opinion, why is the Hudson Valley music scene so good? Who are your main local collaborators and the folks that you don’t work with but who inspires you most?
Oh, beautiful question. Well, my favorite local collaborators as of late have been Sophie Strand – the native writer and poet – and Holly Miranda, who’s a newer transplant and a musician, filmmaker and polymath. These two women have been a bit of a lifeline for me over the past year. Like me, they’ve survived the sexual assaults of men, and they both speak openly about the scars and the work it takes to synthesize those experiences into your heart and art. I needed people like this badly. They’re both dedicated, no-bullshit, actively working and inspiring artists.
My private life has been a bit of a torture chamber lately for reasons outside my control, and they’ve held my hand through some of the most harrowing moments. We share rage and ideas and poetry. We put salve on one another’s wounds, sometimes almost literally. And on top of that, we collaborate. We released a little film that Holly produced featuring spoken words by Sophie and music created by me and another great local musician, Gracie Coates, and her bandmate, Rachel Ruggles.
These little projects have sewn protective layers over my very broken heart. It’s a special alchemy, making little offerings with fellow survivors, and knowing that there are closed and protective vaults to take the darkest information of your life, the stuff the public can probably never hear, never know.
I’ve also been very inspired by two other local women: the writers Elizabeth Lesser and Esther Perel. They are my soul cheerleaders and guides into the next realm of my life. No bullshitting or fooling either of them. They know too much.
How have the recent evolutions in the music business, from streaming to virtual performances, changed the business for you? What are the positives and the negatives?
Oh, it’s been a nightmare. I was incredibly active on the web for so long, an online native, and I learned how to use so many tools with such incredible dexterity. But much of that knowledge is now outdated, and I don’t really have the energy and patience nowadays to learn how to speak new internet languages fluently, because I’d rather give that time to my son. So right now, I feel a little bit like a champion boxer working a totally different job, watching the matches progress without me. But I have no regrets about that. Mothering my son and helping him navigate a divorce – which I also had to do as a child – is a tongue of its own and one I delight in learning. It takes an incredible amount of time and attention to get good at speaking Seven-year-old Boy.
You recently did a stint of sold-out shows at the Colony in Woodstock. What was so special about those shows and do you plan to return there in 2023?
It was an absolute blast on every level to bring my big global band to my cozy neighborhood rock club. Colony is such a beloved and important little spot in Woodstock and the perfect place to bring our community for a hoot. People traveled from all over the world to come to these gigs and I felt a real surge of local pride when everybody ogles the beauty of the area. Being able to host made me feel just a little more grounded to this place. And yes (shhh!), we are planning a reprise, so the faithful should get on The Dresden Dolls’ mailing list. The tickets will sell out in hours.
You live in one of the most famous homes in the Hudson Valley, the former home of the late Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager who was the man who singlehandedly made Woodstock home to rockers. What’s it like living in such a great home. And any ghosts of rockers lurking about?
I think it’s hilarious that a glittery punk is living in hippie-lore central. Ghosts are just stories, and there are plenty of those. But I’m mostly so preoccupied with weaving my own life story that I don’t spend too much time dissecting Bob, Albert and his widow Sally’s stories. They float around.
There was a massive lightning storm the day Sally died that split a huge tree on the property. We all had a chuckle about that one; she went out with a bang. I think all those old-timers would be amused by the fact that the house is now occupied by a single woman and her child, playing host to a whole new generation of irreverent art-makers from a very different lineage.
You’re the mother of a young child, your seven-year-old son Ash. Why do you think the Hudson Valley, and Woodstock in particular, are an ideal venue to raise a child?
Every venue has its costs and benefits. I love the vastness, the streams, the animals and the fact that we are small visitors in a larger nature preserve. I love the small-town simplicity for his little kind. Ash adores his school and that community really stabilizes him. There is also a post-Covid sadness, exhaustion and anxiety in America right now that I don’t think is unique to the Hudson Valley. People are feeling fragile everywhere.
I am really not a fan of guns. Don’t like them one bit, don’t like that they’re all over the place, don’t like that my kid has to do active shooter drills in school. I miss many things about New Zealand and the lack of guns is right up there.
What three albums have most inspired you and why?
The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because it was the first album that built a whole new world in my head. I listened to it on repeat when I was Ash’s age. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane… because it struck that world open in my head again when I thought it may have closed. I heard that album at 26 and still haven’t tired of it. And Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher. This one kept me company through much of the early pandemic days when I was alone with Ash. She reminded me to pull back from the literal and add more poetry to my lyrics.
What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
It’s a secret. But it’s local.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
Well, Fruition Chocolate Works has been my main supplier. I love those guys. They’re making lots of bespoke products for me and the band and even though it’s barely profitable. It’s a blast to create and name all these little music-inspired treats and sell them at shows.
What is missing in the area that you wish we had?
A big cozy, couch-y, nook-y, book-y coffeeshop.
What would be your dream assignment/gig, as a musician and/or a producer?
Oh. I’d love to be tasked with writing a stage and screen female-perspective version of “The Wall.” With an unlimited budget.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
That I love Avril Lavigne, unironically.
What is your favorite non-musical activity?
Talking with people.
Photos Courtesy of Amanda Palmer by Michael Murchie and @vhoycreative
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