Amanda Palmer Expands on the Trauma and Triumph Behind ‘There Will Be No Intermission’
Usually, when an artist is described as “raw” or “real,” one has to take into account that everything is relative, and such descriptors ultimately mean very little. Anything that makes its way through has typically undergone a series of grueling safety tests, audience screenings, and all the works before it gets marketed to you in a pallid, diluted, adulterated form. Even if the music goes straight from a singer’s mouth to your ears, there’s usually a stringent self-censorship, catered to societal conventions, that compromises everything drastically. Once in a blue moon, there’s something stark and unfiltered that makes its way through, and will stop you in your tracks. Such is the case with Amanda Palmer’s “There Will Be No Intermission.”
Palmer rose to fame with the Dresden Dolls, forging a sound that has been described as “punk cabaret.” While of course reductive, the label is quite accurate in that it zeroes in on two of the core elements that stand out in Palmer’s music — rebellion and theatricality. Having always assumed something of a gothic aesthetic, Palmer has proven adept in channeling trauma and tragedy into chilling, evocative renderings. Dark times have inspired dark musings, and especially trying circumstances have found their way into some of Palmer’s most compelling music yet. Palmer spoke with Entertainment Voice to shed some light on the dense ruminations of her latest album. We delved into the stories behind the songs, the inspirations for the sounds, the mentality behind the music, and the message that ultimately emanates.
Your song “Judy Blume” is a touching homage to the author of children’s and young adults’ fiction, with a particularly striking line, “You taught me that you could say anything you could think.” On an album like this, you don’t appear to hold anything back, making these words really ring true. What is it about Blume’s writing, in particular, that inspired this type of fearlessness in expression?
Well… Judy Blume was a writer and a voice that I totally took for granted until I rewound the clock and realized how bold and unique and actually radical she was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, because I was just a kid, so she was as normal as vanilla ice cream and Cheerios and the Brady Bunch. It was just part of what was at the bookstore and the library, and what I didn’t know was that a few states away, her books were banned. No one told me that these books were special and contraband a few states away, and that teenagers were passing them around under school desks, and so I look back at what she probably opened up in me that might not have otherwise bloomed — pardon the pun. Because she just wrote about the truth, period — and boobs and sex and wet dreams and all of the stuff that is very real, but has never entered the cannon of young adult fiction because it was naughty and unallowed. And I, sort of, feel the same way about songwriting, and what is and is not allowed and acceptable, in terms of subject matter. I grew up to men singing songs (laughs). Most of the women on my shelf — and there weren’t that many — weren’t singing about how it feels to have an abortion — like none of them were. And the exceptions prove the rule. There was Ani DiFranco and there was Tori Amos and there was Natalie Merchant, and then there were five hundred other CDs. So I really feel, especially with the political climate, it’s just really a moment of “If you can, you must,” with fucking Trump in office.
The first lyrics of the new album are “Everyone’s too scared to open their eyes up / But everyone’s too scared to close them.” Which one of these fears do you think usually wins out, both for people in general, and for you personally?
I like to think that I have my feet planted squarely in the “eyes open” camp at the moment, but also the more I learn, the more blind I realize I am to all sorts of realities on this earth. But that’s also part of the “eyes wide open” mentality — that you have to be accepting and open to your complete lack of wisdom (laughs). And fear is very fucking popular right now, and I’ve never felt less afraid in my adult life, and I think a lot of it has to do with getting older, with having a kid. But a lot of it also has to do with what I have chipped away at and what I’ve learned, as a woman with a voice, and who is and is not listening. Because a lot of people are interested in what I have to say, but it’s not the people that I ever expected (laughs).
Will you give an example?
I grew up with that typical, mythological notion that there would be a group of hip indie rock people that would anoint me as the great songwriter and the great performer. And instead, I have build an off-grid house so far away from the metropolitan area of hipsterdom (laughs), but so many people want to come hang out in that house because they don’t like it in that city. And it’s really satisfying because I built the architecture, and I decided what appliances went in the kitchen, and I get to pick what we drink. It reminds me of the Star Wars bar (laughs) — this bizarre fucking place filled with everybody who didn’t fit in anywhere else, and just wants to talk about and experience feeling and truth. And one of the hallmarks of my community is that people help each other, talk to each other, listen to each other, comfort each other. It’s a real tribe, and I love that. It’s not what I set out to create. I set out to be a songwriter, and then all of this stuff happened along the way, and I hold the keys to that house with a lot of responsibility and honor.
“Look Mummy, No Hands” has the refrain “How careless we are when we’re young.” “A Mother’s Confession” suggests we can be careless when we’re adults too. What do you think of the ageless idea of artists being young at heart? Aside from the practical responsibilities, how would you say being an adult, and more specifically, a mother, has altered your perspective as an artist?
I definitely feel that I’ve become more mindful and more “responsible” as a parent because you just have to be. There’s not as much latitude for fucking up as a parent. At the same time, Neil and I still fuck up constantly. We lose shit, forget shit, miscommunicate, leave the baby in the car. It’s not like this switch gets flicked, and all of a sudden, you’re a perfect, happy, healthy grown up who’s not making any mistakes. And everybody knows that. I haven’t met a parent who cannot relate.
People hide away, going “Wait a second, this isn’t supposed to be the way it is. I was supposed to be the perfect grown up. Oh fuck, I can’t tell anybody.” and that’s just wrong. We all suffer here together, and we’re all perfectly imperfect. And as far as artists being young at heart, I think the best thing to say about that is that when we look at children, they keep their eyes and their hearts much more open to awe at the universe and bizarre connections. And one of the hallmarks of being a good artist is that you do not close your eyes. You stay fascinated, and you stay in that surreal state of mind where you can see a connection between two very unfamiliar things. And if you can’t do that, you can’t be a fucking artist. It’s just like the job doesn’t work (laughs).
There’s a lot of jaded disillusionment in the album’s lyrics, and a struggle to make sense of all the problems life throws at you. You rationalize, “It’s just a ride,” in “Ride,” but ask, “Do you ever feel like this should be officially the end?” in ”Drowning In the Sound.” How much of a nihilist are you?
You want to know something really funny? That line was the one line in the song that I cut and pasted from a blog comment (laughs). It wasn’t even my line, I stole it. I mean I stole it with permission because I wrote a blog for “Drowning In the Sound,” saying, “Everyone tell me what’s going on with your lives, and in your heads. I’m going to harvest it for a song today.” Someone types in “I feel like this is officially the end,” and I thought, “Wow, what a dark…” (laughs,) but you know, we don’t get the dark without the light, and vice versa. Our job as artists is to plunder the darkest corners of the dark, dark, dark, and come out with some kind of diamond (laughs.) And if we can’t go as far into the dark as possible, we can’t make good art.
Having experienced so much loss and trauma, turning out such an open, unhinged set of songs as this must be very cathartic. On the other hand, performing the songs must bring you back to troubled times that you might not enjoy revisiting. What has the overall experience of writing and performing the songs been like, and do you have any take-home message learned from the experience?
The most important thing to address is the suggestion that I don’t enjoy revisiting the dark points and the trauma, and actually it’s not true. I don’t mind talking about my abortion on stage. It’s not that I woke up one day and said gleefully, “I know what I’d love to do, talk about my abortion every night to a thousand people.” And yet, I find it incredibly therapeutic. When women come to be held at the end of the night and cry into my arms, but they’re so relieved to hear someone on stage talking about something so relatable, it doesn’t feel painful. It feels more like a medicine that I can offer on to others, and naturally, like a lot of things — like water over a stone — the more I talk about it openly and honestly, the less pain it carries. This tour is a little bit masochistic — I’m talking on stage every night, for three and a half hours, about really dark, personal subjects, but also, none of it feels like it’s in vain because I see the faces on the other side of the stage, and I feel very connected, and I feel like what I’m offering up is incredibly welcome. So it almost feels like a community service job (laughs) — part Ted Talk, part rock show, part community service.
You are extremely expressive with your voice on this record, in a way that really makes the listener feel the emotions running through the songs. In “Machete,” you get to downright screaming, and in “A Mother’s Confession,” there are moments when it sounds like you’re actually crying. There are very few singers who can effectively channel this much emotion in their singing. Who are some of those who you can hear making their way through when you listen to yourself?
Nick Cave. Nick Cave on his last record. His teenage son died really tragically, falling off a cliff, and he was in the middle of working on this record, and he went back into the studio and plowed on, and it is the most pained, beautiful, vulnerable record you’ve ever heard. It is just like a stream of consciousness soulcry out of his grief. And it’s such an incredible offering. I’ve been a Nick Cave fan since I was fourteen, and this album just undid me because I had just had a baby, and the idea of losing a child is just so raw. And I also lost my older brother when I was twenty years old. Like Hannah Gadsby, it was this reminder to me that our job as artists is to go there, and to not shy away from the dark, and also not feel like we have to experience it alone in the dark, locked in a room, but that as artists, we have this gift, where we can plunder and harvest the darkest facets of our own experience, and hand them over. Listen to “Skeleton Tree,” and listen to Nick Cave’s voice. He barely hangs on, at moments, but there’s such an immense power to that vulnerability.
An album this intense must surely be something to recreate on stage repetitively. How is the tour coming along?
Oh it’s really hard (laughs). I just did three nights in a row, and it practically killed me. I’m looking at the European tour schedule, and I’ve got five nights in a row with travel every day, and I’m just looking at it going, “I don’t know how, literally, physically, and emotionally, I’m going to do this.” It’s going to be like running five marathons. The frightening thing, for me, is I’m going to have to take better care of myself than I want to. I don’t want to be grown up, and I don’t want to be whisking off stage, and going straight to sleep, and not drinking wine, and not socializing, and not doing the things that make the whole job worth it for me, but I’m going to have to.
It’s just so much… truth (laughs). Actually, I saw Hannah Gadsby’s show. She’s this incredible stand-up comedian who did a show called “Nanette,” that you should go see. She really confronts the audience beautifully. She talks about assault, being queer, what we don’t talk about. I saw her show in London, and I was totally ass-kicked, in the live performance department, because she was such a reminder that you can get up and say anything. You don’t have to be fully entertaining. In fact, it’s our job, as performers, to not necessarily give the audience what they want (laughs). I asked if she wanted to hang out after the show, and she said she just doesn’t hang out with anyone — because the show is so intense that she can’t switch modes back and forth, and I am starting to understand now what she meant. She needed to protect herself, and that’s a mark of real professionalism, when you just know what you need, and “Everyone, get the fuck out.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I want people to know that they should come see this show, and they should come prepared!