Amanda Palmer: “An Artist’s Political Responsibility Is Not to Make Political Art”

On her new album with Edward Ka-Spel, I Can Spin a Rainbow, the former Dresden Doll basks in the power of collaboration.

Music Features Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer: “An Artist’s Political Responsibility Is Not to Make Political Art”

Amanda Palmer has always been a bit of a lightning rod. Sometimes, her freewheeling nature can catalyze internet firestorms, such as when, in 2012, she asked musicians to perform as her touring backing band for free (they’d be paid in “”beer and hugs). This was after collecting about a million dollars from her fans via Kickstarter, which funded the creation of her record Theatre Is Evil and set of another round of criticism. When bombers attacked the Boston Marathon in 2013, Palmer posted a hastily written poem dedicated to one of the killers, “Poem for Dzhokhar,” to her blog, much to many readers’ chagrin. Finally, last year, she told The Guardian that “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again,” setting off another wave of internet indignity.

But those who know her best—especially fans who have connected with her music ever since her days in cabaret-pop duo The Dresden Dolls—understand the good in her intentions. She even credits her followers with helping her produce her latest project with her musical hero, Edward Ka-Spel of experimental troupe The Legendary Pink Dots. Using an online service called Patreon, which basically lets fans contribute cash toward their favorite artists’ work, Palmer and Ka-Spel created I Can Spin a Rainbow, a 12-song collection of soft-spoken, piano-draped sonic oddities.

“A woman writing a song about how it feels to be a woman in 2017, whether that involves pain, isolation, heartbreak, or abortion, is still a political act, because creativity in itself is a political act.”

“I cannot tell you how fucking weird it feels to have spent my entire music career trying to figure out, ‘How am I going to sell this thing I made?’ To now know you don’t have to sell the things you make anymore and that you just have to make them, you’re just going to be paid, it’s almost paralyzing,” she tells Paste. “I’m so used to having the artistic process, then having the whole extra process of, ‘Okay, I’ve made these songs, and now how am I going to put them out? How am I going to get them sold? How am I going to manufacture them?’”

Thanks to the internet, she says, “all that giant next step has just vanished.”

Palmer sounds equally elated at having gotten to create a full-length album with her idol, Ka-Spel. She first started listening to the Pink Dots as a teenager when her boyfriend at the time introduced her to them. “The Legendary Pink Dots were that band that I think everybody has when they’re a teenager, especially when they discover music outside of the mainstream,” she says. “They were that band for me. I was an obsessive collector, because their work was so esoteric and interconnected and sprawling, because they had so much material. In my mind, Robert Smith and Edward Ka-Spel were equals; they were both iconic musical figures.”

Check out the video for Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel’s “The Clock at the Back of the Cage”:

Eventually, Palmer got to see the Pink Dots live in her hometown of Boston. Later, she even hosted the band in her childhood home when they made their way back to the area on tour. The opportunity, she says, came about on a local Pink Dots message board. “Being able to put them up in the various bedrooms and couches of my parents’ house and go out and buy eggs and cook them breakfast was the highlight of my life,” she says.

One of the Dots, a little uneasy with the arrangement, chose to sleep in the band’s van, guarding their gear. “I don’t know if you know the suburbs of Boston, but this was in Lexington, Massachusetts, the most bucolic, suburban crime-free [area],” says Palmer. “I remember really pleading with whoever was going to sleep in the van, like, ‘Really, really, your car is really safe here. We’re in Lexington, Massachusetts. There’s nothing but intellectuals and lefty liberals.’”

Ka-Spel and Palmer’s paths would cross again a few years later when the latter was studying abroad in Germany. Greeting them like old friends at a show, Palmer, who speaks fluent German, helped the band out at the merch table and ended up tagging along for the next few tour dates. “I might have gone home to get some socks,” she remembers. “But I just got in the van after the show and went with them on tour, ditching university and having that wonderful feeling of, ‘Oh my god, I’m finally part of the rock and roll circus.’”

Eventually, after forming the Weimar-inspired Dresden Dolls, Palmer took the Pink Dots on tour with her, something she calls one of those ”’holy fuck, my life has gone full circle’ moments.”

Now, as a solo artist, Palmer leads a highly collaborative life, working with everyone from her husband, author Neil Gaiman, to Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne, to her own father, Jack Palmer. For this particular project, she and Ka-Spel retreated to pop personality Imogen Heap’s home studio in England, where they recorded I Can Spin a Rainbow. The two got personal quickly, as they only had a few weeks to complete the album. The process, she says, was a highly vulnerable one — not unlike “the first time you took a shit in front of someone.”

Listen to an exclusive Paste performance of Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem,” from her 2013 album with Neil Gaiman:

“As someone that has music that’s always so painfully personal, I never really understood how people could co-write songs,” she says. “It just wasn’t something you did simultaneously with someone else; it’s a completely private act. It’s like going to the bathroom. And sitting with Edward, he was so open poetically and conceptually that I just couldn’t believe that he was able to work on personal material while sitting right next to me and I found that completely inspiring. I panned back and went, ‘Well, why not trust this person? Why not sit here and dig up the ingredients of pain, sorrow, anger, joy, whatever it is you’re usually routing around for alone, with someone else?”

Finding new ways to express your truth, Palmer argues, also plays a huge role in fighting the vagaries of the Trump administration. “I feel like an artist’s political responsibility is not to make political art,” she says. “Rather, it is to make the art that their soul needs to express in that time and place. That is, in itself, a political act. A woman writing a song about how it feels to be a woman in 2017, whether that involves pain, isolation, heartbreak, or abortion, is still a political act, because creativity in itself is a political act.

“Something about the Trump period has upped everybody’s game. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all picking up guitars and being Woody Guthrie, but it means that we’re picking up whatever our tools are and trying to sharpen them. Everything about creativity and art feels endangered, which makes us by default political. Just the act of making something real and authentic means I’ve completed my job.”

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