Amanda Palmer forges passionate art amid the push and pull of social media.
Amanda Palmer playfully dubs herself an “amateur musician, professional party thrower” on her Twitter page. With 700,000-plus followers, she’s perfectly poised for both.
But not everything clicks—online or off—for rock’s social butterfly, ironically once “desperate for friends,” she says, as an arty outcast at Lexington High. The 36-year-old singer/pianist says that she’s been fighting bronchitis, begging off photos with fans as she coughed her way to the bus after a show in Germany. “They were really pissy about it, and it hurt,” Palmer says. So did she hole up by herself? No. She took to Twitter to discuss the issue with other artists, friends and fans.
“Twitter has changed the way I work,” says Palmer, who’s also a passionate blogger and the rare artist who makes an e-mail interview come off as candid and conversational. “It’s literally become the focus of my communications with the world, the place I go for information, revolution, comfort, connection, everything.”
At the same time, social media has become a double-edged sword since Palmer raised a staggering $1.2 million through a Kickstarter campaign to record and promote her new album, Theatre Is Evil. “It was definitely a great PR boost to have everyone see a concrete example of how powerful my fanbase is,” Palmer says. “But it was also a kick in the nuts to be suddenly perceived as a gazillionaire.” Palmer outlined on her blog how all the money was spent on the project. “I’m no further ahead at the moment, financially, than I was when I was on a major label,” she adds.
Used to operating in grassroots guerilla style, from her stand as a Harvard Square street performer to her punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, Palmer invited horn and string players to sit in with her new band at various tour stops in exchange for beer, merchandise and hugs.
That’s when the Internet—and even The New York Times—lit up with indignation. Palmer dove into the conversation, reconsidered her stance and rearranged her budget to pay those crowd-sourced musicians. At the same time, she says, “Now that my community is more tightly connected, since we can communicate our own stories and truths on a day-to-day basis, the news on the outside is less powerful, less substantial.”
In turn, Theatre Is Evil presents the best collection of songs that Palmer has conjured since the Dolls, nodding to such influences as the Cure and Depeche Mode. “[The songs] simply screamed at me that they wanted synths and ’80s, ’90s production,” she says. “So I listened.”
The Grand Theft Orchestra, her band of bassist Jherek Bischoff (who also directs the guest players), drummer Michael McQuilken and guitarist Chad Raines, lend robust support on both the record and on stage. For their Nov. 15–17 shows at the Paradise, Palmer plans a tribute to her scene-queen friend, the late Becca Rosenthal, projections of photos from hometown fans and rotating cover songs as well as favorites from both the Dolls and Palmer’s solo career.
Her new gems include “The Killing Type,” with Palmer’s thirst for connection nailed in the line “I would kill to make you feel”; local love letter “Massachusetts Avenue”; and sad piano ballad “The Bed Song,” where she traces a couple’s lifelong drift across “bigger beds, so they wouldn’t have to touch each other,” an idea she stole from her husband, fantasy author Neil Gaiman. “I’m much happier giving everyone a mood-soup than cutting out certain songs to make the album more palatable,” she says.
Then there’s the jaunty “Want It Back” and its video, where stop-motion lyrics creep over Palmer’s nude body, reminiscent of art-show performances where she disrobed so fans could draw on her. In another striking video with the Flaming Lips, she splashes naked in a bathtub.
“I’m a provocateur,” says Palmer, who once worked as a stripper and a nude model. “I don’t want to provoke controversy, anger or hatred. I want to provoke thought, discussion. I want to open doors in people’s heads. If I have to use my body to do it, that’s actually easier than sitting down and writing a 200-page thesis on the human condition. And, I dare say, louder and more effective.”
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra play Paradise Rock Club Nov. 15–17.