Current Issue #488

Amanda Palmer's life on the fringes

Amanda Palmer
Allan Amato
Amanda Palmer

US songwriter and storyteller Amanda Palmer returns to Adelaide this festival season as a newly-minted Fringe Ambassador. But with a new show exploring taboo-breaking themes of abortion, miscarriage and motherhood, there won’t be much time for diplomacy.

“The last thing I really want to do with my life right now is tour around the world telling my abortion story,” Palmer tells The Adelaide Review. “And I genuinely don’t want to. I would genuinely prefer to be discussing different things. “It’s not easy. It is constantly awkward and it feels constantly emotionally risky. But the alternative is more horrific.”

Palmer has just completed the UK stretch of her world tour supporting her latest album There Will Be No Intermission, having now performed the mammoth three-and-a-half hour production in theatres around the globe for nearly a year since the record’s release in March.

A familiar face on the Australian festival circuit for over a decade, she will return to Adelaide after a three-year absence to headline the RCC 2020 music program and take up the baton of Fringe Ambassador.

“I have a deep love for Australia and particularly Australians,” Palmer says. “I have a beautiful relationship with the Adelaide Fringe and I’m incredibly flattered that I was invited to be an Ambassador.”

Palmer’s deep affection for Australia can be readily seen in her vocal response to Australia’s bushfire and climate crisis, ringing in the new year performing at Woodford Folk Festival’s ‘Busk for the Bush’ fundraiser in an effort to provide relief for drought-affected families in Queensland.

Palmer’s core message of “radical compassion” is on display through these kinds of actions, but also informs the music of There Will Be No Intermission, which she says “had to feel incredibly bare”.

“I think the most important sonic signature of the album was a result of the extreme limitations that we put on the overdub,” Palmer says of making the album with long-time collaborator and producer John Congleton.

“John and I made some simple rules; no guitars allowed, no rock instrumentation allowed, but most importantly, and most difficultly, no strings. And that was a really harsh but deliberate decision we made because we did not want the album to sound too sentimental. We really wanted the album to stay away from syrupy sentimentality, and I’m incredibly proud of what we created within those boundaries.”

The result is a record that is deliberately quiet, and often demands the undivided attention of the listener to Palmer’s vocals and candid lyricism. It’s her most deeply personal record, and yet, is perhaps her most universal.

Like much of her recent work the album was entirely crowdfunded, and it’s this loyal and supportive fanbase that Palmer credits with allowing her to maintain some semblance of self-preservation even while revisiting heavy subject matter onstage night after night.

“I actually find myself feeling emotionally protected and assured the more vulnerable I make myself because I see my vulnerability reflected back by so many people,” Palmer says.

“If it was just me doing this show alone, then people clapped and we all went home, I think that this show would probably feel really depressing and punishing. But that’s not what happens. Instead it opens up a floodgate of hundreds and thousands of other stories about grief and abortion and miscarriage and motherhood. And then everybody just gets to feel relief.

“If I didn’t stay after shows and talk to people I actually don’t think I’d be able to handle it because I don’t want this show to be a megaphone. I want the show to be a conversation. That’s one of the parts of this job that I love the most – I get to talk to people.”

Evidence of these connections can be seen all over social media, from post-concert photos of Palmer embracing audience members to impassioned posts by fans recounting their interactions with the singer. Aided by her sizeable social media following and direct link to fans via subscription site Patreon, Palmer has built a substantial international following, despite what she often feels is apathy or reticence from mainstream media.

This tension peaked in November 2019, when Palmer’s disappointment over a perceived lack of support from The Guardian earned an impassioned rebuke from the paper’s music staff. Weeks after the ensuing Twitter storm, Palmer is circumspect.

“There has been a lot of really good coverage of the tour and of this album but at the same time, these are incredibly uncomfortable topics for journalists to write about, especially in mainstream papers,” Palmer reflects. “And I cannot fault the media and the state of the media for any of this.”

“You still have to play the game at some point,” she admits. “Even though I have gone about as far off grid as it is possible to go within the music industry, I st ill want to be invited to the party even though I’m completely weird… I think e very musician and artist, especially women, struggles with this.

“Everyone struggles with how much to work within the system and how much to break it down.”

14 – 15 February

Amanda Palmer:
There Will Be No Intermission

Letti K-Ewing

Letti K-Ewing

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Letti K-Ewing is a writer and critic. Her work has appeared in The Adelaide Review, CityMag and Fest.

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