On Tuesday morning, Amanda Palmer sent out a celebratory tweet of a photo with the words “One Fucking Million” painted on her bare chest and a blissful smile plastered on her face. With two days to spare, the art-punk provocateur raised over $1 million from nearly 22,000 fans on Kickstarter for Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, her first album in four years, as well as an accompanying book that features commissioned paintings.
“The moral at the end of the day is it pretty much all gets spent,” she told SPIN hours after receiving the good news. “No hookers and blow for Amanda — not until next year.”
Illicit vices aside, Palmer talked about fan funding, the role of record labels, and her new album, set for an independent September release. She also shared “Want It Back,” a pulsing pop cut from the forthcoming record, streaming exclusively here.
How are you feeling?
It’s so funny. It just depends what person in me you ask. The musician rock star in me is doing stage kicks and the person whose looking at that and going, “Yeah, yeah good, good, but we actually have to get these texts done and designs approved” is not ready to be bothered by even thinking about it because we’re so busy. We’re so wonderfully overwhelmed with work. It’s a milestone, but it’s also one of those things we know means a lot more symbolically to the rest of the world than it does to my fanbase or myself or my art.
It is a huge feat to convince people you’re doing something worthy of that much money.
The way I look at it is this isn’t really so much about me anymore. I’m the one doing it and I’m glad I’m the one doing it. I’m glad I’m not putting this album out on a fucking label, but I’m hoping that I’m just one of many. Hopefully I’m just the first big successful one. The minute someone bigger than me comes along to do this I won’t be jealous, I’ll be ecstatic because I really believe in the philosophy of crowd funding and the philosophy of being directly connected to your fans, business-wise, and being in charge of your own creative destiny instead of letting other people do it. What this is showing people is that the system works. Anybody can do it. I get a lot of criticism for saying that because there are a lot of people saying, “Of course you can do it. You’re Amanda Palmer. You’re famous. You were on a major label.” But actually anyone can do it on any level. You just have to apply the rules differently depending where you’re at.
What do you think helped you reach this milestone?
I’ve been working my ass off for 10 years and loving my fans and creating a really authentic relationship with them through everything I do. Ten years of hanging out with your fans and making good music will get you this. That’s what I’m convinced of because it’s not easy. You can’t just apply a formula to a new band. It’s a commitment. It’s a relationship. If your fans really love and trust you they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you. I’m absolutely not the only musician out there with a supportive, freaky, creative, enthusiastic fanbase. They’re all over the place.
So you’re opposed to the major label system, but at what point did you decide to really give this a shot?
Well, I’m not at all opposed to the major label system. I’m opposed to the major label system for Amanda Palmer, which is different. I think labels are fantastic when they work. Even my label was fantastic when it worked for [her punk-cabaret duo] Dresden Dolls. It absolutely sucked when it stopped working. If the perfect label had come along and cut me the perfect deal and authentically convinced me they really believed in me and wanted to do the work, I would’ve signed in a heartbeat, but that label never existed. So I chose to go my own route and create my own office. That doesn’t mean everybody has to do that.
What was it about a label that didn’t work for you?
The main things that didn’t work was the label wasn’t willing to give me ongoing support to be a career artist. They were really focused on making an album and selling records. That’s all they cared about. They did not understand that to survive as an artist nowadays you have to constantly be supporting the artist, listening to the fanbase, doing things differently. I just generally felt ignored and used. Another thing was they didn’t understand the Internet. They didn’t understand why I thought it was absolutely essential to pay people to run our MySpace page and create Facebook profiles and to keep our band forum active and going. There were seriously of the opinion it only made sense to hire people to work on our Internet presence during an album cycle. They figured that when we were off cycle the band didn’t need to be on the Internet. I would sit there banging my fucking head against a desk saying you don’t understand the Internet. It’s there all the time! It’s all the work we do in between records. It’s all our closeness with our fans that make them buy our records. We would pay all of that shit out of pocket.
How would you describe your relationship with the Internet?
I live on it. The important thing I’ve learned is the relationship with your fans to the extent that I have it, which is extreme, is it needs to be a choice. You have to want to be there. If you phone it in and you fake it and you’re doing it because your management is telling you to people can sense inauthenticity a million miles away and it doesn’t work. But what I’ve found is my relationship with my fanbase, which intermingles with my real relationships, it’s all in the same place. I’ll go to Twitter and communicate with a random fan who has a question, my husband [author Neil Gaiman] who’s just landed to do a reading somewhere, my assistant who’s asking about band costumes and I’ll do that all the space of two minutes. All that communication that used to take place privately is taking place publicly. And the thing I’ve found is the specific relationship with the fans with Twitter and the blog is like any other human relationship. It’s a two-way conversation all the time.
You’re also creating an art book with pieces inspired by the album. How did that come about?
I got to redistribute so much of this Kickstarter wealth to the artists who made the art for this book. They all got paid for their paintings and we’ll keep them so they can sell them later. Hopefully some of them will increase in value because of their attachment to the project and the book. I feel like that’s one of the best ways I could spend my money is giving it back to my art friends and giving it back to the painters that I know who are struggling to pay their rent.
Were all the artists your friends or did you reach out to others as well?
There were actually a handful of people I hadn’t met and still haven’t met. Nicole Duennebier, who was one of the home runs of this project, she was someone that my housemate, who’s a painter I roped in to help me organize all the artists, she had just been admiring her work on the Internet and we cold called her and said, ‘We love your work do you want to work on this project?’ And she said yes. I think we’re going to wind up using one of her paintings for the cover of the book. It went that well. It’s the vast endless art network of all my years of being a musician.
Were the pieces inspired by specific songs or the album as a whole?
I gave the painters a directive to make two pieces, or just one if they wanted to. If it was two it had to be a portrait and a song-inspired piece. If they made one they could choose. I basically sent them the rough demos from the record. Some of the songs are unrecognizable now that the record is made. They’re just banged out piano recordings on an iPhone. I sent them those and the lyrics and I said just make the piece that speaks to you. People came up with some really crazy shit. Some of it is really quite beautiful. I also wanted to deliberately reach out to as many musicians as I could because a lot of musicians I know are secretly visual artists or multimedia dabblers. Some are quite accomplished, like Conrad Keely from …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead makes all their album covers. I reached out to Conrad and he did an incredible piece. Kristen Hersh [Throwing Muses] whose memoir I had just read and was totally blown away by, I reached out to her. And one of my all time songwriting heroes, Robyn Hitchcock made a piece for the book.
As for the album itself, you recorded it in Melbourne. Why?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Melbourne ever since I fell in love with it five or six years ago. I’m definitely allergic to evil winter weather, so I’ve been touring in Australia like clockwork every year for the past five years during the American winter, which is the Australian summer. Every year I spent a little bit more time in Melbourne and have a great network of friends and musicians and filmmakers and people I hang out with there. We spent an extra $10,000 flying everyone [in the Grand Theft Orchestra] over to Australia and I think it paid for itself because it was such an explosion of creativity down there. We were so detached from our normal lives and heavily supported by the Melbourne art community. There was just magic at every turn.
Where did you draw inspiration from for the lyrics?
There are 14 songs on the record and they span the gamut, but it actually wasn’t until I got into the studio and I was looking at all of the songs under a microscope that I realized what the underlying themes were and the big one is losing things. Losing stuff, losing people and losing yourself. If I had to say it’s a concept record, it’s a concept record about losing shit and finding peace. There’s all sorts of different tunes on the record. Some of them are the most poppiest songs I’ve ever written and some of them are the saddest piano ballads I’ve ever written. Everyone I’ve been playing the record to is really into it, but also really surprised by it, which makes me happy. Since I’ve had four years to put this record together there’s not a single moment on the album that I’m not insanely proud of. A couple of the songs rank among the best I’ve ever written. I’m so, so proud of it.