The Ms. Q&A: Amanda Palmer is Changing the Game

It was through pure happenstance that I found my way to Amanda Palmer. While chatting with a friend at my former publishing job, I came across her book, The Art of Asking. My friend had several copies of it on his desk, and—in the theme of the book’s message—I asked if I could have one. He happily handed me the paperback, and I devoured its pages shortly thereafter.

The book soon became my go-to gift for friends: “You’ve got to read this!” I became a fan of her music, her message and the way she moves through life—authentically, vulnerably and embracing of her uniqueness.

Palmer spoke with Ms. this spring at the Ace Hotel in New York about conquering fear, learning her own power and the many ways in which motherhood hasn’t changed her.

Where does your bravery come from?

I think that we have big misconceptions about bravery, and I think that our general problem, especially as women, is that we thing being “brave” and “fearless” and “fierce” is all about this impossible state of mind where you’re afraid of nothing. And that is just complete bullshit. And we’re afraid of things for a reason….we’re wired to survive.

Fear is real for a reason. Fear is our friend. Fear is useful. Fear tells us not to walk down a dark alley late at night where we could get raped and murdered. Fear is our friend; but we have to have a befriending relationship with our fear—when it’s useful, and when it’s actually just being a bitch that’s trying to usurp the narrative of our day. I feel like when people throw around words like “brave” and “fearless,” is that what they’re actually talking about is being in a good relationship with your fears.

A lot of my artistic process is about putting myself in positions where I’m afraid. I like it. I do it on purpose. It’s like doing the artistic equivalent of solo rock climbing or sky diving. Putting myself in positions where it might not work and I might fail, because that’s what keeps like exciting. If we didn’t have any fear, life would be super fucking boring.

How do you decide what you’re going to do next, artistically?

I love being impulsive. It’s one of the things that keeps me interested in doing this artist job as a job. And I’ve really seen the pro’s and con’s of being impulsive in this job. Sometimes it might exhaust my audience [if I’m] doing too many random, creative things. One of the things I’ve been doing lately is looking at the balance between making super-fast, super-impulsive, super-improvisational art, and then also having the part of my career and the part of my life that’s “the plan.”

Right now, I’m doing a little bit of both. I’m going to be putting out weird, spontaneous projects on my Patreon; on the other hand, I’m also working on a record that is the culmination of 7 or 8 years of song-writing and winnowing it down to one, really well-produced record that’s going to come out next spring, followed by a tour.

You’re good at connecting with your fans. Is that something that came naturally?

Yeah, no, I didn’t really have to work at that [laughs]. It came very easily because it’s why I wanted to get into this gig in the first place. Meeting people after shows, hanging out, staying in fans’ houses, constantly chatting on the internet…that didn’t feel like work. That felt like the bounty, the privilege, and the honor of being a musician. It didn’t feel like distraction; it felt like….the point.

How has motherhood changed you?

One of the things I find notable about motherhood—because people keep asking me this question—is that no one asks me how motherhood hasn’t changed me.

Let’s do that question then. How hasn’t it changed you?

What I actually find most surprising is how having a baby didn’t change me. Because so many parents turned to me when I was contemplating whether or not to have a kid, and when I was pregnant, and gave me that “giant talk,” that “profound throw-down” of: “Get ready, your life is going to be completely different. You’re going to be a completely different person.”

I braced myself for some shocking ego takeover that didn’t really happen. And I think that I have to spread that gospel, because one of the things that scared the shit out of me about having a child was that I liked myself, I liked my life. I didn’t want some earth-shattering, gargantuan change to happen to me. A subtle one? Great, of course! I wasn’t stupid enough to think that I was going to have a child and not be affected by it. I think if I had had a child when I was 25, it would’ve monumentally bitch-slapped by life into a different direction. But I didn’t feel that way. I felt like the kid just got added to the mix, and I was like, oh shit, okay, one more giant factor to take into account with these other nine factors. Got it. No problem. Just stick the baby in the accordion case, we’ll find a crib tomorrow, it’s cool.

I chalk that up to becoming a mother later. There are pros and cons to having a kid later in life, and with a dad who’s older; it has its disadvantages. There’s no right way to do it, there’s no wrong way to do it; there’s no saying that you have to do it. I had a child after having three abortions, and then had a miscarriage—and I’m totally on Team “Whatever Works for You,” and please don’t believe anyone who tells you there’s a right decision or a right time to do it. That’s all bullshit.

What kind of things do you expect to teach your son that you might not teach him if he were a girl? Or would you parent more or less the same, regardless of gender?

Oh, man. You’ve brought up one of my current marriage issues.  We’re just starting to get into that moment of parenting where gender norms are just starting to creep in. And I was just talking to Neil about this a few days ago. He was suggesting that we give our son a haircut; not because he really needs a haircut but because people are starting to say: “Oh what a beautiful child. How old is she?”

And I was like: Right, yeah this is the moment where we don’t give a fuck. That’s our job. Our job is to give no fucks, and if that person is made uncomfortable by us saying: “Oh, yeah. It’s a he. And he’s two.” That discomfort is the starting point of the slippery slope of all the gender fucked-up-ness. So, no! We are not cutting his hair because it makes other people uncomfortable to not know what gender our child is!.

[Our son] has pretty strong role models in his father and in his mother, as two progressive, non-judgmental—I wouldn’t call us gender-free, because we’re not—but I’d like to think that we’ve opened our minds as wide as possible to let in whatever is gonna come. Neil carries with him a built-in British [attitude of] “no-one-can-be-embarrassed, the-worst-thing-in-the-world-happening-to-anyone-anywhere-is-that-someone-might-be-embarrassed”; and a lot of what drives these insidious engines of misogyny is just: Oh, but someone might be uncomfortable. So I’m just trying to teach my kid to be really comfortable around everyone, with everyone, in any and every situation; to be trusting and not suspicious—but not dumb, [to be] street-smart. I have no idea what kind of choices he’s going to face; I just feel like I can arm him with good, empathetic, emotional tools, then he’s gonna have to figure it out.

What is your definition of feminism and what is it important to you to identify as a feminist?

It’s important for me to identify as a feminist because until we achieve gender parity, we all need to be on Team Parity. To me, feminism is just a tidy way of saying that we all need equal rights. I would hope that if I were a “front-tail”—as my friend and I have started calling the male species—I would hopefully feel the same way. Because clearly it’s going to be a win-win when we achieve gender parity globally.

I’m also really grateful that my husband is a fantastic feminist. And I push him; I try not to poke him. I try to gently remind him when he’s being hurtful in a way he’s not really noticing, because he said something slightly sexist. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best of the lot. And like any good progressive, creative artist, he thinks way beyond the boxes and limitations culture has prescribed us. So, I’m very lucky that I found him.  And he’s a good dad and he changes diapers at night.

Who are some of your female heroes?

Patti Smith is one of my favorite artists heroes. I tend to select for authenticity, and Patti strikes me as one of the most authentic women on the planet. She’s unapologetically herself.

My favorite song of yours is “The Bed Song.” Do you have a favorite song of yours?

Oh, “The Bed Song” is a good one. My songs keep surprising me. The songs I write that I don’t think are gonna have any legs are often the ones that run away and become the most beloved, requested songs. And this song that I wrote two years ago that I didn’t think would have any legs, and then I started playing it at shows, and people really responded to it. It’s called “A Mother’s Confession.” I love this part of being songwriter; I love that I’m wrong a lot about what is and isn’t gonna resonate with people, and what is and isn’t gonna stick.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I wouldn’t listen to me as my younger self. It would be totally fruitless. I would probably remind myself that most people don’t know what they’re doing.

I didn’t know my own power. But also no one ever showed up at my doorstep [when I was] 16 years old and said: “You know you have a lot of power, don’t you?” Which is why it’s so inspiring right now to see all these teenagers claiming their space, and claiming their voices and their power, and refusing to be patronized. I would remind me that I’m a lot smarter and more powerful than I thought.


Anne McCarthy is a writer and editor based in Manhattan. She’s a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, IndieWire, and more. She is a graduate of the Yale Writers Workshop and she has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London.