The art of being Amanda Palmer
After being stranded in New Zealand during lockdown, Amanda Palmer decided to stay. Since then she’s been exercising her renowned skills at making both friends and enemies. Amanda Saxton caught a boat over to Waiheke to meet the controversial US musician and make up her own mind.
Amanda Palmer needs to find a 1960s-ish outfit, stat, when I meet her in late-March at a Waiheke Island cafe. She needs it for a 60s-themed Seder, the ritual feast marking the first night of Passover. While Palmer – a controversial American performance artist who’s been in New Zealand since the first lockdown of last year – is not Jewish, her husband is. He is also renowned British author Neil Gaiman.
So, after splitting a New York cheesecake and telling me about that time she “MacGyvered” a nappy for her child out of sanitary products found in a Florida restaurant, 44-year-old Palmer takes me op-shopping. She greets locals with jokes and thoughtful questions. Palmer says her first priority anywhere new is “always to befriend, and through befriending find safety”.
* UK author Neil Gaiman reunites with his son and Amanda Palmer in Havelock North
* New York artist Amanda Palmer says being stranded in New Zealand has been a blessing in disguise
* Amanda Palmer brings one-of-a-kind show to Wellington for last leg of a world tour
She has been on the island less than two months. These people have probably never heard of her band, the Dresden Dolls, or cult-like following. Palmer is popular on Waiheke because she’s flamboyant, empathetic, and surprisingly down to earth. And yet, articles have been written about all the articles written about how awful she is. Headlines include “The most hated woman on the internet” and “Seven times Amanda Palmer p….ed people off”. In January, New Zealand Twitter issued a harsh directive: “Yankee go home.”
Inside the Red Cross Shop, Palmer discusses 60s fashion with old ladies. They green-light the blue mini dress she zips up over her clothes, so she buys it. But she still wants to check out a more upmarket vintage clothing boutique up the road.
We gather a selection of groovy frocks and she starts trying them on behind a curtain, announcing she’s not wearing knickers. Then Palmer wanders out of her cubicle and stands naked, bar a skimpy bralette, indeed knickerless. The few people in the store are Waihekians, known for their nudist beach and perhaps less prudish than the average Kiwi. As a mainlander I think: “Crikey.” But there’s something about the way Palmer bares her backside – so gosh darn naturally – that makes clothes seem silly, a dispensable social construct on a balmy summer’s day.
Palmer is no prude. She’s performed naked on stage, is naked on the front cover of her memoir, The Art of Asking, and posted Gaiman a collection of nude photos of herself pretending to be dead before they’d actually met in person. The context: she wanted him to write captions for a book of macabre photography accompanying her album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
Palmer leaves the vintage store with a headscarf and we head to her home, a spacious rental. The Palmer-Gaiman abode is cheerfully strewn with kids’ toys and books, including Māori Made Easy and a one about powerful New Zealand women. Postcards from Boston and fat beeswax candles dot the dining table and a 1975 Yamaha stage piano sits upstairs. It’s the home of expat creatives and their 5-year-old child.
Most mornings, Palmer and her son Ash whiz down the hill to school on an ebike. “We sing at the top of our lungs, like a couple freaks,” she grins. Palmer demonstrates, flinging an arm to the sky: “Goooood morning, boats! Good morning, trees. Good mooooorning haunted house!”
Then she’ll swim in the ocean, sip a coffee at her new favourite cafe, and reflect “in awe on the random bittersweetness of existence”. To say Palmer is glad to have weathered the Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand is an understatement. But her eyes fill with tears when she talks about the ordeals of friends and family in the US.
“I know what all my friends are doing in New York,” she says. “Some have been shut up in their apartments for 13 months. Some have had parents die. They’re certainly not taking their kid to school, where he’s gonna play in a sandbox and lick other children. I am like the luckiest motherf….. I know.”
At 2.30pm, Palmer and I pick Ash up from school. He prances out of his classroom with bare feet and ethereal curls, greeting his mum with gusto. “I’m glad you’re here because I like you!” he says, in a Kiwi accent. “I like you too!” Palmer replies. Ash tells me there’s getting to be rather a lot of Amandas in his life. He swings on a gate as the original whisks me – apparently his third – away to admire the school’s resident flock of doves.
Palmer’s Waihekian life feels rather like idyllic scenes from the Sound of Music. Which was not what I was expecting. Her pre-New Zealand lifestyle could have been lifted from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both feature kinky outfits, gender bending, debauchery and rollicking soundtracks from within kooky 1850s-era mansions (Palmer’s is an artists’ asylum in Boston). Both have cult followings populated by old-school goths – the ones who, like Palmer, worship Bauhaus, The Cure and Joy Division. Both Palmer and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were born in the mid-70s.
It makes poetic sense that Palmer now lives in the homeland of Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien. The pair, in fact, befriended each other when Palmer toured New Zealand with the Dresden Dolls in 2012. They performed the Time Warp together in London later that year, O’Brien in pearls and Palmer with her signature squiggly eyebrows pencilled over white face paint. According to Palmer’s blog, they are mutual fans.
The real reason Palmer is here is because her 2019/20 tour ended in Wellington last March. New Zealand was bracing for its first Covid-19 lockdown, but the US was fast becoming the world’s coronavirus epicentre. Palmer and Gaiman decided that then 4-year-old Ash’s best shot at normal life was down under. The trio settled in Havelock North, where a friend of Palmer’s from university lives. But the couple struggled during lockdown and Gaiman fled for Scotland. Rumours swirled that divorce was nigh. Palmer parented alone for almost a year in an unfamiliar land. But Gaiman returned to New Zealand in January. The family decided Waiheke Island would suit their fresh start.
“The way it was first described to me was like this small, fringey island of bohemian weirdos, plus some rich people on vacation,” says Palmer. “With a lineage of really free-thinking, artistic types. And I thought, ‘I want to go. They sound like my people.’”
Palmer grew up the black sheep in a middle-class family of scientists in Lexington, Massachusetts. She craved the wild kindred spirits whose existence she was vaguely aware of, thanks to brushes she’d had with art, music, and theatre. As soon as she could, Palmer embedded herself in that world. She’s made it her mission as an artist to provide the same salvation she’d experienced through music to fellow misfits.
Palmer collaborates with fans in her punk cabaret performances, spends hours hugging them and signing body parts after gigs, sings at their houses where she often also sleeps, and is an enthusiastic penpal. Little of her life story is out of bounds. She writes songs, blogs, and tweets about it in a way that is vulnerable and utterly unpolished. Palmer is not one to hide body hair, the gruesome details of miscarriage, or what it feels like to have friends die. She is an extraordinarily accessible artist and it’s worked out well for her. She is beholden to no record label, crowdfunding directly from fans for her income via Patreon. That Palmer earns enough to support herself and a handful of staff is proof of her success.
But not everyone gets her. Palmer is brazen and unfiltered and bound to get into scrapes. She gets called a narcissist a lot, though from what I can tell she’s more of a tall poppy. She gets called tone-deaf and not in the musical sense. That’s fair – she wrote a compassionate poem about the Boston marathon bomber that was to few people’s tastes, and upset disability advocates with her portrayal of Vaudeville-inclined conjoined twins.
Her worst faux pas in New Zealand was a tweet implying New Zealanders are an effusive people. Kiwis are, it turns out, extremely attached to their reputation as stolid.
It was the day of US president Joe Biden’s inauguration. Palmer walked into her regular Havelock North cafe, relieved the chaotic Trump era was over. The cafe’s manager shared her sentiment, so clapped to show solidarity.
Palmer tweeted about the experience afterwards: “just walked into a coffeeshop here in aotearoa new zealand and everybody behind the counter, not really knowing me but knowing I was american, erupted in spontaneous applause [sic].”
The tweet went viral. It was as if she’d bragged about throwing rocks at a kiwi as it flew over her garden in broad daylight. “What a weird f…… lie,” replied one disbeliever. “There is no chance in hell this happened,” said another. “Jog on with your fibs” followed “What a sad imagination” followed “Yankee go home”. The vitriol was pretty extreme, even if detractors hadn’t connected the timing of her tweet with Biden’s inauguration.
The Spinoff launched a tongue-in-cheek investigation into what exactly people thought she was lying about. It was the applause. But the cafe manager confirmed Palmer’s account. The investigation concluded that Palmer’s insinuation that Kiwis are kind and generous was the tweet’s only real falsity.
I asked Palmer how it feels to be “up on the internet crucifix”, as she calls it. Her answer won’t please her haters.
“I just understand too much about toxic masculinity, tall poppy syndrome, feminism and anthropology to take it too personally,” she says. “It’s kinda like getting to the point in the holiday meal where a drunk uncle starts yelling at you.”
Palmer says she views “all human beings” as part of her family and as such, forgives. Which beats bitterness and fear. She also trusts that people lambasting strangers online are artificially emboldened band-wagoners who shun context and nuance. They’d behave differently if they knew her! But virtual beatings can still hurt, she admits. She is grateful for the “underground support network” that appears in the wake of a big pile-on.
“Nobody wants to join you in front of the firing squad because they’ll just get shot. But they can send a private message of support. There’s so many people who’ve been up on that crucifix now … we like to throw each other lifelines.”
Palmer acknowledges both she and her work are easily misconstrued. But she’s not too bothered, as people who know Palmer – a great many, due to how diligently she interacts with fans – understand that her intentions are good. She is proud of being a work in progress and absolutely refuses to be cancelled.
I ask Palmer about her brazen nakedness in the vintage shop a few hours earlier. Detractors might say she was attention seeking, or just plain rude? Was she making a point about liberty? She laughs and gives me a lesson in just how easy it is to misconstrue Amanda Palmer.
According to Palmer, the vintage boutique’s owner, Angela, told her on a previous visit that she wanted her space to feel intimate. That her dream was to create a place people could let their guards down. Palmer says she de-robed because nothing demonstrates how comfortable you are in someone’s presence quite like removing your clothes.
Palmer also uses the episode to show she’s wising up with age: it’s not like she flashed her boobs at the nice old ladies in the Red Cross Shop, but: “Amanda Palmer, 22, might have because I’m so free and I’m so wild and we should all just be naked, et cetera.” She cackles.
“Amanda Palmer, 44, understands the difference between doing that in Angela’s shop and doing it in the charity shop run by the evangelicals. Learning how to not foist my own desires for a freer society on the unsuspecting has been part of my learning curve.”
I leave Waiheke as the sun sets, glad that Palmer not only exists but perseveres. She’s more thoroughly herself than anyone else I know.
Amanda Palmer will appear in two Auckland Writers Festival events: a 90-minute evening session with her partner, writer Neil Gaiman, and in conversation with her friend, writer Catherine Robertson, on her New York Times best-selling memoir and manifesto The Art of Asking. writersfestival.co.nz