Amanda Palmer can’t be definitive about what she’ll play when she hits the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House on 21 January. She was midway through her latest tour of Europe and the US in November when the unthinkable happened.
“I went in with a pretty stable set list and as soon as Donald Trump was elected president I completely ripped it up and did political covers. And then Leonard Cohen died and it was from there a shit show,” she says.
“I was just rolling around with a new plan every night depending on what I read on the news and what I felt like. It’s the thing I love about being a solo performer. You can rip up the plan every night because you’ve got such a lean machine.”
A ‘lean machine’ captures some of the essence of a woman who has charted an utterly original path through the music industry. She helped spark the renaissance of cabaret in the 2000s through the Dresden Dolls; the ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ group she founded with Brian Viglione. She was an early and avid adopter of social media, using Twitter to announce upcoming performances (and also seeking places to couch-surf when on tour). Since 2012 she’s been directly funded by fans via crowdfunding platforms – and she makes all of her music completely free. These days she’s supported by over 8,000 patrons who fund her creations – songs and video clips – for an average of a few dollars per project.
She also shares much of her life – and her views on the world – via her blog. What role does she see her art playing in a time of such political uncertainty and, for some, fear?
“I think when you’re an artist and you feel like your job is to speak truth to power, sometimes that doesn’t mean being overly political. Sometimes that means being overtly emotional as a woman or speaking about your own experiences with abortion or not being afraid to say that you’re collapsed and devastated,” she says.
“Artists have a whole variety of jobs. One job is to get out in the street with your folk guitar and say fuck all of this racism. And your other job is to quietly bang your piano and say I feel lost right now.
“Both of those jobs are really important because both express really critical emotions when people are overwhelmed by what feels like an absolute trainwreck coming our way. And so while I think it’s important to be political, I’m always careful that I’m not so political that I lose track of myself. I feel sometimes the greatest gift I can give to my audience is allowing myself to be vulnerable and tearing myself apart on stage.”
Palmer, 40, seems very happy to be ditching the Boston winter and spending summer in Australia – a country she began visiting in her early career when she busked as a living statue. Her performance at the Opera House in 2011 spawned her love-letter album ‘Amanda Palmer goes Down Under’. This time she’ll be down under for three months.
What does she love so much about Australia?
“Beyond the excellent weather and the good food, which doesn’t hurt, I really love the attitude of the people. I love how forward thinking and artistically free the people are. It could be that I’ve just happened to have run into the right crowd of people in Australia. But I have the sense that I’ve never felt more artistically understood in Australia. And I love it.”