The art of asking Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer first came to my attention a couple of years ago through her thought-provoking TED Talk. Synopsis: don’t force people to pay for music – let them. Ask. People like to help. She is better known as a musician and singer (The Dresden Dolls, Grand Theft Orchestra) and a feminist icon with a punky DIY attitude and show-stopping eyebrows.

The Art of Asking was commissioned after the success of her Ted Talk. More autobiography than how-to guide, Palmer recounts her early career as a living statue, the formation of The Dresden Dolls, publically fighting her way out of her record deal, the unparalleled success of her Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for her album Theatre is Evil, and the backlash she received from it. To date, hers is the most successful crowdfunded music project ever, raising almost $1.2 million.

Palmer takes us crowd surfing, couch surfing and crowdsourcing and introduces us to a vast array of colourful characters, from fans and mentors, through a string of ex-lovers, to her husband, science-fiction writer Neil Gaiman. She recounts vivid and fantastical tales of stripping for her fans to scribble all over her naked body, ballerinas setting fire to themselves, and rocking out with astronauts and punk marching bands. She throws impromptu ‘ninja’ gigs in Canberra with freak bikers, in illicit London speak easies and on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. She lays bare her marriage, commitment fears, abortion and her best friend’s struggle with cancer, using accounts of conversations and her song lyrics.

Palmer’s relationship with her fans is sacred, and she preaches the values of connection, trust and gratitude. Her years as an all-white living statue known as the Eight Foot Bride provide an invaluable education in silent, human interaction. Drop money in her hat and watch her spring to life, freed from her motionless prison, and offer you a flower, her token of thanks, as she looks into your eyes. Will you take her flower? Are you too embarrassed? Did you drop money in her hat, or pace on by? Or did you shout ‘Get a job!’ from your car?

“Asking is like courtship; begging, you are already naked and panting”. Asking, says Palmer, asserts that you have the right to ask, and whomever you are asking is welcome to say no. No obligation, only gifts freely given.

Crowdsourcing does not constitute free money from strangers and Palmer uses other artists’ campaigns to show when it works and when it doesn’t, as well as highlighting new forms of online patronage. Lessons from the street flow into her music career, where Palmer still puts out her hat. She hammers home the importance of connection with her fans, be it in the signing line after shows or via Twitter. This connection, she claims, is why her Kickstarter campaign was so successful.

Palmer was no unknown artist begging strangers for money, as many reported. She had been carefully building and maintaining relationships for years, communicating and sharing with her fans at every opportunity, helping them, and allowing them to help her. So when the time came, she could ask her community for help – not for a hand-out, but for a down payment for her music and more. An exchange. Her fans helped her because they knew and trusted her, and because she asked.

Interestingly, Palmer doesn’t talk about singing, save to mention that she gave up smoking as she was forever losing her voice, although she does talk about playing piano and her love affair with the ukulele. She offers wisdom for artists struggling to accept the legitimacy of their own calls for help, who feel guilty for asking people to pay for their art, or feel unworthy of help or financial remuneration. So, all of us, at some point or another. Why are we so reluctant to ask? And to take what others want to give us? Psychologists call this Imposter Syndrome. Palmer calls this getting a visit from the Fraud Police.

Stylistically, I must admit, I struggled. I was instantly engaged, but soon began to feel seasick. Erratic and tangential, she thunders along at breakneck speed, bouncing between chronologies and cartwheeling from wild parties to incredulous stunts. While she is not clumsy, she can lack subtlety. The result can be discombobulating and the freneticism exhausting. At times, I felt like shouting ‘Turn off your CAPS LOCK! No more italics!’

But, persevering, I was mortified to discover that the only account of being refused help (to get home when she injured herself running) was in Edinburgh, Scotland. My home town. By three different women, no less. Perhaps this shines a light on my own deep, deep reluctance to ask for help. Oh dear, I feel ashamed.

Silencing my haughty cynicism and suspicions of cod philosophy, I watched as Palmer bled onto the page. She is candid, brutally, which can make for uncomfortable viewing. I can’t imagine how her (British) husband feels. But that fearlessness is her art, her gift.

As I continued to read, I was impressed. I trusted her authenticity and sincerity, and I connected. I connected her dots to my own, as an artist, a woman, a girlfriend, a daughter, a person. Palmer emboldens us to ask, but also to give.

I took the flower.

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Clarissa Land is a London-based singer and songwriter currently recording her debut solo album. She sings, tours and records with major artists, most recently Crystal Fighters. She also has a busy teaching practice, where she provides vocal coaching to a wide range of singers; from the novice singer, all the way through to bands signed to major labels.