Amanda Palmer’s February show in Johannesburg had plenty of highlights, opening with a thunderous rendition of her Dresden Dolls hit ‘Missed Me’. Standing in front of the piano with one Dr. Marten on the pedal, furiously hammering the keys, she cut a dramatic figure.
Amanda Palmer is a consummate performer with devoted fans, and beloved songs like ‘Coin-Operated Boy’, ‘The Killing Type’, and ‘Ukulele Song’ delighted the audience. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers was ‘The Parktown Prawns’, a song she wrote backstage half an hour before the show, with lyrics crowdsourced from Twitter. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s a funny little ditty about the hideous beast that terrorises Joburg in summer. Sample lyrics: ‘they’re hiding in your top drawer! / they’re hiding in your drainhole! / they’re gonna bite your bumhole! / THE PARKTOWN PRAWNS’.
Before coming to Joburg for her show at Fox Junction in Newtown, Amanda spent a month in Cape Town with her husband, author Neil Gaiman, and their toddler son, Ash. Marie Claire interviewed her via phone shortly before her visit to Gauteng.
She first visited South Africa in February 2015, and I was lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time with her on that trip. Almost exactly three years later, everything has changed. The world has become a vastly different — darker, scarier — place. She has also experienced much joy: at the time she had just discovered that she was pregnant, and hadn’t publicly announced it yet; now she is mother to an adorable and much-adored little boy.
Amanda also writes about the struggles of motherhood on her blog. In a post title ‘The Mess Inside’, she reveals that she had a miscarriage over Christmas last year.
‘Well, I’ve been through a lot of experiences with my womb,’ she says over the phone. ‘One of the things that I appreciate the most about my community and my blog is that I use it therapeutically. I work through the trials and tribulations of my life by using it and using media and going to the collection of people I’ve amassed in my life. It’s been that way since the beginning, since 2000.
‘I’ve written about everything on my blog, from abortion to depression to confusion about marriage and relationships. It’s a strange tightrope to be walking. There’s my personal life, but there’s also everyone else in my life who I need to protect because no one signed up for a relationship with me to have their feelings and problems broadcast on the internet.’
In Joburg, she performed a cover of ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries, as a tribute to Dolores O’Riordan, the group’s lead singer who recently died. Amanda and one of her artistic partners, Jherek Bischoff, have recorded versions of ‘Zombie’ and ‘No Need to Argue’, releasing the songs under the title ‘Quartet for Dolores’.
In a post on her website, she added the following note: ‘Dolores O’Riordon [sic] was pro-life. She went so far as to say that abortion “belittles women”… to learn this about Dolores – who is Irish – was kind of heartbreaking for me.’
Amanda wasn’t aware of this until she’d begun work on the covers. But she admired O’Riordan and her music, and not continuing with the project went against the grain for her.
‘Are we only allowed to enjoy and appreciate art made by someone who had slightly different politics than we do?’ she explained over the phone. ‘If we start saying that we can only enjoy and appreciate art made by people who share our politics, there’s not going to be any art left.’
One of her latest music videos, also with Bischoff, is a version of the Pink Floyd classic ‘Mother’. It portrays a bevy of besuited people, led by a Trump-like figure, overseeing small children building a wall brick by brick. Palmer and a group of rebels overtake them with great gentleness, holding them in their arms, until she opens her blouse to let the Trump figure suckle at her breast. It is a striking visual.
Her book The Art of Asking, and her TED talk of the same name, explains her philosophy of expecting — and accepting — kindness, of seeing the good in people. After Brexit, after Trump, has her approach changed?
‘Well, I follow the philosophy of seeing goodness in people, without exception. You can’t be selectively compassionate. You have to be compassionate with everybody, or the whole thing doesn’t work. And I’m not Pollyanna. People do terrible things. Murdering, raping. None of this is taking it lying down, but if you can’t see the humanity, if you can’t see the pain someone must be in to perpetrate these things, you can’t ever get to the root of it.’
It’s not a coincidence that Amanda has such devoted fans. After her Joburg performance, dog-tired, she stayed until 1am to sign T-shirts and posters for roughly 400 people. On stage and off, her compassion shines through.