Interview by Roselle Chen
“It's a beautiful fucking day in Boston,” says punk-cabaret performer Amanda Palmer from her home. She is best known as one half of The Dresden Dolls, and has a wildly-popular solo career, but she's on the phone mainly to talk about her work with the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit group created by the surrealist director that teaches Transcendental Meditation to inner city youth, veterans, prisoners and the homeless. (Though she also gets into her music and her unorthodox relationship with her husband Neil Gaiman.)
The foundation's newest venture is Download for Good, a 33-song compilation that features musicians including Arrested Development, Iggy Pop, Neon Trees and Tom Waits. (All proceeds go toward the foundation's educational outreach programs.) Palmer's contribution is called “In My Mind,” [audio-1]
What's your viewpoint on meditation?
It's certainly not all light and flowers. It's about being present, to the moment, and that's incredibly important when you're an artist. You're making and creating a lot of dark material. You need that access to mindfulness so that you don't get thrown overboard.
I think one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone is just access to the possibility of freedom that you don't have to be totally depressed and enslaved by your own environment.
How was it contributing a song to the David Lynch Foundation?
I'm really happy that David Lynch has such incredible “cred.” It would be all too obvious if someone like Sting were to come up with a compilation. You would just sort of expect it out of Sting. The fact that David Lynch is this beloved, dark cult filmmaker that's planting the way towards meditation, and especially to young people and people who need it, is so admirable. It's a fantastic place to put your energy, especially as an artist.
To me it underlines the connection between making darker, deeper, emotional art and the art of mindfulness, which is an important connection that not many people think about.
What's David Lynch like in person?
He's a friendly Midwestern filmmaker with a dark, seedy undercurrent. He's a totally nice guy. I wouldn't expect anything less from him. [I'm also] the kind of artist who's had to shake the constant judgment of others, because I write really dark, intense music… I can empathize greatly with David Lynch, because although his art represents him as this twisted, seedy fuck, in the brief period that I met him he seems to be a totally kind and friendly, balanced individual. His book, Catching the Big Fish, resonated so strongly with what I believe about the creative process.
Why is the book important?
He gives it to you very straight- the connection between being present and being available to your own creative impulse. And once you feel it and you start to learn that, it's an invaluable tool for an artist. You're not at the mercy of your own process and you don't have to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike you. Inspiration is actually just everywhere, and you need to be present and mindful enough to the moment to tune into it.
It applies to all things in life. I think to say that meditation is helpful to artists is true and it's great but it's also essentially helpful to any kind of process of just, life. What you're doing in life: getting your work done, actually being in your relationships, not living out of fear but living out of real reaction to what the situation you're faced with is. And I talk about all these things as if they're separate, but they're pretty much all the same. Meditating may open up your creative process but there's probably no chance in hell it won't also improve your relationships.
How's life with your husband, writer Neil Gaiman?
We have a really creative relationship. We got married on New Year's and have been married for about six months now. We don't live together. We see each other when we can. We travel around, we chase each other around. And this is one of the weeks he's come to visit me at my place in Boston. We're creating this bizarre new relationship model from scratch because we're basically two artists on the road all the time and we have to find a way to be together that's real. We're so in love with each other that it's not too hard. And we don't get sick of each other. People are constantly joking about it like, “Your marriage is so ideal. You never see each other,” so then we go, “It doesn't get boring.” When we do see each other, we're hyper aware of the fact that we really need to stay present otherwise the little time we have together, we're just going to miss it.
What are your plans for your duo with Jason Webley, Evelyn Evelyn, as well as The Dresden Dolls and future tours to LA?
We're not bringing Evelyn Evelyn to LA. I'm going to be playing with Jason, but we're not bringing the twins. The twins are going to be resting in Washington after their traumatic European tour. Jason Webley and I are going to doing the El Rey. It may already be sold out because it went on sale a couple of days ago and the tickets were going really fast.
But in addition to the El Rey show, Neil and I are going to be announcing an LA show a few days later. We're just looking for the right theater to do an evening with Neil and Amanda. And then after that, Neil and I are going to do a little tour of the West Coast and I'm going to hunker down and work on my next record.
There's not going to be a whole lot of touring after that. There's a chance that The Dresden Dolls might do a quick tour to Australia, but the Dolls probably won't be back to the West Coast for a while. Chances are I'll be back there with my new back-up band before we do another Dresden Dolls lap.
I love how your song for the compilation, “In My Mind,” starts out yearning to be a better person, but the end is like, “Fuck yes; I'm exactly the kind of person I want to be.” It's an articulate and playful way of saying, “Don't be afraid to embrace who you are, flaws and all.” What inspired you to write the song? Where were you when you came up with the idea to write it?
I wrote it in Australia about a year and change ago. I was just about to do a big tour, but just before the tour started, I took a week long yoga training teacher course on the coast north of Sydney.
I got there a day early and was just giving myself time to get over traveling and jetlag. While I was wandering around, the tune and the lyrics came into my head. I get so many ideas for songs, but I'm so seldom disciplined enough to sit down and crank them out. But since I had put myself on vacation, I actually went and grabbed my ukulele and wrote it pretty much in one sitting.
I wrote it thinking that it would be a really nice song to give as a gift to the other yoginis that I was with. I was so embarrassed by it because it was such a hippy song that I didn't think I would take it out of that retreat. I've written a lot of songs that no one will ever hear. I thought that one was just going to be a single love letter to my group. I was going to tuck it away and never play it for anyone again because it's too embarrassing.
But then I beta tested it on a bunch of Australians a week later. I was doing a free gig on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and I asked if I could road test my hippy song on them and they said “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” and people just loved it.
It's amazing how my own perspective on a song is so malleable, and that even having written hundreds and hundreds of songs I'm still so insecure. I think that also my growth as a songwriter can really be seen in that because now I'm allowing myself to write the sort of songs and stretch into the kind of material that always has been pretty natural for me, but that has been too uncool, too embarrassing, too outside my expected genre or whatever.
It's a really simple, four-course song with no chorus and no bridge. It's almost like a little poem. When I got to the studio and decided to record it and include it on this Australian record, I emailed it to Brian Viglione. He and I hadn't done any recording together since the last Dresden Dolls record. I wanted some light percussion on it, and I thought, well I can either source some random Australian guy to come into the studio and do percussion, or I can send it over to Brian. There was something really perfect about getting Brian on the song in particular.
You have more than 520,000 Twitter followers. How do you have such a good relationship with your fans?
I've tried to make an art out of being as honest as possible with my fans about what's going on inside my head and my decision making process.
I love to talk. The Internet has been a tool through which I can talk to people. I don't just blindly spew information out there; I listen to and talk to a lot of my fans. It's a conversation; it's not just a monologue. I love my audience. I love meeting them and hanging out with them. I still sign after every show, unless the venue is ludicrously large. It's one of my favorite parts of the job. I often say to people that “I think I got into rock and roll to hang out with people, not the other way around.”
You talked about embracing the light with the dark when it comes to meditation. Are there any negative sides to practicing?
One of my greatest mentors always told me that there's no such thing as a bad sit. Which basically translates to, even if you sit there for 10 minutes, and you're in a complete reverie, and your brain is filled with completely distracted chatter, you still get to the end of those 10 minutes and you've learned something about where you're currently at that you might not have checked into had you not sat there in your distracted state for 10 minutes.
But meditation, especially for people who don't know very much about it and think it's this very hippy dippy thing, can really be powerful, terrifying even, as it lifts the rug up on your subconscious and the dust comes flying out. As you do that and you turn the light on in the room, or open the closet filled with clutter, or choose your metaphor, what you see in there is definitely not always pretty but it's always necessary. Getting to uncovering your thought process can be embarrassing, terrifying and really threaten your own sense of who you are. It can shatter your ego. It can stir up a lot of shit. I wouldn't call it negative but it's also no rose garden.
But that's also the awesome thing about meditation. It's an ongoing process. It's not like you sit down; figure it out one day and everything gets fixed. It's a process of just being constantly with what's happening. And not being so enslaved to your own idea of who you have to be, but uncovering that in each moment. That's what really liberates you as a person because we're so attached to this idea of who we are and what we're supposed to be like, especially the ideas that we've dragged along with us since we were kids of who we wanted to be and what we wanted to seem like to other people.
It can be really terrifying but it can also be wonderful to just realize that in each moment you actually have a choice.
Did meditation center you when you were younger?
When I was 17, I was still really fucking out to lunch as I think most 17-year-olds are. In my early 20's I was interested in getting to know the insides of my brain. You're also talking to one of the flakiest, most distracted people on the earth, especially in my teens and 20's. I could not keep track of shit. I could never find my wallet. I was just that person who was constantly losing things and forgetting things. I was a bona fide flake. It really started to upset me as I felt like I was out of control.
I still go through phases where I'm incredibly flaky but nowadays I understand why. I'm tuned in enough to the machinery in there to know why it's happening and to sort of make my way towards a solution. Whereas in my early 20's I would just throw my hands up and scream and say, “I don't know what the fuck is going on, what's wrong with me,” which isn't to say that that's not a lifelong battle. I'm still distracted most of the time and I can't fucking remember what I did yesterday.
What advice do you have for people dealing with a distracted mind, or the painful and dark circumstances they have to go through in life?
I've been through rape and abortion and have had so many female fans come up to me and open up about really terrible shit they've been through like abuse, rape, drug addictions, self harm, you name it.
You can get really attached to your story and to your experience. There's pain, anger and fear and you don't want to let it go. But it's in the past. It's unchangeable. And you're just left with your attitude towards it.
Focus on forgiving yourself and the people who you believe have harmed you. And just the act of sitting down and doing that can work miracles. Sometimes a person gets their identity so wound up in the heavy experiences that they lose themselves and their access to freedom. Meditation can untangle a lot of that. It gets you out of the mindset that you have to be wrapped up in this big ball of pain.