Amanda Fucking Palmer. (Her camp's term of endearment!) Singer, songwriter, artist, author, crowd-sourcer, social media aficionado, wife and MOMMY. In August, she and drummer, the amazing Brian Viglione, reunited for a few Dresden Dolls shows, and they called my dear husband (aka ‘Psycho Dave’ to the Dresden Dolls crew) to do his thing behind the sound board. Dave has worked for them for about 10 years, and Amanda wanted to have a family-style reunion with the same crew running the shows. She invited us all (even our 2 year old, Neil) to stay at the Woodstock, NY home she shares with husband, Neil Gaiman. The home, once belonging to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, oozed some unbelievable crazy vibe. As Amanda gave us the grand tour, she mentioned the rumor that Dylan may have written ‘Tambourine Man’ in the cold, stone room off of the kitchen. My jaw dropped to the floor, as if I were vocalizing up to a high C. We swam in the tranquil backyard pool, and hiked up the trails in the yard that were not far from the famous Bearsville Studio.
On the last morning there, Amanda sat with me in the Viking Room…aka her barn-meets-medeival music space…and had a conversation about becoming a mommy. I knew a little bit about Amanda’s vocal history, so I was anxious to hear how her voice has handled motherhood. As you’ll read in our conversation, there is a moment when I really and truly start tearing up. She hit a nerve. The 'it’s-time-to-make-music-again' nerve. THIS is precisely why I am having these conversations. So that I might feel less alone in my struggles. I am so grateful for this conversation. Here we go:
KC: I’m going to start a little bit before you had Ash: How would you describe your lifestyle before him? Were you healthy? Were you a partier? Did you give much thought to your voice?
AP: I mean, voice has been a central character in my life. I toured like a dog, as you know, for four years. Ravaged my voice, had nodes, had vocal fold surgery in 2009, or 2010. And that was an enlightening experience because the 3 weeks after my surgery, during which I could not speak was such a fantastic education in how loud I am. And I’ve been on silent meditation retreats, but this was different. I was moving through the world, unable to communicate with my voice and the most fascinating about moving the world of relationships and dinner parties and trips to the sandwich shop without using your voice as a communicative tool, is you realize that, or *I* realized in my case, that so much of what I said was unnecessary. And that my voice was a defense mechanism and a space filler. That was a really- in terms of voice mindfulness, I couldn’t have gotten a better brick thrown through my window. I also learned something from my vocal surgeon, or someone in his office, who told me that my speaking voice is far lower than necessary. and that i was pushing my speaking voice down, which I found also very interesting given my place in my family, which is the last of four children…and when i experimented with speaking in my “normal” speaking voice, (voice pitches a bit higher and softer here as she is speaking) i felt very powerless. We experimented with it and she was like, (voice pitched higher and lighter again) ‘your regular speaking voice is around here. This is where you would not be putting any extra stress or weight on your voice’ and I was like, ‘oh- I feel like an unimportant person when I talk here’, and my husband always noticed when I got all my business phone calls I would push my voice down like half an octave, like, (speaks low and strongly) ‘We really have to figure this stuff out..and blah blah…’. And Neil would notice this and we would sometimes be talking on the phone and I would flip back and forth between calls but fuck up, and he would get my business voice and there really was this difference between (low voice) ‘This merch HAS to be there tomorrow!’, and (sweet voice) ‘Hi honey, did you get to London OK?’, and really, like, we’re always in voice drag. And I fully had to come to terms with that because my vocal drag created so many problems on my cords. So, that’s a long story, but my voice and I have been through the fucking woods together. And, you know, I was losing my voice on tour all the time, and felt ‘caged’ by not being able to speak, so…
KC: Did you have a pre-gig or daily vocal regimen before surgery, or did you warm up?
AP: Yeah, I went to a pretty decent rock coach…you probably know him…he’s the dude. Mark
KC: Mark Baxter…yup
AP: And the biggest thing I took away from probably dozens and dozens and dozens of hours with Mark was how to warm up over my fry. And of all the gazillions of vocal exercises he taught me, I never really stuck with any of them, but I would, before gigs find where my fry was and just work over it, with whatever sounds felt right. He helped me quite a bit…and I think even just the act of being in a voice studio feeling and your voice for an hour is helpful in itself. …just like going to a yoga class even if you’re just going to just sit on the mat and do one pose…to just be consciously in your body and consciously with your voice instead of just …
KC: …and in the atmosphere…yeah, i get that.
AP: …and sending the message to your body and your voice that you care, which is really essential. But, no, i mean, I was and still am, a pretty lazy fucker. I don’t have a strict warm up regimen, I talk right up until the moment I get up on stage, and I get away with quite a bit…
KC: But you’re constantly singing….I mean, do you sing every day, are you warm that way? (Amanda shakes head) …No.
AP: No. I sing to the baby.. I mean, I go ages and ages. The year that I wrote the book, I barely sang, but what I’ve also found is that when I DON’T sing for quite a bit, and I haven’t played a show in two months, my voice sounds fanTAStic.
AP: yeah. It sounds very, very clear if I leave it alone.
KC: Like your muscle memory just picks right up and you’ve had rest…
AP: But, I mean, I’m an amateur singer
AP: I have spent a lot of time singing , I have played many shows, I have toured many countries, but I don’t have any …no one taught me any technique…like many rock singers, I just got up and did it, and did what sounded good to me.
KC: Yeah, and you learned on the job, and you learned how to take care of it
AP: So the biggest thing I learned, and this is actually the advice that I impart to all rock singers when they are losing their voices and they are freaking out on tour and they call me …because especially the last Dresden Dolls tour- I was ragged, and I mean, I didn’t know at the time, but those two nodes that I had… and I look back at some of the YouTube footage and I’m like really, ‘raaaahhhh’ (hoarsely screams)…and only one thing helped. No amount of vocal warm-ups, no amount of tea and honey, no amount of throat coat spray…like NONE of that worked. Only one thing worked, which was sleep. That was the ONE thing, and If I got sleep, and I got uninterrupted sleep, my voice would creep back, and if I didn’t get sleep, it didn’t matter if I drank 90 cups of tea and honey, and did all the vocal warmups in the world, it was just …
KC: yeah- because the swelling comes down, and yeah…
KC: So after your surgery, you mentioned you were not speaking for a while. Did you have vocal therapy to get you back into it?
AP: No. I just started slowly, and hopped back on the horse. It was really wonderful having brand new vocal cords. You know, it’s sort of like, going from driving a beat up used car, to all of a sudden having a Maserati. because the way that surgery works…it’s full…there’s no scarring because that membrane is so…
AP: Elastic. I was just like, ‘oh my god’! Those notes! I can just HAVE them! (laughs)
KC: Wow. So you gained your range back! So AFTER you had Ash, did you feel like you were in a baby bubble for a while? Or did you TAKE a baby bubble for a little while?
AP: I built a baby bubble. Yeah. I knew I had to. One of the things about being a self employed artist, writer, musician, thing, is the same blessing and curse as with no baby…which is you decide when you work and make money. And, I didn’t plan ANYTHING for after he was born. No tours, no dates, no recordings, no book contracts, no, no, no, it was just HUGE wide open blank slate. And no help. No nanny, no babysitters, no nothing. I was just like, ‘it’s going to be ME and this baby, and I’m going to see what happens’. And then I saw what happened, and I saw what happens to Neil, and after 3 months of no babysitters, and no domestic help and basically doing NOTHING all day but dirty dishes and dirty towels, and diapers everywhere, and like, feeling the full force of full time parenting…and Neil, meanwhile, went back to work like right away, like week 1. He wasn’t working like all day every day, but he was like, back on the road, and back with deadlines, and back with appearances, and back with interviews, and you know, I think Ash was like 2 months old…and we went around to visit family and stuff. When Ash was about 2 months old, there was ONE day we were in my apartment in Boston visiting there, and I decided to do a webcast. And Neil also had some stuff to do- I don’t remember what- but it was one of those moments…and we still had no help…it was one of those moments where we were both like, ‘it’ll just work out’, and I HAD to be on this webcast, present with people, and we were in my teeny apartment, and Neil had all this stuff to do and was on deadlines, and the baby was crying and I was like, ‘Neil, you HAVE to take the baby, I’m doing this webcast, and Neil was like, ‘I can’t…I have all this other stuff to do’, and we were like, ‘oh my god! AHHHH!! What do we do?!’ And while the camera’s rolling and like there’s 2,000 people watching, and I’m like, …
KC: Reality TV!
AP: And, it was at about …when he was about 3 or 4 months, i was like, “ok, I need to get a babysitter’
KC: You’re a working mom! Yeah!
AP: Well, I want to be a working mom, and I want to get back to doing something with my day, other than dishes and laundry because i was like, “This is FUCKING AMAZING that you can literally just do dishes and laundry all day, when you have a baby and two people…how is that possible? What do people with four children do? Oh my god!
KC: Yeah- I think of that all the time…more than one? How?!
AP: How? HOW? And so, something really interesting happened over Christmas, when, let’s see, Ash would’ve been three months. We rented a house in LA to be with my Los Angeles relatives over Christmas and we went for three weeks, and I was getting legitimately depressed. And, that doesn’t happen to me very often. I usually like, stay very busy, and I’m very happy. And I just felt this like, cloud enclosing me, and I didn’t really know what was going on…and it was the holidays, which is stressful, and being in a different house, and dealing with the stress of friends and family, and we had 20 people over for Christmas, and I was still with no babysitter and no help, and I tried to juggle a household, and like, do the ‘Amanda Palmer’ thing and enlist everybody to help, but didn’t really know who I could ask what, and it was too much, and my friend, Jerrick, who’s an arranger, came over and I had this new song, that we played last night, ‘Machete’, kind of in my brain. And he suggested that we just get into a studio and do it, cuz he’s a string arranger. And the minute he even just spoke those words, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m happy again’, ‘OHHH THAT’S what was going on. I wasn’t doing anything. And now, I can engage that part of my brain that sort of is the foundation of …
KC: You’re going to make me cry (totally, for real tearing up).
AP: Yeah- Like I am gonna do something that is going to artistcally feed me and feed the world, and therefore, I’ll be a better mother to my child.
KC: And make you YOURSELF again.
AP: Right…So that I am doing what I do.
AP: Because I know I am capable of doing more than dishes, and walking a baby, and diaper changes. …Even though that’s really important…I have this other thing I do. And it was also so important to be that to my child. To be working Amanda, writing Amanda, singing Amanda, creating Amanda so that he could meet his real mom. You know, ‘This is what your mom does. I make music’
KC: (still tearing up and wiping tears) Yes.
AP: And so, that engaged me, and the minute I got back to work, I had to learn this whole new juggle and I was like, ‘who is gonna take care of the baby that day’… And we didn’t have a go-to babysitter, we were in a foreign city, so I got an aunt one night, and I got the girl down the street one day, and I got the cousin one day, and I just stitched it all together, and i was like, ‘oh my god, even arranging childcare is like a full time job’. Neil helped, and I went into the studio for two full days, and also like, breastfed Ash and made tons of bottles, and just made it work. And, vocally…I mean it was also a really significant song. The song was an ode to my dead best friend who Ash was named after, and it just felt like a perfect full circle moment, and my voice felt, you know, like it had just been waiting outside the door. It didn’t feel any different. I had a few people tell me when they saw me live- because I also eventually got back to doing shows in the Spring—that my voice sounded warmer, but I don’t know if they were projecting that on motherhood, or if it really was true. But I do think having a kid has mellowed me out a little bit, and i think that whatever is happening in your personage comes through in your voice. And I even felt it in the Dresden Dolls last night…That’s the most aggressive music I’ve ever written..that era of Dresden Dolls music. It’s shouty, screamy, emo music, and even that …i think it’s a combination of age and motherhood, but I found myself just dialing back. Like, as in life, you don’t have to scream. You will be louder if you pull it back a little bit, and let the microphone work for you. We have the technology …you don’t have to scream in to a microphone.
KC: And, that combination of age and motherhood… I know I’ve felt completely broken open…I’m a pretty emotional person before I had Neil, but after him, I can’t watch the news, it’s just everything is harder…so yeah, I feel like my voice is kind of stuck right here (touching throat) because there is so much emotion that’s gonna come out that’s hard to reign in and it’s hard to let that all out in a controlled way that you don’t look like a complete fool…so you dial it back.
AP: yeah- the other thing I can bring to the table, is, I was very ambivalent about having a child. And ambivalent not in the way that I did not care one way or the other, but I spent years graveling with the decision, and that brought its own whole story to the eventual appearance of the child because by the time I had been through all of the woods…from having multiple abortions the first time when I was 17, and constantly questioning and you know, uh- what’s the word I’m looking for…you know feeling tormented by the decision of what was real…like should I be a mother, and I have this career and you know, do i really want it, do I just culturally want it, does my mother want it, you know, where am I in here? I couldn’t even find my own center to make that decision. It took me a LONG time. But then by the time I was committed and was ready to have a child, it was about so much more than the baby. I felt like I spent years of my life just like turning down every other volume knob so that I could hear my still teeny little voice and whatever it had to say because everything else overwhelms it. Culture overwhelms it, the media overwhelms it, your parents overwhelm it, your partner overwhelms it, and you’re listening…. and wondering where you are, and you know, you can’t turn that voice up, but it’s in there, but it speaks very quietly. And the only thing you can do is put on your warrior outfit and go into the battlefield with all those other volume knobs and just be like ‘I’m NOT listening to you’ …and until it’s quiet enough that you can hear yourself. That happens on the road- like everything, you know, the volume of the world, can overwhelm your ability to listen to yourself. I think that’s why so many musicians and rock stars go AWOL because you get lost. The you that is you gets lost in the volume of the bullshit.
KC: Did you feel an external urgency to get back to your career?
AP: No. As with the rest of my career, since we got off the label, thank christ, i’ve been calling my own shots, but I am very hard on myself. I’m a workaholic. I have that evil Puritan work ethic in me that tells me that I’m being lazy if I’m not working every single second of the day, or at least doing something productive, or at least educating myself or at least meditating….or ggrrrrrrrr! Like, I have that poison in me. So I don’t need anyone to be hard on myself, and I also run a business, I have a staff of people that I have to pay, you know…I have a full time assistant, I have an internet team, I have an office in NY, like, I was watching those bills pile up, like, ‘ok…i can do this for about 5 months’ but then like, it’s gonna flip and if i’m not making any money, things are gonna get ugly.
KC: So, back to your voice, post baby. It hasn’t suffered at all!? …’Cuz I know for me it’s about tension in the body..and lifting …I mean, Ash isn’t that heavy yet…but lifting strollers, lifting ….doing all of it…
AP: I’m so used to that. I mean one of the things that I noticed about having a child…because I traveled a lot with him… Not so much recently, but the first 6 months without Neil, I took him on 10 planes. Me, a suitcase, a ukulele, a carseat, a stroller, and a backpack, and I was like, ‘this is just like touring, plus a baby’. But I am so used to having a bunch of crap and having to get it from point A to point B, and standing at the bottom of the stairs, scratching my head going, ‘How the fuck am I going to do this’ anyway…that I’m already pretty good at that. And one of the pieces of baggage is alive (laughter). That’s the only difference. But, I wrote the book…you enlist help! You look around with your radar and you go, ‘Can you please help me?’ I’m standing here…and it’s actually a lot easier to ask people to help you when one of your pieces of baggage is alive, than when you have, like, a ukulele case, and a keyboard case, and a suitcase, and people are like, ‘why the fuck would i help you?’ But when you have a baby people are very quick to help…and so, I loved our adventures of like, how are we possibly get from Santa Fe to Seattle if there’s not an elevator at Point X— because we would just figure it out.
KC: Wow. I need to take a lesson from that. Just getting out of the house is stressful for me. ‘Do I have enough diapers, do I have snacks, do I have this, do I have that?’ I just want to grab my purse and my keys and leave…Soon enough, i guess.
AP: There was another one of those ‘learn on the job’ things..and we did start slowly and you just start like, ‘ok- these are the new things i need leaving the house’, and, if i don’t have these things, this is gonna be really interesting… (laughter) …When he was like 3 weeks old, we were in FL visiting some relatives and we went for this like hour-long walk to a restaurant, on the beach..we were staying on the west coast of FL, and we got there and we were like, ‘we’re FINALLY gonna go out to dinner’. It was our first like, let’s-go-out-on-a-date, but bring the baby, but hopefully he’ll sleep and we can sit down and have a glass of wine and eat a food that we will not have to cook ourselves and do the dishes, We got there and we sat down and I was like, ‘Neil, did you remember the diaper bag?’. It was supposed to be Neil’s job- he was supposed to be the diaper King that week. And he was like, ‘Oh shit. Nope. I forgot it.’. And we had no car, and it was an HOUR walk home and we had finally sat down at the restaurant, and i was like, ‘I got this’. I’m gonna figure something out. And we’re in FL, we’re not near any stores, we’re just in some weird, touristy beach town. And i went into the bathroom and opened up all the cabinets, found a maxi pad and inserted it into Ash’s diaper, and was like, ‘That’s gonna buy us an hour’. (laughter)
KC: So, you have a little bit of help now.
AP: I have a LOT of help.
KC: You have a lot of help now. :)
AP: I started getting babysitters at 6 months when we were in Santa Fe. I was like, ‘enough’. I need someone to just come so I could work. I got a local babysitter when we were living in Santa Fe over the winter, and she came every day between like 11 and 6 and i was like [deep breath]. And I would feed him throughout the day. But that’s when i got back to work, that’s when I started releasing music again. I went in and made the David Bowie record that I put out in February right after he died because I had the help and I could, and then the beginning of this month, I got Justine, who I met at Imogen Heap’s house when I was making a record there in June…and she’s not even a nanny, she was just a friend of a friend…
KC: She’s great! And she speaks French!
AP: She’s incredible. So, I nabbed her and was like, ‘Let’s do this’. And I knew I needed to find a touring partner because I’m going to be on the road all Fall and I’m gonna need a full time person if I’m gonna go do shows, so…
KC: So balance a bit easier now…you can work out, you can…yeah. That’s great.
AP: Yeah- I still …I take care of him in the mornings and usually by the time Justine is ready to take care of him around 10 or 11, like the day has started, so working in exercise has still been a bitch, because I’m like, do I want the extra hour of sleep, or do I want to go for a jog…I want to sleep. But I have my body pretty much back, I’m still like 10 pounds overweight, but I don’t really care. My body feels strong. Like it’s come back. I’m getting to a couple of yoga classes. What I’m actually trying to do is go for hikes with Ash, so that I can get my time with him and I can be moving my body around. And I can’t do yoga with him, I can’t go swimming with him, but I can put him on my body and I can go for a really rigorous hike and break a sweat for 45 minutes, and have him with me. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
KC: Have any of your ambitions changed at all after having Ash?
AP: (long pause. sigh.) They haven’t really. They’ve expanded. You know- my ambitions have always been evolving. You know- when I first started the Dresden Dolls, my single minded ambition was to get the Dresden Dolls more well known. And that was our single minded driving force of like, let’s just tour and become a larger band. And i didn’t focus on anything else. ANYTHING ELSE. Relationships, my family, my life at home, you know- I had no domestic life, and I had very few friendships that i really took the time to nurture. It was just all fucking band, all the time. And, that served its purpose…I was 26, 27, 28…it worked- the band became famous, but I definitely pulled the camera back, and you know , when i hit 30 and thought, ‘ok, well, i can either continue that path and never have an emotional life outside of the Dresden Dolls, and continue to become more and more and more well known’, but for what fucking possible reason if I’m not building a life— another emotional life. And so, around that time, around 30, when Brian (Viglione) & I were still touring, I deliberately decided to nurture my friendships and my relationships with my family all over the globe. And then when I met Neil, I also decided to prioritize a ‘human relationship’ with another human, and you know- my ambitions has always been vague and all over the place…ever since leaving the Dresden Dolls, I’ve just been kind of grabbing random opportunities and sort of, you know, trying to keep things varied and keep myself interest, and sometimes follow the money, but mostly not follow the money knowing that following the money usually leads to evil. But also trying to keep things growing so that they’re not shrinking. And now the Dresden Dolls are gonna be one piece of the puzzle, but also, like, I made more money writing my book than I made in 10 years of touring. But i had to take a year out of my life to write that book. And you know, I still want to do theater…You know, if my ambition has changed at all, it isn’t that my ambition has changed, but my strategies for how to keep myself interested as an artist are now going to involve choices that don’t necessitate daily travel. And so, if I want to do a theater project I will camp out in a city, where I can have the child in one place for 3 months, and if I want to tour, I may do residencies, which will mean probably making a little bit less money, but probably getting to enjoy the intimate space of just playing for 300 people a night instead of 1500 people a night…but getting to go to sleep in a bed, wake up in a bed, take the kid to the park and then show up at work at 5 o’clock so that I don’t have to constantly be in the travel grind with the kid. So, my ambition’s gonna stay the same, but my strategies for scheduling are gonna now accommodate a child.
KC: And he might inspire new projects…or he probably has already…
AP: Yeah- I just shot a music video in this room (the Viking Room) like 2 weeks ago, and he was the star. We put him in this Victorian cradle and he was just in it the whole time. It was great.
KC: Well this has helped me a whole bunch. Thank you so much, Amanda.
(above) My Neil with Amanda's baby, Ash, at her Woodstock home.