How Amanda Palmer gave the music industry the finger with crowdfunding

“I’ve had to continually re-educate myself that this isn’t about selling music. It’s about making music.”

Being a musical pioneer means you have to continue to push the envelope, and that’s something Amanda Palmer relishes doing on a daily basis. Her staunch supporters on artist subscription site Patreon certainly agree with her, as they helped foot the bill for the free-form artist’s new collaboration with psychedelia legend Edward Ka-Spel dubbed I Can Spin a Rainbow, out today in various formats via Cooking Vinyl.

Rainbow is a dream come true for Palmer, who once took it upon herself to grant shelter to Ka-Spel and his merrily trippy band, The Legendary Pink Dots, after seeing them perform in Boston in 1995. “Well, it was more my parents’ generous spirit — they let us use their house!” Palmer confirmed to Digital Trends with a laugh.

I Can Spin a Rainbow is a prime example of how merging the creative sparks of both mentor and mentee can result in a veritable sonic tour de force.

Palmer spoke with Digital Trends from her home in Boston to discuss how the two artists merged their sensibilities in the studio, why an album’s running order remains important to the listening experience, and how her loyal Patreon patrons enable her to be more creative than ever before.

Digital Trends: While listening to this album on headphones, I really got a sense of space, and how the vocals and the instrumentation took full advantage of the stereo field. How did you guys work out what went where in the final mixes?

Amanda Palmer: We had a lot of discussion about the mixes while we tracked. Edward ultimately mixed everything on his own. I would listen to the mixes he sent me and give him my notes, which I’ve done before with other engineers.

We were piecing the songs together in the room, so it was like we were working on the mixes as we went. We were stacking and layering things, trying to figure out where everything sat and what it needed, or didn’t need.

When we were done with that layering and tracking process, Edward had a list of ideas he wanted to add to the mixes after I was gone [from the studio]. He had those magical Edward collages that he added to a couple of the tracks. And he’s Edward, so I trusted him completely with those mixes, because I just trust his aesthetic in general.

Is there one best example of a song that literally evolved in the moment?

The first song, Pulp Fiction. We basically had the song roughed out on piano. When we went in to track it, Edward had the loop, and I played synth over it. We created a map of where all of the vocals would go. And I heard this Laurie Anderson-like, beautiful vocal on top of it.

At that point, Edward and I just trusted each other. Because of that, there was a lot of fingers going up in the air as we’d go, “Wait, wait, wait, let’s try this!”

For this song, I just ran over to the mic and said, “Don’t ask me what I’m doing — just roll the vocal track, and I’ll try this thing.” The one thing I still find kind of astounding about our entire process is that we didn’t have one argument. We didn’t even really have a disagreement. It all came together. There was no sense of drama. It was all so perfect. It was just this extreme enjoyment process of building this strange-looking thing together.

You use the word trust, and I think that comes across in a song like The Changing Room, where you can feel the energy of how you two play off each other with the vocal tradeoffs, the background loops, and the percussion tracks.

Yeah, yeah. Edward and I have such different experiences and track records and histories in the recording studios. We’ve lived very different lives as recording musicians. His whole process — with his solo stuff, The Legendary Pink Dots, and The Tear Garden — it bears some distant resemblance to the kind of work I’ve done with The Dresden Dolls [Palmer’s punk-cabaret duo], who are predominantly a live band. Making a Dresden Dolls record is about setting up mics and going for it, and doing many, many takes. There’s not a whole lot of overdubbing, and no electronics.

I initially heard I Can Spin a Rainbow in a sequence different than the final one. How important was it to you to get these songs into the album’s final running order?

Oh, pretty important. I always think the running order is really important. Because this record is a special moment — this is my collaboration with Edward; it’s not like we’re a band or we’re going to be making seven or eight records together … it’s always going to be a record of a moment in time. And guiding your listeners through that journey is the fun part.

Do you feel people are more inclined to listen to this record from beginning to end due in part to the resurgence of interest in vinyl?

Yes. Not only that, but more importantly, it’s also because I have a subscribership. I have these 9,000 people who are tuned into “Planet Amanda.” When I put out a record like this, those who funded it get to hear it first, and I suggest a beginning-to-end listening experience.

There are certain records that demand certain attention and lighting and vibe. When I released The Clock at the Back of the Cage right before the video came out, I only sent it to the patrons; I didn’t send it out to the world at large. I made a larger than usual plea to them to please listen to it undistracted, and preferably with headphones … the production is so spare and so open.

Yes. I call what you were doing there “micro-vocals.”

Yeah! And I really didn’t want people to listen to it on their computers. I wanted people to really, really get the beauty of that song by listening to it on really good speakers or headphones.

“I didn’t want people to listen to this album on their computer. Music doesn’t belong to their computer. It belongs in their ears.”

I have the kind of relationship with my fan base where I’m delivering them the product with a message — and I can say whatever I want, because I have this one platform with a megaphone for the true believers.

And they do follow it … I read all of their comments, and I love seeing, “Oh my God, I’m so glad you recommended listening through headphones. That’s the best way to listen to it.” The internet is so noisy, and unfortunately, people are receiving this music through the same vessel where they’re checking out Facebook and dealing with their email. It’s so hard to remind people that music doesn’t belong to their fucking computer. It belongs in their ears.

This album was recorded on Edward’s laptop with Ableton; you didn’t use anything outboard. Yet it’s such a rich-sounding recording, which speaks more to the skill level of the performers than the medium, in this case.

Yeah, and so much of that is about the mics and the equipment you’re using. You could have a beautiful fucking 2,000-channel board and all the tape in the world, but if you’re using shitty mics, it wouldn’t matter. But if you plug a beautiful Neumann mike into a laptop, it can sound phenomenal. There’s a lot that goes into that spectrum.

I’ve learned a lot about mic technique just by listening to my ears. I’ve been touring for 15 years and made seven or eight records. I have a young son now, and just watching him use a fork reminds me a lot about how you learn how to use a microphone. As a musician, you go through thousands and thousands of moments of feedback to subconsciously know that you need to move one millimeter to the left or one millimeter back or one millimeter forward. It’s not something you just learn, and the next day you do it. It takes hours and hours and hours of listening practice.

Creatively speaking, I’m glad you gotten to the other side of crowdfunding with the patrons you now have.

I feel phenomenally blessed and grateful right now that I’m able to work this way. Everything is backwards now. I spent my whole life in this music industry trying to figure out how to sell what I’m making. But I don’t “sell” anymore — I just have this magical net of supporters who are supporting me whether I choose to make a record with Edward or make a record with my dad, which I did last year [2016’s You Got Me Singing, a collaboration with her father, Jack Palmer].

That’s much better for you as an artist, rather than being beholden to a deadline because you have a contract that requires you to deliver something every 12 months whether you’re ready or not.

“Watching my young son use a fork reminds me a lot about how you learn how to use a microphone.”

I know. It’s bullshit. You don’t work that way. You work the way you work, and you do the projects you want to do. And sometimes, you absolutely want to do ridiculous, noncommercial stuff.

The Patreon patrons have been a godsend in that sense. I’ve had to continually re-educate myself that this isn’t about selling music. It’s about making music. I got so used to those two being inseparable that it took a lot of psychological work to divorce the processes. But thank God — it’s been a real liberation.

It’s an almost unbelievable feeling to know that 9,000 people will pay for anything I make. They haven’t just promised; they’ve put down their credit card. And the next thing I put out will probably be completely different.

I much prefer that. I don’t subscribe to always wanting the same thing from the artists I follow.

I think people think they want that — the same thing. That’s not why we have artists. My husband Neil [Gaiman, of American Gods and Sandman fame], has this great monologue about it, where he says something like, “If, as an artist, you ever listen to your fans’ demands, and their demands are always insisting you make the last thing they liked again, you would go nowhere.”

You can’t listen to what they’re asking for, because they don’t know what they want yet. (laughs)

If you like something, you tend to want more of it.

Exactly! We’re humans. We’re creatures of habit. We like what we like, but that’s not the way art works. Art is not a factory of machines, spitting out product.