Amanda Palmer on how she writes songs, created her TED talk, and more

Amanda Palmer is a singer-songwriter, rule-breaker, disruptor, and all round rockstar.

You might know Amanda from being one half of the Dresden Dolls. Or you might know her, as I did, through her TED talk “The art of asking” which has been viewed by over 10 million people. Amanda is a total innovator in the world of music, and raised $1.2 million on a kickstarter campaign several years ago to be able to produce her own solo album, independent from a record label.

One of the things I loved most about this chat with Amanda is hearing her very intensive step by step process for creating and delivering her amazing TED talk.

In this conversation, we cover topics such as:

  • How Amanda writes songs
  • Why she insists on staying in a separate hotel room to her husband when on tour
  • The enormous amount of work that went into her TED talk
  • The signals she uses in her life to work out whether she is on or off balance
  • The podcasts Amanda is listening to and books she is reading

And a whole lot more.

Here are links to a bunch of the things Amanda mentions during the show:

TED Radio Hour

The Daily Cos

Writing My Wrongs

You can find Amanda on all the usual social channels at @amandapalmer, via her website, and find out more about her my Patreon community right here.

Finally, here is a full transcript of the show.

Amanda Palmer: I don’t like composing or improvising or working out pice if there’s someone in the next room who could technically be hearing me, because I just don’t feel like I can be alone with my own mistakes, my own explorations. To me writing a song is as personal as like taking a shit basically, so you don’t want someone standing in the room going like hey! It’s really like in order to have that kind of stream of consciousness, any note is possible, any vocalization is possible, any word is possible. You can’t be sort of subconsciously performing for an audience, it just doesn’t work, you need to get the audience miles away so that you can create in peace.

Amantha Imber: Welcome to How I Work, a show about the tactics used by leading innovators to get so much out of their day. I’m your host, Dr. Amantha Imber, I’m an organizational psychologist, the CEO of Inventium, and I am obsessed with finding ways to optimize my workday.

On today’s show I speak to singer/songwriter and all-around rockstar Amanda Palmer. You might know Amanda from being one half of the Dresden Dolls, or you might know her as I did through her TED Talk, The Art of Asking, which has been viewed by over 10 million people. Amanda is a total innovator in the world of music and raised $1.2 million on a Kickstarter campaign several years ago to be able to produce her own solo album, independent from a record label.

One of the things I love most about this chat with Amanda is hearing her very intensive step-by-step process for creating and delivering her amazing Ted Talk. Over to Amanda to find out about how she works. So Amanda, welcome to the show.

Amanda Palmer: Thank you so much for having me.

Amantha Imber: I’m so excited to be talking to you. I first discovered you by your TED Talk, The Art of Asking, along with 10 million other people, and from there I discovered your music, and I’ve got to say your song A Mother’s Confession, has gotta be my favorite. It makes me cry every time, literally.

Amanda Palmer: Aww, thank you. And actually, the version that you know, ’cause that’s the only recorded version is actually a demo, and that one has just finally made it on to the shortlist for my next record that I’m recording this fall, so I’m excited about that. It’s funny sometimes the songs that I think are gonna be real toss-offs and not stick are the ones that really resonate with people, probably for that reason, ’cause they happen so quickly and they’re so stream of consciousness that I don’t think they’re important, but actually that’s usually the art that sticks around.

Amantha Imber: That’s so funny, isn’t it? And I guess like in terms of like what you have done, what you have written, what you have produced, I just see you’ve been so prolific in terms of what you do, and I really came to delve into what happens behind the scenes of how you work to achieve this. And so I guess just to start with, I know that you travel a lot, and your days must look really different, but I’m curious are there any like daily rituals or routines that you have in your life that kind of set the day up well?

Amanda Palmer: Well, it depends which self you’re talking to, it depends if you’re talking to the like absolutely depleted, no sense of judgment, harassed teenage, wine-drinking cigarette-smoking, non-meditating shit show of a who fucking cares we’re all gonna die anyway person, or the other person. Yeah, I mean I have a few rituals that I try to make, daily rituals. And actually just having them exist in my life as a benchmark for where I’m at is almost useful enough. Because I have never really in my life with exceptions of being on retreat, which I do try to do as kind of binge model of a discipline. I’ve never had a routine. I almost have so little routine that I’m almost attached to having no routine, and that is my routine.

Amantha Imber: Hmm, that’s really interesting.

Amanda Palmer: But I have different kinds of lives. I have the life I live when I am traveling, I have the life I live when I’m living in Airbnb, I have the life I live when I’m living in a hotel room with my husband and kid. I have a life I live when I’m on a tour bus. And I’ve definitely hammered down some real dos and don’ts.

And in the realm of the dos and don’ts, even if I’m not sticking to everything which literally never happens, I at least can use those as a measuring stick to see how I’m doing and how depleted I am versus how on course I am.

And a couple of those rituals are about where my phone is, where it is first thing in the morning, and where it is last thing at night. If I sleep with my phone in the bed or beside my bed, I know I’m not doing great. If I check it first thing in the morning, or I’m reading it last thing at night, I know I’m not doing great.

And then the other benchmark is just around my morning ritual and do I take my time to ease into the day and give myself a little bit of self-care and space, whether that means stretching or getting to a yoga class or even just sitting down and doing 10 minutes of meditation, or do I just allow myself to get pulled in by the sucking tide of chaos and to-do list. That’s another benchmark that I use.

And then one is meals; do I actually take time to sit down and chew my food and eat it, or am I stuffing a piece of something into my face while I’m doing work.

And those are like my three big basics. And other than work practices and what I’m actually doing while I’m so-called engaged in work, those are really good things to look at if I wanna know where I’m at.

And honestly, since having a kid, I’ve thrown the entire buck out the window.

Amantha Imber: Haven’t we all?

Amanda Palmer: A good day is a good day even if I haven’t sat down for a meal, haven’t meditated, have had two glasses of wine and sneaked off to smoke a cigarette, it’s still a good day if the baby’s alive and everyone is relatively happy. I just have completely trashed my old rule book.

Amantha Imber: Oh, I love that, I love that. I’m interested in your ritual around your phone, because I think so many people live by their phone, they wake up, the phone is the first thing that they check, and they go to sleep and it’s the last thing that they check. When did that start to become like one of those kind of rituals or checks for you, if you like, when did that happen?

Amanda Palmer: Oh, well, it probably developed right long with instant feedback. So I don’t remember … I’m trying to think back to when I got my first cellphone and then I got my first Blackberry, and where I kept my Blackberry sort of plugged in, was it nearby my bed, where was it? But I would imagine it would’ve been sometimes around then, like in the late [inaudible 00:08:10] when all of a sudden there was always something to look at, it wasn’t just like a few emails here and there, it was actual social connection and actual … There might be something really exciting happening all of the time, all the time, all the time.

And my bound sort of came of age and I came of age in my 20s right alongside the coming of age of the Internet and smartphone. So I went through college with no cellphone and pretty much no email address. But then as soon as I hit my mid 20s and started my band, that a whole explosion happened at the same time.

And I have a really conflicted relationship with it, because I’ve built a whole career, and in some cases like whole movements and ways of doing art, and ways of being that are Internet-base. But I also feel like I’ve really tasted the dark side in terms of it disintegrating the quality of my life, and it eating away at the quality of my real relationships.

And I’ve spend a lot of time doing a lot of thinking about which parts of it I want in my life, which parts that are controlling me, and which parts I’m controlling. And I definitely see a mirror in Neil who’s also very very phone-panicked all the time. And that relationship with our phones also changed when we had a kid, because my sensitivity around it went through the roof as I really looked in a mirror and saw baby seeing two grown adults who were just glued to their phone. And I thought, “Yeah, this is just not a good picture, this is not good for him to be seeing, we really need to change our habits.”

Amantha Imber: Hmm, I love that you’re so conscious around that. And I imagine like when you’re trying to get good focused creative work done, the phone can be quite a distraction. And I wanna explore like what easier approach to creative work. I’ve heard you say that you need sonic distance, and I’d love to hear more like about how you approach that like when you’re sitting down to write a song, let’s say.

Amanda Palmer: Well, I think what you’re probably referring to is in some interview I talked about needing to be far enough away from other people that I couldn’t be heard, and that’s definitely true. I don’t like composing or improvising, or working at a piece if there’s someone in the next room who could technically be hearing me, because I just don’t feel like I can be alone with my own mistakes, my own explorations. To me writing a song is as personal as like taking a shit basically, so you don’t want someone standing in the room going like hey! It’s really like in order to have that kind of stream of consciousness, any note is possible, any vocalization is possible, any word is possible. You can’t be sort of subconsciously performing for an audience, it just doesn’t work, you need to get the audience miles away so that you can create in peace.

I mean that’s something that I have been in relationship with since I was a little kid. My parents had a piano and it was in the living room of our house, which had a door that closed. But even then, by the time I was 14 or 15 years old, and I had habits, I wouldn’t compose a song if there was anyone in the house, even if they were all the way up in the attic 500 feet away.

So I’m constantly figuring, like looking at my own consciousness and figuring out what my habits and patterns are. Some of them I try to break because I feel like, “Oh, that’s just a stupid superstitious habit, you should get rid of its” And some of them I just have to respect, in terms of like my song sphincter, it won’t open if there’s someone in the room, I just need to respect that and make sure that I put myself in a good space so that I can relax, so that I can let this flow without the kind of subconscious boogeyman of performativeness getting in the way of what I’m doing.

Amantha Imber: Hmm, I imagine that motherhood must have changed how you achieve that kind of distance from people around you from the world when you’re writing a song. Can you talk about what that looks like? Now I think your son Ash’s is about three years old, is that right?

Amanda Palmer: He is almost three.

Amantha Imber: Yeah, yeah, so how does that work with motherhood and achieving that state that you need to achieve to write music?

Amanda Palmer: Well, you know what’s actually ironic is that I found the getting married … and actually not even getting married, but attempting to cohabitate with Neil was the far more invasive stuff than having a child, ’cause I somehow find that Neil’s presence is a lot more invasive than the kid’s. And I think that’s also just because Neil has a huge personality, he’s super dominant, he takes up a lot of space, a lot of air, he kind of … there’s a lot of activity around him, and a lot of panic around him all the time. So if you’re hanging out in a room or even three rooms away from Neil Gaiman, there’s gonna be a lot of just like static drama, whatever. It’s not gonna be … He’s not a cool, calm, collected working partner. He is like, “Oh, he’s running around with his hair on fire.”

And that was a big adjustment for me, trying to cohabitate with him at all, I had actually felt like a bigger leap than the leap that I have taken as a mother.

I remember the first time I really learned the lesson, and then put it into practice before I had a big show and Neil and I were in the same city, and I finally bit the bullet and was like, “I love you, but we have to stay in separate hotel rooms, because I’ve gone through this with you and it doesn’t work, because if we’re in the same hotel room, I need to rehearse the night before the gig, I need to go through my set list, I need to warm up my voice, it’s just not gonna work.” And I’ve tried to do the thing with you where I kick you out of the room, it just feels disrespectful, it doesn’t work, it puts as at odds with each other. I’m gonna need my own space, so let’s do it.

And actually, like I can think of the two shows where I made those realizations and drew this straight line. One was a big show I had at Sydney Opera House. It was a big deal, giant name stage Sydney Opera House, one-time show, lots of rehearsing, and I booked us one room. And then there we were the night before the show and I was like, “Oh fuck it, 6:30, I need to rehearse all this material, Neil, I have to ask you to leave, ’cause I just need some space, I need to warm up my voice, I’m not gonna go out in the street. I don’t really wanna kick out but I have to kick you out, because I know that you’re incapable of just sitting there and being quiet, like your constant comments, so would you leave for two hours?”

He was like, “No problem! No problem darling, it’s your Sydney Opera House show, no problem, I’ll just nip around the corner to a café, no problem! And I won’t even text you, I’ll be not in your hair, no problem.” And five minutes later he’s texting me something and he’s going, “Oh, you’re almost finished. Do you mind if I just come back and just sit in the corner?” And I was like, “No.”

And shortly after that I had my TED Talk and I was like I’ve learned my lesson, let’s stay in the same hotel room but literally the night before my talk, uh-uh you’re going down the [inaudible 00:16:31] I can’t deal with you and my job at the same time, you’re too distracting and I love you but fuck ugh.

And he [inaudible 00:16:40] and we’d sort of been through the fire. So he respected it, and it’s that thing that actually made our relationship work. And this is also it takes two to tango situation. We’ve been in the … You know, I’ve been on the opposite side of this where he really needs his work space, and I have to scram.
And we respect each other. But we’ve had to learn the hard way, we’ve had to really step on each other before we’ve gotten into this space where we can respect each other.

Amantha Imber: Mm-hmm (affirmative), that’s great that you’ve got to that realization. And on the topic of your TED Talk, I would love to know, because that talk has had such a profound impact on so many people, I’m sure. It’s definitely one of my favorite TED Talks. I’m really interested to hear what did that process look like in designing, preparing, and then delivering that talk, I’d love you to talk me through what that whole several months, I imagine, looked like.

Amanda Palmer: I started with a very simple idea, which is I knew about TED, I knew about TED Talks. I didn’t know a whole lot, and looking back I knew almost nothing, I didn’t even understand that TED was the annual conference that only happens in one place.

But I had a real hankering to share my story, the connection that I had really discovered between street performing and the music industry and what I had learned and why I was into crowdfunding.

And so I reached out to someone I knew who had a TED contact, and I said, “I think I wanna do this.” And they said, “We just need some examples of your public speak.” And I said, “No, no problem, I’ve done tons of public speaking.” And actually it turns out I had done no public speaking. I just sort of … All I had [inaudible 00:18:34] and I do a lot of interviews, but I’ve actually never gotten up and given a straight talk.

So the first thing I did was I sort of drafted a little rough draft of the talk, I tweeted it out to my fans that I was gonna be giving a rough draft of a talk at Harvard, and I picked Harvard on purpose, so that it would look impressive.

And I had a friend film it with one camera, and it was very very rough and tumble. I think it’s even out on the Internet somewhere. And it was a very, very, very beta prototype of what my TED Talk would become a couple years later.

And this is even before I did the Kickstarter, and before all the controversy of 2012, and stuff happened. So sent that off to TED, I think they stuck on their back burner, and then a year went by or a year or two went by, and my Kickstarter happened, the huge controversy happened where people were upset that I had even used Kickstarter, they were upset that I was still asking my fans to volunteer to play on stage with me. And TED called up and said, “Okay, do your TED Talk.”

And at that point I really had something to prove, and I had something to say because I was being so slaughtered in the press. And the first thing I did is I wrote a stream of consciousness bunch of text, I recorded myself speaking it and it was 50 minutes long. This was supposed to be a six minute talk … I mean I won’t even get into the back and forths with Chris Anderson at TED. They originally invited me to play a piece of music and just give a quick introduction about my Kickstarter, and I was like, “Uh-uh, no, I think I have a real talk in me.”

So I negotiated up at many levels to actually get my talk to 12 minutes. It was gonna be a song with an introduction, and then it was gonna be a six-minute talk and a song, and it finally turned into a 12-minute talk.
And I worked with a friend of Neil’s who I just met who was a magician and essayist named Jamy Ian Swiss. I called him up and I said, “You’re the only person I know who knows anything about TED, will you help me with this talk?” And he said, “Okay, well, read to me what you’ve got.” And read him the whole 45 minute spiel. And he said, “Well, I can see you have a long way to go If you really want me to help you do this, I am in, let’s start working on it.” And he became my phone guru. And over the next two months, I just drafted and drafted, and drafted, and cut, and shaped, and economized, and redrafted, and redrafted.

And by the time I got my talk down to about 15 minutes, it was in the kind of shape where I could start rehearsing it, and I rehearsed it for a room full of people at my house. I rehearsed it for a room full of fellows at Harvard that I was part of. I rehearsed it to anyone that would listen to it over the phone, I just rehearsed the shit out of it.

And even up to the last day, I was changing words and sentences, I was changing adjectives, I was changing a few little sentences here and there, I was timing myself constantly trying to hit the 12 minute mark, and working on the pacing, and trying to figure out where I could really pause, and where I had to pick up the pace.

I drew an entire map of my hometown with little memory markers of where things in my talk were happening. I just went deep. And even the day before the talk in Long Beach, California, I was walking around with my headphones just recording my talk over and over again, trying to memorize it, trying to make links between one idea and others so I wouldn’t get tripped up.

And even then I tripped up my TED Talk. They edited that shit well, like there’s some … If you went and looked at the original, there were some spots where I got lost and I had to find my place. And it was a heroin performance. You get one shot dude, and that’s it, you don’t get a redo. So if you lose your plates, you don’t get to go back and start over. That’s it.

Amantha Imber: Absolutely. How did you manage your nerves on the day? ‘Cause I imagine it would’ve been just completely different to what you normally do on stage?

Amanda Palmer: Yes! I did not drink the night before. I went to bed early, I went to bed in a room alone without a chattering husband. I rehearsed my talk a couple times before I went to bed. I drank a couple glasses of water, I went to sleep, I woke up at the crack of down, I worked out, and then I just like let go and let good, I said, “This is it, at a certain point I’m gonna have to let go, I have to stop rehearsing, I have to stop fretting, I’ve done the work, it’s either gonna happen or it’s not.” And I went for broke.

But I have a home team advantage over a lot of those other TED speakers, I am comfortable on a stage. So I didn’t deal with stage fright, but I dealt with memorization fright. Like am I really gonna remember 12 minutes worth of TED Talk. But being on a stage in front of 1,000 I was like, “Yeah, that’s fine, I’m used to that. That’s not hard.”

Amantha Imber: Yeah, wow, what an amazing story, an amazing outcome as well. Do you create deadlines to get things done?

Amanda Palmer: Absolutely, that’s the way. I have written my past three or four songs, I’ve gone to my Patreon, which is my subscriber ship of about 11,000 people. I go to them, I tell them, “I’m going in the studio this week. I’ll have a song written by the end of the week, you’ll get a demo.” And since there’s also a financial reward attached, because if I don’t send out my demo, I don’t get paid. It’s pretty motivating. And especially with the kid and the lack of sacred time to sit down and write, I just book a studio, I go in, I sit my ass down at a piano, and at 11 o’clock, I say, “Okay, I’ve got till five, this is songwriting day.”

I don’t do it every day, I do it once every month, or once every couple of months. But when I do it, I don’t fuck around, I just sit down and I write, and whatever comes out, that’s it, so it better be really good.

Amantha Imber: I love it, I love it. And look, just to finish off, I had a few kind of rapid fire questions for you. So a large part of staying focused is tuning into useful and insightful stimulus and tuning out the rest. So I’m curious about a few things that you’re consuming at the moment. Firstly, what are a couple of podcasts that you’re currently loving?

Amanda Palmer: I don’t actually listen to many podcasts at all, because I don’t have time. And since I’m a musician, most of my ear real estate is taken up by work.

Amantha Imber: Fair enough.

Amanda Palmer: But I do listen to NPR. So I am a massive fan of Radiolab, and I know Radiolab has a podcast, so I listen to that. Not religiously but if I did have a podcast religion, it would probably be Radiolab.

I just love the way it’s edited together, and I love the way the thoughts connect. And I also listen to the TED Radio Hour, which is sort of a great way of also staying connected to the TED community and getting my brain sort of massaged with interesting ideas.

Amantha Imber: Love it. What about any newsletters? I don’t know what your relationship is with your inbox, but are there any newsletters that you actually look forward to receiving and reading?

Amanda Palmer: Yeah, I subscribe to Daily Kos which is an American political email letter, and I click on that every couple of days. And I also follow the e-newsletters of the prominent politicians in my area, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, just to see what they’re up to and see where they’re pointing the electorate towards. And a couple of my local politicians who I wouldn’t expect you guys to know over in Australia but the sort of local grassroots guys who are trying to get Democratic seats in the congress, and who I feel need my support. I pay attention to all of their stuff.

Amantha Imber: Cool. And what’s a great book that you’ve read recently?

Amanda Palmer: I’m glad you asked. I am just finishing up an incredible book called Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, and I spent the weekend in prison two weekends ago, not because I got arrested on any heavy charges, but I was there for a restorative justice retreat, and it really blew my mind. I had never spent time in a prison before, and I was there for a full weekend of inmate stories, and survivor stories, and everyone sharing and holding space for one another. And it was life-changing.

And I actually experienced a kind of a weird bins culture shock coming back into the real world after being sort of immersed in this very honest, very wholehearted super vulnerable place that these inmates and these survivors were speaking from. And I wanted to keep reading about what I had been learning about, and someone recommended this book to me, and it’s called Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. And it’s basically the story of what it is like to get stuck in the American prison system at a young age for gang-related, drug-related, homicide, and the effect it has. It helped me actually sort of adjust back to the real world to be able to take the book out with me and stay connected to the inmates that I had bonded with.

Amantha Imber: Wow, that sounds amazing. And finally, how can people find out more about you and consume more of your amazing music and work?

Amanda Palmer: Well, you can google me easily and I am on the socials pretty much everywhere. It’s just @AmandaPalmer. If you’re really into me and you wanna be in a committed relationship with me, which I would love, I’d swear I’m really nice, my community is really nice. My community is beautiful. I would join my Patreon, it’s a dollar a month, if you can afford that. And actually it’s a really nice place on the Internet. It’s one of the things that I really wasn’t expecting. But I mean the world of Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else has just gotten … sometimes it just feels so hard and toxic to be on the Internet that you wanna to sort of go where the nice intelligent people are. And I’ve actually found that my Patreon is this panacea.

And there’s 11,000 people there, I write a blog that’s often public, but sometimes private just for my community, people that are really wonderful. I put my content out there every couple of weeks, I write blogs at least a few times a week. And that’s a really good way to stay connected, and you can kinda pick and choose what you read and what you consume. I send downloads, I’m starting my own podcast, that’s really fun.

So yeah, and if not, just find me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and all those places, and I’m sort of slutty, I post around all the time, so it’s [inaudible 00:30:54].

Amantha Imber: Oh, awesome, awesome. Amanda, it’s been such a treat talking to you and whenever you’re touring in Melbourne, which is where I live, there is a couch for you at my place any time you need one.

Amanda Palmer: Well, I will hopefully be back next year when I’m touring on my new record!

Amantha Imber: Excellent, excellent.

Amanda Palmer: So 2019 baby, I’ll be there.

Amantha Imber: Hey there, that’s it for today’s episode. If you’re looking for more tips to improve the way you work, I write a short monthly newsletter that contains three cool things that I’ve discovered that help me work better, which range from interesting research, findings, through the gadgets that I’m loving. You can sign up for that at, that’s

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