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Amanda Palmer reflects on her stormy past

Amanda Palmer, at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. Matthew Cavanaugh for the boston globe

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Amanda Palmer will be the first to tell you: She is shameless.

She admits as much on the opening page of her new book, “The Art of Asking,” spelling the word in ALL CAPS as if it has become her scarlet letter.

It’s also the reason Palmer has shed her cult status as a rock musician raised in Lexington, who got her start in the local cabaret-punk duo the Dresden Dolls. Loved and loathed in equal measure, the 38-year-old Palmer is a national figure known for her pioneering work with crowd-funding. Now, add “published author” to her growing list of accomplishments.


To celebrate her book’s publication on Tuesday, Palmer will do an in-store signing late Monday night at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, followed with a performance at Royale on Tuesday.

“The Art of Asking” was born out of a TED Talk that became a viral sensation early last year, with more than six million views now at It’s also a response to the incredible experiences Palmer had in 2012, in which every success was tempered by a bump in the road.

In May of that year, she raised close to $1.2 million from nearly 25,000 backers of a Kickstarter campaign, the most successful music project in the site’s history. The money financed a new album and other assorted projects, and supported Palmer on the road with a new band.

Soon enough, she got into hot water when it was revealed she was inviting musicians in each town to perform with her in exchange for beer, hugs, high-fives, and merchandise — in other words, for free, which she had done previously in the grassroots spirit of directly connecting with her fans. She also wrote and shared a poem that was roundly criticized as being sympathetic toward one of the Boston Marathon bombings suspects.


To appreciate Palmer, who first emerged from Boston’s music scene in the early 2000s, you have to understand her ability to provoke. She is fearless and works from the heart, which she concedes is not a popular or easy approach. But now the stakes were higher and more visible.

“There was a beautiful continuum that I started to notice as I began piecing together the giant ups and downs of that [year],” Palmer said late last month at Bard College, where she was rehearsing for an upcoming theater piece called “The Bed Show.” “The interesting pattern is that there was never a negative event that didn’t have a positive silver lining.

“The Kickstarter and musician controversy led straight to my invitation to TED, which led straight to my book deal,” she said. “The Boston [Marathon] bombings and the poem I wrote about it led to a new opening in my community and a huge discussion about compassion, and an invitation from WBUR to write a song about the event.”

Palmer was recently back in the headlines for her association with Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian radio personality who was fired from the CBC over allegations of sexual abuse. She had invited Ghomeshi to be part of the Toronto stop on her book tour well in advance of the scandal.

Initially she stood her ground. But then a social-media battle raged, in which critics accused her of being a “rape apologist” and “woman hater.” Upon learning more about the Ghomeshi situation, she dropped him from the event. As is her style, she wrote an extensive and thoughtful defense on her website (


Talking with the Globe early that week, before she reversed course, Palmer was adamant that Ghomeshi would remain on the bill.

“Why wouldn’t he be?” she asked, arching her tattooed eyebrows that resemble little links of barbed wire that long ago replaced her natural ones. “I’ve always said I would have talked to Hitler. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from the conversation.”

As she said that, Palmer rested her hand on the reporter’s knee, her eyes heavy and glistening. It’s clear that no matter how much energy Palmer invests in explaining her intentions, posting lengthy blog entries and constantly engaging her million-plus Twitter followers, she still feels misunderstood. Replying to an admirer who recently tweeted, “When I grow up, I wanna be Amanda Palmer,” Palmer wrote, “Oh, God. Start meditating now. You’ll need it.”

By most accounts, Palmer’s conviction to speak her mind was established early on. Steven Bogart, her drama teacher at Lexington High School who recently directed “The Bed Show” and also worked with her on the ART’s production of “Cabaret” in 2010, likes to tell a particular story with a wry grin.

“When she was in high school, we used to do this student-directed festival. I think she was a sophomore, and she came up to me and said, ‘May I bare my breasts onstage?’ ” Bogart recalled, guessing Palmer was around 16 years old. “I said, ‘No, you may not bare your breasts onstage.’ She said, ‘Oh. One breast?’ I said, ‘No, Amanda, you can’t.’ ”


“The Art of Asking” mirrors the tone of self-empowerment that made her TED Talk, which was just over 13 minutes, such a hit. Palmer credits her husband, the celebrated writer Neil Gaiman, with helping her shape and edit the book. In the harried week leading up to its deadline, Gaiman excised 50,000 words and suggested structural changes.

“The lovely thing about this book is that you can’t read it without at least understanding how Amanda thinks,” Gaiman said. “And the view from Planet Amanda tends to be far more noble than most people give her credit for. She believes the stuff she says, and most people assume that she can’t or wouldn’t, because they’re cynical.

“Every now and again, Amanda will do the strange equivalent of lobbing a baseball and hitting a hornet’s nest,” Gaiman adds.

Palmer admits her errant filter is both a blessing and burden, creating a sense of urgency around her thoughts, but also the perception that she lacks compassion, that she’s a calculated opportunist. Two days after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombings suspects, she posted on her website “A Poem for Dzhokhar,” in which Palmer ruminated on what he must have been thinking. She wanted to spark a discussion about human kindness and empathy; instead, she stoked the flames into a roaring wildfire.


The backlash was swift and intense. It was perhaps the first time that Palmer worried about her physical safety after receiving graphic death threats.

“She’s full of surprises,” said Anthony Martignetti, whose lifelong friendship with Palmer, since meeting her at age 9 when he lived next door, is a poignant piece of her book. “I think writing that poem right after the Boston Marathon bombings was surprising in terms of timing. I thought the content was fine, but it was a tough thing to come out with, because everybody was so raw. I thought, ‘Oh, geez, baby. Just think about this for a minute.’ ”

In her late 20s, Palmer already had an inkling that her life had the makings of a book. Indeed, “The Art of Asking” is a compelling read, easily the most universal work she has ever done.

“My desire to clarify myself became more important every time someone came pointing their finger at me, especially the first round of controversy with my choice to use crowd-funding and being told that I was an online beggar,” Palmer said.” I couldn’t understand how people couldn’t understand, having lived for so long in a community where exchanging directly is holy.”

Like she had done with the TED Talk, Palmer aimed the book at her artist friends who can’t or won’t ask for help because of shame. “Even though my intended audience was narrow,” Palmer said, “I was hoping it would have a wide resonance. And I think it does.”

Brené Brown, a bestselling author (“Daring Greatly”) who’s also a popular TED speaker and wrote the foreword to Palmer’s book, was in the audience for Palmer’s talk. She was astonished.

“She pulled back a veil about some things that we all struggle with,” Brown said. “There’s something really pure about her humanity and her willingness to depend on people. I think what makes Amanda a unique voice is she lets us see her own struggle with needing help in a way that, no matter how different I am from her, I see my story reflected back in her eyes.”

“I think she’s given us all a hint about the future of work,” Chris Anderson, TED curator, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “There will be more artists in the future, not fewer, and therefore more struggling artists. But Amanda has shown that there are alternatives to struggling. You can accept your role with pride and ask for what you deserve.”

No matter how much scorn she draws, Palmer said it has only made her stronger.

“It always cycles back, and as I stand there in the middle of whatever storm, I really do feel called upon,” Palmer said, straightening her back. “I have a choice: I either run away and back down and not stick to my guns, or I can stand there and let the slings and arrows fly by, knowing that sticking to my principles is the only way to live.”

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.