Home Music Music Features

‘Songwriting Kept Me Sane’: Amanda Palmer on ‘New Zealand Survival Songs’

Rolling Stone caught up with Palmer ahead of her New Zealand and Australia tour

Amanda Palmer

Duncan Innes

Standing in a kitchen between Glenorchy and Queenstown, Amanda Palmer stirs her morning coffee as she tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ about her return to Aotearoa.

Having spent two and a half years stuck here during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’d think she might have had enough of this wee country at the bottom of the world. Instead, Palmer and her son regard their current trip, for ‘Amanda Palmer Comes Down for a Quick Catch-Up’ tour, as a homecoming of sorts. 

“[We’re staying at] my friend’s house, a place that’s actually become really precious to me. I spent one of my waylaid New Zealand Christmases here with this family, and that was really special,” she says. 

On January 11th, Palmer released an EP, New Zealand Survival Songs. Written and recorded in the titular country, the artist is performing these tales live for the first time in the country this month, before taking her tour to Australia in February.

Throughout her cathartic survival songs, which contend with loss, fear, and loneliness, Palmer tries to define what home means to her. “I still don’t quite understand what happened to me,” she concedes about her unexpected time in New Zealand. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this experience changed my life, it changed my son’s life, and it changed our identities.”

Palmer’s journey began in 2020 when she said goodbye to her then-husband, Neil Gaiman, and son in Melbourne to finish the last leg of her tour. The first COVID lockdown hit one week later, her family flew over before the borders closed, her marriage to Gaiman collapsed around the same time, and she suddenly found herself in a rented house needing to take care of her son as a solo mum (they’re still processing it all, Palmer says). Palmer and her 5-year-old son rode out numerous lockdowns together, finding themselves as “accidental kiwis” in a land and culture strikingly different from their home.

As Palmer sips her coffee, her young son, Ash, wanders in. He tells his mum, who pops two slices of Vogel’s into the toaster for him, to tell us that he’s scared of leaving his best friend in New Zealand. He flies back to the US with Palmer’s father that day. 

“It’s still a bit difficult to untangle,” Palmer says. “It doesn’t feel like the confusion of homelessness has quite come to an end. I’m still feeling a bit lost, and I can tell my son is as well, especially when we travel back here and feel a sense of comfort and homecoming that’s harder and harder to feel in America.”

The New York native was forced to put work on pause as she navigated a new culture. “I didn’t have the time and wherewithal to do the usual singer-songwriter, Amanda Palmer crowdfunding hustle. The bottom dropped out of every department, and for a year there I didn’t know which way was up… I was in a house on a hill alone in a town that [my friends] had never heard of.”

Palmer readily admits that she felt lonely and scared, but not all was lost: among all of the confusion and panic, a handful of tracks emerged as an “extended thank you letter” to the people she met during her time here. 

“It was almost like there was a writers’ room scratching their heads thinking, why don’t we write in a global pandemic and stick her in New Zealand with some nice people who will help her navigate this, and help take care of her and her kid. I’ve met some incredibly generous and protective and open-hearted Kiwis who have really held my hand through the shitstorm.”

Travelling to Queenstown, Auckland, and Wellington to share her gratitude, Palmer’s short tour will see her play old and new material from her career as a solo artist and one-half of punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls. Housed in intimate venues and theatres, fans can expect raw and emotional songwriting – something that Palmer has always crafted seamlessly.

“If you look back at the early days of The Dresden Dolls, the songs I wrote when I was 15, 20, 25, they’re really honest, cathartic pieces of songwriting. I no doubt navigated the hell of teenagehood and the confusion of my early 20s by writing songs that I hoped people would relate to. 

“I have not fucking changed,” she adds with a laugh. “At 47 I’m still putting pen to paper and writing songs to try and make meaning of the hardest things I’ve experienced. For better or worse, that’s just the kind of artist I think [I’m] always going to be.”

Amanda Palmer’s New Zealand tour heads to Auckland’s Q Theatre on Wednesday, January 24th, and Wellington’s Old St Paul’s on Saturday, January 27th. More information about her New Zealand and Australian shows can be found here