Musician Amanda Palmer and author Neil Gaiman spent lockdown in Hawke's Bay but their story did not have a happy ending. Kim Knight on what happens when the private goes public.
"How do I think Neil would tell this story?"
Amanda Palmer purses her lips and exhales hard. Part cartoon raspberry, part horsey nicker. Anger? Exasperation?
"I think the easiest way to answer that is to say I'm sure he would tell it well, because Neil Gaiman is, if nothing else, an EXCELLENT story-teller."
And then, like if she doesn't laugh, she will cry: "Nothing personal, Neil."
Amanda Palmer is the American performer who smashed the commercial music model and built a credit card-carrying online community of people who pay for her songs, thoughts and dinner. Neil Gaiman is the English author who wrote comic books and then novels, non-fiction, screenplays and just won a Hugo award for Good Omens.
Once upon a time in mid-May, they said they loved each other very deeply. He was in Scotland and she was in the Hawke's Bay and they were responding to headlines that said they had broken up. "Dear Everybody ... " they wrote, which, in the age of the internet, is an accurate summation of the number of people who may or may not have been interested in their relationship.
"One of the problems in my life," says Palmer, "is that the internet is two things. It's a tight-knit, beautiful supportive community - and it's a hell-realm of trolls. And you can't get one without the f***ng other."
In sci-fi fantasy and punk ukelele-playing circles, Palmer and Gaiman are as famous as Kim and Kanye. They are the Thinking Person's Celebrity Couple - she's one half of the Dresden Dolls; he's the author of American Gods and Coraline. They live and work around the world, most recently in Melbourne. But in March they bought rice, beans, six live chickens and - utterly and unexpectedly - became part of New Zealand's Covid-19 story.
It all happened so quickly. It still is. This interview was conducted in the sweet spot when a 43,000-strong crowd at the rugby was okay, restaurants had reopened and Palmer was in Auckland publicising a new touring schedule that took her to the length of a back-to-normal-New Zealand.
"Like so many people around the world right now," she told Canvas, "I keep wishing I had a crystal ball so I could determine the real, important factors and whether or not I am making the right decision on any given day."
Palmer, Gaiman and their 4-year-old son Ash spent their level 4 lockdown in a Havelock North Airbnb.
"'Home' becomes very contextual ... there are a lot of ideas of home floating around at any given point."
That, she says, is the itinerant artist's life. What was harder was staying put.
"That was actually very difficult. To all of a sudden stand still in a house on a hill in Havelock North where I knew no one, knew nothing and also had no access to human beings ... this was a new challenge."
In the hours before her world shrunk, Palmer posted to Instagram and told her followers she might be here for a while. She wrote, "It feels like a lump in my throat covered with beautiful bittersweet sugar. Like being forced to eat a bag of Sour Patch Kids in one sitting."
Ultimately more bitter than sweet. She's not talking about exactly why Gaiman left and all he's saying on his blog is that it's his fault and "I'd hurt her feelings very badly" but now he's over there and she's still here. Palmer and Ash have a temporary home in Hastings, with her Australian friend Xanthea, not far from her old American school friend Kya. She's busked at the local markets, sung to a girls' boarding school, jokes (maybe) that "all girls rise" would make a great forehead tattoo. And she's said goodbye to her lockdown house, in the photoshoot that accompanies this story.
"As a female musician I have a tangled relationship with image and self-consciousness and how hard I want to try and how good I need to look and for whom," says Palmer.
"In these last few years, I have finally, fully come to appreciate how powerful and healing a photograph can be when you are in the right situation with the right photographer, having told the right stories to that photographer. I lucked out with that shoot. It gave me a chance to fully leave that house behind. Fully. Witchcraft style."
How does anyone know they've done the right thing?
"The answer to that question seems to be that you've got to make sure that you don't ask the wrong question ... I don't think there is a right answer. I think we f*** ourselves up when we think there's a right answer. We can forecast and guess and feel our way around in the dark and try to find the shape of the room but, at the end of the day, there's just instinct."
It was the second week of March when Palmer got on a plane in Melbourne, a thought screaming in her head: "What will happen if I wind up getting separated from my 4-year-old? Will this wind up being the stupidest decision I ever made?"
She played scheduled shows Auckland and Christchurch. Threw away the script and asked the audience, the people she calls "her community", what they needed.
"I have whatever the opposite of stage fright is. I actually believe these 300 people are my best friends for three hours and I just get on stage and want to serve. I passed the mic around and there was a woman in the front row who was staying up all night for a 6am flight to the UK for family reasons, having no idea whether she would be able to get back into New Zealand.
"You could just feel her confusion and fear and anxiety ... I just went around and took requests for three hours and I was chatting to the audience and I was saying, 'I may be here for some time, I don't know if I should leave, if I'll be able to leave.' Someone spontaneously started singing the national anthem in Māori and I just stood there and listened, crying ... it was almost like this induction, like these really nice people said, 'We welcome you and we're going to sing you our song.'"
She cries again in the retelling. Her audience - a journalist and, in the far corner, a publicist - is spellbound. This is Palmer's power, witnessed first-hand. Those fans who cook her dinner and offer her their houses to sleep in? It's all starting to make sense. Later, she tells another story. This time, in Iceland, when her flight was cancelled because a volcano had erupted and her community comes through with a pick-up from the airport, a whistle-stop tour of the sights and a venue for a last-minute, one-night-only-Reykjavik gig.
Not all musicians, she agrees, could do this. Taylor Swift, for example, should probably not do this.
"You have to be a certain bandwidth of knownness, where pretty much no one wishes you ill, because why would they? Because you're not a massive celebrity and no one has anything to gain from harming you.
"Stalkers are almost always male and what attracts them is mystique. Guess what I have none of? I have no mystique! 'Hey, it's me, like here's my underwear, you can just have it' and there's no challenge."
A decade ago, when Palmer and her record label parted, she used Kickstarter to fund her next album. A request for $100,000 garnered $1.2 million. Today, around 15,000 people make monthly payments to her Patreon account. Not everyone is enamoured. She wrote a book called The Art of Asking and it was criticised for its failure to recognise race and class constraints. She invited musicians to play for free beers and hugs on a world tour and the backlash went equally global. Steve Albini (Pixies/Nirvana producer) called her approach tantamount to "publicly admitting you are an idiot". More recently however, when tech news giant Endgadget examined "the crowd-funded cult of Amanda Palmer", it credited her uncommon openness with the creation of a unique, two-way community; an ecosystem in which the artist is "providing as much as she's taking".
Palmer: "When art works, when it's really good ... it's because the audience and the artist aren't separated ... it can't all be on us. Like, f*** you! We're trying really hard but you guys have to do some of the work too."
And about that cult, "Let's go! Ready! We'd make more money ... aaah, yeah, I don't want to do that. I try very hard to wiggle out of any situation that resembles that because I so firmly believe that we are all deeply connected and that life is not a hierarchy."
She's sitting on a couch, up four flights of stairs in a publicist's office in central Auckland. There's a Unity Bookstore bag full of new reading for Ash and she's wearing the lace-up boots, black jeans, black tank and white shirt uniform of Indie-androgyny. Minimal makeup. Very straight teeth. Big, bright eyes. Totally present.
"There is a thing about charisma," she says. "And Neil has it and I have it and many artists have it. And it really is very Star Wars. There is a dark side of the force and it is very easy to abuse. But as we know inherently when the emperor gets thrown down the well, it does not lead to happiness ... the race for power and glory doesn't actually lead to any kind of lasting happiness. It is just s***ty.
"Performers, especially those in rock, have to go through many iterations of understanding their own power and influence and also really understanding the desire that other people have to follow, to believe that people are unconditionally holy and perfect. We intellectually know this just cannot be true but I think human beings are programmed to want to believe in that hero or zero binary of good and evil."
This, in part, is why Palmer and Gaiman got together.
"There was just no way we were going to bulls*** each other. We knew that the other was Teflon to the other's charisma. Which, of course, is hugely attractive. If we were going to love each other, it would be for genuine, authentic reasons, not because we could charm the s*** out of one another."
This, in part, is why Palmer and Gaiman are now in separate countries. No half measures.
"Neil left because, um, I found out some things that really upset me. Under normal circumstances who knows what would have happened but I didn't want to keep sharing a living space with him ... "
She says he moved into a separate AirbnB and, when he could, flew to Scotland. Track the story through tweets and blog posts and, ultimately, the news headlines suggesting that after 12 years of marriage, they were splitting.
"Living in lockdown is hard," the couple said in a joint statement. "Working on a marriage, as everyone married knows, is also hard." And then they said they would sort out their marriage "in private, which is where things like this are best sorted".
Palmer, on that couch in Auckland, reiterates, "That is our private marriage stuff to keep within us."
Palmer, on the phone, a week later, just to 100 per cent clarify, "We're not breaking up. We're going through a f***ing hard time, that is for sure but we're not breaking up, we're not getting divorced, we are in a hell circle of our marriage but we are also hoping it all works out."
And Gaiman, via email: "Reuniting is definitely my priority, for the family, for Ash and for me and Amanda. Talking with Ash when he wakes and at bedtime is hard but right now I'm grateful I've even got that ... And obviously, if reuniting means coming to New Zealand, I'll get in line and wait my turn to get back to New Zealand."
This is a cautionary Covid tale on steroids. Moral of the story: when you live out loud, everyone can hear. Also, fame and fortune can't trump a travel ban.
Palmer says, "I am grateful on a daily basis that this is where I very accidentally wound up being. The fact that there was probably a one-week window where this wound up being the case ... I think I hit the jackpot. As terrible as all this happening was, I cannot imagine it having happened at a better time because I got to be in Aotearoa."
In another life, she says, she would have been on the first flight back to New York. The weirdest thing? Everything leading up to now has given her the tools to cope with now.
"As a crowd-funded artist, when you are so tight with community for so long and the moment comes when you really do have to bare your throat - it is an incredibly humbling and powerful feeling to be held in the arms of a community. Even over the internet."
Mostly, she says, she's still here because of Ash.
"As soon as Ash was a factor in that decision-making, there was no way I was going to put my child in harm's way ... I can say that my fate has been fundamentally altered by the existence of this child."
Palmer didn't have a laptop until she was 22. She didn't get a cellphone until she was 25. At age 44, she has one million followers on Twitter and 242,000 on Instagram - and those 15,000 totally committed souls on Patreon.
"I go to them with the truth and I go to them for support and sometimes that really backfires. That's what happened when Neil left. I went to my community for support and because it was tabloid fodder, it turns into an alternate reality s*** show.
"We're not celebrity tabloid people, we're not Kardashians and any time we get dragged into that world it makes our marriage worse and our kid unhappy - but we also have to do our jobs and promote our books and tours and f***ing be in the public eye, which is how we have always made our living."
We're in an Uber now, and she's en route to another interview. The windows are down and a ukulele-player is busking on Queen St. She thinks, perhaps, what Ash might remember from this time are the pinball machines of Hawke's Bay and swimming lessons.
"We don't know how this ends," she says.
* This interview was conducted when New Zealand was at Covid-19 alert level 1. Auckland has now entered a level 3 lockdown and the rest of the country is at level 2, with restrictions on large gatherings. Check amandapalmer.net for updates on her current tour schedule: Wellington, August 28-29; Hastings, September 11; Dunedin, September 26; Auckland, October 2.