One thing you can say for certain about the Bostonian singer Amanda Palmer is that she isn't crippled by shyness. The brick walls of the London venue Village Underground are adorned with dozens of artworks commissioned to accompany her new album, Theatre Is Evil. There is Palmer as comic-book character, Palmer as vampiric Tudor monarch, Palmer as skeleton with antlers, Palmer photographed nude by her husband, the British writer Neil Gaiman. It's a lot of Amanda Palmer.
The woman herself, a gregarious, quick-to-laugh 36-year-old in a kimono, wanders the room talking with fans, while the droll, black-clad Gaiman, the other half of what Wired magazine has christened "geekdom's power couple", hovers in the background. The exhibition, and the intimate concert that sprouts from it as the evening progresses, is Palmer's way of rewarding some of the fans who recently contributed a record-breaking $1.2m (£762,000) via crowdfunding website Kickstarter to pay for Theatre Is Evil. Even the Economist was moved to weigh in on whether this was the future of album financing or just some fabulous fluke. Inevitably, a few people were unimpressed.
"There's a huge cloud of shame around art and business being seen as bedfellows," says Palmer a few days after the exhibition. Her conversation is loud and throaty and pebbledashed with expletives. "Which of course they fucking are, and everyone knows it. It's funny, the people in the industry who think what I'm doing is tasteless and shameful and sad. 'Poor Amanda Palmer, having to Kickstart her record and talk about her finances. If she had a label, she wouldn't have to debase herself like this.' Whereas I see it as the absolute opposite. I see it as I'm empowered. I'm calling the shots."
She has blogged a breakdown of how every dollar will be spent and accepts that, for now, this is a bigger story than the record itself, which is a grandly ambitious affair, full of punchy, theatrical pop songs. "I'm not an idiot," she shrugs. "I know how the press works. I'm happy as long as everyone forgets it eventually and talks about how awesome the record is."
She knew in advance that $1m was a realistic goal, but she acknowledges that crowdfunding will not work for every musician. The Kickstarter bonanza was made possible by a decade of tireless communication with fans, as a solo artist as well as half of the Dresden Dolls, the "Brechtian punk cabaret" band currently on hiatus. She has taken to Twitter like a natural. Her followers (currently approaching 600,000) tracked her flirtation with Gaiman over several months, and found out about their surprise wedding two years ago via a tweeted photograph. "I realised making that announcement was one of the most significant moments in our marriage because that's where our friends all are," she says, waving her metallic-green iPhone. "It may seem like an ephemeral, insignificant platform to some but, the way I use it, it's a very functional community space like a bar or a living room. Twitter fascinates me because it's real. It feels kind of unreal, but it makes very real things happen."
She imposes some restrictions on herself. She won't tweet or blog about anyone who asks her not to, and she won't be negative. Years ago, she wrote an angry blog about being mistreated in an upmarket piano shop and realised to her horror that she had unleashed a flood of hate mail on the shop from supportive Dresden Dolls fans. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, I really have a lot of power here. I have to wield it very carefully.'"
However, she holds nothing back about herself. In a 2009 blog defending her song Oasis, a blackly comic number about abortion and date rape, she mentioned in passing that she had experienced both."I think I've been addicted to openness since long before my rock career. I was terrible as a teenager. I used to go out of my way to make people uncomfortable with personal details. I was always fascinated by the idea that we have these weird, random boundaries between what we do and don't show."
This extreme emotional candour feeds into her songs, whose tart sting sometimes suggests a piano-playing Dorothy Parker and explains her cult appeal among the similarly arty and intense (Lady Gaga is a fan). Inspired in her youth by performance artists, she has been an artist's model, a stripper and, for several years, a living statue in Cambridge, Massachusetts's Harvard Square, where she learned long before Kickstarter that you can, in fact, rely on the kindness of strangers. At the end of the Village Underground show, she disrobes and invites fans to scrawl on her naked body.
"I've always had an insatiable desire to be looked at," she admits. "I was born ready for the stage. I was the youngest of four kids and, from day one, the look-at-me one. But I got a lot of, 'Amanda, quit trying to get attention.' Nobody wants to be seen as an attention-getter because it's narcissistic and selfish and icky. Really good performers who have that hunger figure out how to use it to connect, rather than just suck energy. I didn't want to be a pathetic psycho prancing around on stage, desperate for love. So I went through this whole struggle of despising myself and not being able to figure myself out. It took ages. Thank God my best friend's a therapist." She laughs loudly.
At the moment, life is hectic. While she still lives in Boston, Gaiman is based in the midwest. "My next big creative step is to write a book about how to be two married artists who barely see each other and manage to stay in love," she says. As well as touring commitments, she has to deliver the rewards she promised on Kickstarter, including 35 private concerts in donors' houses. Gaiman recently told Wired that he thought of everything his wife does as "one giant interconnected piece of performance art called Amanda Palmer. Amanda Palmer gets painted, Amanda Palmer tweets, Amanda Palmer makes an album – it all sort of ties in. It's all about connection."
"I know a lot of musicians who are way less social than I am," says Palmer, "and they are flabbergasted that I have the desire to go out there and forge the connections and deal with the crap that inevitably goes with it. But to me, being a social artist is its own artform. And, luckily, I like the fans."
Palmer tells a story about when she was 18 and her favourite band, Anglo-Dutch art-rockers the Legendary Pink Dots, played in Boston. They stayed at the house of one of Palmer's friends, who invited her over and insisted she play them her demo tape. It was terrifying, but then she went outside for a cigarette with the band's singer and he told her, sincerely, that her music was great.
"My head exploded," she says, animated by the memory. "I walked on air for four days. It was like someone had come over to me with a magic wand and said: You have legitimate permission to go forth and be a rock star. He didn't have to say that. He didn't have to listen to my demo tape. He could have fucked off and gone to bed. And that," she firmly concludes, "is the spirit that I wanted to live in."
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