As we struggle through the great unknown of a coronavirus crisis lethally exacerbated by the villainous leadership of these United States (45 literally just admitted he purposely downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, leading to 190,000 deaths), if there is a single voice of sanity, lucidity and defiance that we would turn to, it is that of one Amanda Palmer. Never anything less than unflinching in her assessment of humanity’s bottomless well of inhumanity—and indomitable in standing by her words—the fiery songstress has taken on all manner of controversial matters with both an intelligence and fearlessness that are nothing short of exigent right now, as we watch the West slide into a whole new sort of chaotic uncertainty.
At last she is back…and this time she’s brought help, in the form of Rhiannon Giddens, whom she met not long ago through mutual friend and composer Sxip Shirey. Giddens is one half of the unimaginably brilliant nouveau bluegrass/blues act Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom she sings, plays the fiddle, and plucks dazzlingly away at her banjo. While it may seem odd that she would find kinship with Palmer’s socio-political glam-cabaret, the two share a perch of iconoclasm that binds them together in steadfast indifference to trend-chasing and crass mercenary concerns.
No surprise, their collaborative cover of the Portishead classic “It’s a Fire” is the song that we have desperately needed to bring us some manner of visceral solace as the modern world crashes down around us. Who could have imagined that 26 years after its release, it would become so startlingly relevant? But with its poignant lyrical refrain of “I can’t breathe through this mask” striking a whole new emotional chord in this, the year of corona, it has achieved exactly that.
We connected with Amanda and Rhiannon from their respective quarantine locations, each halfway around the world from the other, to discuss how it came about, and what it all ultimately means.
How did you both first connect?
AP: We met a few years ago, through experimental composer and all-round bon vivant Sxip Shirey, who’d worked and toured with both of us. He’s the sort of connector who really curates who he connects, and his raves about Rhiannon and her musicianship were through the roof. That’s how I found her music, and then when she released the Our Native Daughters album and I heard “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” I became a bone-chilled, life-long bone fide fan. Not just anyone can pull off a song like that.
RG: I’d been hearing about Amanda for a few years, as we have a common friend in Sxip Shirey.
Is there a strong musical and/or ideological kinship?
AP: Oh lord, yes. Rhiannon really understands music beyond the commercial world, the profit world, the chart world. She’s the kind of artist who’s more shaman than performer. I have noticed, over time, that there are really two kinds of artists: ego-artists, and connector-artists. She falls squarely into the latter camp. Our genres of songwriting and singing are incredibly different, but the core is the same. She wants to dig into an emotional truth with her song, she gets that music has power, deep power.
RG: I think we share many commonalities about how we look at entrepreneurship and going your own road; in this business making your own way is not the easiest thing in the world, but for some folks like us it’s the only option.
“It’s a Fire” contains the lyric “I can’t breathe through this mask.” Other than that, was there any more “ethereal” impetus for choosing to cover this song right now?
AP: Yes. To me the key lyric is “Breathe on, sister…breathe on.” This moment in time is so incredibly fucked up—for me personally, and across the globe. I know so many people now who feel like they are losing hope, drowning, and losing the plot. There’s something about putting that line out there, sung between two women, that captures the whole point. We are learning how desperately we need each other, as sisters, as women, as support. We always knew this, deep inside, but we are getting a harsh lesson right now in just how interconnected we have to be, especially women and mothers. Help is not on the fucking way. We’re making our own help.
Where were each of you when you did the long distance recording?
AP: Rhiannon was at home in Ireland and I was here in New Zealand, where I still am. I recorded my piano and vocal track up in Auckland in a beautiful room, Neil Finn’s Roundhead recording studio, and it was one of those redletter days I’ll never forget. I’d gotten a phone call early in the morning about a really terrible family tragedy. I could barely function and I started feeling physically sick, and I thought about calling in and canceling the session. Lucy Lawless, who I’d just met, offered to drive me there, because she saw how shocked I looked. She pulled the car over so I could throw up in a cafe on the way to the studio. But the minute my hands were on the piano, I felt okay again. It was like magic, playing that music. I got to sing the song for Lucy, to her, to thank her. It was an unbelievable moment, one that you couldn’t have scripted any better. The universe provided me an emergency sister right when I needed one. Lucy barely knew me, but she held me like her own flesh and blood that day. That’s sisterhood. That’s what the song’s about.
As an extrovert, Amanda, did you find it particularly interesting covering an introvert song?
AP: That’s a great question. I don’t really believe in introversion and extroversion. I think that we’re all a weird, four-dimensional combo of both. Someone like Beth Gibbons, from Portishead….she may be shy and not very public, but she has something to perform, to say, to express. Many writers and singers may not be the gregarious, super-social types, but we still all crave the same thing: connection. How we get access to that connection changes from moment to moment, but at the end of the day, we all want it, crave it, need it. That’s why we do this.
What do you want to say about this pandemic, considering your ever unflinching view of humanity and its behaviors?
RG: What is there to say other than it’s been awful to watch the utter uncaring behavior from the top down in the American government. The man we must call ‘President’ has made it very clear that the lower-income, often black and brown people, in addition to the older generation, that this thing is disproportionately affecting don’t matter to him, won’t matter to him, and can die for all he cares. It makes me rage- and grief-filled for the senseless loss.
AP: What do I want to say about this pandemic? Are you serious? I love you. I want to say that I don’t think we know what’s hit us. I think we won’t know what’s totally hit us, financially, emotionally, practically….for a long while. It feels like the train has just gone off the tracks and the dishes are falling, slow-motion, off the dining car table, and haven’t crashed yet. It feels like the whole world is so desperate to keep on pretending things are normal when they aren’t, that we are living in a hilarious collective delusion every day. It feels like the end of the world, or the beginning, depending whether you’ve had your coffee and a good wank or not.