It’s a Friday night in downtown Johannesburg, and there’s an excited hum at a converted warehouse in Ferreirasdorp, near the Magistrate’s Court. The crowd is alternative but not hipsterish; there’s a lot of red hair and black clothing. One woman is dressed as a cat.
The photographer and I are waiting outside a small office-slash-changing room at The Sheds at 1 Fox for a pre-gig interview when I get an SMS: “come outside and get tacos!!!! we made friends!”
Amanda Palmer is getting dinner from a food truck with Greg and Lara, whom she met through Twitter and who have taken on the roles of tour guide, chauffeur and assistant for the week. She poses for photos and hugs a few fans before we make our way to The Sheds’ side entrance.
When we get to the makeshift change room, a group of puppeteers are putting on colourful costumes. The whole situation seems to exemplify Palmer: All charm and enthusiasm and organised chaos.
Palmer, with her trademark drawn-on eyebrows and pinned-up red hair, is an American punk rock icon (and former half of the Dresden Dolls) with a cult following. (She also happens to be the wife of bestselling fantasy writer Neil Gaiman.) Her fans are deeply loyal and generous: After receiving a jar of homemade rusks on her first night in Joburg, she tweets about them rapturously, and is inundated with rusks – far too many to take home.
It is her first visit to South Africa. “I have never experienced a city like this, and I’ve travelled a lot, all over Europe and Australia and America,” she says.
“Joburgers seem to be staunchly protective of their city. They have a deeply positive energy. Someone said to me that Cape Town has the mountain and the sea and all of that, so Joburg has to find its beauty within.”
The Art of Asking is the title of Palmer’s new book, as well as her immensely popular TED talk from a year ago. In a nutshell, it is about asking for assistance when you need it, and allowing yourself to accept that help.
Her trip here is a case in point. She arrived unexpectedly, and everything – hotel recommendation, Greg’s assistance, the venue for the gig – came to her through Twitter. Specifically, through asking, which can be trickier than it might seem.
‘Expect a lot of imperfection’
“The minute you ask for support and random chaotic help, you have to expect a lot of imperfection. You have to know when to say, ‘No thank you, I don’t want that.’ So the art is in being the director. And you have to be careful not to be ungrateful.”
Our pre-show time is limited, since a crowd is waiting for Palmer to perform hits such as The Killing Type, Missed Me and Coin-Operated Boy at the Good Luck Bar. We conclude our interview over Sunday lunch near her hotel in the Maboneng Precinct.
A fundamental part of the art of asking, I say, seems to be connection to other people.
“Asking begets connection,” she agrees. “But also you need to be connected sometimes before you can ask. It’s a real dance.”
You don’t have to ask for everything, she explains. “I put up my hand and asked for a place where I can play, and I reached out to Greg and said ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ But then all of this abundance spilled out of that. And that’s usually how it goes. It’s not like you have to stand there continuously demanding things. You just kind of open the door and then light comes in.
“I’ve built my whole career that way, and it works. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, and you end up in sticky situations and sometimes you wind up with people you can’t stand, anything’s possible. But I’d so much rather deal with the messiness than to sit there and go, ‘Well, I don’t know, it might be scary.’
“And I think one of the reasons I often get misunderstood is that from the outside it can often appear vampiric, like you’re just going into the universe and sucking out all of its marrow. But the idea is, it doesn’t work if it’s vampiric. It only works if you’re also actually offering something in exchange, like bringing something into somebody else’s life.”
Amanda Palmer has learned how to ask – and she is teaching others how to do the same.