6 Dec 2023

Amanda Palmer: 'I nearly lost my mind in NZ'

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 6 December 2023

In March 2020, American musician Amanda Palmer was signing merchandise after a Christchurch show when she heard the borders were closing due to Covid.

While living in New Zealand for the two years that followed, 47-year-old Palmer lost her marriage, her country, her artistic identity and very nearly her mind.

American musician Amanda Palmer

American musician Amanda Palmer Photo: @amandapalmer

Now living in upstate New York, Palmer tells Susie Ferguson she's grateful for the hard-won lessons learned through "starting a life from scratch".

"It was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me."

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

In January 2024, Amanda Palmer will perform music from her forthcoming EP New Zealand Survival Songs (with support from Fur Patrol's Julia Deans) at shows in Queenstown, Auckland and Wellington. Tickets are available HERE.

After the border announcement, Palmer's then-husband Neil Gaiman and their five-year-old son Ash flew to New Zealand.

The family stayed at a pre-booked Airbnb at Waimarama Beach near where Palmer's old friend Kaya lived and from there to a rented house on a hill near Havelock North.

Palmer says that although the following weeks involved "a bit of terror" and "a bit of mundane paralysis", life seemed okay.

"Until my marriage a couple of weeks later, and then it was not."

The separation from Gaiman, a British writer who has sold more than 50 million books, wasn't due to lockdown or Covid, she says.

"Other things came to light and the curtains came down."

After Gaiman left New Zealand and got locked down in Scotland, Palmer felt forced to make what she describes as a "weird decision".

"Every one of my friends in America, especially in New York, who had little kids, said 'However hard it is, Amanda, however lonely you are, don't come back.' That was the advice across the board.

"[They said] 'New Zealand is opening up and has a sane government. We know who you are and you've got a five-year-old… Don't come home. Trust us, believe us."

In New Zealand, it seemed like most people were "more or less on the same page" when it came to managing the Covid pandemic, Palmer says.

"Whereas in America … the little Buddhist private school that I had my kid enrolled into hired a police detail to stop people from yelling at and slugging each other.

"I looked around at the sanity that I could feel at work, the fact that it didn't feel like a country in chaos and turmoil with everybody yelling at each other. The government was doing a pretty sane job at navigating a pretty insane situation. And I just thought if I leave the gate slams shut behind me, I never get back. I can always go back to New York but I cannot come back to New Zealand."

Palmer decided instead of returning to New York, where he'd be "masked and distancing and in Zoom kindergarten", it was probably better for Ash to have "what feels like a normal childhood, with strangers" in New Zealand.

After 10 months in Havelock North, to "be a little closer to the action", they moved to Waiheke Island.

"I also thought that Waiheke would be a better community with more artists and more people on my wavelength than Havelock North - nothing against Havelock North, which is great."

Amanda Palmer

Photo: supplied

Feeling vulnerable and not wanting to be "this dramatic weirdo", Palmer had to ask for help and "try to ingratiate herself" into the Waiheke Island community. 

A new level of self-honesty forced by the Kiwi approach to celebrity was the most humbling aspect of the experience, Palmer says.

"I had to really examine my relationship with my own celebrity and my own social capital ... [In New Zealand] my social capital was actually more of a liability than a calling card. People didn't inherently trust me or like me because I had accomplished something - written a book or written some songs.

"The thing that I grew to really appreciate and honour about Kiwis is that they really take you at face value, they want you to take yourself seriously just as a human being going through your mundane life."

After years of travelling nearly constantly with Gaiman, Ash and a full-time nanny, landing in a life centred around "the mundane tasks of householding and parenting" felt like hitting a brick wall, Palmer says.

"I slowed my life down and every time I thought I couldn't slow it down I found out that I was going too fast. I turned my life, which had been constantly on 11, down to nine and then seven and five and then three and I think it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

"It was catastrophic and it was traumatic but I'm really grateful."

The Amanda Palmer Comes Down For a Quick Catch-Up tour is a way to bring Ash back to New Zealand for a visit while covering the cost of their plane tickets, but she's also looking forward to sharing a set of songs she describes as "a cathartic howl".

"I'm really excited to tell the story to the music and then wrap up the chapter. And reconnect with all of your old friends and say thank you again for taking care of me and my family."