Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens on their cover of Portishead’s ‘It’s A Fire’

The duo talk to us about collaboration, education, new music and donating to the Free Black University Fund

One lockdown day back in May, Amanda Palmer was doing the dishes while listening to Portishead (as you do) when the track ‘It’s A Fire’, from their seminal 1994 album ‘Dummy’, came on and she started “losing her shit” – taken off guard by how prescient and profound the song had become.

“I heard the lyric ‘because this life is a farce / I can’t breathe in this mask… so breathe on, sister…‘ and I just just stopped,” Palmer tells NME. “I was stunned by the new application of those lyrics to these times, to COVID, to Black Lives Matter, to the emerging sisterhood that’s slowly uprooting the very, very rotting old system of racist and sexist hierarchy on this fragile globe. It gave me chills.

“Usually when I get chills re-listening to an old favourite song, my first impulse is to cover it. But I also don’t like doing straight covers: what a bore. So I re-imagined the song as more of a conversation between two women, instead of a monologue from one woman’s head.”

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And here we are! Palmer’s unique take on the trip-gem is a duet with US singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, whose “soulful, take-this-shit-seriously voice brings it home.”

Hear the cover on NME first below, along with our interview with the pair discussing collaboration, COVID life and their decision to donate all proceeds to the Free Black University Fund.

Hello Rhiannon and Amanda. When did you guys meet?

Rhiannon: “I’ve been hearing about Amanda for some time through my good friend, Sxip Shirey. I had a chance to share the stage with her a few years back (it was the bomb diddly) and have since been so struck with her strong sense of self, her creative and successful entrepreneurship and unflinching artistic honesty. Basically, she’s rocking that shit.

Amanda: “The experimental composer and all-round bon vivant Sxip Shirey, who’d worked and toured with both of us, is 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 bona fide fan. Not just anyone can pull off a song like that. ”

Amanda Palmer in the studio. Credit: Lucy Lawless

How was it to work together under the current circumstances with so much distance and so many restrictions?

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R: “It was a bit crazy! We had both been down under when the shit hit the fan, but she got stuck in New Zealand while I just made it home to my kids in Ireland, so the time difference was enormous – but we are both well able to navigate that sort of thing. I have done a bit of it over the years so you just find the right headspace and go for it.

A: “I’ve been online-collaborating with so many musicians all over the globe over the past few years that it didn’t feel strange at all. Jherek Bischoff – the arranger and producer – is really the secret ingredient to why this worked: I knew that he would create an arrangement bed that would would be just strange and emotional enough to set it apart from the original Portishead track, and I knew he’d go a great job mixing it. The song speaks to distance, so it was actually kind of a pleasure for me and Rhiannon to send all of these texts and photos and vocals back and forth to one another while we were working: it forced a connection that may not have arisen. Which is the essence of the song in itself.

“This song was supposed to sound like two hands, flailing in the dark and finding one another. And with me in New Zealand, juggling single-motherhood and other various life catastrophes, and Rhiannon in Ireland, juggling motherhood and her own lockdown… it felt apt. We couldn’t hug and drink wine and cry over the kitchen table after the kids were in bed… but we could do THIS, which was the next best thing.”

The artwork for Amanda Palmer and Rihannon Giddens' 'It's A Fire', by Jessica Coppet.
The artwork for Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘It’s A Fire’, by Jessica Coppet.

What can you tell us about your decision to donate proceeds to the Free Black University and the importance of education at a time like this?

R: “Education is everything, but not all education is created equal, and the history of this current civilisation has too long been told through the Western European, classicist lens.  It’s time to let some other voices tell some badly needed truths.”

A: “There are so many ways to give and help right now that it can feel overwhelming, but I think one of the best places to get at the root of things is education. Free Black University is just getting started and a few thousands bucks will actually mean a lot to them, so I hope this makes a dent. Melz Owusu, who started the project, took over my Instagram a few weeks ago and did some deep talking about the problems we are having to tackle. It all can seem so overwhelming, this system we live in is built on so much pain and fear and violence. But I have to believe that these small gestures towards education, if ongoing, will have to lead us out of this hell we are in. Doing nothing is not an option.”

Do you believe that we might emerge from COVID-19 more unified and empathetic, or that the events of the last six months are in danger of dividing us further?

R: “We will be as we always have been: some united, some divided, and all going to disaster if we don’t stop cannibalising our planet.”

A: “I think both statements can be true at the same time. I have personally watched certain people and organisations around me grow more raw and empathetic during these times, and I’ve seen the opposite. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of this, and I think we’re going to be in the thick of it for a long time. But I do know I can try to continue practising radical empathy, no matter how silly it may look to people, and I can teach that to my son. If nothing else, I can do that.”

Amanda Palmer. Credit: Kahn & Selesnick 

Have you both been writing much new material during lockdown? 

R: “I have two kids, so does Amanda. I can’t speak for her but while I have written a few new things I have found the biggest challenge is just existing with the pivot in my circumstances, no childcare or school for the last six months, and the grief for my country riding me like a monkey.”

A: “I’ve been writing constantly in my head, but that’s always the way. I haven’t had much time at the piano. I’ve written and released to my patrons only, one new epic ballad called ‘The Man Who Ate Too Much’ that I also recorded up in Auckland at Roundhead [Neil Finn’s studio, where ‘It’s a Fire’ was recorded], and Jherek arranged that one as well. I’m currently scouting around New Zealand to find a filmmaker so I can tie the official release in with a video. Other than that, I have a collection of voice memos to myself a mile long, and I’ll hopefully thread them altogether into a record one day, but right now I’m a single mother with a five-year-old and I barely have time to answer my goddamn daily email.”

What are your plans for the rest of the year? 

R: “Keep workin’! I’ve just taken over the Artistic Directorship of the Silk Road Ensemble from Yo Yo Ma, so that has got me hopping already. I’ve got some new recordings to make, and lots of bread to bake. And I’ll be dreaming of stinky dressing rooms, too-bright lights, some screechy monitor feedback and happy crowds.”

A: “It depends a bit on the American election, the New Zealand election, and whether or not there are riots in the streets of my home country. All that aside, I plan to raise my child, be happy, serve up online music, art and thoughts to my 15,000 patrons and count my blessings every single day. Other than that, I’m happy to float in the mystery.”

‘It’s A Fire’ is out now and available to download here

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