Former Public Defender Andy Palmer Fights for Racial Justice Through Music

Andy Palmer releases The Switch at the Walnut Room on Friday, May 19.
Andy Palmer releases The Switch at the Walnut Room on Friday, May 19. Scott McCormick

Roughly two decades ago, Andy Palmer gave up music to practice law.

“I quit music because I didn’t think I was giving back enough,” he says. “I didn’t think I was contributing directly to helping out. And I thought music could do that. It conveyed messages and transforms people’s experience and all that sort of stuff. And in a way, it can, I suppose. I just came to the belief that I didn’t think I was changing anyone’s mind. I was just reinforcing people’s beliefs. That didn’t seem to be impactful.”

After three years of law school, Palmer landed a gig as a public defender in Brooklyn. He wanted to work with people directly and help them survive tough times.

“I did it largely because I’m half black, but I was adopted,” Palmer says. “I was adopted by a white family. I always carried a little bit of guilt that I hadn’t given back and didn’t really know my community.

“So initially, I went to law school thinking I was going to be a civil-rights attorney, but that was boring, I found. It was really slow. But public defense work was super-fast, and I was in the courtroom all the time and [with] clients – direct face-to-face stuff. So I wound up going that way as a mode of giving back to a community that I would have been a part of had I not been adopted, like if I'd wound up in foster care.”

During his three-year stint as a public defender, Palmer found the job to be too combative, and he says he didn’t have that sort of fight instinct.

“To do that day after day, you’ve got to want to take on the Man, take on the powers-that-be, like, every second of the day,” Palmer says. “It’s just fighting with the DA, fighting with the judge, fighting with your clients. They don’t trust you. After three years of that, I just realized I wasn’t built for it. It’s intense.”

After Palmer left his public-defender gig, his wife landed a job in Denver, and they moved here in 2009. Over the next two years, the gravelly-voiced Palmer worked on building his music chops, and in 2011, he released the alt-folk album Sometime Around, which was followed two years later with the exceptional Hazard of the Die. On Friday, May 19, Palmer will release The Switch, which he says is “way more intimate and way more personal” than his previous efforts.

“I let out a little more of my sensitive side,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s a product of me letting my guard down a bit, which I think the grit and growl was a little bit, if I look at it honestly. It was kind of a little bit of a shield.”

Palmer says he’s previously used the narratives of tougher folks (“I don’t know if that comes from my public-defense background, but those kinds of characters kind of seeped into my songs”), but The Switch has a different kind of vibe. The album is much smoother around the edges, he says, and he’s backed off from the growling vocals, as well.

While the acoustic guitar and percussion-driven new album doesn’t have any searing guitar solos, like on his previous releases, and the music might be a bit softer at times, it doesn’t make the album any less compelling. Palmer’s gritty vocals are front and center, and lyrically, Palmer delves into some weighty material, particularly The Switch’s title track.

“It kind of explores this kind of conflicting notion of a religious perspective that wants to see a return of Christ or something, but at the same time, that means destruction, and so I was trying to make that an exploration of that idea and why that would be,” Palmer says. “I, perhaps wrongly, assume this position of a god figure and look down at what I would be seeing as the desire for my return but knowing my return was going to be your destruction.”

Palmer says the song resonated with him when he first wrote it, but he didn't think it was going to turn into much. He says producer Steve Vidaic (who also plays keyboards with Citizen Cope and was in a band with Palmer two decades ago), through production, “made it this struggle between those ideas. It’s hard to explain, but that song emotionally impacts me the most.”

Another notable track on The Switch is “Black Moses (Harriet Tubman),” which was a phrase Palmer found during a bout with writer’s block while flipping through books and dictionaries, looking for words that jumped out. He learned that the phrase was a nickname given to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

“I scribbled down a song that I didn’t think was going to be all that much, but kind of powerful,” Palmer says. “It took time to figure out where its soul was. The song became really important to me."

Around the same time he was working on the song, everywhere he turned it was Harriet Tubman, whether it was last year's New York Times best-selling book The Underground Railroad or the announcement of Tubman being on the $20 bill. "All the sudden she was getting much more attention," he says, "which was cool to see, and the other thing that compounded that was just the increasing racial tension in the last two years, which was shocking to me.”

While recording The Switch last year, Palmer was also working with the Denver Justice Project and headed up the compilation album We Are Brown, which showcased Colorado musicians who wrote songs about racial tension. During his work on both projects, Palmer thought the racial divide was getting better, but then realized it was actually getting much worse. “'Black Moses,' Palmer says, “struggles or recognizes that there was such a respectable fight put on by someone, but there’s so much more to be done.”

Andy Palmer CD release, with Anthony Ruptak and the Midnight Friends, Joe Sampson, 8 p.m. Friday, May 19, The Walnut Room, $10-$15, 303-295-1868.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon