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Making Music (UK)
Tori Amos, flame haired chanteuse, agony aunt to millions, and self-confessed vampire, talks to Rikky Rooksby about her "scary" new album. If you're of a sensitive disposition, read on.
DH Lawrence, the Nottinghamshire torch singer... well, novelist actually, once wrote a poem called Piano, which began; "In the dusk a woman is singing to me." He wrote about men, sex, power and religion. As it happens, so does Tori Amos, who coincidentally pounds a mean joanna herself, and, just at this moment, the dusk having fallen on Kensington High Street, is singing to me in a dimly-lit room in her record company offices, after a whole day of interviews.
If you've seen her sing from row W, you'll have an idea of how expressive she can be. But this, in the words of St Eddie, is something else. And she knows it. Her voice moans, teases, whispers and flutes the melody of "Father Lucifer," one of the new songs which will be leaving elegant scorch-marks across the nation's hearts in the new year. Sigh. The fidelity of CDs will never seem the same again.
PAINT HER BLACK
A certain sector of the record-buying millions and press will always have Tori Amos in a box in the basement marked, "Fragile. One raisin short of a fruitcake." For them, she will remain Little Miss Loopy. But for those hooked on her high-wire vocal style and habit of going from whisper to scream, ballad one minute, ballistic the next, the new album will be a feast.
Called Boys for Pele (Pele is a volcano goddess...), it was inspired by the break-up of her seven-and-a-half-year relationship with Eric Rosse, who co-produced her last opus, Under the Pink. Dressed in jeans, a black top and a woolly jumper, Tori leans back on the sofa, cradling her tea, and with eloquent pauses, tells the story of how the split happened mid-tour and the songs came.
"It just happened. I didn't try to write at all. I had to, on an emotional level. Each of the songs became fragments. There's a story - you're given excerpts. When you hear the whole record, the story will either make sense or not."
She pauses, throws back that famous red, tangled hair. "When you believe you've found your soul-mate and it falls to pieces... Sometimes when you separate you're both ready to move on. Sometimes I think you separate still loving. You don't know why you can't be a couple anymore. And a lot comes out. The record is metaphorical in that there are places within each song where it becomes very clear, I think, what the emotion is that's being claimed. Its all about the intimacies of womanhood."
Her first album, Little Earthquakes (1991) immediately established her as a singer-songwriter of originality and fire. Its success was consolidated by the second, Under the Pink, and a punishing touring schedule. Along the way she has picked up critical plaudits, survived the Kate Bush comparisons, duetted with childhood hero Robert Plant, and wooed an audience who stay behind after gigs to pour out their own emotional traumas.
I suspect women feel as affectionate towards her as an earlier generation did towards Joni Mitchell. In the early Seventies, Blue or For the Roses kept company many hurt souls whose daughters now find solace in Little Earthquakes. In different ways, Amos, Bush and Mitchell all report back from the civil war into which men and women's attempts to find love and passion often descends. Tori's audience are used to a confessionary culture.
"I had to write for my freedom. I was shattered. I had to begin to look at myself. I tried to get energy from different men in my life. I got my vampire's license. In 'Talula' I'm begging this concept of ideal woman to come alive in myself, feeling afraid of losing someone. If it matters, it must be something worth losing. Each song began to be a piece of claiming myself."
Tori cites "Professional Widow," a striking chunk of what can only be described as baroque funk - sort of Mozart meets Funkadelic or Sly, stripped down. "That's my Lady Macbeth, the side of me that wanted power. But power in a man's world. I wanted to be Indiana Jones, not the girlfriend [she laughs]. But as I began to do that I started to alienate many men.
"'Widow' is my hunger for the energy I felt some of the men in my life possessed: the ability to be king. I wasn't content just being a muse. I was the creative force. I was in relationships with different men where if they could honour that, they couldn't honour the woman, and if they could honour the woman, they couldn't honour the creative force."
Her energy returning, Tori is animated, sitting up and gesticulating as she talks. Does she think she would have had this problem with men even if she were not a famous recording artist? "I've talked to a lot of women about this and those who have heard this album understand it as exposing the female part of the game in the relationship, in humour or fury, vulnerability and rage, and women who are becoming their own force felt very akin to it, understood this person. But I don't think men really know the extent women have looked to them for support, acknowledgement... passion and yet compassionate love. I don't know if men really know what happens on the other end of the phone-line when they hang up; when it's getting uncomfortable yet when it's time to communicate.
"It's just that I found it so hard to get into their heart sometimes, to get to the place of openness. At that point, maybe they just didn't trust me. I don't know if I was totally trustworthy then. It's really difficult to have a relationship when you need something from a person. When you want to share, that's different. I didn't see it when I was doing it until everything began to fall to pieces and it wasn't there any more."
DEVIL YOU KNOW
Mythology serves as a useful shorthand for Tori. It lets her dramatise herself and her life, which is artistically productive, plus it cloaks the intimate details of her private self when she's talking in public. Looking back at the tour, she says, "There were highspots, like my chat with Lucifer... You begin to face your fears - that's what it's really all about. Being alone forces you to do that. There's nobody can make it go away. There's this incredible strength you can pull from a great love. So being alone is hard, but it was time to claim my woman. Its what I've begun to do.
"I made a choice with this record that I wouldn't censor it. I think when you hear the break in the voice and the fury and the piano, the undulating of the rhythm, it's just me jumping off a cliff, a quest for freedom. But I couldn't have freedom without looking at my part in what happened, without seeing the sides I wanted these men to give me that I could only give myself.
"It was the transition of womanhood for me, and I had to go visit Lucifer to make a descent. We had to go have a cup of tea, cut a deal and the deal was: no censorship."
WRITE ON TIME
How did Tori make the jump in musical style from the mainstream LA rock of Y Kant Tori Read, her flop Eighties album for Atlantic, to her current innovative songwriting, with its bold use of sparse rhythmic textures and dissonance?
"I wrote Little Earthquakes in LA before I came to London. I had that style before Y Kant Tori Read. Whether you look at "China" or "Hey Jupiter," it's the same girl who wrote those songs.
"I'm always trying to push the boundaries of form, but I don't always analyse it when I'm writing. To me it's about a visual symmetry and that's how I can write from an emotional level - knowing instinctively, the craft of sensing when a melody doesn't work."
As an example of the breathtaking moments that litter her songs, she picks the bridge in "Caught a Lite Sneeze," when the drum loop is pulled out for a couple of bars. "I wanted to take the whole rhythm because we're moving [she sways on the couch], we're trying to get rid of the possession. The track just stops for a minute and it goes [sings] 'Right on time' and then right on time our rhythm comes back."
Her songs are often deeply moving, even when it's not clear what they're about. "Great. That was the intention. When they were coming, it wasn't me sitting around going, 'What am I going to write about?' Under the Pink was more like an impressionistic painting, stepping back, looking at a subject and sculpting a painting. Boys for Pele was drinking a little blood and having to write, needing blood, can't get it, needing to write."
Tori is the daughter of a Methodist minister from the Southern States but has been in flight from the church for many years. When she draws on the imagery of Christianity, it's usually for subversive purposes, to challenge patriarchal religion. The new album has the usual quota of references which will have the bible belt foaming at the mouth - like claiming Jesus was a girl...
"As a writer you need to jump off cliffs. I was sitting there last Christmas Eve with my parents, hearing all these songs about Jesus. I began to see how the world has viewed his birth - with that came the death of the Goddess. To me he was part of the Goddess - peace, love. Christian mythology is so rich. Before they changed the Catholic ceremony there was much more metaphor, but the whole idea of the son of God came and there was no place for the Goddess. Yet with what Jesus taught, there was a complete balance of male and female in his being."
UNDER THE MIKE
The first of the new songs was "Blood Roses" in May 1994. Tori describes the song as "Baroque gone askew," to capture the disillusionment of the loss of romance. The recording started in June 1995, in a church at Delgany, County Wicklow, and a "wonderfully damp Georgian house in County Cork, Ireland," and was completed in studios in Louisiana.
"I went back to the church to speak some of my most private thoughts, but I did it with honour. I reclaimed something for myself. These relationships were reflecting in me because of the way things became hidden, which reminded me of the South." Tori relates a memory of sitting at dinner, the smell of sweet fried potatoes on the table, but having someone whisper that she really shouldn't be showing any interest in that little black boy up the road. "It's a very confusing place..."
"The record begins with the horses from 'Winter' (an outstanding track from Little Earthquakes) coming back to take me on this journey and we ride and go find the demons. The music keeps broadening out - whether it's 'Father Lucifer,' which is tongue-in-cheek style, or something else."
MAD MRS MOZARTS REVENGE
Ditching the traditional rock backing band, "On tour there'll be the Black Dykes Mills brass band, and I'll bring along the harpsichord. If I bring in musicians it's got to be something interesting; it can't be a band. That choice doesn't excite me. So we're starting with the brass band, which will be fun."
Several of the tracks feature Tori's inspired harpsichord playing. She sees it as following "the bloodline of the piano. I got a harpsichord, I played it and my guys miked it up. Very simple. I was trying to become a woman and the musician in me said, 'Well, fuck you, you know, let's get a new wardrobe, let's expand, honey girl.' So I got the harpsichord and the harmonium.
"I've heard a lot of women say that when they separate from a long-term relationship, they go out and buy a new wardrobe. Well, I didn't do that. Instead, I decided on something inner, because a make-over isn't going to do this. There were so many things I never allowed myself to do when I was in this relationship, and I think Eric would tell you the same. All sorts of things you see which you can be finally honest about.
"Like 'Doughnut Song,' the last I worked on. There's a bitter-sweet quality about it [she sings...]. There's a sweetness to becoming a woman that the virgins don't have. They have a physical sweetness, but once you claim the woman... Yes I want to wring their [men's] necks sometimes - those I fall in love with - yet there's much more of an understanding."
ON THE EDGE
How does she feel about her audience being very intense and off-loading onto her? "I'm trusting that they're intense [she laughs]. It's a big responsibility. When I turned in this record, somebody in the States commented, 'This is very intense, its not comfortable - aren't you worried about whether they are ready for this?'
"I'm ready to jump off a cliff, and if they're ready to jump with me, we jump together, and it's another journey. The woman's journey. Little Earthquakes was the girl finding her voice, Under the Pink was testing those waters and looking primarily at women's relationships with women. This is a little volatile. About the men and what they gave me. Sometimes they gave me nothing and that was the gift. Sometimes they stood there and didn't come save me, didn't come make it OK, because at that point in a relationship when you're going your separate ways, you're on your own. It is a gift, being forced to claim your fire, but scary sometimes."
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
[transcribed by jason/yesaid]
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