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The Aquarian Weekly (US)
February 21, 1996 (#32)
TORI AMOS: FINDING HER OWN FIRE
By Lydia Carole DeFretos
People either love Tori Amos or simply don't get her. Those cynics who dismiss her as being some sort of a flaky, New Age high priestess are really missing out on one of the most intelligent -- and insightful - artists of our time. Make no mistake about it -- this is no act. Amos not only "talks the talk" but she "walks the walk," as well. Granted, quite often she skips, frolics, and runs full-speed ahead - always searching for answers to the many mysteries of life.
Amos is currently the woman of the hour, with the recent release of her third Atlantic album, Boys for Pele. The record came on the Billboard chart at No. 2. It would have debuted at No. 1 if not for that damned Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. Still, Amos could easily bump the Whitney Houston and friends disc in the upcoming weeks ahead - especially once she begins to tour.
But, as popular as the North Carolina native is - she has several fan clubs, an impressive number of live bootlegs, at least one authorized biography, and is the inspiration behind cartoonist Neil Gaiman's comic book character Delirium - Amos never set out to become a star. Her main goal always was to reclaim the musician who first started playing piano even before she could talk. By the time she was four, she was writing her own songs. At five, Amos entered the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD on a musical scholarship only to be expelled for "playing by ear" at 11. It was an experience that would have lingering effects on her muse.
By her early teens, she was performing standards and Gershwin classics in bars and hotels in the Washington, DC area. Moving to Los Angeles, CA in her late teens, Amos rediscovered her old voice - one that had been repressed by layers of musical convention, and she began to write and play her own compositions again. That cycle of apparent psychic oppression and self-liberation was the dynamo that drove Little Earthquakes, the '92 release that was described as her first album. But, if the truth be told, it was actually her second record following the '88 disaster, Y Kant Tori Read.
The difference between those first two efforts is like night and day (rare copies of Y Kant Tori Read fetch as much as $300 or more). On Little Earthquakes Amos held nothing back, using her appealing voice - which is still often compared to Kate Bush - outstanding piano work, and powerful song-writing to bare every inch of her soul. Songs like Silent All These Years and Crucify served as good introductions to this brilliant artist. Fans, who heard Amos play several cover tunes in concert, demanded the release of a special EP named after the second single, Crucify. (This is much easier to find - and, a less expensive collector's item.)
Aside from a remix of the title cut and another track off of Little Earthquakes, Winter, the five-song special edition featured Amos' renditions of the Stones' Angie, Zeppelin's Thank You, and an inspired reading of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. In '94, Amos released her second CD, the critically- acclaimed Under The Pink. It debuted at No. 1 on the UK charts (not all that unusual considering that the outspoken artist has lived in England for quite some time, when she's not on the road). The disc yielded such notable tracks as God and Cornflake Girl.
A lengthy world tour followed and saw Amos hailed as one of the most compelling live performers around. A stunning stage presence, the red-haired, hip-grinding piano player has been on the road almost nonstop since Little Earthquakes. She did manage to squeeze in some recent extracurricular projects. Amos recorded a duet with her idol, Robert Plant, of the Zep tune Down By The Seaside for Encomium, and two tracks on the Higher Learning soundtrack - Butterfly, and her take on REM's Losing My Religion.
Religion is just one of the frequent topics of conversation in any - and all - Amos interviews. Other subjects she warms right up to include sex, food, and the exploration of dark places inside us all. For Boys for Pele, Amos had to do yet some more peeling away of the layers to get to what lies inside. "My songs have always been reflective of what is going on in my life at a particular time," she says. "And, if anything this album has been inspired by my relationships with men. A lot of changes have taken place in this period of time - with lovers, collaborators, and close friends.
"Some of those relationships reached a crossroads, a point beyond honor where I realized that I was stealing fire from men," Amos continues. "That's what I needed to write about. But I had to be on my knees before I could be absolutely honest, before I could find my own fire. These songs are not about make-ups or break-ups. And they're not concerned about who is sleeping with whom. They're about the things that go on in a woman's heart - the things that are expressed and the things that have to remain hidden."
As with its predecessors, the 18 songs that make up this latest album are disturbing and comforting by turns - reveling in the richness and strangeness of language, delighting in the infinite possibilities of melody, exploring subject matter with fierce and fearful honesty, and achieving the clarity of waking dreams and nightmares. Recorded in rural Ireland and Louisiana, Boys for Pele is Amos' most intoxicating project to date. From the bedlamesque Professional Widow, through the torched balladry of Hey Jupiter and Doughnut Song , to the heavy harpsichord pop of Talula, and the heaving subterranean blues of In the Springtime of His Voodoo, this is a work of musical extremes.
It is also an album that showcases Amos' distinctive voice at its most volatile and versatile -- veering unpredictably from tender breathiness on Muhammad My Friend and quiet intensity on "Way Down" to the pained intensity of Putting the Damage On. These extremes find perhaps their fullest expression on the first single, Caught a Lite Sneeze, already a radio hit. Recently, while in town doing press for the record, I spent the better part of an hour with Amos. While I'm sure her soul-piercing look can be somewhat intimidating, I always enjoy a one-on-one with this world-wise woman.
Lydia: It's interesting that all three of your albums came out in the winter. You've mentioned that you see this album as being sort of the end of a trilogy.
Tori: It feels like ... even with the cover art - with the gun there -- besides it being my Granny Clampett, of course, it reminds me of Me and a Gun, and, there's that energy of claiming where I come from in my relationships - particularly with men. There's a dead cock on the cover, and a live snake - so there's death and there's life, and there's the crossroads. I really felt like it was full circle for me - whether it's things that need to be set free now - claiming them all at the crossroads. This is my heart record, with Little Earthquakes being finding my voice record, and Under the Pink really delving into what's underneath women's relationships - mainly with women. So, I feel like I don't really know where it's going, but these three live in the same galaxy together.
Lydia: With Under the Pink, you discussed the sorrow you experienced with the illusion of sisterhood and how 'feminine energy,' the principle of fertility and nurturing, is absent in our culture.
Tori: There's not enough of women supporting other women to be who they are. I have a problem with the judgement that women have over other women, and the jealousy - the incredible jealousy and competitiveness. You'd think we were all in a fucking harem. And, I find the viciousness something that when we talk about sisterhood, I just feel like going, 'Hello!' Sisterhood may be an illusion, but I don't find a lot of sisterhood right now.
I'm beginning to be very close with some women as friends. But, as a mass consciousness, I don't find there to be a lot of support for women from other women. It's very petty out there. The other thing is that there's such a hardness in women right now. I know I've been the angry young woman myself in the past. Anger, I feel, is an emotion that sometimes is the only appropriate emotion in response to something that's completely out-of-order and crossing a serious boundary. Sometimes, anger is appropriate. But I'm talking about being an angry woman. And I see a lot of angry women out there. I know because I have lived it myself. And this record was really for me to release my anger. Sometimes I had to rage, and sometimes I had to weep, and sometimes I had to laugh my ass off. But for me to really dance in the field and not hold resentment against my idea of man, I had to go into the shadows and find what I was really feeling about some of them.
Lydia: Well, if you were uncertain of any sort of sisterhood -- and you were questioning your relationship with the various men in your life - you obviously had to go inward for comfort and answers.
Tori: Inward for answers - and, to find the female. I was looking for the blueprint of women that wasn't in Christianity. You see, the Magdalene's blueprint wasn't passed down. The blueprint of the Virgin Mary - and the Mother Mary - was passed down, but not woman as independent prophet/priestess on her own. Strike the word prophet - woman/priestess, passion, compassion - that's how I view the Magdalene, not the whore who wiped Jesus' feet. Many scholars believe that her true role was never acknowledged because of the threat that it would cause. Christianity - and other religions, but I'm speaking of that right now because I grew up in it - did not pass this down. Naturally, I think there's a fragmentation in the Christian myth - there is no myth of the woman without being associated through the man - or through the sex - whether she's a virgin or a mother. She's a virgin before the son of God is born and then she's a mother after he's born. Whether Mary Magdalene was the wife of the son - to me, Mary was truly the female representation of God.
Lydia: You've talked openly about how your relationship with Eric (Rosse, boyfriend and former producer) deteriorated. The musician and little girl in you were both okay during that period, but the woman in you was suffocating, right?
Tori: She was suffocating, but through no fault of anybody else. Our relationship was really collaborative in the past. I missed that in some ways. But, in other ways, it was so freeing to just do things I really wanted to do. The record wouldn't have turned out the same. But it was really about, "Well, I want those three bridges in a song. And we're going to do three bridges."
Lydia: With regard to your emotions and this album, explain to me this thirst for "boy blood".
Tori: Well, with boy blood, you'd show up at the dinner table and you'd try and make sure that your lipstick matched the stains in the corners of your mouth. I wasn't over it yet. Of course, I was on a quest for boy blood because I was valuing my worth as a woman through the men in my life.
Lydia: Boy, can I ever relate to that. I've done it myself. But I think only women do that. I don't think men see themselves through the eyes of whoever it is that they're involved with.
Tori: No, they do other things. I think with men right now - especially since women are becoming the creative forces that we've always wanted to be and could be but were never allowed to be -- men are trying to adjust to being the muses, as well as being the creative forces. They've never had to be the muse until this century. It is something to get used to after thousands of years.
They were the DaVincis, and now men are becoming the Mona Lisas, as well as the DaVincis. That's a new feeling for them. If they're not in touch with their creative force -- and letting themselves create as well as inspire -- it can be a problem. Sometimes, I wish I could just tell the men who have inspired me, "You're inspirational for this work." I wonder if they felt like they're being exposed. The roles of the past are completely shifting and changing. They're outdated.
Lydia: There's really nothing wrong with inspiring somebody. If anything, I'd take it as a compliment.
Tori: Well, even if they don't mean to inspire, sometimes they do. As I've said, a few of the men in my life inspired me to find my own fire. Before that I was stealing from men. To get to that point, though, was a bit messy. However, I got there.
Lydia: Part of the danger, I think, is that it's really easy to fall back into the old habit. Do you think that's true - or do you think that you've changed so much?
Tori: [Hesitates.] Um, that's a hard question because even if you feel like you've put your dry boy eyes on and decide to look at things from another viewpoint, and catch yourself when you start doing old patterns...
Lydia: It's probably to soon to answer that question.
Tori: There are situations that I would never put myself in again. That's a hard question.
Lydia: With this album, you've advised people to listen to it with a bottle of wine.
Tori: Actually, I've said it's just long enough for a good shag [British slang for a good lay].
Lydia: The response to the record, so far, has been pretty damn impressive.
Tori: Well, the way that I see it, Lydia, is people love it or hate it. That excites me - it's a reaction to the work. I feel like a work really has many sides to it when people have such extreme reactions. When a work is greeted with just, "Oh, you know, it's nice", then it's not affecting people. So love it or hate it - that's okay. That's exciting to me. If you wanted music for your dog to do something on - hey, it's paper, too.
Lydia: Tell me the significance of the pig in the album artwork.
Tori: Alice In Wonderland - by the, "whatever became of the baby." I'm a big Alice in Wonderland believer. That story has affected me almost more than all of the "children's stories".
Lydia: Recently, I got a press release from Out magazine, and how they were going to sponsor listening parties for you. According to the gay marketing division of Atlantic, the label is looking to "broaden Tori's gay fan base".
Tori: I have a lot of gay friends who have taught me many things. Because of their experiences, they have taught me how to look at life differently. I want to be very open. I think they have gone through a lot to come out. And I really respect anybody who stands by their truth. I just like communicating with people. And I wanted to communicate with people who I think have taken a very truthful stand -- in the face of a lot of judgment. Because I wasn't a part of that world that much. I didn't see how fierce it could be in this day and age. It shocks me sometimes. And it comes through in my work -- like with "Hey Jupiter", "Are you gay / are you blue."
Lydia: Logistically, how did you do the recording for Boys for Pele, since some of it was done in Ireland and the rest in Louisiana.
Tori: Well, first, I went back to London and got the harpsichord, I knew I had to bring it. If I was going back to the bloodline of woman, I had to do it with my instrument - so, I went to the bloodline of a piano which is a harpsichord and a clavichord. And I used both of them on the record. The album felt ready to go in June. So, we went on location to Ireland, where we recorded a lot of the musicians. Then we went to Louisiana to pick up the gospel choir, because I was talking my lay line over. Musicians had come from Africa, musicians had come from Paris, musicians had come to take the lay line back in - musicians from the West Indies we brought in. So, the elements of the South - I went to the Old World and brought them over - I brought them into the New World. That's an underlying current of this record. There are many different layers that come in. There's the metaphorical level of the lyrics, but then there's the music which has got subtext, and the different players, and the arrangements, and what they're saying.
Lydia: I noticed that the lyrics aren't included for Agent Orange.
Tori: There's certain times when I wanted the listener to just lay there. With "Agent Orange", I was hoping you could see this orange-bodied muscle man, and give yourself a giggle so that we'd transform this being from a mutilated skin person to Orangina. It's the idea of becoming Tang - transmuting the chemical effect. You can't forget that happened - you can't forget the warfare. So, of course there's that level. I just had to bring it in. I decided to bring it in as a muscle man.
Lydia: What was it like producing yourself? Was it difficult?
Tori: You know, it was complete freedom -- no censorship. I was just allowing the work to come. And when it wasn't right, I'd get rid of that verse and then I'd write another one, and say, "No, wrong, this is the smell." And I was trying to listen to the girls at every minute, and just diving with them, and letting the widow- -the Lady Macbeth in me - come alive. I was going, "Oh, I wanna see him crawl." And letting that be there. Wearing a really cute fuzzy pink shoe. And having no limitation of exploring certain facets of the personality. And being shocked and horrified about Professional Widow, and then loving her - just loving the fact that she's convincing him to kill himself, guaranteeing that Mother Mary will supply. And I said, you really can't get any lower than that. I love the fact that she said, "This is how far I've gone - this is where I am at this moment. Are you willing to see that part of yourself? That part that wants his energy, that wants his fame, that wants his light - not recognizing your own." It gets to the point where you don't even have to push him over the edge - you're just reading him poetry, and that's enough to make him want to kill himself.
Lydia: So you just did a video for Caught a Lite Sneeze. What's that like?
Tori: It's her death - she dies. It's about the fight for her soul - this spirit, this physical body. The two are fighting - trying to wake her up, bring her back - trying to communicate. It's the division in the beginning. The whole current of sneeze is doing anything so that you don't have to face yourself. Nothing is enough - you don't feel that you have the tools. I couldn't get to this until everything was falling apart. I couldn't get to this until things were being flung back in my face. When you're being gushed and gooed over, and all that stuff in a relationship, it disgusts you. It's like "10 minutes of that, boys - then give me something else." It's strange knowing the whole time that your contact with the Earth Mother - your contact with the ocean - your contact with all of those things - you feel an outsider to them. You know they're there. You go and try everything. You go through everything you've ever been taught to try and feel enough. And I just stand there with my little plug, going, "What wall can I plug into?" Not knowing that we're all plugged in, already. You just have to remember.
[In the summer of '94, Amos launched RAINN - the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and helped establish the nation's only toll-free sex abuse hotline - 800-656-HOPE. The nonprofit organization is run by the DC Rape Crisis Center, with Amos chairing the advisory board. Also, in '94, she won the Center's Visionary Award for her work on this special issue.]
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the World of Tori Amos