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May 30, 1996
A Conversation with
by Rex Rutkolski
Tori Amos has but one request.
"The only think I beg you is no exclamation points," she says, smiling, as she sends her interviewer off to his keyboard to write. "That's the only thing I'm prejudiced over."
A harmless enough favor to honor, yes perhaps a surprising wish for an artist whose career so far has been a decided exclamation, challenging the way pop music can be presented. This famous Amos even has a way of making low-key an adventure in listening and watching.
And now this former child piano prodigy is back with another collection of strong feelings, BOYS FOR PELE. This is her third solo album since she roared onto the scene with her 1992 debut LITTLE EARTHQUAKES and followed that with 1994's UNDER THE PINK.
Proving quickly that she was no shy, artistic flower, Amos' first two albums saw her writing and singing with frankness, often graphically, about victims, emotional dependency, violence and rape, sexuality, religion and the quest for belief in oneself.
The subjects and her style resonated for many, winning her a base of fans that has been described as "almost obsessive" as they have made her first two albums platinum hits. Vogue heralded her arrival, suggesting, in her use of victimization as impetus for empowerment, "Amos has rescued women's pop from decades worth of weepy, introspective types."
So, once again, Tori Amos finds herself her own toughest act to follow. After her relationship with companion and producer Eric Rosse ended, she chose to produce herself on BOYS FOR PELE, which takes its name from the Hawaiian volcano.
She recorded primarily in an old church in Delgany, Ireland with the famed Black Dyke Mills Band, adding horns to several tracks. Additional recording was done in a Georgian house in Ireland's County Cork, in England with the Sinfonia of London and in New Orleans. In addition to her trademark piano playing, Amos plays harpsichord on several of the 18 tracks. The first single, "Caught A Lite Sneeze," was embraced by alternative and adult alternative formats.
Musically and vocally, Amos challenges the listener to pay attention to this album with her sometimes-obscure lyrics and her changing of dynamics and styles in mid-song. In general, she takes changes and seems to invite some listeners to repeatedly listen to the album in order to acquire this particular taste.
She saw the theme of UNDER THE PINK as self-empowerment and this record is about striving for "wholeness." The songs, she says, were inspired by her relationships with men.
SCENE: Many musicians seem to take the easy way out in going for immediate accessibility with an album, but BOYS FOR PELE challenges people to take some tie and not gloss over it...
Tori Amos: What I think happens when you have a, 'quote-unquote,' bit of success as a musician, is that sometimes you forget your intentions of why you are making music. It becomes about numbers and who's gonna play it and many other variables.
And it's not wrong to think of those things. I'm just saying a lot of times those become the priorities instead of musicians challenging themselves first and therefore challenging their audience, and therefore the whole market gets challenged. So you have a lot of challenging music out there. Then the medium rises to another level.
With this album, I recommend a very good bottle of red. I'm a white drinker myself, but I suggest a bottle of red because the record is about boy blood. I thought I needed to drink it when I was beginning to write this work. By the end of it, that's what the whole record was about. I didn't need to drink boy blood anymore to feel my own fire. But I thought I did. That's where I got into all sorts of trouble.
SCENE: Do you feel you've found with this album an approach to recording that you are going to stay with for awhile?
Probably not. You know me. I always change. (laughs) I will say this, I want to stay with trying to make things sound live to capture what a real instrument sounds like. Being a piano player and getting into the early keyboards is something that was really important to me. Everything else I will experiment with in different ways in the future.
I liked the way this album was recorded from the sonic end -- that approach about getting the most out of instruments -- and I worked with my live sound men to achieve the power I achieve live. People who are at my live shows say, "When I hear it live, it makes so much more sense to me." No matter how much they say they like the record, there's something about the power of the piano live. So I said to myself, "Why don't I get my live guys to try to make this happen on tape?"
SCENE: What do you hope people take from this album?
These songs are alive. All the songs I'm known as having written are alive. These songs freely brought me to a place of the hidden feminine... The hidden parts of myself that I tried to get desperately through the men in my life. It's a journey into the unconscious.
SCENE: You seem to be encouraging people to re-think what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and to re-think the dynamics of relationship...
And what it means to be both. (laughs) Really, the re-programming that is taking place on the planet is very exciting. Naturally, before you can re-program, you have to break down the old programs. Before you can do that you have to acknowledge your part in it. Songs like "Professional Widow" and "Blood Roses" had to come before "Hey Jupiter" -- before there could be compassion.
SCENE: You're talking about re-programming in the sense of how we view who we are?
I find a lot of people come up to me and go, "I used to think a certain way and I just had to reflect on it." And they will laugh and say, "Now I can't believe I went along in thinking certain ways." They didn't really feel that way. It just seemed right.
There are sometimes real subtle belief systems. You think you are not caught up in the schmooze, but you really are. I am a tough person to be around. Even though I'm a good fellow, a groovy kind of person, when it comes down to being a competitor, I'm fierce, I'm a lioness. Sometimes, though, there are times when it's like, "Tori, we don't need to go on a hunt tonight. We have a smorgasbord laid out in front of us. You have this person who just wants to be with you as a person." Sometimes I'm so geared up for the hunt. I've been hunting since I was two-and-a-half on the piano. I've had to.
This whole record has brought the humanness to my woman. I really tried to bring in a few fragments to make me a lot more human. Being truthful, sometimes the musician is not human.
SCENE: In what sense?
It's very much about the physicality of it, the practicing. It's kind of like an athlete. Sometimes the discipline and drive and pushing your body and yourself as much to achieve the skill keeps you from sometimes taking a walk in the rain.
And the musician goes, "We aren't ready. We have to practice." I say, "Come on, 15 minutes ain't gonna make you great."
SCENE: What role does the spiritual dimension of your life play in your creativity?
It's the benchmark, it's the law. When I'm writing "Professional Widow" or going to places, I'm checking in to see how clear my vessel is. When I went to record in a church in Ireland, I was very clear in my intent, and the frequency I was trying to tap into in my being that was being suppressed, as well as being repressed in the Christian Church.
I think it was so far beyond rebellion for me when you go after the lies about the truth. You have to be pretty in tune to claim you know what a lie is in religion. You better know what you're talking about. You better be clean and clear. When you have a charge, a bitterness, you cannot be clear.
To me, there is truth and lies in all religions. It comes back to wholeness. If they are not talking about wholeness and mastery for every individual, that part of it is a lie. If there is shame and guilt and blame, then that is controlled. I've just been taught to begin to smell and see where there is a rat.
SCENE: Through the centuries the role of an aritst in any medium has been to ask the heavy questions for the average person, the "What's it all about?" universal questions about the meaning of life. Do you also see that as your responsibility?
There are so many ways for the camera to observe what's happening around us. There are never enough new viewpoints to inspire. When somebody says there isn't room, there's always room for another viewpoint. Everybody has a unique viewpoint.
SCENE: It's said we're all on a spiritual journey of one kind of another. How would you describe yours?
It's definitely not low-fat. (laughs) Of course I believe in a life force that we are all a part of and connected to. That's where it gets confusing -- our disconnection from that never-ending life force. We just re-form into a different shape. It never ends.
The trick is to remmeber to go back to the well for sustenance so you don't cut yourself off and feel alone and empty. The truth us we are all dipping into the same well. Who's got the publishing on that? Warner Brothers? Give me a break.
SCENE: Do you feel you are opening doors for women?
I hope I'm opening doors not just for women. I hope men get inspired to let themselves be free, emotionally. They deserve it too, you know.
SCENE: Heavy philosophy time: What does music mean to you?
It's the only language that everybody seems to be able to relate to on the planet. That's very exciting. It transcends all limitations and barriers. When you are part of something like that, you are part of the most limitless expression that there is, if you let yourself be free in it.
SCENE: What do you see as your strengths?
My biggest strength is that I listen. I listen to other artists. I listen to what's going on. Nobody has the difinitive version of anything. Especially if you are open to it, you can find so much stuff out there that will open another window in your rhythm box.
SCENE: Do you have any idea what the public perception of you is?
I think it's much different than I am. It's either extreme, it seems to be. I don't think the kids showing up at my shows are confused. They know who I am. The media is much more comfortable putting me in the extreme category... the reason I believe in fairies is that I'm not stupid.
SCENE: Have your expectations as an artist changed for yourself?
Sure. They are always changing, always. Because the more comfortable I'm starting to get with myself, the more I feel like I can explore, and quote-unquote, retain a certain sound from record to record. My instrument is my instrument, but it can keep you evolving.
SCENE: How do you define success?
Right now it means I can play the music I find I'm inspired by at this point in time, and there are people willing to open themselves up to it. You can't ask for any more than that.
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