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March 17, 1997
Travels With Tori
by Ken Barnes
I first encountered Tori Amos in a former life... as a trade journalist.
She was visiting music trade publications promoting her first album, released
under the identity of Y Kant Tori Read. (The CD of this
never-legitimately-rereleased record has sold for upwards of $400 to avid Toriphiles.)
But instead of duplicating the full-band sound of the album, she played the
songs on a piano... and it was riveting.
Since then I've followed the musical twists and turns she's taken, not always
with complete comprehension but with consistent interest. She's released three
subsequent albums of fascinating musical richness and enigmatic lyricism. In
the process she's become an idol to millions, by some accounts the most popular
musician on the Internet (check out a sample of the many websites devoted to
all things net-Torical that we've gathered below). Her songs range from the
painfully direct (the chilling, a cappella "Me And A Gun," based on a real-life
rape incident she suffered, and the gloves-off "Professional Widow," which if
it isn't a pointed commentary on Courtney Love, certainly is a convincing
imitation and in a remixed version, was recently a No. 1 hit in the U.K.) to
the disorienting abstraction of much of her 1996 album, Boys For Pele,
featuring her latest single, "Hey Jupiter." She poses provocatively with
piglets on album covers. She's got her own label, Igloo Records. And she's the
motivating force behind the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
RAINN was her chief preoccupation when I talked to her by phone from the
futuristic warrens of Microsoft's Dark Media Center complex. She had recently
staged a benefit concert to raise funds for the organization (read about it in "Saving
The RAINN Force"), and was relieved that its continuance was ensured. We spoke
about the Y Kant Tori years, her transition from "rock chick" to a more
profound form of expression, and the rigors of the road, and she offered a
vivid insight into the optimum approach to appreciating her latest works.
Ken: Back in your Y Kant Tori Read days, you came up to Radio & Records,
the trade magazine, and did a performance on the piano.
Tori: Oh, boy.
Ken: And I always remember that because that was kind of a turning
point for me in really appreciating what you were doing, just the way it
translated to a solo performance on the piano. I was wondering if those sort of
trade publication appearances around that time helped shape the direction that
your music eventually took.
Tori: Interesting... I never thought of it. Can you imagine that it all
comes back to R&R? No, but I think that it's kind of amusing when you think
about it. I think, actually, lightbulbs had to go off in my head saying, "You're
going around playing and singing, and yet you didn't make a record that was
really centered around that.... There seem to be people that want to listen,
so what am I not getting right here?" I think it was very unconscious, because
I didn't consciously think about that at the time. I just knew that playing and
singing always seemed to work. When I would just sit down and people would
gather around and hang out... it just worked.
Ken: So when did the conscious realization come about?
Tori: Later. The record had to bomb, and I changed my direction.
Ken: When you went to England?
Tori: No, much before that. Little Earthquakes a lot of it was finished
before I went to England. It just took a year and a half for it to come out.
And we added "China," and I wrote "Me And A Gun," and we remixed quite a few
songs like "Silent All These Years," etc.
Ken: So did you consider that change to more of a solo performance
aspect a reinvention of yourself, or just a return to a more natural form of
Tori: Well, I don't think it's either. I don't think it's so clear-cut,
because I couldn't return to the piano without taking the Y Kant Tori Read
experience with me, and you can't cut out parts of your life. You can try, but
it doesn't really work. It's part of your weave, it's part of your tapestry. It's
what defines you. And whether you remember things consciously or unconsciously,
you carry your experiences with you in yourself.
Ken: So, in a sense, the Y Kant Tori experience was actually valuable?
Tori: One of the most valuable, because when I made Y Kant Tori Read, I
wanted to be a rock chick. And I wanted it to be successful. I hadn't
prioritized where the music and my love for that fit in. There's some things
that I liked about Y Kant Tori Read, but I was trying to make records that I
thought would be played not like I was making records firstly because it's what
got me off, and then if they got played, that would be great. It was a
different need at the time. I really [needed] to feel like what I was doing was
Ken: To get that recognition.
Tori: Yes, correct. And so then I had to kind of go into "why?" I didn't
think anything was valid unless I had that recognition, and that was where a
lot of the work came from. That's where a lot of the songs then began to spurt
out from that place.
Ken: Now there are reports that the next album you're starting to work
on or starting to think about, at least will be more electric...
Tori: Whatever that means... that could mean I've wrapped myself in
neon. That means many things.
Ken: Right. Greater conductivity or something
Tori: But Pele was very much more of a classical record if you really
think about it, but quite modern really modern classical. The way it was
Ken: Almost a recital in a way?
Tori: When you listen to the recording of it, I wanted your head in the
piano in all natural reverbs, and I recorded it in the church, and it was much
of an organic kind of thing. I wasn't experimenting with 70 different
microphones and different compressions and reverbs and gadgets and R2D2 upside
down on my head. I was really interested in working with brass and the
harpsichord. I went back to early keyboards before the piano. And so there
weren't loads of loops, and there weren't loads of synths happening or anything
like that. So that record was very piano/harpsichord-oriented. I don't know
what the next one's going to be. I'm kind of excited about it. I know that I'm
going to take plenty of time, but I don't know exactly where it's going.
Ken: That should be interesting to have that uncertainty, in a way. I
could see where that would be exciting.
Tori: Yeah, because I don't know if you asked me where am I going to be... I'm so excited to tell you I don't know. Last year I knew. Last year I knew
six months ahead where I was going to be, probably almost every minute of the
day. Maybe something exciting like was I going to have starch or protein that
day, that wasn't decided yet. At one point I was doing eight shows a week. That
meant four in three days, the last show being a double show, then a day off,
then four in three days. So what happens is you're racing so fast to get to the
next town, and then to do the press a week ahead we're doing press for the
cities that we're going to. So I'm on the phone dealing with, I don't know,
Cincinnati, and yet we're still in Chicago... It is about excellence. It's
about every night. I don't care where I'm playing, if I'm playing in Barnsfort,
Wyoming... I'm sure it exists somewhere on some planet... but each night to
go in and say, "Where can we go? Where can we take this?" that's why you love
what you do. Or you're out there for all the wrong reasons, which is just to
promote a record. And I've got to tell you, I've done 600 shows and three world
tours, and it's just... if I don't love what I'm doing, I can't do it for the
newness anymore. My cherry busted a long time ago, honey.
Ken: Well, no matter how much you love it, that's got to be exhausting.
It has to take quite a toll on you.
Tori: Well, the reason it works is because you work with other artists,
meaning my crew. They're artists. Sometimes they're artists drinking Guinness,
but you go out, and everybody's there to put on the best live show you possibly
know how to do. And we're all road dogs. We love it. That's why we did it, but
it's kind of nice to have finished that now. Because when I'm ready to go out
again, then again it'll be a whole different concert, and... it'll be exciting
again. But right now I just need to pass out and go to sleep and race boats.
Ken: (obviously not quite getting the hint) When is the next bout of
Tori: (possibly thinking, "What part of duh does he not understand?") Oh, my God. Let's not go there, Ken.
Ken: (belatedly comprehending the point, yet still somehow able to
fashion an instant witty rejoinder) Okay. That's that.
Tori: Nothing until '98. Absolutely nothing until '98.
Ken: (still intent on belaboring the obvious) That gives you a substantial
break, then, to recharge.
Tori: Yeah, and write another work.
Ken: (at last lumbering onto another topic) The one area I did want to
get into was... it seems as the albums have progressed, culminating with Boys
for Pele, the songs have been increasingly more personal, it seems, and a
little tougher to decode. Would you agree or disagree with that?
Tori: Wow. I work with imagery differently on each record, and it's not
the same style of writing on either one of the works. So with this one... let's
put it this way, I think sometimes it was a lot about crawling into the song as
a listener and being a part of the imagery. And once you were a part of the
imagery, once you let yourself become a part of it, then you begin to see what
was going on, sort of like when you're walking into somebody else's mushroom
trip. It can be a bit tricky, but if you walk in, and you start seeing it from
the perspective of the shag carpet, everything starts to make sense, I would
think, because you're not on the outside observing. I think with Pele, to
observe from the outside it is difficult to decipher. If you crawl in and take
the journey with her and become "Mr. Zebra" and become part of the record it's
almost like an audience participation record, because I do think you have to
allow yourself to be in the work to get it. If you're looking out from the
work, the imagery might not make a lot of sense, but if you pick something in
each song to shape-shift into...
Ken: That's a really interesting analogy, actually. So the listener has
to establish a contact high, to use your mushroom analogy.
Tori: Correct, correct. You have to choose to be a character, I think,
in Pele to really get it whoever you choose to be. You don't have to be a human
being. You can make any choice, but it is about me finding different pieces of
myself, different pieces of this woman. And it was so essential because I was
trying to steal [fire]... but you can't... but I was trying to get access
when I say "steal fire."
Ken: In the Prometheus sense...
Tori: Yeah, because I didn't... and you can never take somebody else's
access point. You can't; it's impossible. But you watch somebody else have
access to their ability to express, or their ability to let themselves go, or
their ability to go in, or their ability to come out, or their... do you see
what I mean?
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