home / interviews
Rolling Stone (US)
30th Anniversary Issue
November 13, 1997
"I remember being told, 'They're already playing one female on alternative radio, so they won't play you."
By Susan Cheever
Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe
By the time she was 3, Myra Ellen Amos, the daughter and granddaughter of North Carolina Methodist ministers, was playing the family piano by ear. After getting tossed out of Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory at 11 for preferring the Beatles to Brahms, Amos the prodigy became Amos the teenage lounge act, performind in jazz clubs and bars all over the South. Then she changed her name, teased her hair and headed west for a disastrous recording debut with the album "Y Kant Tori Read." Discouraged and depressed, she sat down and started writing songs for herself. In 1991, Tori Amos' "Little Earthquakes" established her own tough, delicate musical voice and the disturbing honesty about men and women that has earned her a cult following. Her next full-length album, "Under the Pink," sold millions, and her 1996 "Boys for Pele" debuted at No. 2 on the "Billboard" Top 200 chart.
I interview Amos on a Saturday morning over breakfast at Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel. Her publicists hover nearby with their cell phones and cappuccinos, but she orders tea, and in baggy overalls with her red hair tucked behind her ears, she looks as if she'd be happier sucking on an alfalfa stalk. It's the day after her 34th birthday.
How do you write?
The songs are alive in themselves; I always feel like I'm trying to translate. I'm only a conduit - a scribe. I could just be walking, sort of having no destination, and I'll sense this presence. The music really comes from the ethers. It's not an intellectual process. You don't fuck to a metronome.
Is this presence the muse?
I believe that you must keep bringing grapes and gifts to the muse or the muse stops coming. I argue with her, and I laugh with her. Even if I'm arguing, she knows I recognize that she's there. I'll manipulate a song the way I want to 'cause I just like it that way. It's like I'm saying to the muse, "Look, if you don't want my input, go to Jewel."
Do you have rituals that evoke the muse?
Tequila works very well. But I don't write when I've used too much of any kind of substance. You have to be quite conscious to go into your unconscious. Every song is the Holy Grail for me.
Where do the images come from?
I have thousands of books I look through. I listen to everything. I listen to Madness and Prodigy and Bartok and Fiona Apple. I listen to their rhythm; I listen to them breathe. You can tell a lot about somebody by where the rests are in a piece.
Do you have role models?
One of my role models is my Cherokee great-great-grandmother, who married the man who owned the plantation where she was a slave.
What about Madonna?
Madonna is social. The music is not really important. The music was a backdrop for her. Please understand when I say this that it doesn't take away at all from her emancipation. A woman called Madonna - it was very important that that happen.
What about her music?
Sometimes they were really nice songs, and sometimes they were inconsequential. I mean, I can sing "Crazy for You," and it can make me smile. She changed the generation - but it wasn't the music. Be very clear: When you talk about music that changed people, you need to talk about Chrissie Hynde much more than Madonna. Courtney Love would not exist without Chrissie Hynde. And she knows it; Courtney is a very smart woman. But Chrissie talked about hole before Hole.
Is there a woman who was a role model for you musically?
As I was growing up, I kept my ears open. Whether it was Debbie Harry or Laurie Anderson or Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell, they all affected me. You know, the dangerous thing about listening is that you don't really know the effect it's going to have. It can have a profound effect; you don't know who your next teacher's going to be. I don't discount that I was always listening and that I picked up things from artists, male and female, who weren't necessarily on my record player.
Did you learn about women at the Peabody?
The Peabody never taight me anything about women composers. There have been women composers for hundreds of years. Mozart's sister was quite an accomplished pianist, but her career was put aside. That's just the way it was.
Has that changed?
Women have had to find ways to practice their art - by banging on the door. A lot of times you don't get in the door because you're banging too loudly. You have to find the crack in the wall. Then, instead of banging, somehow you melt yourself like honey and butter, and just run through to the other side. Then you turn yourself into a woman again.
If Mozart's sister were alive today, presumably if would be a different story.
It would be a different story. It doesn't mean you wouldn't hear Mozart.
Do you think you had something to do with the changes?
I had something to do with it; the women before me have had something to do with it. They had to knock a little harder than I did. I came out in a time when grunge music was just coming out. It was a new form no different from other new forms - punk, New Wave. There wasn't a place for an acoustic piano in the grunge world. Yet I flogged my piano anywhere I could, you know; I went to every little town and played in every little club. Yes, it is easier for women in the music business now than it was. That doesn't mean that they don't have their own problems to face.
The fame is happening very, very quickly for a lot of women at a very, very young age. A lot of successful women in the music business are under 25. I was 28 years old by the time I had success, and I had been playing clubs for 14 years. I had a record that failed. I had a real awareness of what this business was.
Do you think that women are more honest than men?
No, absolutely not.
Do you think that men are more honest than women?
With men, you can suss them out pretty quickly, whether you like what you see or not. You usually know where you stand. With women - I don't think it's necessarily conscious - but women have that harem mentality.
Do you think that women have to be stronger than men in the music business?
Absolutely. I've had to become very, very strong. There are a lot of lessons you learn about being a warrior. The battlefield now is with contracts and lawyers and leverage and threats - it's not in blood.
And how about in the rest of the world?
In the world, I think, it's a lot more complicated. In 1990 or 1991, I had a song coming out that was a precursor to Little Earthquakes. And I remember being told, "They're already playing one female on alternative radio, so they won't play you." Now, many women have many more opportunities in the record industry. Women still have to knock, but I think it's thrilling that they don't have to knock as hard.
[the interview took place on August 23, 1997]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos