home / interviews
Philadelphia Inquirer (US)
May 3, 1998
A gift of song
Tori Amos believes it's selfish not to share one's talents. The pop singer's work shows how generous she can be. Loud and clear Tori Amos believes her songs are gifts and it's selfish not to share. But she takes a firm line with fans who say her messages have saved them.
By Tom Moon
INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC
The most important thing to know about singer, songwriter and sometime deity Tori Amos: She has no proprietary attachment to the songs she writes.
She knows that her melodies are cherished by melancholy adolescents who hear in them their own struggles to define themselves. She knows that the lyrics to songs such as "Crucify" and "Cornflake Girl" are analyzed endlessly on the Internet, every far-out image (the "ice-cream assassin") scanned for hidden portent. Yet she insists that her emotionally charged songs about victimhood, identity and salvation lead lives of their own.
"Once I put it out there, it's not mine anymore," Amos said on Sunday, as she nursed a broth of ginger, honey and lemon in her heavily humidified hotel suite. She was on a short club tour to introduce her fourth album, From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic), which arrives in stores Tuesday, and waging all-out war against spring allergies.
"Right after I started writing songs, probably when I was 11, the songs came to me and said, 'Let us go do our own thing.' I decided that their relationships with people are none of my business."
Distancing herself from the songs isn't always easy. "Somebody will come backstage and go, 'You saved me.' And I have to go, 'Stop right there. You saved yourself.'" That always gets the big eye-roll from Tori. I have to remind them that the works [ they're ] talking about are windows, or a lightbulb going on. Nothing more.
"Or I'll hear someone's description of what a song means to them and the only thing to do is go, 'Well,' and realize that people are going to interpret things any way they want."
Like many artists, Amos, 34, who grew up in Maryland and studied classical piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, considers herself a channel for the muse. She says composing is her primary creative outlet -- she doesn't keep a journal -- and follows the Native American wisdom that you don't receive gifts until you give things away. Songs are her gifts, she says: "You're selfish unless you pass them on. If you do, then other things come. If not, you're empty."
Amos talks a mystic blue streak, and her conversation, like her music, is a torrent of unlikely associations and freakish juxtapositions. She starts by joking about her feline nature (she's a Leo born in the Year of the Cat -- a "double cat," she says), then offers an observation on the techniques of male and female inquisitors ("the men smell an equal opponent and are usually respectful; the women think they can be nasty"), and pretty soon she's decrying the ways the music business exploits artists.
"I've seen so many artists get sucked in by fame and torch themselves," she groans. "They think it's all about being prom queen."
For someone so worshiped, Amos has remarkably few illusions -- about stardom, her influence, or anything else. Curiosity, not fame, is what drives her to write. She's fascinated by people and their belief systems, the things they value. Though much has been made of her rich imagination -- not everyone can turn lonely-heart odes into sprawling Dungeons and Dragons epics -- she maintains it's her connection with the real world that gives her songs energy.
She turned the experience of her own date rape into the harrowing "Me and a Gun," and founded the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an organization dedicated to fostering awareness of violence against women and children. Other songs explore the meaning of sacrifice, psychologically destructive relationships, and the tug of war between instinctual desire and institutional doctrine.
Conveyed with outlandish imagery ("You don't need a space ship," she sings on Hotel's elliptical ballad "Black-Dove," "they don't know you've already lived on the other side of the galaxy") and delivered in music that is proudly ornate, her weighty themes have made Amos an unlikely rock hero, one whose work doesn't align with either the riot grrl punks or the sensitive Shawn Colvin-style singer-songwriters.
It didn't start that way: Amos' first attempt at music making was an ill-advised L.A. pop-metal band called Y Kant Tori Read, which released one album in 1988 before dissolving. She learned from the experience and relocated to England to begin writing highly personal, idiosyncratic piano ballads. Amos' solo debut, 1992's Little Earthquakes, was a tumultuous ride from comforting coo to vitriolic wail that established her as an original voice. Since then, she has refined her dramatic technique on two more albums -- 1994's Under the Pink and 1996's Boys for Pele -- filled with cathartic songs that give victims a voice or simply mourn. Each of her CDs has sold at least a million copies.
Paramount among Amos' gifts is the ability to cultivate and sustain simmering tension, to scream without screaming. Even when she tackles what she considers the hypocrisy of organized religion, Amos doesn't just blast away: She employs calm, hymn-like processionals to create a feeling of ritual, then bends traditional symbolism into lyrics that fantasize about whether a mortal woman could satisfy a God. The daughter of a Methodist minister, Amos has spent much of her adult life in a debate with her father about the "deceptions" of Christianity. Some of the volleys wind up in songs: "Icicle" contains the line "I think the Good Book is missing some pages."
"I have a speedboat, and every once in a while I'll go out with my dad," says Amos, who lives in England. "We'll have a cup of tea and talk theology. We go round and around on things: He'll give me the line that God can save people if they're devout, and I'll argue that that power is not outside of ourselves. . . . The church needs for people to view it almost as a hedge against bad things. Fear is a motivation. But bad things will happen to good people. [Going to church ] is no insurance against rape or incest or death." Amos is still trying to understand religion. "Every Friday night I have a margarita with a Christian God. I'll share the observations of my week, and ask for answers and try to keep an open mind. Then we both move on," says the singer, who politely declines to answer questions about her recent marriage and how it has influenced her creative process.
She doesn't reveal God's reaction to Boys for Pele, whose artwork featured a pig suckling at Amos' breast. She describes the photograph as her "Madonna and child," and says it was "my Christmas card to my dad." But she says the pictures -- and the rambling, almost free-associative lyrics of Pele's songs -- were misinterpreted. "The media misses the humor, when there is humor. They missed the fun of that. Even the Christians who listen to my songs know that I'm chasing the dark side of myself and at the same time chasing the dark side of Christianity."
From the Choirgirl Hotel continues that chase. It's a series of character studies, an inventory of female archetypes -- the space cadet who gets lost on her wedding day, the predator who exploits a man's vulnerability, the Playboy mommy in platform shoes. Its songs are more focused than those of Little Earthquakes, and reinforced by a sumptuous range of sounds that take Amos far from the pathos-drenched style that marked her debut. Stately arpeggiating piano patterns remain the organizing force of the songs, but this time, they're not alone. They're accompanied by thundering guitars, droning synthesizers, and unusual string arrangements that provide an almost orchestral sweep.
As she scoops honey with her fingers from a small room-service jar, Amos explains that because she wanted each of the songs' characters to have a unique identity, she sought an assortment of sounds and textures. She spent longer than usual in a studio near the English coastline, fussing over tiny details.
"The idea of a series of songs with the same basic sound didn't appeal to me. The woman in 'She's Your Cocaine,' which is about a reptile woman who has no fidelity to sisterhood, had to be distinct from the woman in 'Spark,' who's addicted to nicotine patches."
She adds that she hears more sorrow in the record than in anything else she has recorded. "I was pregnant and miscarried at three months. Right after that I started writing. There was nothing else I could do. You know how people say their life changed becoming a mother? My life changed becoming an un-mother. I began to see the preciousness of the miracle of life."
At her show at the Electric Factory Sunday night, Amos -- who will return to the area this summer -- unveiled her first-ever touring band. For years, she had performed solo (or with longtime guitarist Steve Caton, who is a part of the band) because she couldn't find musicians who shared her sense of timing, her penchant for drama. She's found them now: Anchored by poised drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans, the trio follows the emotional riptides of her songs, one minute supporting Amos with splashes of cymbal color and delicate chords, the next surging to bellowing climaxes.
The windblown grooves and featherweight implied backbeats are impressive, but the mood swings are even more so: The music grows heavy with a flick of Amos' wrists, and as fast as the storm gathers, it dissipates, leaving serene blue skies. There are outbreaks of funk stomping followed by moments of fragile, impressionistic beauty: Now when Amos writhes on the piano bench, she's responding to an intoxicating, all-consuming rhythm her music has hinted at before, but rarely attained.
"What I've found is the primal rhythm," Amos says, enthusiastically. "I knew the songs could hold their own, but what's been amazing is the way they've opened up and blossomed. It's like the songs gained three new mothers."
She chuckles at the suggestion that the primal beat might be traced to her late maternal grandfather, who was part Cherokee. But then she chews on the thought.
"It's true that my music has a sense of ritual in it. I very much want to create an atmosphere, a feeling of reverence. That was my grandfather completely . . . He really instilled in me the beauty of all things. We'd go for walks when I was a little girl and he'd say, 'What do you see?' I'd tell him I saw a pile of dirt. He'd go, 'You are not my granddaughter. What do you see?' And I'd try to describe the dirt, and that wasn't it either.
"For him, every word held an association. Everything was a metaphor for something larger. Even in tragedy he would find a lesson or a rite of passage . . . It's really hit me recently that that's one thing I've been trying to do . . . I had no idea I would carry him so close to me."
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos