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After years of tireless touring culminating in personal tragedy, Tori Amos is back with possibly the most accessible, eclectic album of her career. Adam Mattera talks to the woman who isn't afraid to open her wounds to the world.
Tori Amos has been having nightmares.
"Someone asked a friend of mine, 'Hey do you and Tori wanna go see Scream 2?' and she said, 'fuck that, Tori lives this every night - she is Scream 2.'"
The flame-haired piano prodigy gulps down another sip of her tea. She is currently in full mid-interview flow - gloriously abandoning herself to every eddy and whirlpool of her consciousness, darting from topic to topic with sparky intellect. It's Tori's interview tea party - the table between us is crammed with baskets of croissants ('ooh the hot buttery ones are yummy!') and steaming brew - and she can be Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter if she wants to.
"You know those guys in Reservoir Dogs? They live in my dreams," she continues, contorting herself into yet another position on the armchair. "Not that I've actually seen that movie. But I do have a very violent dreamworld. It's not always fun - sometimes I don't make it out of there, you know? Like I wake up and... they got me!! It's like (adopts cartoonish little-girl-lost voice) 'uh-oh quit it! Tea break!'"
Tori is immensely likeable. As a conversationalist, she is endlessly inventive and unpredictable, switching from measured revelations of her damaged psyche to charmingly frank childlike observations with the turn of a sentence. It's a quality that, at the very least, has seen her labelled a 'kook' more times than memory serves, and at worst, added to her dismissal as part of a cynical marketing exercise (the mad woman in the attic who dared to bleed in public was exposed as - gasps of horror - a former rock chick, snakeskin boots and all).
Such criticisms, however, become largely irrelevant when you begin to consider the body of work she has amassed this decade. From her very first EP - lead by the harrowing acapella account of rape Me and a Gun - it was uncompromising, painfully honest and unreservedly in your face. In 1991, when her masterful debut Little Earthquakes was released, the whole confessional singer songwriter/girl at her piano schtick had been long buried as a commercial concern, along with Tapestry and the burgeoning women's rights movement of the early 70s. Reflective musings on the intricacies of love were out; 'women in rock' wanted to prove they could kick ass as good as the boys. After the self-obsessed 80s, a woman singing to her unsympathetic partner 'yes I know what you think of me, you never shut up' suddenly made sense. Here was a woman, a vibrant unashamedly sexual woman, who could sing honestly about sexual relationships, flirt with primal fantasy and challenge oppressive religious mores, without being constrained as either Madonna, virgin or whole. Little Earthquakes went on sell over three million units.
Then Tori just went deeper, Rather than repeat that album's bare flesh and bones confessionalism, the records became more obscure both lyrically and musically, as defying commercial logic, the album sales perversely just got bigger - first with Under The Pink and then the sprawling, intense opus Boys For Pele. The unexpected success of Van Helden's radical reworking of Professional Widow even saw her briefly crowned as an unlikely Doyenne of the Dancefloor.
The 35-year-old woman that walks into the hotel interview suite this morning is far from the alabaster siren of her CD sleeves and pop promos. Kinda dumpy with large, slightly uneven features, comfortably dressed in sportgear with huge, trendy trainers that immediately kick up onto the nearest surface as she sinks back into the armchair, she's far more unassuming than you'd expect for someone now, undeniably, so famous. As soon as she starts talking though, at once intimate and almost unnervingly focused, you know it's her alright. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tori-land...
Tell me about the new album.
"I wrote this record in the tropics. It was very warm and... (long pause) I was recovering from a miscarriage. It was Christmas of '96 and I was three months pregnant. I was going to just take time off and be a mom for a little while and then the miscarriage happened. It was such a shock, I just stayed down there for nine months. And the songs just started to come. And it became a completely different record to what I'd started on."
Weren't you touring non-stop through 96?
"Yeah, I was touring for almost a year and I got pregnant on tour and... just collapsed. I haven't missed a show yet - I don't know whether that's a good or a bad thing. Maybe I should have. Some musicians will do anything to cancel - a little ache in their throat or whatever - I'm not like that. I've been playing since I was two and a half and I really see it as being, well... you be great at what you do. You be stellar. I believe in excellence. I've done three world tours and I haven't cancelled one show yet."
Had you been planning to settle down?
"It wasn't a planned pregnancy, but he and I went through the loss together and became better friends. Not that I'd recommend it to anyone. I don't like to say good things happen out of tragedy cause that makes you want to vomit, but I've chosen to grow from something rather than just become bitter about it. There can be sadness and also great openness at the same time."
That must have had a profound effect on the songs.
"Well, when the songs start coming to me, I don't know how they're going to come. I don't know what dresses they'll be arriving in. These songs ended up being about finding the womanhood - finding the strength - in me; the loss that I went through in not being a mother to this being and yet... I found a deep love for this being that I hadn't really experienced before. Knowing that the spirit didn't want to come at this time. It was quite profound. Even though I'd loved people before, and I'd had people love me before, this felt different. Motherlove felt different to me. So the loss of that hit me on every level. So there's a deep sense of... passion in this record. Passion for life. I began to appreciate the miracle of life."
Certainly from the choirgirl hotel is the most musically diverse album Amos has ever recorded. Recorded live as part of 4-piece combo in her new studio in Cornwall ("it's called Martian, with little green eyes on the dot of the 'i'!" she offers), it rocks and sways in a way only hinted at by her previous work. Her signature piano flourishes fuse with the rhythm section to create a swirling, dreamlike soundscape on songs like Spark (the album's most obvious reference to her miscarriage), while on the swaggering She's Your Cocaine she lets her hair down and really rocks. The magnificent Jackie's Strength, meanwhile, is classic Amos territory - a sweeping ballad, it's steeped in bittersweet nostalgia, the JFK assassination, slumber parties and David Cassidy. A little bit more accessible, you could say, than the likes of Hello Mr Zebra from her last album.
This album is a lot more direct than the last.
"This record makes a lot more sense than the last one, trust me, cause it's not just an inner journey. But you do have to read the words. It's poetry. It's not, 'and my crotch itches, here we go.'"
A lot of the songs deal with personal stuff. Don't you find that painful, to be constantly confronted by your past every time you perform a song?
"I've dealt with my past (adamantly). Besides, the songs aren't just about me, that's a misconception. Yes, I'm a character in them, but the character changes - sometimes you think I'm singing from the point of view of the maiden we love so well, but sometimes I'm Lucifer. You don't necessarily know what's going on in my mind cause I don't tell you that. I may be identifying with the schmuck who's hurting this person because I'm being a bit of a devil that week. I may choose to be her and I may hate her guts. That's the craft of songwriting. I'm not just a confessional songwriter."
I'm surprised you say that. Little Earthquakes was one of the great confessional albums of all time.
"That was a diary. But confessing to me almost means seeking absolution. I don't need that from anyone. I tell you things that are going on in my mind and heart, but I'm not seeking absolution or understanding from the public. I tell stories. I shift the picture so the movie that you're seeing may look a little different from the reality - confessional songwriters don't do that. Obviously it's still all personal. If Noel Gallagher and I both saw the same thing happen, we'd end up writing it from totally different points of view."
Tell me about She's Your Cocaine. It reminds me of Heart Attack At 23 from your Y Kant Tori Read? Days.
"Really! (Laughs) You know, I think it is a reference to my rock chick days, but realised in a different way. There are three characters in that song - a he and a she and the girl singing it. I haven't quite figured out if the girl singing is really pissed off that she isn't special anymore, or if she is just horrified that she put this guy on a pedestal and he's now he's chosen this thing... this girl who wouldn't even be let into a real girl's party. This... black hole of nebulai."
That isn't very sisterly of you.
"I think your own sex can see your sex for what it is. You know the tricks of your own sex. Sometimes you can put your little play glasses on and not want to see them. But I know when another woman is flirting with one of my crew - it's so obvious and yet they can't see it. They say 'oh she's so pained' or 'she's had all this stuff happen to her.' I know a girl like this - who uses her victimness to make people feel they can't do enough for her, that nothing is ever enough. And you're like an addict. You can't spill enough blood, you can't wrap your dick into seventeen different little shapes, y'know, like those balloons. 'Here... look! Puppy! Ice cream truck!' This song is my revenge."
This is probably the most diverse of your albums so far.
"This record's called from the choirgirl hotel so you don't know if I'm reporting from it or sending dispatches - it changes. Each song is an individual. It's not like the last record - that was like a journey into the underworld of her psyche. This isn't like that - some are by the pool having a margarita, some are up in suite 17 just trying on each other's shoes, one is having her own fantasy on the phone downstairs... I don't know what they get up to - whether they're a troupe and they sing together or they work together - but they don't depend on each other to survive at all."
Let's talk about Professional Widow. Were you consulted on that remix?
"Of course. People can't just take my masters and do what they will with them. You have to understand something. I have total control of my work. I'm very fierce about my music. It's not for someone to tamper with just because they think they can make a buck. I made a very obscure record last time and Johnny D, a DJ friend of mine in New York, said 'hey it would be great if you did a few dance remixes' and suggested this guy van Helden. It was that simple - nobody thought anything would happen with it. I certainly didn't think it would become, like, a benchmark in dance music."
Will you have another dance remix from this record?
"You can't just repeat something like that again. What it did for me though was it inspired me to open up my thinking to rhythm - to use rhythm in a different way. So if there are remixes I'm going do them in-house with my team because it's not about trying to achieve that again. I don't believe in sequels."
It's funny - there are a lot of contradictions surrounding you. On one hand you've been accused of manufacturing an image to sell records, but yet you refuse to do the obvious commercial move with more Van Helden remixes. Then there's this general perception of you is as this loopy toons nutter but you're obviously a very sussed businesswoman.
"You know I think everybody has different sides to them, and I was foolish to show certain sides to certain journalists, that's all. People don't remember, but I was playing clubs when I was 13. I was this human jukebox playing whatever people wanted to hear. Little Earthquakes didn't come out until I was 28. I was sending out tapes of my stuff to record companies all that time, getting I can't tell you how many rejection letters - bathrooms full of them. Nobody wanted to know. Then I moved to LA at 21 and still nobody wanted know about the piano thing. So I formed a band cause that's what they were signing then. Got a deal that way and then the album died so I went back to what I'd always been doing. People are just not accurate with the chronology. And you can't invent being a good songwriter, you either write good songs or you don't. Whatever marketing happens is gonna happen, and of course you play on that, but no one can give you the songs."
You've made it now. You've got the respect, the fame. Isn't there a point where you feel you done it now and you can stop working yourself so hard?
"Well, putting aside what I make for five minutes, I'm still a working musician. And I'm gonna work if I'm playing the Albert Hall or if I'm jamming in someone's house. I'm gonna work cause that's what I do. Sure, we all had the need to be heard - to be recognised. Otherwise you wouldn't send your tape to anybody, you'd just wanna teach music to kids or play in your bedroom. But you've got to be responsible for that choice. It's not a bad thing, you just have to own that part of yourself. That need for attention - fame - whatever that means, even if it's people just wanting to hear your music."
How do you relate the whole fame thing?
"Fame is very tricky. It's like a pit full of stuff - some of it is yummy and some it is big monsters. It's a double-edged sword and if you pretend you don't want it you're a liar and that is going to rip your soul to pieces. That's why a lot of people drink or do loads of whatever, 'cause they're trying to anaesthetise themselves. 'Cause you haven't been able to face that a part of you wanted this, and you have so much shame that you wanted this. There's a lot of shame in being famous - that's because so many people want it and haven't achieved it and are envious. And I think a lot of popstars were envious of other people before they made it too. And they haven't owned that either. So there's a lot going on that if you're not honest about what you're up to or what your unconscious is up to then you probably will dream about Reservoir Dogs every night."
from the choirgirl hotel is released 4 May on eastwest records
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