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Visions (Germany)
May 1998

Tori Amos
A big, unsolved mystery


She's always covered herself in the veil of a modern fairy-tale. A dreamy figure, whose songs come to us at night and enter our dreams. Of course she was always the good fairy. Yet on her new album "From the Choirgirl Hotel" she can't be too sure of her role anymore.

It's a friendly day, during a friendly winter, as I stroll through the friendly streets of the London district, Kensington. At the end of the day I'll be meeting Tori Amos. Even though there are only a few hours until then, this encounter seems weeks away. I have always tried to avoid all the prejudice, but somehow I couldn't help seeing the fragile singer as some sort of creature out of a fable, half in the present, half in one, however describable, afterlife; a strange double-existence between flesh and vibration. Could she be like her songs? Both strong and weak, yet from a strange lofty suction, which makes any defense pointless. I let a swarm of images circle, but I can't manage to capture a picture of the woman I'm going to meet.

At the time of the conversation, I've heard 5 entire songs from "From the Choirgirl Hotel". Yet they're so different from the ethereal previous album "Boys for Pele", that I start to get the impression she might have transformed herself from the good to the bad fairy. And even though she's sitting there in her little black shirt, facing me, with her thoughts totally absorbed in her forthcoming wedding, yet still condemned to absolve a series of interviews; the impression I had, seems to be true. But surprisingly enough she's really interested in talking about her new songs. After all, it's her first chance to talk about her record with people who weren't directly involved with it.

The very first impression one gets from listening to "From the Choirgirl Hotel" is its diversity. Whereas the last album was marked by it's sensual atmosphere, this one alternates between rock-songs, tender ballads and electronic ambient- and dance-numbers. Tori Amos hesitates for a moment, before talking about it. "Boys for Pele" was a journey through one's own unconscious for me. In whatever way you've overcome this flow in your own psyche, whether it's on your knees, through something psychedelic or through a relationship - for me it was a search for my own fire, and I still hear this search in the album. But how do you find this hole in the ground of your own creativity, instead of waiting for someone else to jump in and you to dive after? This new record is a place. I called it hotel. It's a place, where the songs live and reside. Two of them sit directly by the pool and drink a margarita. Another song lies in room 17, and yet another song takes care of the garden. Depending on which song you use to get into the hotel, you'll have a completely different impression of each room. On "Pele" you dove right in with the first song and advanced deeper into it. The direction was fixed. This time there are many different directions depending on where you get in. You will always hit on a different mood, but the experience you'll make will be the same. So much to the form of the record."

Tori Amos loves to talk in pictures. Not all of her spontaneous pictures contain the poetic strength of her songs. Some are just cryptic, others seem to take some effort. But that's how she is. Maybe it belongs to the image of the bad fairy; that not every puzzle is immediately solvable. With "From the Choirgirl Hotel" she's already made a surprising landing on the ground of reality. The diversity of her song-material immediately creates a link to the title of the album. "Boys for Pele" was a rosy-red, extremely harmonic sugarball; an expressionistic game with color and light. Some time has passed since then. Tori still plays with colors, but meanwhile she's mixing them with dirt and mud. The confession from the past has been mixed with a certain sound of bittersweet maturity. A heavy, damp earthiness covered by heavy clouds. Tori Amos looks at me with big eyes, changes her facial expression as if she were opening a new book, and suddenly she gets extremely personal. Her voice gets harder and the ethereal tone has vanished. "It's not easy to talk about things that really happened. But the new album can't be understood, if you don't talk about the catalyst as well. At the end of "Boys for Pele" I was pregnant. After nearly three months I lost the child. This experience changed everything. I was put in a completely different situation of questions, sadness and confusion. Again and again I asked myself: why can some women become mothers and others not? That's what occupied my mind at the time. Maybe one day I can become a mother again. At present I have made the decision, to completely immerse myself in music, because this experience was just too painful to repeat again so soon. I'm still in the healing process, and with my songs I want to convey the feeling that most questions don't have an answer. No one knows where the souls go, once they've died. I carry with me a strange "nowhere", which isn't based on a physical, but a completely spiritual experience. I somehow have a bad feeling, and don't know where I should unload it. That builds up a lot of tension."

Aha, so after all just a person with very earthly, unendless tragic experiences. Despite the helplessness that creeps up on me at the moment, I'm happy to be able to place myself on a level with her, that's more sizable for me. For example her songs. Our world, which rotates according to the laws of Marketing, reminds us to speak of records, of a product. Yet Tori is a real songwriter. More than before, she shows us with her new collection, that the individual song exists without the connection of the entire record. Every song has it's own life. The term "album" is therefore more suitable, because you can separate any one song, and put it back again, without changing it's character, touching another song or even impairing it. But I've hardly addressed the individuality of the songs, when Tori returns to her ivory tower, where I have trouble following her.

"The songs come and visit me. When I sit down and try to write something, they shy away from coming to me. This situation has no magic at all. I feel it, when the girls come to me. I call them the girls. I'm a woman, but they can be as old as they want. Some of them are 3000 years old, others have only been there for 3 minutes. They just show up. They don't fit in any of the known connections; they have their own rules and constantly change their form. I often have the feeling, as if my function were merely to translate them. And because I practice my creativity with them, I have to be open to them every single moment. You sit there, and suddenly you feel the presence of something. At times it reminds me of the stories of people, who've had visions of ghosts. They just feel it." That's all very nice, but song-writing also involves handicraft; invested time. What actually happens? Does she start with a melody, the lyrics or a rhythm; is the beginning a visual image, or does she first think of an object she wants to sing about? "It's different every time. The development of my songs has a lot to do with patience. You try to bring something ethereal in a physical context. There's no recipe for that."

The directness of the new songs may turn off any hard-core Amos fan at first. But as long as he doesn't give up after the first listen, he'll soon understand, that the main qualities are still there. With unique visual imagination she turns the ear of the listener into an eye. She doesn't just work with images in her lyrics; she makes the band her canvas, her piano the base, and her voice the brush, with which she paints on one color after the other, until a picture appears, be it abstract or concrete. Now and then, it also happens that she'll lose the magic of a song. Especially in the professional approach with her own creations, the personal access often gets lost. That is tragic, but in this situation all that counts is making a decision. It happens, so she admits, that she just can't find the right elements, which make a song come to life. Some songs just get aborted, other's never finish, some fail, although she doesn't really know if they actually failed, or if she was just incapable of seeing them. On the other hand she makes discoveries in her own songs, and therefore the same experiences as her listener. She has the feeling, her songs would ask her questions, which she can't always answer at once. They are part of a godly nature, they come to her, become transparent, say to her, she can look through them, work and live through them. "Yet then you have to hand us out, and the people will do with us as they please, without you having any control over it."

However, that's where the danger lies. Isn't Tori Amos scared of giving away too much of herself? Maybe she's hiding behind all these unexplored pictures and unsolvable mysteries, just to give away as little as possible? Yet exactly at this point her voice becomes harder again, and she looks for her place on the earthly side of the universe. "When you sing and write songs, you have to let go of them at some point. I let records go, and as soon as I do that, they don't belong to just me anymore. That is surely a vulnerable area. It's not comparable with a manuscript, which an actor tries to fill with his personality. I write stories, which on the one hand are nothing but stories, on the other hand still have roots in my own life. I put these songs out. And if someone wants to go to the toilet with them, then he can do it. If you really believe in peace and believe that everyone can deal with the songs as he pleases, as long as he doesn't personally harm me, then you shouldn't be worried about it. As soon as someone would want to cause me or my circle any pain, I'd take everything in the hand to protect those I love. However, everyone has the right to hate my songs. I'm vulnerable, and yet I believe in the free will of my listeners. One has to learn out of the pure reasons of self-protection, to separate one thing from the other. Not to take everything so personally, even if it's meant personally."

Tori Amos creates in and out of a 100-procentual voting system. She is so easily attacked, that she can't afford an attack. Accordingly, she adjusts herself to her surroundings, where she works on and records her songs. In contrast to the last album, she let herself be persuaded by her sound engineers to record in a somewhat audio-friendly ambience. She let a studio be arranged in an old barn in Cornwall, which she and her songs then filled with life. This process is for Tori Amos as meaningful as the crossing of the border between a real and a magical space. "Sometimes this secret, this magic is already there in the room when you enter it. Sometimes you have to create it yourself. Then you only have the feeling, the room sounds good, you just have to make it reflect. Sometimes you feel a strange whirling or you have the feeling, the walls are thin veils. Energy, that comes from completely different directions. There are also situations, when you feel that you should immediately leave a room, because you can't get any air."

With admirable stoicism the sensitive singer lets one question after the other go over her, although I notice that she seems to be on a different planet with her thoughts. And who could blame her. Her dirty and tattered veil still gives her protection. She might want to hide behind a secret, that might not even exist. Is there anything at all that can make her lose her composure? Oh yes! For example, the Internet-page of a lunatic, who makes her life into his. I hand her about 60 pages. The person concerned, whose naming here, would be too much of an honor for him, collects everything about her. He receives letters from people around the world, who attach themselves to anyone who somehow, somewhere had anything to do with Tori, and builds up every bit of information, even if the degree of truth is yet so small, in his own Tori-universe. And suddenly the veil falls from her. She is visibly shaken and shocked. "Jesus.... Jesus... Jesus Christ, he knows so much. Nearly more than I know about myself. My God, maybe I should read this every day, just to know, what's going on with me. I know maybe a little more than him, but really just a very little bit more."

Thanks to the Internet, the days of the myths are over. Tori Amos is now done, and can finally dedicate herself to her wedding preparations. She disappears so quickly, that for a moment I assume, she's dissolved into thin air. In the end I find myself in the same pondering again, which already kept me busy before our meeting. Could I really find out anything about Tori Amos? I don't know. Do I now hear her music with different ears? I dare to doubt it. In the end she leaves as the victor of our conversation, because what remains is a big, unsolved mystery.


[translated from German to English by Sabrina]


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