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the musician interview
Can a notoriously idiosyncratic artist find happiness with her first real band?
Tori Amos spells out what it takes to give it and get it: R - E - S - P - E - C - T
by Maureen Herman
Photographs by Jonathan Mark
Tori Amos is a busy woman. Within the last month, she has finished her album, From the Choirgirl Hotel (her first with a full band), made a video for her first single, Spark, gotten a touring band together, started practicing for a world tour, and somehow found time to get married along the way to longtime live and studio sound engineer Mark Hawley. Besides this, she is doing the publicity required of an artist with a major release looming: photos, interviews, TV appearances. This kind of frenzy would make most people spin out of control, but strangely, Tori Amos is very in control and focused. What kind of freak is she?
And how does she handle this chaos without losing sight of the big picture and retaining control of the music? According to her long-time assistant and tour manager, John Witherspoon, she is uncomfortable with inactivity and is always doing three things at once. "I have no idea where she gets her energy," admits the friendly Englishman who, rather than seeming like the usual fussy, flustered road manager, clearly cares about Amos professionally. As I see throughout the day, this is the running theme with all the people around her: mutual respect.
At 11:00 A.M., I've already had breakfast with her band - a guitarist, bassist, and drummer from various walks of life. All were brought to this project for their talent and professionalism. Except for guitarist Steve Caton, who worked with Amos back in her now-infamous big-hair rock-chick L.A. days and has played on her records and done numerous tours, these guys find all this activity pretty new. Matt Chamberlain, the drummer, auditioned for Amos at the recommendation of Caton and played percussion on the record. Bassist Jon Evans, on the other hand, has only been a part of the project for three weeks and was in turn, recommended by Chamberlain. Apparently, it always comes down to who you know. Though long-time Amos bassist George Porter Jr. performed on the album and will likely do so on future recordings, Evans was hired for the live shows because Porter has a young family and is not interested in doing extensive touring. (It's worth noting that many musicians would not be allowed this flexibility - again, respect and professionalism are the rule in this camp.)
When asked how it felt to be thrown into a major world tour at the drop of a hat, Evans said, "I was nervous about getting here and not knowing all the songs. I had a tape of the record and I practiced at home, but once I got here, Tori was so professional and direct. I just try to play the thing that will make her start dancing around when she's at the piano. That's how I know I'm on the right track."
Later at their practice space, The Depot, with Hall & Oates doing their thing two floors down, I'm witness to her patience, and encouraging directness with the players. She knows what she likes, and when she likes it, she is all over her piano bench like a woman possessed, one foot stomping the beat and the other working the pedal of the Bosendorfer with impassioned focus.
Before practice though, we are driving in a big, black London cab through the winding streets towards her hotel, oddly separate from her band's digs. This and the fact that she was with her personal trainer while I was having breakfast with the band that morning, strikes me as smacking a bit of the pampered "pop star" lifestyle. But after spending almost nine hours around her, the band, and crew, a different picture emerges. It is one of a determined and talented musician who understands the pitfalls of stardom and thrives on the chaotic business that naturally accompanies a successful working musician cum pop star. She has made a separate peace with the business side of music, and she works out the rest with her piano and her voice.
At our first meeting, her excitement about doing an interview for a potential audience of musicians is disarming. Like a big sister talking to her little brother the night before he begins high school, she wants others to learn from her experiences, to help them avoid painful mistakes, and to celebrate being a musician regardless of their playing level. Her desire to communicate with others is strong, even in the middle of an already hectic day that shows no sign of slowing down. Most admirable is her commitment to professionalism in the way she conducts business and her considerable achievements of the past four weeks despite being under pressure that would make most people's heads blow right off.
Musician: How do you get the time you need to get ready for a tour when there is all this side business and distraction from what should be the most important thing: the music?
Tori: "Need" is a strange concept, because you always want it but at a certain point you're saying, "I can't do it if I don't have this much time;" you're limiting yourself. You can't control what the radio does, but you can decide what level your performance will be; that is in your control. I mean, I can see why people ask me, "Are you a control freak?" Well, you know; some people think I am; it depends on if it's Thursday. I think I'm an ant-fucker. (Makes motion with hands as if trying to, well, fuck an ant, laughing) I'm trying to find ways of climbing on that little guy. But I'll do it and I'll sit there and it's getting that detail.
Yet, the engineers are much more like that than I am. They're interested in whether it feels good and gets the magic, if it was technically on. But there's going to be mistakes in every piece; for me it's much more about if we get the right feeling in that take. The conversation that you're having with the other musicians, I mean there's going to be bum notes, but to me it's not about that. It's like, what is kissing perfectly about? I don't know what that is. You know, the tongue is moved to the left every millisecond in increments of blah blah blah. What lip gloss you have on will change the whole thing. So I really encourage the guys to not play it the same all the time. Obviously there are elements that you always want there. For instance, in the bass there will be a beautiful line and you wait for it and everything's dependent on it for structure; there has to be a skeleton. But I'm building space into the new material; there's about a three-minute break in a few of the songs - the "groove" tunes. So off the new record, in songs like iieee and Cruel, there are breaks, where at a certain point, you just play and Matt knows things can change within that time, and I don't have a set timeline; we know when it's time to get out. They come alive. If I didn't do that I don't think they would be fed. When I made the decision to get these players and play it live, I felt like it had to be constantly growing.
Musician: Which brings us to your choice of them as players. How do you find the right players?
Tori: I need a way for the excitement level for the band to be there, especially if it's going to be a long tour. They need to feel respected and challenged. That's my belief for both the band and the crew. We have about a forty-person crew with the band on the road. And of course, they're not there because they're my friends. Later they may become my friends, as with Caton (guitarist Steve Caton) who I've known for years. And Matt (Chamberlain, drummer) is becoming a friend and John (bassist) I just met. They become friends but that's not why they're there. And that's the greatest compliment. You're not there because you're my friend, you're there because you're great.
Musician: A lot of people choose their musicians based more on the length of time they've known them, and then sometimes it is harder to deal with things musically because the friendship gets in the way.
Tori: Yes, but if you live in a small town, like if you live in Columbus, Ohio, right? And you can only choose between three bass players really? Your choice of people is different when you can network and say, "Who's out there anywhere in the world?" What an amazing thing. That's a gift to be able to have that opportunity.
Musician: But you've worked hard to get to that point of being able to choose.
Tori: Still, I think there's that thing where, it's not so much about how fast you can play. It really does come down to an internal thing with the
Musician: What's going on inside? That reflects in your playing; the mud oozes through their fingers.
Musician: Great musicians play because they have to, and your skill increases because of your emotional involvement.
Tori: And that's very different from pop stars.
Musician: What do you consider a pop star?
Tori: Pop stars are famous people who sell a lot of records, but don't really play music or really feel it. You know, they love music - and hey, good for them. They sing songs...
Musician: But they could live without it. They don't have the drive, or the vital need to express.
Tori: It's not about the music. I mean, they like music as much as anyone. Half the pop stars are not musicians. It's not a slag, but it's something musicians need to understand. Being a musician is a skill. It's not a fashion. Just because you think you're one doesn't mean you're one - sorry, sweetheart. I'm not trying to be vicious here, but I'm trying to give players pride. Because there's a lot of players that will never be on the Top 50 Billboard charts. And there are some great musicians in serious metal bands, where sometimes it becomes a bit tongue in cheek but still they are amazing players. And I think it's having them be aware that being a musician is a skill.
There are a lot of famous actors who don't have the acting craft. They're cute and they get by and they have good personalities, but they're not Judi Dench (nominated for best actress for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in the film Mrs. Brown) But there are a lot of people who are really committed to being great at what they do. Some of them are very famous, but what I'm trying to really encourage musicians to understand is that they should feel good about having a skill. You may get famous because of your smile, not your skill. That's a skill too, but it's a different one. Because there are people I see - you know, singers - who can't play an instrument, but they have that magic when the light hits them. They sing really nice songs and they make a lot of people happy and I go, well, good for them, they've really achieved and taken themselves somewhere on not a whole lot of talent. They've got magic and you have to give it up for them.
At the same time, musicians have a different skill, if they choose to develop it, and some of them don't. They think that if they play a few chords, they're musicians. That doesn't honor the music, that doesn't honor the muse. It's something that I really had to get clear in my head, because I don't think that's an understanding that musicians have and I see a lot of them in pain, and I've been in pain. It's not like two hours a day are set aside on every radio station for the encouragement of pioneering music. I think a lot of musicians are very frustrated because they may have this wonderful ability, but to merge that with the pop world, it can be very frustrating. It's one thing that I have to work through all the time; I really have to not become a number on a pop chart. It's like your worth, if they say you're only number 68.
Musician: You're presented in the media as a "pop star" but your lyrics are definitely more in-depth than usual pop fare.
Tori: For those writers who are listening are going to read this article, there has to be a peace made within regarding what your integrity is. Sometimes you find a way to put it in a language where you don't feel like you've dishonored your skill. But you put it in a form that isn't so hard to grasp. Sometimes it's writing the anti-pop song in your mind that you're always doing and you ask yourself, why am I resisting? You have to decide where you stand on confrontation. I don't necessarily mean political issues. I just mean, does it put your back up? Does it take you to places that might not be warm and fuzzy, whatever warm and fuzzy is to some people?
Musician: Sometimes warm and fuzzy is another person's nightmare and vice-versa.
Tori: I do think that there is a level where not everybody likes anything overly challenging, whether it's rhythmically or a chord progression that makes them feel familiar, and I've had to honor that there's a place for that - and it's taken me a lot. There are sides that as a musician I've had to come to terms with that are a bit... pukey. Like why isn't there a radio station in every town that advertisers put money into that is really not about, "Is this programmable?" To succeed you have to come to terms with what your choices are. You make those choices and say, "Okay, this means I'm anchovies, and I know that."
Musician: You're saying that you need to know the parameters and not necessarily feel like they're limiting you, but in choosing to work in that context, you must make concessions.
Tori: When you make the choices, you have to face the consequences, and the consequences can be fantastic.
Musician: Well, once you reach the stature that you have, you're better able to call the shots in the way that you tour and record. But you have to give a little to get a little as far as power goes.
Tori: That makes sense, I mean Johnny (Witherspoon, tour manager) said last week, "You know the album is coming out and you know you made a choice not to make Ford Fiestas." When you make cars by hand, well, some people don't want that and it's a specialized thing. But you can't go, "Yeah, but everyone else wants this other thing." Sometimes you really have to not live your life by your number. You know your music gets out there, but when it's just you and musicians and everything it's one thing. But once your record gets out and you get your number... I mean, every week, it's like, (cringing) "I don't want to know!" Don't tell me I'm 170. It's like, is that what I'm worth, this number?
Musician: It's like gauging your worth by what order you get picked in gym class in grade school.
Tori: Yeah, and then you go, wait a minute, what if we did this to the great painters, some of whom never sold a painting in their lifetime? I'm really trying to talk to musicians who are frustrated, because I know, I understand, and I see their pain. I'm not complaining; I'm very lucky. I don't have to work three jobs, but I used to, and I got where I am today. I created this. I'm thankful that I had encouragement and stuff, but sometimes I didn't—I just knew that I wanted to play music. I didn't want anything else. I didn't want to be a music teacher, it wasn't in me. Even though some of them were so patient to have me as a student. I didn't think I could do it. I'm fortunate and yet, once you step into that commercial music world, it's a minefield and you've got to work it out internally. You really can't buy into self-worth by what your number on the Billboard chart is.
Musician: It's vital that the musicians who read this interview know how important it is to be strong to achieve personal success in the music business.
Tori: To go back to the word "musician," you can get confused about your intention. There is a fame issue that most musicians don't want to own. That is the dark side of the whole thing. But you must recognize it: It's part of the truth, it's part of what it is. A lot of times you'll go in saying, "I don't care about that," but that's not really true or you would have stayed at home in your living room. You've got to be honest about it.
There's so much shame around the fame issue, whether you call it recognition or fame or you just wanted to get chicks or you wanted to feel hot, whatever it is. If you don't want to be crawling out of your skin because you're lying to yourself all the time, you've got to admit that you do want to put it out there, because you do want to communicate; you want to connect, and if you do get some attention there will be a fame issue and you're going to have to deal with that. Fame is an amazing teacher.
Musician: How have you dealt with the fame issue?
Tori: Very badly at first. It can become like, again, your worth is based on outside factors and yet it's a natural thing to want to know that you're being seen, that you're being heard, like you're being understood.
Musician: It's like mirroring back from your family, asking, "Am I doing okay?"
Tori: Exactly. "Are you hearing me?" I think that's a normal, natural feeling. But my ego got really confused. What are my intentions, what is the attention, and where do you put all this energy that's coming at you?
Musician: It's like a loop of energy from the stage to the audience and back again.
Tori: Recognition for a lot of musicians is, like, there's a pit in your stomach for some musicians because you've been playing so long, and your work isn't recognized; a wound gets created. And so sometimes when you get that recognition, it's like a truck. You think, "Maybe I am okay." You begin to doubt yourself when there's no response to your work. There's always one exception to the rule, but I think artists need their work to be responded to - even if it's eggs being pelted at them. Art is a life force, and when you put it out there it is a part of you.
Musician: But the art is public too.
Tori: When someone says, "Oh, you know you can't take it personally," that's tricky. A friend once told me that once you're known, people don't see you as a human when they're looking at your work. There isn't a head and a heart, and they feel like you don't have that right, that if you've put it out there, you've given up that right. I sense that that's because the critics or whoever feel that if you get the perks of fame or success, you have to take the dark side of it. Sometimes the dark side is the perks, when you're sitting there going, "Oh my God, there's all this decadence around me." You can have anything anytime you want, and it's still not fulfilling. Sometimes it's never enough. That's why we go back to the ego and the internal recognition, saying, "You know what? We're doing the best we can and we're working on our skills." You're only as good as your job, and I think that's true in a positive sense.
Musician: Saying that you're only as good as your job certainly applies to finding people who are good players, not necessarily your friends, for your band.
Tori: The playing comes first. I have a lot of friends who I didn't call. Because that isn't the first prerequisite; it's about being good - and then, obviously, not being a walking black hole. There's just no room for it. It's hard enough as it is; if somebody pulls everybody down, I can't have it.
Musician: On a day-to-day basis, having a negative or draining presence around can really affect performance and the crew's ability to do its job well.
Tori: It really does. It's different when you're a band breaking together than when you're calling in the players and you can afford to pay them properly. It's a different situation, but I still know fellow artists who pull in a band that is abusive or envious. That would never happen with me. No, I'll tear your throat out.
But this is where we go back to, I'm a player. I'm not solely a singer. And I feel for some of the girls who just sing but are very dependent on players. They may be talented, but they're not musicians. Some of them are good songwriters and good collaborators with other players. They have a gift, but you cannot command respect of seasoned players - it's very difficult. I mean, Tina Turner knows music, she can work a band; it's unbelievable what she can do. She's not a player but she knows music so well, it's so much in her soul, she can whip them into shape. She knows what she's doing and it's about respect, even though she isn't a player per se. Tina Turner is a musician - some singers are - but you have to strive to do that. You can't rest on your laurels. You have to understand rhythm and you need to know how to communicate with those drummers. You need to explain what you need.
Musician: ...and you need to be able to listen.
Tori: You don't get respect because you're a pop star. You get respect because you get results and you know what you're doing.
Tori Amos' practice space basics
Tori Amos, keyboards, vocals: A shiny black Bosendorfer grand piano, a Kurzweil K2500XS MIDI piano with Zip drive connected (yes, she can play both at once), and Neumann KMS 140 and 150 hand held mics.
Steve Caton, guitar: Two Schecter Trad guitars, a Schecter guitar tuned to Bb with a bass string for the "E," two ESP Eclipse guitars, a Renson Strat-style guitar tuned to Db, a '78 Valley Arts Strat-style guitar, a Roland Jazz Chorus 120 guitar amplifier with ElectroVoice Series II 12" speakers, a Roland GP100 guitar preamp processor, and a Roland FC200 MIDI foot controller. "I'm trying to organize the patches on the foot controller. I really don't want to step on the wrong pedal during a live show."
Matt Chamberlain, drums: An Ayotte Wood Hoop drum set with a 12" mount top, a 15" floor tom, a 22" kick, and a 14" Keplinger Metal snare. He uses Sabian cymbals; 14" hand-hammered duo hats, a 20" duo ride, a 16" AAX Studio crash, an 18" Sizzle crash and an 8" mounted saw blade. "You never know when you might need it." All his hardware is Drum Workshop. Interestingly, he has Taos Native American kick drum and snare. On the other end of technology he has a MIDI FAT PAD, and a Roland MS1 sampler. He pounds out the music's disparate rhythms with Vic Firth sticks.
Jon Evans, bass: A '72 fretless Fender Precision Bass, a '92 Tobias five-string bass, a DART Bi Level acoustic bass, and a Pikart Upright Bass. For amplification, he combines a Boss SE 70 effects processor, a Groove Tube preamp, and a Crown MicroTech 600 all shot through Acme LowB4 cabinets.
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