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The Aquarian Weekly (US)
September 30 - October 7, 1998
Issue No. 948
Creating Song Life Out Of Personal Loss
by Lydia Carole DeFretos
People either love Tori Amos or simply don't get her. Those cynics who dismiss her as being some sort of a flaky, New Age high priestess are really missing out on one of the most intelligent -- and insightful -- artists of our time. Make no mistakes about it -- this is no act. Amos not only "talks the talk" but she "walks the walk," as well. Granted, quite often she skips, frolics, and runs full-speed ahead -- always searching for answers to the many mysteries of life.
Amos is currently the woman of the hour, with the recent release of her fourth Atlantic album, From The Choirgirl Hotel, and her first stint as the leader of a back-up band. For years the promise has been there. Even though the singer/songwriter/pianist has always performed either alone or with an accompanying guitarist, Amos possesses the soul of a rock 'n' roll queen. During an intimate club tour in early May, weeks before ...Choirgirl Hotel hit the stores, Amos effortlessly tried on the crown. It fit perfectly.
It's been seven years since Amos first hit the scene with Little Earthquakes, but the time in between has been well spent. She has built a solid catalog of material and carved a place for herself long before the "women in music" thing became trendy. One of the many fascinating aspects of Amos is the fact that she appeals to both women and men, although probably for very different reasons. Whereas her last album, Boys For Pele, was more geared towards her female listeners, the current disc has a more universal theme.
...Choirgirl Hotel includes the first hit, "Spark," "Black-Dove (January)," "iieee," "Northern Lad," and my personal favorite, "Cruel." Amos has acknowledged that the current single, "Jackie's Strength," is a song about her wedding day. Over the past year or so she's both gotten married and gotten pregnant. Unfortunately, she had a miscarriage. That sense of loss is a recurrent theme on this disc as well as in interviews.
Not long after her recent sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, I caught up with Amos on the road. This, our seventh or eighth interview, was more like a conversation between old friends. While I'm sure her soul-piercing look can be somewhat intimidating, I always enjoy a one-on-one with this world-wise woman.
Imagine my surprise when the all-too-familiar voice on the phone breaks into a verse of the Groucho Marx classic, "Lydia The Tattooed Lady."
(Laughing) I will let that go.
I'm sure you've heard that your whole life.
That and there's a John Prine song called "Donald and Lydia." I've seen a few of your recent shows and I've got to tell you that seeing you with a band works so beautifully. It just seems natural. Is that how it feels to you?
I love playing with these guys. I get along with them on a lot of levels. There's a lot of trust. We rework things all the time. We have a real commitment to it, we spend a lot of time together. It takes a lot of time and commitment. It isn't a chore at all playing with them.
We have about a two-hour soundcheck every day. We work things up. We're really commited to reworking things from the old albums. We're recording every show. I might put out a live record of this.
That would be great because there are so many live bootlegs out there.
And they're really bad. If I'm going to do it, I'm obviously going to treat it like all the other records with a pre-and-post production process. I'm thinking about doing it, I really am. Now is the time if I'm ever going to do it. There's a magic to being with a band live for the first time that you can't recapture in later years.
Plus, if you put one out, then people will be less inclined to buy the bootlegs.
Well, whether they do or not, the bootlegs aren't representative of what it sounds like live. I'd like something to be representative of what the shows are really like.
So much has happened to you both professionally and personally since we last spoke. First off, congratulations on getting married.
With all that's going on right now, not talking about the miscarriage, does this feel like the best time of your life?
Yeah, right now does. What it is, it's pretty grounded. The miscarriage, I think, really brought us (she and her husband, sound engineer, Mark Hawley) together in a big way. It made us friends in a way that I think only tragedy can. They say it either pushes you together or pulls you apart.
How did you know within a week that you were pregnant?
I just knew. When you do six of those home pregnancy tests and all of them say "positive" you probably are.
Did you do an ultrasound to find out it was a girl?
No, we knew it was a girl when we lost her.
So you hadn't gotten to the point where you actually had names picked out.
We did, actually. Not to get into all the details, but we were really connected to the spirit in a big way. We thought we were out of the woods and it was a real shock that morning when I started getting the pains. Even when we ended up at the doctor's we thought I was just in pain and needed to get sorted out.
In one article you said, "You feel death, but you're alive. You're walking between the worlds."
I said that, yeah. I've lost my grandfather, who was my favorite person. And, I've lost some friends. Losing a baby like that was a different feeling because I was helpless to do anything. There was no deal I could make even if it was, "Tori, walk to Japan and you can save the baby's life." I wasn't given those options.
So, during the making of this whole record I was still trying to make contact with the spirit of this being. Not through ouija boards or anything, but just really trying to look up at the sky at night, and seeing how huge it is out there, deep space is endless. If we think that the Pacific ocean is big, it's like, where do souls go when they leave this plane? Nobody knows how to answer, not for a fact.
I was just really trying to not conjure up her talking to me. I didn't want it to be out of the madness of my own grief. I was really trying to listen. It was through the songs where I got the most communication -- "Playboy Mommy" and "Spark."
Which one came first?
"Pandora's Aquarium" was the first one down.
I'm sure that the last thing on your mind at that point was making a record.
Yeah, especially when I was pregnant. I was so far away from making a record. But as the songs started coming it wasn't about making a record, it was about being creative again. I had to create life even if it was song life. I began to value song life in a way that maybe I had taken for granted. They're not just songs, you know what I mean? They're friends, they're teachers, and they're drinking buddies.
I love your view on Sorrow, on how she's not always maudlin. That there's a lot more to her than people think there is.
Yeah, there's a depth. I think I started to begin to open up to the depths of life and death.
You've mentioned listening to the water, and that it told you to dive in -- that that's where "the healing was."
There was so much water on this record, where as with Pele there was so much fire. Under the Pink there was so much air, and Earthquakes, obviously, was earth. Working with the different elements I don't know where I'm going to go next -- maybe metal.
I really had to turn to the water, too, because as a woman I was having a very difficult time feeling my womanhood. The most natural thing a woman can do, I couldn't do. All the strength that I had before -- before I was pregnant, when I was pregnant -- I just couldn't find my point of view as a woman.
And, I wasn't a mother, yes I was still loving this being that I would never hold in my arms physically. So the untangible is very much a part of my life. I guess it always has been because I've always believed in the spirit world, but this brought it home for me in a different way.
As the songs started to come, were you thinking in terms of writing music for a band, or did that come later?
When the music started coming, it was very clear that rhythm was in its core structure. I saw it as architecture as it was coming in, almost like when you get blueprints for a house. I saw the rhythm very much in it, I was hearing it. I had a drum machine and a 16-track. I was just playing, banging on the piano -- just on the wood. I knew I finally had to surrender and cut live with a drummer. And Eric Rosse (her former producer and long-time beau) called me after I lost the baby. I said, "The songs are coming," and he said, "As they always do. I know the drummer for you." He had just produced Critters Buggin', which was Matt's former band. That's how I found Matt (Chamberlain).
That just goes to prove that it's a small world.
Then Matt flew in just to play in my living room. We just got on like a house on fire. Mark talked me into cutting live with him. I had to cut live. A lot of people don't cut live, no matter what they tell you. Usually vocals are cut in the end, completely independent. Or they get the track down -- rhythm and drums -- and they build the track. But everything was piano, vocal, synth, drums, loops live. Pretty much full takes. You fix a word or you fix a take -- a high-hat or whatever. Pretty much we got it. It wasn't about taping tapes together.
It was more about capturing songs in their essence.
That's not a bad thing. I've taped many a song together in the past. But this record was really more about a live performance, and then building on that.
"Jackie's Strength" is the current single. Is there a video?
Yeah, I'm really proud of this one. It's in black-and-white and I'm in the back of a taxi in my wedding dress. Basically I'm standing him up at the altar because my character just can't go through with it. "Jackie's Strength" to me is tragic because it's two people who really love each other. It's not that you don't love enough, but you're dying inside. I think more than anything she really gets that she's a fantasy of who he wants her to be, and she knows she's never going to be it. She can't be what his fantasy is.
I think a lot of men have that problem.
I think a lot of women have that problem, too.
Yeah, but I think a lot of men have a dream girl in their mind and then they take a woman and try to mold her into that image.
And then they hate it when they realize that she has insecurities, and maybe she is needy in certain areas, and it just becomes a big turnoff. So they move on to the next one. They have this idea of what their goddess is, instead of understanding that they have frailties. Everyone does if you get to know them, you know. If you really get to know them.
My two favorites are "Cruel" and "Northern Lad."
I'm glad you said "Cruel." It's one of my favorites. It hits me right around my female organs, "Cruel." It hits me all in that area when I play it. There's almost this side to myself that I've rejected a long time because I've judged her so harshly. I've judged the fact that I can be a real piece of work. There are certain lines that people cross with me that as far as I'm concerned -- especially if they hurt somebody that I love -- there's no going back. I can be really tough -- I want to change that word.
Do you know Boadicea? Around the third century AD, when the Romans were coming into England and they'd been there awhile, the native people were warring with them. Then they brutally tortured them and murdered them.
If I remember correctly, Boadicea found out who was responsible and went into the sacred Druid grove where the Romans slept because they felt that nobody would ever attack them there because it went against everything they believed in. Well, Boadicea believe that once the line was crossed there's nothing like a mother's vengeance. So she went into the sacred druid grove and castrated the whole army.
So you identify with her.
I identify with her because I think once somebody crosses a line and does something, there's no limitations anymore. You can become an animal, meaning you can become ferocious. The whole forgiveness thing, some people don't really deserve forgiveness. They're not asking for it. So, anyway, "Cruel" is one of those songs where I claim that side of myself which can be very cruel. Some people would believe that there is no reason to be that way, and yet I think that everybody does have it in them even if you do suppress it. Jesus didn't spend 40 days and 40 nights because he had a small dark side, you know what I'm saying?
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos