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Performing Songwriter (US)
Tori Amos - The Loudest Voice in the Choir
by Christopher Smith
"My scream gets lost in a paper cup You think there's a heaven where some screams have gone? I've got twenty-five bucks and a cracker do you think that's enough to get us there? 'Cause what if I'm a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it but I don't care because sometimes, I said sometimes I hear my voice and it's been here, Silent all these years."
"Silent All These Years" from Little Earthquakes
Tori Amos wants to be understood. Not agreed with, necessarily, but understood in the more literal sense. Her speech is peppered with "know-what-I-means?"s, "do-you-understand"s and "does-that-make-sense-to-you"s. Without being asked, she spells words she thinks you may not know. The same intense, two-way flow of dialog that kept the Christian Coalition's worst nightmare close to her minister father for three decades is evident even in what could be - if you were talking with someone else - the most banal of conversations. As is fitting for a minister's rebellious daughter, she does not deliver sermons, but ideas, and you'd better be ready to receive the body of feist.
Her life is almost as well known as her music - indeed each has been shaped enormously by the other. A child prodigy on the piano, playing Mozart at two-and-a half, composing by four, snapped up by Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory at five - the youngest student ever - and kicked out at eleven for her unconventional style (why do you think they call it a conservatory?), she spent her teens playing Georgetown bars, escorted by her father. At twenty-one she moved to Los Angeles and played more bars and lobbies until making her initial mark upon the recording scene with a tragic late-eighties spandex and thigh boots affair entitled Y Kant Tori Read, after her band of the same name. Though released on a major label - a bonus for distribution, a bane to artistic freedom - it sold only 14,000 copies, saplings of her genius choked in a weedy swamp of loud guitars and too much hairspray. Tori was crushed, and didn't leave her apartment for a week.
Skipping denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance, she loitered around depression for a while before finally deciding to create a sixth stage of coping - erasing the past. Returning to the girl-at-a-keyboard schtick she grew up with, she spent the next four years doing penance in relative obscurity on her beloved Bosendorfer piano, and in 1992 released Little Earthquakes, her solo debut that included the instant classics, "Crucify," "Winter," and "Silent All These Years." The sapling found a way to gain nourishment from the weeds, and all was forgiven.
But welcome to Tori's life, the story doesn't end there. Little Earthquakes included the a capella tune "Me and A Gun," a numbing account of her rape several years earlier - a song to this day unmatched in sheer rawness and honesty. The letters poured in, and Tori became instant spiritual kindred to countless other victims of sexual violence, leading her to create the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (R.A.I.N.N.).
Tori became a symbol of empowerment for victims, but she did not wallow in self pity that could have earned her millions more on sales and larger, more commercial acceptance. She evolved, and has released three fine albums since (Under the Pink, Boys for Pele, and the brand new From the Choirgirl Hotel), each a unique chapter in what promises to be a career laid out in volumes.
But coming full circle - just a girl and her piano - wasn't good enough for Tori. Her most recent release finds her back with a band again, though this time she's in charge, and- she knows what she wants. Another recent tragedy, a miscarriage after her exhausting 1996 tour in support of Boys For Pele, found her back at the piano bench dealing with it the only way she knew how, leading to the heavy "Playboy Mommy" on the current album. Married to longtime soundman Mark Hawley earlier this year, they're spending their honeymoon on yet another world tour.
Tori's storytelling is so starkly personal that it's easy to ignore what a grasp she has on the big picture. Although her references to myth and folklore are often dismissed as "Tori's-communing-with-the-faries-again" sniggering, her songs pay appropriate respect to the old heroes - as on "Pandora's Aquarium" - and to the new ones - as on "Jackie's Strength." I think she'd appreciate the comparison to another intellectual rebel of whom she is an avid reader, Joseph Campbell, the brilliant, scoffed at, and eventually respected anthropologist who saw universal threads in the timeless world tapestry of narrative.
Tori does not want your pity. Tori does not want your approval. All Tori wants is your attention. She will take care of the rest.
~ ~ ~ interview ~ ~ ~
Do you remember when you started writing?
I think so. I think I was seven or something. But you're not even aware of it when you're little, what you're up to sometimes. You're just experimenting and you're in your own world. And you're not always analyzing your world that young, unless you're a little Jungian person (laughs). But I think for the most part you create. Instead of sitting there thinking about what you're going to do and then doing it, you're just doing all the time.
How long were you in that state of mind before you started realizing what it was you were doing?
Probably about eight or nine years old, I became much more aware of structure. I think as a little girl I was aware of possibilities, but when I was eight or nine I became more aware of form, and that, yes there were different forms, and what was I going to choose to experiment with.
What do you think today of the songs that you wrote from your childhood all the way to Y Kant Tori Read?
They're not the same thing. You can't compare [Y Kant Tori Read] to what I was doing before then, because I was really - it was a different stage of my life. I was writing a lot from the piano and I had a little beat box and a synth. When I was in my teenage years, I was sending in a lot of tapes to record companies for over seven years, and they said, "the girl pianist/singer songwriter thing isn't going to happen."
So what does Y Kant Tori Read represent to you - that period in your career?
Well Y Kant Tori Read was a pivotal point for me as a writer. Some of the things on it work, some of them don't. "Cool On Your Island" works more than anything else, and I wrote that, I think, with Kim Bullard, but you'll have to check the credits because I've been using too much deodorant lately.
But the thing is, even after Y Kant Tori Read as a band formed, there was a jumping off point from what I was doing before I formed the band. But I think you would kinda see that that was just me writing with a band in mind. Then when the record company got involved, a lot of other people got involved. They felt the material was not accessible, and they were pushing us into another place. And I came up with some songs at the time to try and meet that demand. The band broke up as yet another producer walked in, because what we were doing wasn't really understood, so it took about a year and it all fell to pieces.
Finally I hooked up with Kim Bullard, and he worked on the Y Kant Tori Read album, and we wrote a couple of things, But by then it really wasn't representative - whether you like Y Kant Tori Read or don't like it, it wasn't really representative so much as what the band was doing. You would obviously recognize my voice in it and maybe some of the writing, but it was a really different direction, and once the band broke up that direction was completely like: stop in the middle of the road and don't continue on this path anymore.
I remember when Y Kant Tori Read came out in 1988, and how much I liked "Etienne Trilogy" -- and how I thought, especially being the last cut, that it was different than the other songs on the album. Was that more of what you were wanting to do?
Not necessarily, it was more just me at the piano.
Which is what you've really done since, though.
But you can't compare "Precious Things" and "Waitress" and "Cruel" to "Etienne Trilogy," you know what I mean? Or obviously I wouldn't have made the four records I just made (laughs). There is a bit of the balladeer in me, and that comes across on all the records also, but the records aren't just ballad records as you well know. But I do think that "Etienne," as a song, was more of what I was doing before I came to L.A.
Since that time, you've developed a unique one-on-one relationship with your audience Why do you think your songs affect people so personally?
I think the characters in the songs try and have really busy psyches, and defined psyches, so that you probably know somebody like the characters in these songs. They're not one-dimensional unless they're written that way. Sometimes I think there are people in the songs like in life that you run into that just have no depth of feeling. There is no contact with them, and they show up in the songs and they do become one dimensional because they are, and they are based on someone like that. Does that make sense? So I think that when people get into what I do, they find ... I take a lot from mythology first of all. I really work on developing the unconscious of the characters so I kind of get a sense of who they are, so they're not just somebody that breezes through and I don't know when their birthday is. I find out their past even if they're a subliminal character. They're not just there to take up space.
You said once that when you go into a performance, the audience determines the atmosphere of the room, and you tune into them and they dictate to you what you're going to deal with that night. Is that still true today? How's it changed?
Well, it depends on the audience and it depends on the land and it depends on where I am at the time, the people on the crew and the people that I'm with. Obviously the land has something to do with it because you're always having to deal with the structure of the place, and I don't just mean physical structure. Feelings that kind of still resonate in a place once you're gone. So you have to deal with untangibles. Things that you can't necessarily know with your human eyes. You kind of have to feel them. Like with your jaguar eye. That's what the Mayans call feeling instead of seeing. So with each show I usually try to get out of the way and really press myself against the un-tangible, and try and let it just merge, be a sponge and let it come through.
Can you give me an example of a show where that kind of energy was really apparent?
Well, I was in Nuremberg - I just did a show right where Hitler did his speeches. I was within yards of where the Nuremberg rally took place. They have a little theater right there on the site, on the grounds. And you can't not play that show and work with the energy that's there. If you pretend that it's not there, you've made a really foolish mistake because you haven't respected the energy that stays in the stone and in the land. So when you go in there, instead of fighting it, you really have to harness that energy. And when you're harnessing it, you have to know where to take it, because it can really devour you. It can really cook you.
That's why I think a lot of people after shows get really, really wasted. Because of the energy. And sometimes I get wasted too, once in a while, but that isn't integrating the energy, you see what I mean? So it's much better if you're aware that something's going on. You might not know what it is because it's bigger than you are, but you have a choice on how you're going to work with energy every night and where you're going to take it. Energy is a raw thing And if you don't know where you're taking it it's gonna take you.
So after the Nuremberg thing it was a very, very heavy night for all of us, it was a strong show, and it was a standing audience and people were singing and people were quite emotional, and there was - to me anyway - lots of that primitive passion coming up. And afterwards, it was a tough come down for everybody, particularly me and the bass player, because just the low end and the tones that were coming through were real hard to process. It was like I'd drunk fifty espressos.
So how does one honor that energy?
I think there's gotta be a lot of respect when you go to do a show. You can just sing your little songs, go offstage, and whatever. Or you walk on and become like a lightening rod, and just let yourself be taken over by a force. You can decide where you will and won't go with that force. Fever pitch is fever pitch and if you're going to grab onto fever pitch you'd better know what you're going to do with it.
I've always been trying to be a servant of the energy, and you get in trouble when you forget who you are and you lose your confidence as a person. That's when it gets in the way and you can't be a servant any- more because you think you need to be more important. And that's when you forget that that's true alchemy when you can let yourself be a lightning rod and you honor that the forces are bigger than you and you are a translator and that's your job and you respect what you do.
Have there been times when you've lost that?
I've always tried to do that before Y Kant Tori Read and then after Y Kant Tori Read, but I think during Y Kant Tori Read, what happened there was I just lost all confidence in what I was doing, and I felt a failure and I said "obviously I don't have my finger on the pulse and you all need to tell me what I need to do with my musical ability, because obviously I don't know anymore." Well I have learned a lot from making that choice because I had to fight really, really hard to play the music I believed in. Some people that didn't have to fight so hard for it I don't think understand the privilege that they have to play the music.
There are a lot of gifted people out there that don't get heard. I know some amazingly gifted musicians who honor the muse, and who, for whatever reason, the doors haven't opened and the music hasn't been put out there.
Has this been affected by the fact that you're touring with a band now?
Playing with a band had me really having a conversation with other musicians in a way that I haven't before, because when you play live with musicians, it's very different than when they're all playing around you on tape and you've done your take, you see what I'm saying? Or you're doing your take after they've done theirs. It becomes very much about the feelings that you have for each other, for the music, for what happened in your life that day, with all your separate lovers and lives and parents and blah blah blah - everybody's playing off each other, so it becomes again a live conversation - I guess it's the difference between a monologue and actors, people putting on a show and being characters and they all have points of view, and you get to hear the points of view, as opposed to one person's point of view.
In an interview with Performing Songwriter five years ago, you said that writing "God" was one of the most important things you've ever done. Do you still feel that way?
Well I think at the time I felt that. I think I felt that because I was separating myself from a belief system in a way that I was brought up to worship this patriarchal deity. And when people say to me "why are you saying that God is a man?" and I say "Hang on a minute - we're talking about the Christian God, first of all, and I didn't write 'Our Father Who Art In Heaven'. And if I did, can I please have the publishing rights?" Obviously the whole religion is based on God the Father and a human mother, and obviously there was no sperm and she was a virgin. So they've taken away what women do, which is carry the seed from a male, and with her egg make life. Well the whole process of what we do, to me, was so lessened by that experience because of the way that men were shamed for desiring women, the whole celibacy thing, the whole thing about making Jesus celibate, the whole thing about women being ashamed to have babies, you know? We are not virgins if you guys want to come onto the planet, you know what I mean? So everything was dishonored, I find, by the way they set the religion up.
Jesus has always intrigued me as a teacher, and history has proven that so many of his teachings were manipulated. However, when I wrote "God," it was really important as a human woman to draw my lines with that patriarchal deity. And to me the Christian God is a deity, he has a gig, he knows things that I don't know, and I know things just being this redheaded person that he doesn't know because he's not in my body. That doesn't mean I know any information, I just know how I feel about certain things, and how I feel is that I don't want him in my bedroom, in my bathroom. There was a level of questioning this Supreme Being. I don't feel the Christian God is the Supreme Being. I feel there is a divine father and a divine mother and the Christian God is not my fantasy of what that is. I think he's a fragment, as is to me, Buddha, Mohammed, all of those people. They're elements, fragments, you know what I'm saying?
Yeah, elements of the universal consciousness.
Yeah. And so I really needed to draw my lines with a patriarchal God that hasn't honored divine feminine. And that was really what that song was about.
Tell me about your interest in mythology.
Well I'm interested in mythology and I read as much as I can. Obviously I don't have time to read as much as I would like. I don't know a whole lot about mythology, but any time I go to another country I try to get the myths of that land. And obviously Jung speaks to me because I do think that we can learn about our unconscious and what's hiding behind our hearts - parts of ourselves that we are connected with in some way but we don't know how to access.
I think with mythology, again we go back to little pieces of ourselves. We all have little pieces in us, and these little personality traits become people, become these myths, and we see ourselves in whatever or whoever we want to. And it fascinates me how these myths, I think, were cut out as part of our learning. We could really see into sides of our personality. The wealth of our personality I don't think a lot of people really even know themselves, you know? I certainly don't.
You don't feel you know yourself?
I think very few people really know a lot of sides of their personalities. Do you see what I mean?
Yes. Do you associate yourself with any particular character in mythology?
Well one that really speaks to me is Sekhmet. She's half-woman, half-lion, and her job is to take people in the underworld, in the shape of a snake, and hold a space if they claim their fears, and as they claim their fears and confront them they turn the corner of the snake.
I sense that Sekhmet is encouraging people to go through that dark corner, and at least look at the fear, look at the thing you'd rather not confront. You know you'd do anything to not have to confront that, whatever it is, if it's a conversation with your father, knowing he won't understand, or a conversation with your mother, knowing that in this lifetime she will never hear you. Now maybe you're the lucky one and maybe they will, but maybe that's your fear. Do you see what I'm saying? It's not necessarily the fear of raiders that come in and burn the house down and kill all the children and torture me to death. Maybe the fear is something so simple as this friend that I really love can't understand when they say and do a particular thing, they really, really dishonor me, and I've tried to bring it up and they can't hear me, which makes me not want to be friends anymore. Do you see? These are heart-wrenching things, because it's not the obvious - sometimes a war is such a distraction to the intricacies of a relationship.
Yeah. Can you imagine? We're in the middle of Ireland right now. If people start coming over the hill with muskets, everybody in this house is gonna bond real quick. But when that isn't there, you have to deal with the subtleties of life, of communicating, of being sensitive to your needs and to their needs, and are you listening to both?
Do you think you're adding to the mythic tradition with your songwriting?
I don't know if I'm adding, but I might be one of many voices that's saying I'm inspired by it, and that people should really go to the source if they want more information on it, because it's so rich and there's so much there from so many cultures.
Would 'interpreter' be a better word?
Well I'm not an interpreter of the great myths. They do influence my work, and the characters show up sometimes, because I do think that they're so current, you know? Because again, these are personalities that have been put into people. They're traits, they're human traits that have been personified. Dionysus [Greek god of revelry] - it's not just a being Dionysus.
He's an aspect of the universal consciousness, and people can relate to that.
So were all of them. And we're not just one of them. We don't just have one of them in us. I think we align ourselves with a few and all of us align with different ones, you see what I mean?
Yeah. We align with several and they are different aspects of our personality.
Can you contrast the role of myth and the role of truth in your songwriting?
Well I think myth is just symbolic for truth. I think myths happen because people couldn't put into words what might be personally happening to them. So if you get a possessive woman you get Hera [in Greek myth, the jealous wife of Zeus]. You see what I mean? And you can kind of see "oh, she's got a bit of Hera in her this week." So that you can maybe understand why you're possessive.
I think it kind of helps paint a picture of real feelings that are there, whereas if somebody just came up and said "you know you're really jealous about this"...I don't know if people learn a lot when you say "you're being envious" or "you're being jealous or you're being desperate." But when you paint a picture of a character who is embodying desperation, and you can maybe see yourself in their plight, then that's when I think you go, "Oh God, I see Deirdre [tragic character in Celtic myth] in myself this week." Or "I can see the ferociousness of the Morrighan [Irish war goddess] in myself, and this battle that's going on in me of different sides of women because I haven't been listening to all of them, and I need to.
So sometimes when I read [myths], I'm able to hear the truth in a way that I wasn't before. Because if somebody's telling me "you're being desperate," it's like "hey, what else is new, aren't you a genius."
So how does this relate to songwriting? What should a song accomplish?
The gift of songwriting and storytelling is that things don't become so going-through-the-motions. I have sat listening to a friend tell me about something that's going on with her, and how someone isn't interested and how it's all falling to pieces. And even though you want to listen, right, you're kind of looking at the television screen seeing, I don't know, Naomi Campbells pumping down the runway, because just the way that they're telling you, it's so part of the mundane.
And that's the problem, it's going through the motions sometimes in life. He doesn't want me, this happened, dadadada, he's flirting with her, lalalala, and you're yawning because there's no dimension to these characters, even though they're my friends. And there's no dimension to me until I give you the things that are hiding behind my heart and we make it multidimensional. And everybody has problems, you hear about them all the time, and usually we're not interested in hearing them because we find them uninteresting, even though if you really look at them, some of them are pretty whacked out. But just the way somebody's delivering them, that's why you have writers, that's why it is a skill to sit down and weave a tale. You know, weavers just don't sit down and make beautiful cloth, anybody that's dealing with yarn and material. You hold beautiful cloth and you feel it and you're appreciative because it just doesn't happen every ten minutes.
So it comes back to having respect for your art?
Yeah, and also respect for the skill. You're constantly learning and there are things that I write that just don't work and things that don't show up on tape, and things that slip through and show up on tape that I wish didn't. And yet at the same time you don't just kind of excrete it, you know what I mean?
Do you think if you honor your art that most of the details will take care of themselves, if you just stay true to yourself and true to your art?
Yeah, and true to the discipline. There's a discipline of growing and looking and listening to other mediums and finding new ways to tell a story, of putting different words with different tones with different rhythms with different sounds from your voice with different instruments, you know what I'm saying? They all take on a different character, and you begin to see the choices you have. And they can be pretty intimidating, because even though there are really only twelve notes, it's pretty daunting what some people do with some of those twelve, and then it's encouraging what others do (laughs). So you don't feel so bad, so embarrassed that you have the gall to think you can even write a song (laughs). But at the same time, everybody should feel like they have the right to tell their own story, to sing their own song. And believe me, if the audience doesn't like it they'll let you know, you know?
Do you believe in happy endings?
Yeah, but the happy ending can be that I just had that really nice cup of coffee. That was a happy ending to - I don't know - me wanting the cup of coffee. Now in three hours I might be in a very serious argument with somebody, and then maybe three hours from then I might have a great chat with somebody, and then that's a happy ending. Do you see what I'm saying?
Happy endings, if you can have one of them a day, even if that's like, I don't know, you had a great walk or a giggle with somebody, that to me is a happy ending. But for them to be even worth anything you need a bit of turbulence, a bit of confrontation even though I would do anything to avoid that. But you need that to have a life experience, you know what I mean? That's when it's rich, that's when it's really rich in your life when you have different characters coming in and out of your life that make you become a different character and bring out things in you that you didn't know were there. And they test your metal and sometimes they are supportive to you and sometimes they're not and yet you find out things about yourself you wouldn't have if they didn't cross your path that day.
But a happy ending to me isn't like August 17, 2007. That's ridiculous. That doesn't respect what a happy ending is. You have this concept of utopia, of nobody's going to confront you, nobody's going to do whatever, all the music's gonna be what you want - that sounds like a fascist paradise to me. One of my best friends just walked in the room and he's gonna get me another cup of coffee. You have no idea what a happy ending is.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos