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The Music Monitor (US)
September 1998

The Choirgirl Chorus

by Carrie Colliton

From the beginning, she's been upfront and in your face, with intensely personal songs about rape and emotional upheaval. On her latest album, From The Choirgirl Hotel, she's changing things up, bringing more instruments and musicians to the mix, but she's still frank and personal, both in her songs and talking about the personal tragedy that inspired them. Love her or hate her, she's Tori Amos.

Why the desire for a full band on this record?

More than anything, when the songs started coming, there was rhythm that was built into the structure in a way that was sort of different from my other work in the sense that on the other records I would record piano and vocal and then a lot of times the instrumentation would be built around that afterwards. For this record I cut live with a drummer: piano, vocal, drums and a programmer. So I think the work kind of tells you what it has to have to pull it off. And it was really about the rhythm for this record.

How is the piano getting along with the other instruments?

They're getting along pretty well. I've changed my playing, because I don't have to try and be Bootsy Collins anymore. You sit there and figure out what's being covered and where the hole is. And sometimes you're playing in between the groove, and the arrangements change as we work something up. And it really is about passing the baton to each other and sometimes you're all four holding the baton at the same time. It's hard to define because you can hear it when it's working and when it's not. If there's a train wreck onstage you know someone's got it wrong.

You express many personal things in your work. How do you do that and still create a safe place for yourself?

I think that the last record, Boys For Pele, was very much about my own language, and it was very much a woman's journey trying to find her power. So there were a lot of symbols on that record. This record isn't as distant as that. I think it's pretty clear what I'm talking about, although I use a lot of metaphor in everything that I do. I miscarried and obviously it was heartbreaking. I hadn't planned to make another record for a while when I found out I was pregnant because I wanted to have that experience of just being a mom, and when we lost the baby, it was very hard to know how to wake up in the morning and continue with my life. So the songs started to come and I spent a lot of time by the river, and I would watch the water for hours and hours and I would see how the river itself had its own internal rhythm and I knew that I needed to find that in myself because I really felt completely void of life. It was very hard to find my strength as a woman after we miscarried, so I turned to the rhythm, and I turned to the water. And I would go over to the piano after I had spent some time with the water and I would try and play what I'd felt and what I'd seen, and that's really how this work started to come alive. I guess in a sense the miscarriage was the seed for this album, and there are references to it, but it's not what the whole album is about. I think the album is about the life force. In a sense I was really present for it because I saw how tenuous life is.

There's the idea of a dark night of the soul, where the hero suffers some blows and comes out on the other side with some sort of enlightenment. Could this be a metaphor for the creative process, in terms of your own work?

I really see the concerts as trying to create a place for transformation, for us as the crew, for the audience. And I'm only part of the experience, me and my merry band of men. The audience is part of that experience too, with what they bring with them, and that's a variable we don't control. I'm always trying to be pretty alert, because, if I'm not working with what they're bringing...I mean, if they're bringing sugar, I'm not going to start making garlic shrimp up there. So you kind of go with what they've brought, and you work with it. Sometimes I don't really know consciously what I'm doing. I work a lot on instinct. Mainly, what I think you have to realize as a performer is that it's not just about you. I think to be a really strong performer, your ego has to get out of the way and realize yes, you have a skill, obviously, but you are plugging into another force, whatever you want to call it, but it's the force of everybody else's emotions in there, it's the muse that you hope graces you and that's really what you're dealing with, trying to juggle all the different elements.

How do you feel about your songs being listened to and interpreted by thousands of fans every day?

I don't really see the songs as mine. I mean obviously I have the copyright of them, but once I have my experience with them.... It was made clear to me as a kid, that if the songs were going to come and visit, I had to get that they had their own relationship with the listener that was really none of my business. And as long as I try and translate the song in a way that I think it's telling me, and I'm also weaving my own impressions in, then people take it away and have their own relationship with them. And that's where alchemy happens, when we don't have to force our opinions on each other of what something is.

You have a notoriously divided listener reaction. People tend to love you or hate you.

I'd like to think that a lot of people that come to the shows... Like at Madison Square Garden I wouldn't say that all those people are on the Internet every night, you know what I mean? There are people who enjoy the music, like the show, and then go home. Then there are people who are on either extreme. And I think that if you're making work that's vital, that you're gonna have extreme reactions. Because if everything is just oh, whatever, then obviously you're not stirring things up, you're not bringing up questions that either excite people or piss them off. If you're bringing up things that push the right buttons in people, they might embrace that, or they might really want to slap you for it. I don't mind that. The main thing for me is making work that's vital. You know, if you're politically correct and you're accepted, I don't think that your work is challenging.

You've used the term "playing your wound" to describe what you do, as far as playing to deal with the pain. Ever wonder what would happen to your music if that wound heals?

I think the wound is healing. I don't really know where it's going from here, but my goal is to be as aware as I can be. I'm sure that when I'm 80 I'll still be working on stuff I didn't even know I needed to work on. I'm getting more of a sense of humor as I've accepted my life. It's hard to say as a writer where you're work's going, but I think if you're always trying to pioneer and discover.... The inner world is as rich as the outer world, and deep space, nobody even knows how to measure that. I think the inner world is filled with so many unknowns, I really enjoy exploring that, the things we hide. It will come out differently with each album. If it didn't it would mean that I'm not growing as a person, and that wouldn't interest me, not growing.

The new record seems life affirming, even though it deals with serious issues. It never seems to wallow in self-pity.

I think a lot of people do see themselves as victims, even if it's like, you've stood in line for twenty minutes and they run out of ice cream when you get up there. I mean, it's bad luck and it's a drag and it would piss me off, but I think some people think the world is out to get them. My belief system is always being challenged and is always changing. The one thing that really kind of hit me when I lost the baby is that the wolf is going to show up at your door most likely, sometime in your life, and it doesn't matter how loving a person you're trying to be or how much work you're trying to do on yourself or how much you're trying to give back, there are times when it's just your turn to lose your baby. And it doesn't make the pain any less, understanding this, but it did put the deities in perspective. My mother, who's a very Christian woman, and her faith fascinate me. She was talking to me about this incident where there was a huge storm and these children believed that the angels saved them because they prayed and they felt the angels were there for them. And I said 'Mother, what about the other people that died that day in that town. Obviously the angels weren't there for them.' And I don't think you can say it's because some people prayed and some people didn't. I think you walk a real arrogant line here. And I think we all have to be aware that like, backstage there's a mother saying to me that the angels were there for them and they saved her daughter. And then you've got a mother backstage whose daughter was brutally murdered. Well what do you tell her? 'Your faith wasn't enough to save your daughter.' Obviously I start going to places because I did lose the baby that I wouldn't have gone to if I hadn't had that experience. Everybody thinks they know how the universe works. I certainly realize that I don't. But I started having a Margarita with the Christian deity every Friday night, now it's about once a month, and I felt like I had the right to ask certain questions. And this untruth I was told when I was little, that if you pray enough, you do this enough, you do that enough, you'll be able to keep the wolf from your door. Well, there are no guarantees. And that's what angers me, because I think it's a lie that gets told to humans and they get so disillusioned and so heartbroken when they do all these things and then a tragedy happens. I think that you have your love, and you give your love because it makes you feel a certain way, yet you understand that death is a part of life. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't be angry about it, that you shouldn't feel a thousand things about it. That's our right. And that's what I started to discover as these songs started to come to me.

You are often associated with spirituality, mysticism, and for lack of a better term, New Age. What do you think of the trend toward commercialism in these things?

That's why I do not align myself with the New Age movement at all. So if I'm being labeled it's not coming from me and I find it a bit insulting. Because a lot of the New Age movement is about bells and whistles right now. A lot of people have what I call 'doing spirituality.' If it works for them over lunch that day they'll apply it. It's no different than picking up a Prada bag. I like Prada, I don't have a problem with Prada, but a lot of people have not applied into their life what it's like to be a good friend, what it's like to be compassionate. You see a lot of these people backstage at the Grammys with the egos and the bitchiness and hierarchy and viciousness and they've got their little red fucking ribbon tied around their wrist. It's hilarious. All I'm saying is, there's a price that you pay if you're going to walk the spiritual path: you have to be held accountable for your crap. And I do stuff all the time where I'll say, 'That's a bit cheeky Tori, what are you really up to?' But I don't claim to be perfect at all. I do think the New Age movement has become a commercial fad like nothing else. Within the New Age there are these esoteric studies that you can dive into, and I think it's great that they're available because for a long time all you could get was the Bible. But a lot of people don't do the work and think that there's a shortcut. You know, if you buy the crystal suppositories then all of a sudden you have awareness and enlightenment.


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