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Student Advantage Magazine (US)
Free magazine for college students with a Student Advantage card.
Winter 1998



"pop quiz"

The College Daze of Tori Amos

This is the longer, unedited version of the interview which appeared in the Student Advantage web site. There were also more questions there than what appeared in the magazine.

From lounge lizard to star songstress, this spiritual diva left her small town college behind -- and took to the stages of the world,

Ah, the irony: for a performer with so many college-age fans, Tori Amos rarely talks about her own college days. In fact, all over the Internet, the Tori Amos Web sites tell essentially the same story: "After high school, Tori landed a gig as a piano player/singer at the Hilton Hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, while taking music-related courses at Montgomery College." But while that's all they write, an essential key to understanding Amos's career may lie just in two of those words: "music-related."

Armed with a set of piano and vocal skills that landed her at the ultra-prestigious Peabody Institute as a five-year-old, Amos clearly knew what she wanted from college and set out to get it...and only it. While she now says she was ultimately disappointed by her college years, she rebounded well nonetheless-eventually parlaying those Hilton Hotel gigs into a series of recordings that led to 1991's Little Earthquakes. That breakthrough album marked the arrival of one of the decade's most controversial, unorthodox and uncompromising piano-straddling artists, and Amos is still going strong three albums later. In fact, her latest work, From the Choirgirl Hotel, is being called one of her most stunning efforts yet, and the tour to support it, her first with a full band, in also turning heads. In honor of her continued success, we invited Amos to take SAM's Pop Quiz---where she explains how a little college and a lot of commitment could turn you, too, into a bonafide pop music icon.

Question: My decision to pursue only music-related coursework at Montgomery College was:

a) surprisingly popular with my parents,
b) in retrospect, a mistake,
c) one of my better early decisions,
d) a way to buy time for me to hang in clubs.

Answer: (a) and (c) My father wanted me to have a doctorate in music. And I told him that Warner Bros. doesn't give a shit whether you have a degree or not. I think what you have to be aware of with the field you're going after is "What are the qualifications you need to do this thing?" For me, what was important wasn't pop stardom, but being a good songwriter. A degree doesn't give just give you that title, as you know. So I decided to start reading everything I could get my hands on and started to become self-taught at a certain age. But you have to remember I was at Peabody Conservatory at age 5. I had a lot of musical training. But I just started to feel like the institution [Montgomery College] did not have the right courses to take me to the next step. They could make me a music teacher, a church organist or a mediocre concert pianist-because there are very few ‘great' ones. But they couldn't make me a great songwriter. I had to create those courses myself separate from that. And that was definitely the best thing I did. Except I should have never gone in the first place. I wish I would have a found a mentor or a tutor-somebody that was a really good songwriter-instead and taken private courses with them. I just didn't have any luck finding a songwriter like that. I haven't seen anybody teach it right yet anyway. And there are indeed things that can be taught, like what ingredients it takes and how to get them. There are things you can look to draw from. For instance, I have art books and symbology books all over my house. I have loads of mythology everywhere, so I can pull word-association that strikes people in a certain way-a really deep way, on a level they're not really aware of because these symbols have been passed down for thousands of years and have this really deep power. That's what you can teach. Not how to put it together, but how to be inspired.

Question: Knowing that there are hundreds of Tori Amos Web sites collecting my quotes, including The Church Of Tori and The Tori Amos Quote Of The Day Page, I find myself:

a) more cautious about what I say,
b) no more or less cautious,
c) embarrassed by what I've said in the past,
d) just trying not repeat myself.

Answer: (e) All of the above. It's a constant pendulum swing from "Why did I say that," to "I'm glad I said that. It needed to be said," to "Thank God I don't have a computer." But as a songwriter, if you're getting people to have a discussions-and can become a springboard, which is what you really hope you are-you always hope your audience surpasses you in the end. I'm talking about the ones that want to be writers. As my shrink has said to me, "There's got to be a time where you look at me and you don't need me anymore. I can become your friend and you come and have tea with me, but you won't need me." And that's a joy when somebody learns from a person, takes it and applies it in their own art. I know that some people haven't really found their niche yet. But I have to be honest with you. I think part of the pain in this world is that people haven't found their creative niche to work out their feeling and anger. They don't know where to put it or they cut it off and pretend it doesn't exist. And as writers we always hope we get people discussing issues and it become like dominoes. I say something, then they say something, and then I read something somebody writes and think "Hey, wait a minute. I didn't think of it that way." And so on and so on and so on, like an Agree commercial.

Question: The overwhelming commitment of my fans is:

a) frightening,
b) touching,
c) motivational,
d) something I try not to consider too much.

Answer: (d) I'm really interested in always pushing the line as a writer and yet, still talking in English-although it may not look like it. But it goes to "What's cryptic?" If we really start studying writers you and I probably love, it's not Moon and June. It is word-association and you do have to know your myths to get it. Just because people don't know their myths and hardly read anymore, does it mean I'm cryptic or does it mean we're just very uneducated as far as our word paints. Our pallet is like four colors now. We're back to red, blue and what's the other one? See what I'm saying. I do feel sometimes that if it's not three-dimensional and so tangible that it can work back-to-back with Rikki Lake and Jerry Springer then people think the writers aren't making sense. To me, the audience isn't making sense. I feel half the audience is working on a McDonald's mentality-and I have no problem with the french fries. They're all over my thighs. Left, right and center, they're there-you'll find them if we ever wind up in a coffin together. But I do feel like I'm encouraging college students to stretch. You all have a responsibility to understand your writers rather then rolling your eyes and concluding they're not making sense. Or maybe you're just a dingbat.

I feel like it's a challenge. I feel like I've made an agreement with the people who come hear the music. If I keep pushing things and stay on vision quest as far as being a writer, I think they'll give it a go. If I don't and they smell a sellout it's over. That's the deal. I don't care how committed some of them seem-I'm telling you if I auditioned to be Gerri Spice, it would have been all over... although it was tempting. It's motivational, but sometimes I'm going "Go apply this to your own masterpiece, which should be your life." And I think some of them do.

Question: I started so young but was 28 before I found real fame. It:

a) made me thankful for my failures,
b) came just in time,
c) still came too soon for me to handle appropriately,
d) all of the above.

Answer: (d) I meet people know who make it young, very young-20, 18, whatever. Let's not get into naming names here. But you hear stories about how there's a sense of entitlement and also fear. They push good people away. They urinate on them because they've never had to work a day in their life. There's no understanding of "this is a good person," or "this is a person who's trying to use me." You have to be a team player, even if you're a solo artist. You must pull people in or you will fail. In the end, even look at Prince. I'm sorry. But when it becomes so about you, you loose objectivity. As great as the "symbol" was, there's a level where we can all learn from the fact that if you put yourself on a pedestal so high you can't even find your way off it, it's dangerous. A really important thing I always want to say to young people is that there's a huge value in-I don't want to call it failure-but in things not working out well. How's that? In nothing the part or job...in not getting recognized. It makes you have to recognize yourself and recognize your weaknesses. A lot of these kids making it at 19 don't have any weaknesses as far as they're concerned. So it gets scary when all of them think that without having a skill they can all be Slylvia Plath and John Lennon. It's like "hang on a minute." Just because you're famous and you sell millions of records doesn't mean you have the skill to do everything on the planet-shock and amazement. But I'm telling you, it would be shocking how many people have no healthy view of themselves and their egos. Their egos are so out of control that again, it goes back to entitlement-their fame, not their ability, gets them in the door. It's real important and thrilling that I had so many rejections. I can usually see when I've got it right and when I don't. And when I'm confused I have a team of people around me who sit me down and say, "This isn't going to go on the record Tori. We're going to erase this because we love you."

Question: The songs I didn't write but most admire are:

a) cryptic,
b) autobiographical,
c) narrative,
d) pure meaningless pop.

Answer: You have to remember that for me cryptic probably means something other than what it would for someone else. I've been called the "Queen Of Cryptic" and I don't think I write like that all. It makes total sense to me. Then again, I think I also know what other so-called cryptic songwriters are about because it's what I put most of my time in-reading poets like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. I was in my late teens and early twenties really trying to open myself up to their work and instead of tearing it to shreds I really tried to crawl inside and listen. It's hard to start tearing writers down that are surviving a few books and are obviously good at what they do. Instead of wasting your time trying to discredit them, why not grow and see why they're touching people?

But the fascinating thing about being a musician right now, and this should give all the college kids hope, is that this is a time where if you can't play an instrument, sing or write anything, you can still be the biggest pop star in the world. That's quite fantastic isn't it? Everyone should leave their studies, go get a record deal and just put on some tight dresses and shake. It could be quite huge.

But the big inspiration for me has been always been about autobiographical songs with a mix of narrative. For me, the two weave together. When it's great, it goes between Who are they in the song? and Are they the one singing ‘I' or are they just taking that on as the singer?

Question: Touring is hardest on:

a) my fingers,
b) my voice,
c) my freedom,
d) my friends.

Answer: My hands are pretty good. Sometimes I have carpal-tunnel problems, but we're angling the piano in different ways. One of the engineers is a physicist so we deal with different angles of the piano to give my hands a break. And now that I'm playing half the night on my right side things are better. I used to play only piano, but now I play part of the show on the synth, so I'm giving my shoulder a rest. But it's really the hardest on my jaw. You don't know this, but I have chronic, chronic TMJ. I've had it since I was 15. Part of my jaw doesn't go into the bone-which is a hook and pulling my skull to the right. And what happens is my right side goes into spasm and my neck and shoulder get almost paralytic. And so, I have braces at night I have to wear and I can hardly talk. I can't do interviews in the braces although they would help me. That's really where my handicap is-or because you can't say handicap anymore, its my physical challenge.

But, at the same time, I love it so much. What it gives to you on an endorphin level the gym could never give me. It's emotional. So you make up for it was an incredible structure on the road. We have a chef on the road that makes really healthy food and I have a wine cellar on the road. It has to be good wine or you get sick and can't play anymore. It hurts the voice. Everything is discipline-major Chinese medicine on the road. Everyone-go to the Tea Garden in LA-they'll make an elixir for you. They do it for the Stones. Look at Keith Richards. How does he keep going? I'm telling you it's the Chinese medicine, along with the blood transfusions. Chinese medicine has changed my touring. And sometimes you have to roll on the low-dose steroids when you can't breathe in towns. You have to make sure that on every level it's all in balance. The body is like a formula-one racing car. You're not the driver, you're the car... and you have to keep going.

Question: If I'd of never been exposed to ____ my musical life would be different:

a) Little Richard,
b) Janis Joplin,
c) the Beatles,
d) Joni Mitchell.

Answer: (e) It has to be all of the above. Neither one can take the place of the other. Impossible. Some people, though, are poor imitations. They're not the creators, they're the parasites. As you and I both know, there are people who look at the artist and it is in a form that's very diluted-a Moon and June form almost. You're not having good wine-you really aren't. You can't compare Guinness in a can with going there and having it on tap. It's a different experience, it a difference of craft. So if you really want to taste good wine-the difference between a 1990 O???? and a table cabernet at $14 is a different experience and I don't care if I'm hurting cabernet's concept of themselves. So California wines are wonderful, however a lot of them aren't. I think it depends on what you expose yourself to. What I used to think is great in wine isn't anymore because I've been exposed more to the little places in France and Italy where you realize "My god, they only put out so many. So very few." You don't even know they exist, because they don't even show up in Wine Spectator. It's the same way with musicians you may have once found influential. So while somebody like Kate Bush is unique and a force, a lot of times are put into a form so diluted that they haven't developed their own thing. So it's one thing to be inspired but you have to develop yourself. And so many artists don't and are just a hodgepodge of many. And that's why in 50 years you won't be hearing about any of them.


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