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May 7, 1999
Tori Amos and the Evolving Lives of Her Songs
by Bryan Reesman
She really needs no introduction, but for those yet to be converted, here goes: Tori Amos is that rarely talented singer/pianist, lyricist, and performer. By virtue of her classical training married to her quirky creative sensibilities and diverse influences (including classical composers Bartok and Debussy as well as guitar-driven groups such as Led Zeppelin), she creates an artistic oeuvre unique to herself. Her albums showcase her fluid, agile keyboard playing, intimate vocals and enigmatic lyrical prose. The passionate composer daringly exposes the inner workings of her psyche, summoning forth powerful emotions and creating strong music to express them.
In a world of fickle rock stars, Amos has a remarkable career. While her long-lost pop debut with Y Kant Tori Read failed to make waves, her reinvention four years later in 1992 with the stunning Little Earthquakes changed her musical fortunes. Delving into highly personal lyrical realms and matching them with a diverse repertoire that went back to her days studying classical music, Amos created an album rich with musical inventiveness that paralleled the inner turmoil she expressed. It heralded the arrival of an artist who wanted to shatter musical and lyrical boundaries. Years later, it is still fresh and exhilarating to listen to.
Since the singer/songwriter who continues receiving endless Kate Bush comparisons has released albums that continue to baffle critics (and some fans), while enchanting her devoted core audience. The two subsequent albums, Under the Pink and Boys For Pele, have joined Earthquakes as million sellers. The recent From The Choirgirl Hotel, her best record since Earthquakes and reminiscent of that album in its more straightforward approach, looks set to join the platinum record club. While many of Amos' lyrics are frequently cryptic, her fans seem to share a special connection to her work that transcends words. Oftentimes, very direct lines such as "just because you can make me cum, it doesn't make you Jesus" ( from "Precious Things") elicit screams from female fans who can relate to such blunt, uncensored thoughts.
Her concerts are indeed where many of her songs really come alive. Her world tours are extensive, including the recent one supporting the excellent Choirgirl disc. This time out, though, the singer/songwriter performed with three other musicians, including long time guitarist Steve Caton, bassist Jon Evans, and drummer Matt Chamberlain. The new album was also her first one written and performed with a full band. The resultant live shows were mesmerizing. Whereas other artist might simply regurgitate songs from their records, as the quartet performed and expanded upon Amos' studio work, bringing a freshness to her material.
The ever-prolific Amos has also released an endless stream of singles with bonus tracks. Many of the early Earthquakes singles tracks, such as "Sugar," "Here in my Head," "Humpty Dumpty," have long been out of print. But potential double-CD set live tracks and such rare B-sides may be surfacing around Christmas of '99, as Goldmine learned when we chatted with Amos at the end of last year's tour.
Goldmine: Judging from your prolific output, it seems like you're always writing, covering or remixing songs. Have you been writing while on the road?
Tori Amos: We're recording every show because they're putting out a live B-side record next Christmas, so more than anything we're trying to work up songs that might have been on the other records that I think could make this compilation.
What can we expect? Will there be anything that we haven't heard before on the record?
There will be a couple of new things. I don't know how many at this point in time. There's a B-side record, and there will be some new stuff on that, and on the live record there might be some new stuff we've been working out in soundchecks.
I was wondering about many of the B-sides. I have a few of the songs from the older singles that are out-of-print, such as "Flying Dutchman" and "Ode to the Banana King, Part 1."
They are really hard to get, and yet they are the most requested things I have at the shows.
How did you expand into a band format for the new record and tour? In concert, , it seems like you're both a frontperson and almost a conductor, in a way, to keep everything going.
Not really, I mean, now that we've been playing a while, I think the other players have begun to... hmm, I'm trying to choose my words here. There's a lot of room for the other musicians to be creative. they come up with things all the time that are different from the records, and I really encourage that. Sometimes the thing on the record is just the right choice. It just works. So you have to pull back when you're just say, "Well, you know, as much as we'd like to take this to the next step...." Like Caton will say to me, "Look, this guitar part on the record works. It works against what you're playing, and nothing else is working, and we need to hold true." So sometimes you get that and sometimes you get, "We don't like this part anymore, so let's just shift this now." We spend a lot of time in soundcheck every day just working through stuff. They have a lot of room to be creative as long as they don't lose the soul of the piece.
"Raspberry Swirl" is definitely one of those songs that's gotten a big facelift. On the record it's a very organic dance cut with the steady kick and some staccato rhythms. When it's played live, you use a drum machine and Matt's going off on a whole horde of other percussion.
He had a bit of that-not what he's playing now, but he had a bit of that on the record. He was playing metal bits on the original thing, and now he;s made it this huge metal thing. We have a CD single coming out (for) "Raspberry Swirl." That version, with the drums on that, is the "Lip Gloss" version. There's an ambient "Raspberry" mix on there and a "Spark" ambient mix.
I thought "Raspberry Swirl" worked live. It was very visceral.
Yeah, it's funny how things live start to change. We start to develop something when we're playing live. You know, you can't go back and remake the record. And it wouldn't be right because that really wouldn't fit on Choirgirl like that, the "Lip Gloss" version. It's a balance, too. On record, there are distinct elements that come into your head that you want to lay down in a certain way. But then, once it gets into a live performance, the energy can direct you in a different way.
It seems like every time I see you, the songs aren't exactly the same. You're always reinterpreting them, you're always trying to put them into a different place.
At the same time, though, some of them hold. They say, "We like where we are now. We want to just stay here in this form now." Then I can hold steady to that.
It seems it's very important for you to have a dialogue with the musicians to make sure that you're happy but they're also happy.
It's very important that people feel respected, because I don't get off on anything else-that's what I get off on. I believe in the round table- I do. Not the way it's been commercialized and the tale has been told, but I do believe in a concept of a round table.
You definitely have people who have been part of your own round table. For example, Caton has been with you a long time. How has that relationship developed over the years? He's been with you through every record.
I had my first drink with Caton when I was 21. I don't think I'd ever had an alcoholic drink-isn't that funny? It was a margarita. And Caton and I have been (together) 14 years. I don't know why, what the chemistry is that keeps you wanting to play with certain people, but it is chemistry. George Porter, Jr. I've played with on quite a few records. There's just a magic that happens with certain people. If I could tell you what it was, maybe it wouldn't be magic anymore. I don't know.
It adds some sort of mystery.
Well, it's obviously beyond the technical side. That's given that somebody's got to have that. But it starts to come down to how people express their instrument and if thy're able to listen to the soul of the song and then hear what's needed from her. And they bring a part of themselves, which doesn't put something on her, the song that she can't hold. That's always the thing.
Caton also has a very fluid, ambient style of guitar playing that's very subtle. It sneaks in and kind of wraps around a lot of the songs.
There's a lot that Caton does that people think is strings or keyboards. He's (more) inspired by Adrian Belew.
You generally use keyboards in different way. The way you used harpsichord on "Professional Widow" on Boys for Pele, you made it sound evil. It possessed a sinister quality that I don't normally associate with that instrument.
Well, that's where we go into how instruments are played versus instrument capability. See, instruments are capable of a lot of things depending upon who's playing them. When I'm taking an instrument on board, I just completely surrender to it and just try and find out about it as much as I can, as far as its history and where it comes from and how it was used and what was the intention of it being created. I did that with synths. Philly (Schenel) would talk to me a lot about synths, because he was on of the big cars in the '80's in L.A. He had the whole rig going. So we would talk a lot about the synthesizer boom and what had happened. I had them through the '80's, but I stopped (playing them) just to really understand the acoustic piano as much as I can. And then I took the synth on board this time, maybe because I had taken the harpsichord on board the last time. I felt like I needed to do the other extreme. And by no means have I finished learning from either medium, the synth medium or the harpsichord medium. I'll probably take the harpsichord on board again.
I've heard you say before that your songs are like characters. How do you meet them?
They meet me, really. See, this is the thing. You can't go to them and say, "Hi, I want to meet you now." It's usually they come to me. I sense them, and it's been that way since I was a little girl.
In terms of dreams or daydreams?
Daydreams. Usually I'm always awake. You just sense their presence coming in, like a ghost.
When did you write your first song?
I was probably four years old. But it didn't have words, it was just all music.
Do you remember what inspired you?
I was bored with my piano lessons, and I decided to unbore myself.
So if you were to take all theses characters that you met over the years and put them into a play, what do you think that would be like?
It would be a good party, but I don't think in a play a lot of them would come forth and talk.
Would there be certain one that relate well to each other?
Oh yes, there are. They do. I do bring them together sometimes, like in the live show, you see them all around. But there are time when you can really sense that some of them don't get on. For the most part, they try and make room for each other.
So in concert you have to sort them out? Find a way to keep them again?
Certain ones work back-to-back, and certain ones don't. They just take away from each other's uniqueness, or for some reason your ears can't really tune into the other one, so I have to be careful with that.
How do you feel about some of the dance remixes of your songs, such as "Professional Widow"?
That was good. You know, it's a different medium, and you have to respect as a different medium. It isn't my medium, really.
Do you like being sampled and transformed into a dance diva?
It's funny. I find it all very amusing.
They picked up the right lines with certain vocal inflections that some listeners might not think were Tori.
A sense of humor is definitely necessary when that's happening. At the same time, some of these guys do extremely well (with) what they do, and you've got to respect that.
You recently spoke in an interview about musicians learning your craft. One thing I thought was cool is that you have some sympathy for heavy metal musicians, and it's a genre that always gets maligned by a lot of people. You recently made a comment comparing your concerts to metal shows, and even on the Y Kant Tori Read album cover, you have a little bit of a metal look.
A lot of the metal guys are technically strong players, if you think about it, because their chops are quite something. I don't think people realize how technical these guys are, just because you get distracted by all the other stuff. With a lot of these guys, their are timings and everything else is quite challenging. I'm not talking about the 1-4-5-1 metal crap, I'm talking about the stuff that's really like "whoa." I have to sit and see what the bass player and the guitar player are doing and see what subtext is going on with each other, and it's really interesting what the hi-hats doing with that. That's when it gets good.
It's great to see musicians like that who enjoy playing. Obviously you and your band enjoy playing.
We love it, every night. I mean, obviously I have to pull myself out of bed. I'm talking to you with a pillow over my head.
You sound really tired.
I'm very tired. I haven't had a full day off in two weeks. I've been doing these television things. I did Sessions and 20/20, so all my days off have been pretty hard going. So I'm tired, yes, but we love playing so much that it all falls away when you start playing again.
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