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All Music zine (US, www)
October 1999

Take a dance through childhood and the mysteries of Venus with one of the most elusive and inspired artists in modern music.

By Robert L. Doerschuk

Is it delirium or divinity that bathes Tori Amos in its peculiar light? Whatever it is, it spins shadows around her and into the whirlwind of holy and obscene spirits that haunts her songs. The devotion she draws from her followers differs from simple rock star idolatry; it's closer, in fact, to the swooning piety that saints and weeping Madonnas command.

This intensity has only built in the nine years since her solo debut, Little Earthquakes, shook the landscape. From that first release, there was tension in the crash of intimate lyrics against solid song structures and fluent piano accompaniment. All of this peaked in her voice, which could swoop with the turn of a phrase from the bedrock of melody into ecstasies of neurosis and release. It was, at the time, a unique sound; today, with imitators warbling wounded hymns in her wake, she remains unmatched in the strength of her art and the heat of her charisma.

All this was anticipated in the opening moments of "Precious Things," from Little Earthquakes, with a piano motif whose instability animated Amos' almost hallucinogenic imagery and, at the end of each chorus, chilling wordless wail. On paper, as on disc, her thoughts gushed, unpunctuated, like the urgent current of an adolescent diary. Even now, on her latest album, To Venus and Back, it's hard to discern the meaning buried beneath this flood of images, which evoke, as always, a fascination and repulsion with the dark hood of masculinity. Violence, lust, fragility, innocence, and, new to the mix, a kind of nostalgia for a time beyond childhood: Most of this is familiar to Tori adorers, who seem able to receive messages loud and clear from this secret language.

What's different on To Venus and Back is the more experimental spirit of the instrumental tracks. Amos has grown far beyond the old mold of pianist/singer - although this remains an apparently permanent touchstone in her work. Tracks such as "Juarez," a nightmarish account of male hatred against women, and "Datura," inspired in part by the psychedelic flower named in the title, resonate with electronic effects pulled from somewhere way beyond the pop-song sensibility. But their power is within reach of the mainstream listener, because of Amos' reversal of her usual formula: Where typically she leads us into the maze of her words with reassuring piano figurations, her words on these works point through the dark woods of her music. The simplicity of the "Datura" lyric, much of which is just a recital of plant types, helps us along without necessarily telling us where we're headed.

Amos projects all the contrary energies of her music in her presence. There's a tremor in her voice, as if part of her daily struggle is to keep tears and anger at bay. But there is also humor, more playful than ironic, and a certain fearlessness in laying out how she feels, as if daring you to disagree. And for all the terrors and disappointments that she has survived, she shows a flirtatious nature as well -- no surprise, perhaps, considering her fixation on the dance of male and female. Artistically and, it seems, emotionally, Tori Amos lives on the lip of the volcano, always trying to see how deep the fires burn, then coming back to once more tell the tale.

Morrison, Hendrix, & the Devil

You were already performing when you were four years old. Can you remember how you first became aware of music and the role it would play in your life?

I just remember little things, like standing over the record player after my father would go to the church every day. My mother had a record collection in a box, and she would play that: Fats Waller, all sorts of stuff. She loved shows, so that was always hanging around - West Side Story and that. [Sings] "I've been around the world in a plane" [from "I Can't Get Started"], Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin. So I would hear things from my mother where the structure became part of my roots. Then Bartók really got drummed into me at the conservatory when I was five-and-a-half. That really became my passion: Bartók and Debussy, turn of the century. And the poets from the late 19th century: Baudelaire, e.e. cummings, Anaďs Nin. If we're talking about fertilizing the garden, those were my early years, along with records that my brother would bring into the house. He was ten years older than I was, so he would bring in the Beatles records, he would bring in the Led Zeppelin records, he would bring in Jim Morrison. The Doors would be sent back out within hours after he had brought it in, because my father said, "This guy is really of the Devil." Zeppelin didn't last very long in the house either. But there were always neighborhood girls who had Zeppelin and everything else hanging around in their bedrooms.

So you'd sneak over there and do your listening.

Oh, sure.

Did you see all of these different styles of music as mutually exclusive? Was it hard to love Debussy and the Doors at the same time?

Well, it was more about the bloodline for me. I've always been fascinated with bloodlines: family trees. I think of music this way and instruments this way. Like this book that I think is really stimulating, not just because of the content but because of the family tree, is Bloodline of the Holy Grail by a guy called Laurence Gardner. He's quite the respected genealogist, and it's the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But if you did a bloodline of every composer's life, you could do a similar thing. Or with the poet or the visual artist who influences you, or the people who influence on a personal level, who turned you on to what artist. Maybe that person is out of your life. Like, there are people I don't really know anymore who turned me on to, say, Sylvia Plath. It's strange how I have no idea where this person is, but my life would have taken a different turn if I didn't have it.

There was this African-American guy at the Peabody [Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory] in 1968. It was a funny time, 1968. He was about 17 or 16, and he was sitting there, playing some Hendrix stuff at the piano. I think he was really into McCoy Tyner also. I would just sit there, because I was kind of in love with him. But I was five and a half, and he was 17 and black in 1968. I mean, it was all going on. Even though my uncle was black - Uncle Bobby; he's dead now, but he was my father's best friend - it's a whole 'nother thing to see your five-and-a-half-year-old daughter in love with this Jimi Hendrix-like jazzer. I think his name was Reggie; I can't remember.

I didn't know Reggie for long, because something happened. He went off. But he had such an influence on my life. I have no idea where Reggie is, but his sense of playing... I would watch him, with the left hand. This could be in between classes, but I was drinking it in, going, "OK, this guy is onto something here. I've never really heard a mixture of these things. I don't know who this Jimi cat is; I'm five years old." You've gotta remember, I'm getting it together in my brain. But it had an impact on me, because this guy at the piano was sort of showing me. I think that was a huge influence on why I started studying Jimmy Page. I'd go to guitar players to bring it to my need, because I didn't want to steal.

Did hearing that kind of music somehow take the adventure away from other artists you had come to love?

You mean Mozart? It couldn't. I mean, if you really have your ears, if your ears are intact, you can't take away from some of those guys. You just can't, because they were the Hendrix of their time. The horrible thing that happens is that people become like a rod -- a lightning rod, or a curtain rod, or a rod where people hang their clothes. And stinky cheese starts getting hung on a Mozart rack. You get people who embrace it but probably wouldn't have at the time. Because at the time, as we all know, looking in retrospect and really studying it, Mozart had a hard time. He was always fighting for his legitimacy as a musician. Some people were in awe, and some people got it, but some were really vicious. Some of these guys really had to deal with that. Some were stars: Liszt and everything, and people were blown away by the expediency of hand-on-note. But with some things, the content wasn't really understood or appreciated until you could look back 50 years. You'd look back 80 years and finally see what you were dealing with. That's why, when people say to me, "What's vital now?," I say, "You won't know for 50 years." I mean, things are vital because they're affecting us, but things will have come and gone, and people doing that kind of back-in-time look, some records that have sold ten million copies will be sort of a blip on the radar screen. Others may be a blip now, like Ben Harper, but we don't know yet. Or Jeff Buckley: Even though he died and had such a young life, he might be no different from some of the poets who came and went and we'd go, "Wow, this is a real jumping-off point."

That's how I was sort of surrounded by a lot of classical snobs, but there were musicians around me who were drumming into me, "Look at the content, not at the people who are proselytizing it. You might not like the person who has kind of latched onto it, but see the work for what it is. Not the enemies of the work or the preachers of the work. Go to the work; go to the core."

A Memorable Teacher

Did any particular teacher contribute a lot to your musical development?

A lady named Patricia Springer. She's still around. She's so funny.

She was at Peabody?

She was at Peabody, and she was also the organist at the church where my father was. I liked her, and I like her to this day. I see her every blue moon. I'll never forget when I got kicked out of Peabody and I tried to audition again a year and a half later. I auditioned with "I've Been Cheated" by Linda Ronstadt [laughs]. I think she kind of liked my sense of humor, but she said to me, "You know, what are you doing?" I said [pulling sweater up over mouth and nose], "Umm, I dunno?" She said, "You don't want to be here. That's obvious. But you've got to find a way to teach yourself a skill, because you're not gonna get it here. You've gotten all you can get. You want to be a composer. They're not teaching you how to compose whatever you want to compose. They taught you how to go and do research, so you've got to go teach yourself." I'm sitting there, going, "I'm 12." My head was pounding, and my father wanted me to have my doctorate by the time I was 16. I'd been taking pipe organ, but my legs were too short to reach the pedals. I have really short legs and a longer torso, which helps my voice, actually.

It doesn't do much for your tap-dancing, though.

And I don't look good in a pink tutu [laughs]. So I may be little, but I have a lot of punch and breath control, because I have an endless torso.

Childhood Revelations

Most kids these days who are as young as you were then are more worried about getting their Pokémon cards than mapping out careers in music.

But I'm worried now about getting my Pokemon cards! [laughs]

But how can you, or any kid, know that young what they're going to do with their lives?

It's my total life. That was my Pokemon. It's like, "OK, what's gonna be on Zeppelin II?" I was obsessed. My whole life was music. I was a musician first; then I realized I was a girl. It's one of those things, looking back, where music sometimes chooses you. You don't have a choice. It's your manna. I had no idea why I was going to school, except for the social aspect. There were no illusions for me, ever. I knew at six that it was ridiculous: "I'm gonna have accountants anyway. What am I doing here? We're wasting the school system's time. I don't know this crap. I'm never gonna know this crap. Why don't you let me develop what my gift is? Who are we kidding here?"

Nothing else other than music interested you then?

I wasn't good at anything else. The only thing I think I was kinda good at was dates, like in history. This is something I wanted to do in my piano room: I can catalog, around the room, what happened over 2,000 years, probably from the Christian breaking point. That's a good place, although I always think you should go a couple hundred years before, just for the fun of it. But I'd do an around-the-world [diagram] of different cultures. Mainly European history - eastern European.

Arranged chronologically?

Yeah. Certain things would cross paths, like what instruments were going on in music while, say, the Vikings were invading. Or the wonderful art world that was going on in Dublin during the ninth century. Things like that. That was always my love and my passion, along with music. History dates, but never math. Sonic geometry, yes. Architecture, always - but always in sound.

Milestones

You've played the Bosendorfer grand piano for years, but you began on a much smaller instrument in your parents' home. What are your memories of that childhood piano?

Well, I think there's a bit of a kindness to that piano. It was "the little engine that could." She tries very hard. But she's never gonna be a Ferrari - not that you want to be a Ferrari this week! Have you seen the Formula One madness? They really fucked up! Anyway, it's not gonna be a McLaren - how's that? Bosendorfer, on the other hand . . . you can get one that slips through the cracks, but it's a different commitment. So when I go back and play this piano in my parents' home, it's there because of the memories, and it was so steadfast during so much turbulence of, "She's gotta do this, she's gotta do that, she's gotta be a classical person." I was just not able to make the grade classically. I would do anything to get out of practicing that stuff, because it wasn't my passion. I'm a good player, but I'm a good player when I'm doing my own thing, when I'm making it up - my style. I'm not a good player when it's about versatility; I'm much more about jamming.

When did you first play in public? Was it at the church where you father served as pastor?

Probably. I'm almost positive that would be it.

Do you remember when you wrote your first song?

No, but it was instrumental. Not words, just music, for those first few years. Then I came up with "Jackass and the Toad Song." That had words.

How old were you then?

Don't know. Maybe nine or ten. "I'm walking down the road with a jackass and a toad. Some people say I'm crazy, the way I choose my friends" [laughs]. That's because I had a purple monkey friend named Clunky - and Timmy, who was a boy, and Mr. Spaghetti. The monkey comes up a lot for me still.

Beyond Music: The Power of Sound

From your first album to your newest release, To Venus and Back, you seem to be allowing raw sound to grow in importance within your music.

Well, I think that comes a lot from working with my team Mark and Marcel [Mark Hawley and Marcel Van Limbeek]. They were my live engineers on Under the Pink; that's how I met them. [Personal assistant and tour manager] John Witherspoon brought Mark in as front-of-house engineer, and Mark brought Marcel as the monitor guy; they're a team. I asked them to make Boys for Pele with me, but then my whole life changed, and everybody I worked with... I had a kind of a shift - not that I didn't like those people, because I did, but my whole life just changed. I needed an independence and to strike out on my own, so I pulled this team out. Mark has had studios since he was an adolescent, which he would build in a barn - Martian [Studios] now is built in a 300-year-old barn, so there's the bloodline for that. From what I understand, Mark, when he was four, he was a drummer. He was studying when he was 11 with Cliff Richard's drummer. And he picked up the guitar when he was ten, so he was multifaceted, but then was drawn into wanting to have a mixing desk as his instrument. That's his bloodline. And Marcel is Dutch and was a physicist who left school. He's dealing with facts, figures, theories, equations... and madness. Together, there was a real push from them. They argue with me. They take a very fierce stand on the engineering thing: "You need to be aware of the sound of your records." But sound is an instrument. There's no room for musicians to be sonically shut out and turn it all over to a producer. It's critical that it works with the composition.

You're talking about something other than good production, though. Your point is to allow sound to assume an evolving role in your imagination.

Yes, using it as an instrument, as opposed to making a nice-sounding recording. That was always important to the people I worked with, that it was a nice-sounding recording. But then it was about using compression as an instrument, and you start getting into the ant-fucking with it all. To stretch as a producer, and because I'm not a tech person, I brought in a tech team. Yeah, I can fiddle with knobs and see what they can do and what they can't. But this is not my level of expertise. I love working with a team where... It's not that engineer teams can't go and write songs. Some of them can. There are engineer teams, as we know, who have written stuff and have guest singers come on. It can work. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the hubris should set in that they are composers. No different than I have no illusions that I'm an engineer. I can't sit there and say to you... When we're on that line of saying, "OK, look. Tell me where I've cooked this 1.5. Where am I, frequency-wise?", somebody's got to turn around to me and say, "You've undercut that low end." And not the bass player. I can't go to any of the musicians - and they are geniuses, all of them are geniuses - and say, "Give me the holistic picture." Not until they're producing and they're not involved [as players]. People hear things through their own filter, and I do not mix by committee.

The truth, though, is that you are the artist here.

And they're artists. What I have to be honest about is, if they were doing it, it would be different. Each person would have done it differently.

And, in each distinctive way, it would have been good.

It would be different. I'm sure it would be good... Let's not say good or bad. It would be valid. But that doesn't mean that it would be about the song. It might be about the groove. It might not be about compression. So depending on what your aesthetic is... Venus is not about sounding like a bloody retro '70s record. It's Venus, for fuck's sake! She lives with different laws and principles. She doesn't want to sound like... I wanted an element of warmth, but I wanted an element of absolute chill.

Orchestrating Violence

On songs like "Juarez" and "Datura," sound seems to be as important as lyric and melody.

Without question.

That wasn't the case on your earlier, less sonically adventurous stuff.

Correct.

Getting to that creative point can't have been just about hiring a new team of engineers.

Well, it started to become about how... After working with them, I started to kind of understand, as I was composing, that I had to take into consideration, no different from "does this work on the piano?" or "does this riff come from the left hand?", that part of the characterization was gonna be, "OK, what's the perspective on this song?" For example, "Juarez" I knew had to come from the voice of the desert. Therefore, sonically, as we started stirring the pot, with everybody in there together, it wasn't working [with] me coming in on the piano. Finally, it was as the two or three hundred women were mutilated, the engineers looked at me, I looked at them, and it was like, "I've got to mutilate the piano." [Drummer] Matt Chamberlain, and Andy [Andy Gray] the programmer, once the mutilating-of-the-piano concept was in, then they wanted the violence, the suppressed violence. . . . I would talk about the picture of what had happened. It was a real thing.

An actual history of violent assaults against women in Juarez.

Sure. And everybody would sit there and listen to it, the brutality of it. And yet because it's from the desert's point of view, there's the timelessness of the desert. There's this baking going on, like a kiln. We really wanted this suppressed track. You would hear the music that was coming out of the car of the guys who were gang-raping her. That's what I wanted, and the chanting of the guys.

And you accomplish that through electronic techniques that "mutilate" the sonically assuring element of the piano.

Yeah, but when people talk about this track, they're comparing it to, I don't know, an "electronica" track. But you're confusing your terms here, people. You're just confused, because it's a commentary on the real hardcore misogynistic stuff, done in a way that captures them with their pants down, literally, mutilating her.

Limits of Literalism

"Datura" was perhaps a still more adventurous track, not just in its electronic applications, but also in going beyond song structure. Even the lyrics are unusual, with an emphasis on just a list of plants. What was the creative process behind this piece?

I was in a mood that day... We were supposed to be cutting something else, and it wasn't coming together. Matt [Matt Chamberlain] was running around, but the band hadn't shown up yet - meaning Caton [Steve Caton] and Jon [Jon Evans] hadn't come. And I just had this thing about my garden. I got a list from my gardener about everything that was in my garden that was still alive.

That was the list in the lyric?

Yeah. So at a certain point, this whole "Malagueña" ... Why I say "Malagueña," because it isn't anything like it, but I remember playing that when I was eight or something, but it was definitely way before I got kicked out of Peabody. I loved the more South American - the tropical - pulse, and datura being a hallucinogen, that's dangerous stuff. At the time, though, I was reading the sequel to Bloodline of the Holy Grail, which goes pre-Jesus, so it's all Sumerian. [She pronounces this "Shumerian."] Some people say "sumerian," but they [i.e., the experts] say it's "shumerian." So I was kind of drawn to the theories of what was passing through Canaan and the division of it. The Venus record was, to me, very much a bridge for my own work, from this time as we go over to the next numbership [i.e., the year 2000]. Whether it's psychological or not, it doesn't matter, you're building a bridge. So Canaan now becomes a planet, because ... because it is. And the idea of the Apocalypse being that everybody thinks they own pieces of the sun, even if it's a little house ... and I'm a home owner; I have those feelings too. And yet I kept getting this sense of the patriarchal community for the last many thousands of years, whether it's the Judaic God or the Christian God, saying, "You're expelled from the Garden." Whoa, wait a minute: What does she have to say about this? Because it is Gaia. We realize now that the planet is a living organism, and she's kind of got a mind of her own.

So we go back to, because "Bliss" starts the record, and there's this controlling patriarchal force... Instead of "Father who art in Heaven," it's "Father, I killed my monkey." There's a real delineation about who owns the goods here. Who has the entitlement of a woman's body, of the Earth's body, of the body of the Garden? I just watched the song come in and give the patriarchy datura, because it exists. It was all throbbing, and she's doing a roll call of those now who can come in [i.e., the list of plants in the song "Datura"].

The second movement [of the song], which is "Is there room in my heart for you to follow your heart and not need more blood from the tip of your star," a part of it was me singing it as the patriarchy, being a woman - me needing a piece of her essence, all the blood that's been spilled in the name of who owns the land, who has the god, who has the access? So it was very much this revelation, coming from Venus - a camera looking onto Gaia.

All of this isn't easy to discern through simply listening to "Datura." In fact, the repetition of "dividing Canaan" at the end tends to diminish, rather than emphasize, the meaning by turning these words into a sonic event, much as the Beatles chant at the end of "Hey, Jude" conveys something other than literal meaning.

Or I say it as much as it's been divided.

But even that isn't as transparent as the meaning of more commercial lyrics might be.

Yeah, but the parables are elusive. You have to journey with them. I give you perspectives from where I wrote it. They take on their own life forms. But there's word association, and sometimes I give people the bloodline. It gives you a character study of who she is. But then she has a whole subtext to her that's going on, that some people read into her and I haven't. But I never write it to be literal, until I choose to. If I want to be literal, I'll be literal. But when you're on a datura trip, you don't do it to be literal. The literal bit of it is the garden: It's very factual, being read, doing a roll call.

Traditional Songcrafting

The last cut on To Venus and Back, "1,000 Oceans," is not only more literal in its lyrical approach than much of the rest of the album, it's also more musically accessible. The first few bars even conform to a very familiar formula for pop chord progression. Did these aspects of the song surprise you as you were composing?

Sure. An old African woman was humming it to me at 5:30 in the morning in my sleep. I went down to the piano... She was pretty ancient, and I couldn't understand a word she was saying, so I had to figure the words out. What I kind of got from it was the depth of lust that song had for somebody or something - it could be for this planet, I don't know. But the idea that this voice that was coming through very clear, finally I understood when I got the phrase "through the solar field." It all completely aligned, because I knew we were following maps: I was hunting down what the song was trying to tell me.

Why was the solar field reference so illuminating?

You know, there's always galactic reference going on in this record. There's a scientific vocabulary going on in this record. "Suede" is about seduction, but there's always a science reference, a physics reference, because that's the realm of Venus. So I hung maps all over, and I knew I didn't have it right, coming up with things. Then finally I got that whatever dimensions the song had to cross to find the being that she was devoted to, whether it was her mother or her sister or her lover or her friend, nothing could stop her. That kind of resilience was a real anchor for the record.

In old-fashioned terms of craft, the chords on "1,000 Oceans" are very solidly constructed. Was there more of a conscious element of songwriting technique on this song as you were writing?

Sure. Well, there's usually an element of that in all the songs. But there was a moment when I knew that [sings the line "I can't believe that I would keep, keep you from flying"]. I kept circling that and circling that, never knowing how I would get out of it. Then to finally go up [sings "and I would cry 1,000 more"], it took me weeks to get there. It was real tortuous to find that, because I didn't know how I was gonna get past "keep you from flying." I didn't know, lyrically or musically. So finally, "and I would cry 1,000 more" - and it had to sound like it. She had to have progressed to that; she had to have done that musically. And "home" [from the next line, "to sail you home"] had to be something. What's "home"? Well, "home" had to be G minor.

What key is the song written in?

B flat. Then to E flat [after the G minor chord], and back to G minor.

Men vs. Men

Do your songs have to mean something, or can they be elusive even in your own mind?

They have to mean something, even if it's word association. I mean, sometimes it can be more like a riddle. The B-sides usually rely on that a lot more. Sometimes, on the B sides, it becomes very much about a maze. But with all the songs that made the album . . . like "Riot Poof." Really, the homophobic thing is "Riot Poof." One of the guys on the crew was coming out -- quite a fierce lad. To come out in that world, sometimes it takes a lot of courage. I think the whole idea of "break the terror of the urban spell" [from "Riot Poof"], whatever "urban" means musically...

You highlight the word with a lot of emphasis in the rhythm track.

With big ass. Not synthetic ass.

You build your electronic arrangement around the meaning, rather than building your songs into a pre-existing concept of electronica.

Right, and we don't take from other people's records. We might take some odd yelp or some crazy thing, because it becomes a characterization; it's a millisecond of something. But for the most part, we're developing a theme from ourselves in our own loops. Even if we want something to sound like, I don't know, something that was recorded in 1981 in a linoleum room with Naf plastic boots on, there is a design element. We are the design team; we design. With "Riot Poof," there's cocoa butter on that golden ass. And that ass is chocolate. A lot of R&B has no ass right now. Some of it does, some of it doesn't. And there's a sterility to a lot of electronica. Sometimes you want something to be sterile; that's your point. But the whole idea of "Riot Poof" is the concept of when I say "you burn your pagoda through the Congo," "pagoda" being a spiritual reference, and we all know what's happened on the Congo, and if you want you can use it as black being the shadow, being the rhythm, being the holder and the keeper of secrets, not the acceptable material world but the witch doctor who sees what we masturbate to, what we fantasize about -- the things we don't find acceptable about ourselves, that we're always constantly cutting out but sometimes we get tripped up when we drink too much to keep it down, or we go have an affair with God knows what.

You touch on this theme a bit on "Suede" too.

That's why there's a whole moment there of lust, and in "Josephine" too. It's all moving from what is really lust. Lust is trust. "Suede" is the danger of . . . not always the physical fornication of anything. It's the dangerous games that we play with mind control - the power of seduction, and how so many people put their hands up and say, "I didn't do anything," because they didn't fornicate.

Where did the phrase "Riot Poof" come from?

It's a Dutch thing. I love that, their idea of not a drama queen but a poofter. But I love the word "riot" being with it, because in a strange way it's a joke. But at the same time it's not, because of the unleashing of the gay community. Sometimes it really is a sexual riot, a frenzy. It's a real male frenzy, that whole song. But the idea of the unbelievable judgment that men have against men who desire to be with other men... But women wanting to be with women is quite yummy to anybody. If you think about it, the idea of men who love watching women being together, there's an erotica. That's "on the birth of the search/white trash, my native son" [from "Riot Poof"]. I'm singing "Riot Poof" from the concept of the mother -- the all-inclusive mother, having borne men who want to be with men, having borne men who want to "break the terror of the urban spell," who want to kill men who want to be with other men. Because Venus, that's the mother mode. She's singing it from her point of view: "The sun is warming, my man is moistening."

A Place for Technology

You told me years ago that synthesizers were "not my instrument." You've changed your view since then.

Yeah, from pulling in people who know the gear. Andy Gray, who's into programming, has keyboards up the yin-yang, and I'd be diddling on his old [PPG] Waveform; she shows up quite a bit. Sometimes I'd be playing synth with one hand and piano with the other. I love that kind of amalgamating.

You'd done that on Boys for Pele, with piano and harpsichord.

Well, the harpsichord is very much in "Glory of the 80's." She's part of the bed; I cut it live, with the piano. You might not notice it, but she's there. I love that, because "Glory of the 80's" could be the 1780s [laughs]. I love some of the Minimoogs and those old sounds, and also the new sounds. What I have a hard time with is a lot of electronica. I don't like a lot of it, because it's real cheesy, [from] people who don't know keyboard sounds . . . not just the sounds, but the choice of the notes with the sound; that's so fundamental. It's not just the sound, but how you use the sound.

Rather than rely on sequencing to pound out a dance beat, you bring your micromanaging aesthetic to the technology. On "Glory of the 80s" you drop a quick synth gliss behind the words, "the end is nothing to fear." Whether phrasing a vocal line or using electronic tools, you're still aware of the details.

Well, everybody was encouraged to develop their own characterization. Andy was involved with Matt [Chamberlain] in some of the strange sound effects. The sonic things came from the engineers -- meaning how it gets used in the mix, then moving it into [Digidesign] Pro Tools and pulling it back again. Sometimes the musicians put it right dead where they wanted it. So it was very much about people developing their character. Caton [Steve Caton] really developed his character in "Concertina"; the guitars are everywhere.

How will music technology affect your development in the years to come?

I think that as technology advances, we'll pull it in and let it sit next to the harpsichord and the piano. It's about pulling the instruments together and, knowing that something that can be overused can really hurt acoustic instruments, not being afraid to have it in the same room. We're not too worried that we're gonna lose access to the other instruments. As more things come in, more knobs to twirl and more buttons to push, you can't feel like you're gonna drown in them.


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