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If a piano could cry, Tori Amos would be its tears
Interview by Daniel Oliveira
"I remember I found inspiration while I was walking down streets, not far from here." Tori told those attending the concert at Blockbuster Pavillon in Charlotte, North Carolina on August 24, 1999. Touring across the United States with Alanis Morissette, she shows a certain pride to sing in a town of the state she was born in. Charlotte is at about 90 km from Newton, where this daughter of religious persons saw the light 36 years ago. They were probably far from guessing that their child would one day give concerts in the biggest local venue and that she would become an inspiration for numerous artists of this decade.
Best: You are one of the few artists whose music, constructed mainly around the piano, could conquer the pop and alternative audience. How do you become such an exception?
Tori: A lot of musicians have enough with one style that suits them and don't bring their instruments in exploration of new directions. Despite being a pianist, I mostly studied guitar. If you only study piano music, that can be dangerous for the evolution of your style. You have to approach your instrument in a unique way, or you'll only repeat what another one already did. I listen to my drummer, my guitarist and my bassist a lot. I examine relentlessly the way they work and they give me new ideas for the piano. Obviously, I could choose a more conventional approach, but I prefer to venture in unexplored areas. I see myself more as a songwriter than as a singer.
Best: Do you have to feel the emotions of your songs in the real life to be able to describe them?
Tori: [long silence] Sometimes I feel them through other people. Take "1,000 Oceans" on "Venus and Back"; I had a dream at 5 and a half in the morning of an African woman's voice, excessively tribal. It wasn't a language I knew. I only understood the melody and it only had a few measures. I went to my piano, in the dark, and recorded 2 measures on a small tape recorder, which is always on the instrument. I sculpted the song during the following weeks, looking at Mark who just lost his father. Until the day when, striked by what I played in the living room, he said "Could you replay this song about oceans?"
Best: Mark... your husband?
Tori: Yes. There was a moment when I realized I saw different pictures than him about this song. I felt a deep love feeling when he "came in" the song, associating it to the memory and search of his father, because we don't know where those who leave this earth go. Sometimes, the love feelings of my songs come from someone else and I'm just there to look at it.
Best: You accept various meanings of your lyrics, but why sometimes make them so hard to understand?
Tori: I don't think it is so complicated. These are word combinations, but their meaning is not literal. That's what's great at playing with a language. You "go out" with words, you travel, you bathe in language. It's another world.
Best: Your videos are always very artistic and you play different roles in them. At what time was the character the closest to your real personality?
Tori: Some are rather close to what I am at the moment, but there's always a part of them which isn't like me at all. I think the videos are interesting because of the vast choices. I become a prolongation of my songs, in a way. When I shoot a video, it's only partly me. I vanish to let the character's identity come out.
Best: Whether it's for videos, concerts or photos, you have many different looks. What's your favorite picture of you?
Tori: [pause] I don't like to be enclosed in a style, but there's a limit I will never cross. Generally, I have collaborators around me. Karen Binns, which was there since the beginning, is my reference about look and gives me many choices. For the make up and the hair, I work with different teams, depending if I live in England or in the U.S. Photographs change all the time, but my clothes are always from Karen. It's a friend coming from Brooklyn (New York). She's a little mad! She lives in London but grew up in the ghetto. She attends photo shoots and creates my looks.
Best: Are you interested by French fashion?
Tori: I feel perfectly at ease in Paris, because I always liked that style was a full part of people's live, architecture, and things' shape. There's a strongly developed visual meaning in France, which collapses in other countries, where everyone looks for "cheap" rather than for "beautiful". Andrea Walker, who designed my pants-combo during my 1996 tour, lives in Paris, despite being African-American. For this tour, Andrea co-worked with German Suzan Deeken. She's one of the greatest designers for Ghost (clothes company from London). What she made with me, was like Victorian-era sent into the alphan century. These kind of paradoxes can be seen in my clothes.
Best: Let's talk about your new album... Why release "To Venus and Back" with that format?
Tori: At the start, the idea was one cd live and one cd of rare and unreleased tracks. In the end, it's a new album that goes with the live. Artistically, this began to make sense because the live disc is a collection of songs throughout the years. These are the best performances of the last tour. There are bootlegs circulating, but they don't give a faithful image of my music. Then I wanted to add B-sides, for all those who had troubles trying to find rare tracks, but new songs came. I added them and the engineers told me: "These songs have a particular sound; if you mix them with b-sides, it's like mixing characters from two different movies." It was quite hazardous.
Best: Your label sued an internet site because they broadcast "Spark" on the web, but did approve recently of the free downloading of "Bliss." Provided your tour with Alanis Morissette is sponsored by MP3.com, a free download site, how do you explain this change of position?
Tori: It wasn't a personal decision. What's important about mp3, is the way everything is ruled. If you look at internet like a juke-box, it's not stealing the work of an artist. "Bliss" is also broadcasted on the radio, you can listen to it in your car, it's not very different from an internet broadcast. But it's very different and I'm almost shocked when you can download a whole album. It's a lack of respect towards the artist.
Best: It's a kind of a violation.
Tori: Yes, because art has a value we hold in our hearts. Sometimes, someone in the venue I play brings a wine bottle from her cellar, and I take it with pleasure. But if I like the wine, I'd like to buy some to promote the production. The danger of mp3, is that some imagine that music should be free. I think it shouldn't be free unless everything is free. It's funny the way people get happy with the idea of free things, as long as they don't belong to them. Value is an important word to me. I can also demonstrate that by buying a book, we help the writer to continue writing. There should be a debate over what should be allowed or not on the internet.
Best: Some of your songs are just you and the piano. What do you feel when you have to play them live, without any net? Stress?
Tori: Sometimes... I am with a band and there is in the concerts the "secret moment" [when she plays piano alone] When the other musicians go out, I am very concentrated. If I have to go alone on stage, as I used to do, I prepare myself in another way. For this tour we have approached the songs together. But when the piano and the singing appear alone, it's like being naked.
Best: During some of the gigs, fans throw letters and flowers at you. Do you remember the most touching expression of a fan?
Tori: A lot of letters are disturbing. People tell me secrets nobody talks about. I'm frightened when I read some experiences, because they happened years ago. One letter told the story of a young woman who, when she was 7, has been raped by her father and brother. I get letters from people trying to heal a deep scar which changed their lives forever.
Best: You talked about rape. The song "Me and a Gun" still appears at concerts. Isn't it feeding a bad memory of your childhood?
Tori: I don't play it that often anymore because I changed, thanks to her. On one period, I felt the need to play it every night. I changed because I faced the demon. I went through this test and the butterfly freed himself. But you don't come over such a nightmare without hard work.
Best: You gave birth to RAINN and you still agree to talk about rape. Was it difficult for you to trust a man until the moment you got married?
Tori: [pause] It's not that simple. Sometimes, there are classical signs by the victims, but it's not that clear. [very slowly] The different relationships I've had... I wouldn't be here if I hadn't known the men I dated. That too has to be worked on. You become a better partner. Then you meet someone who, thanks to his experiences, got better too.
Best: Alanis Morissette told us how much "Little Earthquakes" moved her. Isn't it strange to be the support act for the one you influenced?
Tori: I'm not the opening act. It's a tour with two main singers.
Best: But the public often thinks the one who plays last is the most important.
Tori: It's a little frustrating. It's quite a European idea, because of the many festivals. When you see your ticket, what do you read? Alanis and Tori. We have an opening act every night, but we can't get on stage at the same time. It was my choice to play first, because of the piano. Once the balance has taken place, the piano cannot move anymore. She was very nice to understand that. Her management wanted us to switch position every night but that was ridiculous. We are both leading this tour. I won't be an opening act for anyone, now that I am where I am.
Best: What do you think of Alanis on the human plane?
Tori: We've become friends. I knew her before and I know more about her now. Alanis is one of those rare people with whom I can imagine myself just passing time, or walking on the beach even after the end of the tour. That isn't something I can say about a lot of people. About very, very few... Maybe just of Maynard (James Keenan, singer) of TOOL and of Alanis. We are completely in phase. Our relationship is based on mutual respect. That's why I would never ask her to open for me or vice versa. That would be completely dishonorable.
Best: The media can't stop talking about how women have dominated the music of the '90s.
Tori: How insulting to Janis Joplin, huh?
Best: Do you think women have already proven themselves or that they still need festivals like Lilith Fair, write-ups in magazines and questions like the the one I'm in the middle of asking?
Tori: This isn't new. Let's just consider the business aspect: very few women have been signed by the record companies or put on the radio. When I arrived in 1991, it was really hard for me to get played. NIRVANA was just beginning to really get going. Grunge was the fashion. Being a singer, my strength was in the content, not in whether or not I was screaming. It took some time to break down the barriers of that hermetic time. The industry works in cycles. In this moment, we are in the counterstrike against the grunge period. Three or four years after I got started, female singers began to find new opportunities. Before arriving at a 50-50 equilibrium, there was a period of 80% boys and 20% girls. The good news is that women have had more chances to affirm themselves, and not just in pop. There have always been a lot of women in pop, but never as many as far as songwriters go.
Best: Out of personal curiosity... your name is Myra; why have it changed to Tori?
Tori: That's the name my parents gave me; it doesn't represent what I am. It was their concept, not mine.
Best: What does Tori mean?
t o r i p h o r i a
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