home / interviews
Record Collector (UK)
Tea with the Waitress
Tori Amos talks about music, magic and the shadow-side with James Blandford
Tori Amos has traveled a long way since she first crept into the public consciousness with the compellingly disarming Little Earthquakes album back in 1992. She's traveled even further since her days as a self-confessed rock-chick with the 1988 outfit Y Kant Tori Read, but one thing that certainly hasn't changed is her unaffected eclecticism and talent, as well as a genuine open-mindedness that has prevented her becoming just another soon-forgotten curiosity. This outlook is reflected as potently as ever on her latest album, To Venus and Back, a double-CD which couples eleven new tracks with a scorching seventy-five minute live set from her '98 Plugged Tour - the first time Tori has toured with a full band.
Inititially conceived of as an album of B-Sides and rarities, the new CD came about when Tori was besieged by ideas for new songs almost as soon as she entered the studio. This means we may have to wait a while longer for that desperately anticipated B-sides collection, though the resulting set is even more of a gift for fans and collectors.
Eleven new tracks see Tori exploring her shadow-side with the help of industrial noise and tape loops in an extension of the direction taken with From the Choirgirl Hotel, underscored as ever by her formidable piano playing. The first single, "Glory of the 80s", is a captivatingly uplifting wash of vocals and instrumentalisation populated with an ever-changing cast of unusual characters, while tracks such as "Suede" and "Juarez" seem like excavations of the darkest cerebral attic-rooms. Even with the unlikely inclusion of a rambling and powerful paean to "Datura", the hallucinogenic plant; and the achingly sad "1000 Oceans", the album unfolds like an absorbingly symbolic novel, yielding more with each subsequent listening.
The accompanying live disc is a generous addition -- thirteen tracks opening with an extended "Precious Things" which segues into a superbly drum-laden version of "Cruel". "Bells for Her" is treated to a broodingly Gothic reworking, while "Girl" - hard to find even on a live bootleg - could almost be the definitive version. "Space Dog" and "Cloud On My Tongue" also stand out, while an unusual take on "The Waitress" finds Tori in fine shape-shifting fettle. The disc should - as Tori no doubt hopes - render the plethora of Plugged tour bootlegs obsolete.
In an attempt to find the girl behind these darkness-tinged daydreams, we met up with Tori at the One Aldwych Hotel one hot summer day, finding her to be intelligent, articulate and eager to debate any number of topics. Meet Tori Amos...
TORI AMOS INTERVIEW
James: I recently came across a bootleg CD which claimed to include tracks taped during the 1980 "Baltimore" sessions, as well as a set you apparently performed at a wedding. How much material did you actually record in those early days?
Tori: I'd have to hear it to know if it really was the "Baltimore" sessions. I did a song called "Baltimore", I did one called "Walking With You", and then I did a couple of other things around that period that were seperate from that session. They were done in a church. Michael, my brother, was there - he's almost ten years older than I am - and I was about 14. Those were called, "All I Have To Give", "More Than Just A Friend", there was a song called "Just Ellen" and I can't remember the other one. I can hear it. The point is that I recorded a lot of things at that time. The "Baltimore Sessions" CD, I don't know if that's a tape that I did that day, or if it's an amalgamation of things done around that time. The thing I did at a wedding was something completely different - I was just being paid ten bucks to sing. The big requests then were "Evergreen", "We've Only Just Begun", "The Wedding Song", you know. I did "Baltimore" in a studio, you know and I did the wedding things at a real wedding that somebody taped, probably with a terrible little tape recorder, and not just because of me, just taping the service. So it could've been a few years apart.
Your next foray into recorded work was a number of demos you put down with dance producer Michael 'Narada' Walden in 1983 - what do you remember about those sessions and what were the songs you actually ended up recording?
I went there to record songs I had produced in my own home studio with my own little drum machine and synth and piano. I'd been sending Narada tons and tons of demos, and he has them now - he could be quite cheeky and release them, but I'm hoping he doesn't. Anyway, because what was going on at the time in music had changed from that female singer/songwriter thing, to the British invasion - which had just happened - his choices about what I should record changed. I was going to record a few things, including a song called "Married Men" and one called "British Invasion", but what we finally ended up doing was pushing it into an entirely different direction. Later on he ended up doing Sister Sledge, so , if you can imagine somewhere in between Sister Sledge and Boy George ! The voice was speeded up to make it sound younger. This was just around the time when Madonna was emerging, her early years. The songs we recorded were, "Skirts on Fire", "Predator", "Rub Down", "Score", and I can't remember anything else...
You sound embarrassed...
Well, if you asked me when did I start chasing it, it would have to have been then. As soon as the words "rub me, baby" came out of my mouth... it's just not as cute as when Mike Myers does it - it doesn't have the same effect. But that was when I officially became an audio-whore - 1983.
You changed direction completely for "Y Kant Tori Read".
That was a strange time, because the New Wave scene was turning into the LA rock scene, so it was a really transitional time for making records. I wasn't as militant as I became after "Y Kant Tori Read" failed. But Joe Chiccarelli taught me a lot of things - he had produced Pat Benetar and done a lot of groovy records, Oingo Boingo and stuff - a lot of simple fundamentals that you apply when you're in a producer situation. And that was a gift. Like, never do a take with the band right after they've eaten; don't do punch-ins because the tempo's going to slow down; or, if you're doing a substance, stick with that substance 'til you've done the overdubs!
So how would you assess the album in retrospect?
Well, say something like, "oh please, I'm sure you've run out of newspaper and your dog needs something to cuddle up with".
It's not that bad - "Cool On Your Island" and "Floating City" are actually very good.
Fair enough. I think that when I dissed the whole thing, it's not fair to the people that put in their time and there are moments that work in every work, usually. If it comes from someone who has a catalogue, there's usually something in their early work that can't completely be mutilated. And there are moments that I think were right for the time on "Y Kant Tori Read". I think "Cool On Your Island" had moments that were right for 1987, which was when I recorded it.
Did you enjoy the 80s as a whole?
I wouldn't want to go back there, except the Ecstasy was much better. I've moved into the red wine of it all now, because I can't deal with the rat poison side of it. And , as you get older, you do have to think about death, which isn't such an intangible thing.
Yes it is! It's always tangible, surely?
When I was 19 it was intangible, it wasn't even possible. There is a trade-off though - if you get through it, and you can stay awake for it all.
But isn't there a frustrating yet eternal desire to be fulfilled that is ultimately pointless? I mean, if you get run down by a bus tomorrow, would you feel fulfilled?
I don't know of anybody who's gonna be fulfilled if they get hit by a bus. You have to surrender to that eternal need to be fulfilled. That's very much what "Liquid Diamonds" was for me, which might be on the live album. I'm fighting for that to get on, because the live album isn't about the "well-known" songs, it's about a show, a performance, that has integrity and works as a piece. Not "God", "Cornflake", "Silent", "Sneeze", "Widow" and "Spark". I would never put those back-to-back in a show.
So how did you select the tracks for inclusion on Venus and Back - Live?
We did over 120 gigs last year, and I listened to every one of them and we ranked them and rated them in a play-off. We were doing the FA Cup. For me it was Wimbledon, for the guys it was the FA Cup, or Formula One. So, when we were playing them off against each other, it was like, I know "Crucify" wants to be on the record, but guess what - maybe this tour'll get her and she'll be on the DVD. But I don't have her yet, I don't have it, and I'm lying to myself and the musicians for whatever reason. I mean, we had OKs, but it just sounded like the Top 40 band playing "Crucify" down at the Sheraton.
There's a song on the new album called "Datura", which is a hallucinogen - do you experiment with drugs for your art?
I think spliff has a very important place, but you see I'm not an addictive personality. I'm Moon in Libra. Moon is the emotional phase, so I'm always looking for balance.
There's a strong element of mysticism in your work and the way you speak - are you involved in the occult?
I have a lot of love for witchy stuff. I do have a lot of friends, especially in New York - you know that whole North-East thing going on - that are very involved in Wicca. But I'm just a woman who believes in a lot of mythologies. There's a lot of truth in what a lot of my witch-friends talk about, and I hold them to be truths. I'd be a Dionysian waitress - that's my scene. I am into all of that, and I have a lot of time for Jesus, but I think he probably was turned out by Mary Magdalene, and I think from the things I've read it seems as though she was more akin to a High Priestess in the Isis tradition. So, if we go into that side of it, I believe that there are a lot of things that have been hushed up and hijacked by the big three - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I don't want to talk about the Buddhists, because I don't know enough about them to talk about them. I just know that anybody who had the little women, wrapping their feet and breaking their feet, they should eat the toe-jam from that. Literally.
I think everyone has a shadow, and the pagan side really believes in the shadow, but it gets so convoluted and mixed up in the Satanic thing, when - as we know - a lot of people conjure at the dark side of the moon, which is what I talk about in "Suede". I do a bit of my own conjuring, but not to take somebody's power away. It's to not take somebody's power away.
A lot of people ignore that shadow side - it's interesting to me that "Waitress" on "Under The Pink" expresses that duality of human emotion so potently.
See, this is why you can include this, because "Waitress" is on the live record and I want to be a waitress for the Dionysian cult - I only hang out with the illegal fairies. When people were asking me about that whole fairy thing, it was because I believe in the spirit side. I think music comes through dimensions, you don't create on your own. It's arrogant to think you can create music on your own, there's a co-creation going on - I don't know with whom, sometimes, but there is this well that we all tap into...
How would you say you have developed artistically over the course of your last five albums?
Well, I think I'm working a lot more with what all the buttons do, like when I said to the engineers, "OK, there are all these buttons, so do they do stuff?" And they both turned around and looked at me and said, "endless amounts of stuff". And you can drown in it. Literally. So, I love the danger there, being in a control room, knowing that without leaving the building you can drown - your songs can mutate and become these other things. The possibilities are endless, there's so much technology that you have to make choices and reel yourself in. Sometimes I'll experiment with something, and that's really just to know what it does, and once you know, you can decide how you want to bring it into that moment, and that's a whole different thing. Sometimes improvising with sounds can be very distracting or you sit there and go, "that isn't the character, that isn't who the girl is", and , sometimes, it's the bass - what is the character? And the instruments start to take on a characterisation. I'm much more involved in the production than on Little Earthquakes. So, the piano becomes the mistress, and the synths become the wife for a while, and then the piano gets a bit jealous or it can be a menage-a-trois and she'll just sit back and watch it all happen. It's about not being chained to it, but not rejecting it either. The piano itself lets itself become a part of you, as opposed to having to prove that it exists.
I've spoken to people who have largely ignored your past work simply because you've tended to work with the piano. How would you react to that?
Sometimes, for young guys, hardcore is not about quiet - they can't find the blade within the sweetness. You can understand when people just don't like acoustic instruments, but I found some of the pretty exciting rhythmic guys in the electronic world - and I said electronic, not electronica - go to the acoustic world because that's their shadow. And the electric side was my shadow, but for some people it's the quiet, it's the flower dress that's the darkness. And it does fascinate me when some of the hardcore guys really get that. I studied guitar players as a piano player, because that's how you go to another form to grow in your own world. That doesn't mean that I didn't appreciate Elton and what he could do. I understand that, but you do sometimes have to go to your opposite 'sonically'. Hardcore for me is about uniqueness, and you have the balls to be who you are, and who you are might not look like a tongue that's been pierced three times, it might be Little-Pink-Lip-Gloss sat there, but it's about the depth.
A lot of your past work centered around Christian archetypes - something you seem to be leaving behind.
You can circle the drain after a while, if you're not careful, as a writer, and I think I addressed the things I wanted to about it. So, in "Bliss" instead of "Father who art in heaven", it's "Father I killed my monkey", so there are moments when it becomes more about the intimacy, whether I'm singing that about my father or about God the Father.
I've always been amazed by your father's astounding open-mindedness - despite being a Christian minister, he found you jobs playing the piano in gay bars and married your mother, who I believe is part-Cherokee and has psychic visions...
Funny you say this, because I think that's a deserved kudos to him. I think that now, looking back, even though he could be very Billy Graham there for a while, especially many years ago, he's got his doctorate in theology from Boston, and as the years have gone on, he's become much more able to talk about Mary Magdalene, not just Mary the Virgin, or Mary the Divine Mother. I don't believe in Mary the Virgin - I do believe that that's what they needed to do, to take her sexuality away. I believe in her, but I don't believe that she was a virgin who had a child. It's not a dirty thing to bust your cherry. Do you know the word 'virgin' originally from the Latin, does not exactly mean 'no sex' - it's a different word, it was brought to the sexual. When you talk about the pagan or religious side of it, some of the scholars that I have read believe that Mary, the Mother, was a Virgin priestess who had a wedding to the Godhead, who was represented by a male from a different sect, and that he was killed so the blood was given to the land, so there wouldn't have been a male there. So, she would have got pregnant by the sperm, by seed, and my argument to everybody is, is she any less pure if she weren't a virgin?
She isn't necessarily any less pure, but there can by purity in both states. Sex can often be as damaging as it is liberating.
Of course it can, and I'm with you, and it gets stolen and taken. And yet, I think that the idea that his woman could be zapped, that in the Christian religion, you know, it's dickless, it has no penis, because then a penis didn't create Jesus, that really takes a lot away from you guys. I think whatever people's spiritual beliefs are, the whole sexuality/spirituality issue, that is my passion. Marrying the two Marys, the Magdalene and the Mother. The Mother Mary's sexuality was stripped from her in the myth, and Mary Magdelane's wisdom and spirituality were stripped from her, and so we're divided into these two Marys in the Western Christian world. And it has really been my passion to unite the two Marys, inside my own mind, inside my own heart, inside my own pussy.
Many of your fans were divided over the Boys for Pele remixes such as "Professional Widow" and "In the Springtime of his Voodoo". How involved are you in these re-workings?
I don't get involved too much in it. Obviously the masters don't go out without my permission, but I think that if you're going to have variations on a theme that you have to let it roll. And sometimes you think that somebody does a mix that makes you chuckle, and sometimes you don't. So, there you go.
You recorded a duet with Michael Stipe, "It Might Hurt A Bit", for the Don Juan de Marco soundtrack - it's never seen the light of day, so do you have any plans to release it?
It's in the vaults. I don't know. I mean, I have to find out where the masters are to be honest. It got real sticky at that time. I know you're looking at me going, "you don't know where the master is?" but off the top of my head, I don't. Because we were doing it for a film it got out of control. I haven't talked to Michael about it in a while. It's funny, the last time I saw him, we didn't talk about it, it's not something we bring up.
You've settled down in Cornwall - how has relocation to the UK affected your outlook?
Well, I'm not here all of the time, so I think it keeps your objectivity. I do spend time in the States and I spend time in Ireland when I'm not here, and I need that, because even though I have married a Brit, I have my own roots, I have my own tastes. I don't mean style. You know, Heinz Ketchup. They're just things that I need on a manna level, that isn't just here. There are reasons I like being here, I have friends here, but I also have friends in the States. I think both outlets give you very different perspectives.
And on a final note, how does marriage suit you?
Put it this way - it's never boring.
THE LADY CAME FROM BALTIMORE...
"I want to be a legend" (Tori Amos, Washington Post, December 1980)
In 1980, seventeen year-old Myra Ellen Amos responded to a Baltimore contest to compose a theme song for the city. She had already built up an impressive CV of local performances, and with the help of her brother Michael, the young Tori wrote a song called, unsurprisingly, "Baltimore."
Composed in honour of the city's baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, the song is a cheesy-listening blend of unashamed patrionism and Carpenters-style arrangements which pays homage to the life in Baltimore. The lyrics paint an almost ludicrously appreciative view of the city, and Tori is evidently still finding her vocal style. However, for a girl of her age, the cut shows obvious promise while the production is surprisingly slick.
Prompted by his daughter's evident talent, Dr. Edison Amos had a small quantity of 7" singles pressed on his own MEA label - the initials of both Tori and her mother - and gave out a tiny number to family and close friends. The remaining discs were never distributed and are now closely guarded by her father, although a couple must have slipped to Baltimore city authorities as, later that year, Tori was awarded a Citation from the Mayor for the "splendid quality of public service you have rendered".
The flipside, "Walking With You", is a pleasant love-song which is more than reminiscent of some of Kate Bush's early demos; and Tori's use of multi-tracking, while dated, is effective. The "Wedding Performance" bootleg CD - the cheapest way for a collector to enjoy the "Baltimore" cuts - includes a track gleaned from the same recording sessions, "Happy Day," which sounds as though it was dubbed from an acetate. Perhaps the cut was briefly considered for the "Baltimore" flipside, only to be rejected in favour of "Walking With You".
When we first looked at Tori's rarities, back in RC 176, we have the "Baltimore" single a conservative estimate value of 100 pounds. However, interest in Miss Amos has grown to such an extent that if a copy was to surface, it could now easily fetch around 1,000 pounds - perhaps even more at auction. Start saving now, Toriphiles...
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos