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Mission To Mars
Pop iconoclast Tori Amos took a trip into the mail psyche and returned with a set of unexpected covers.
Interview by Erin Anderson
Photography by Thomas Schenk
If it's true that the key to success is pleasing some of the people all of the time, then Tori Amos has got it licked. Radio hits come and go, but an adoring core of die-hard fans has helped to assure her a long and largely self-determined career. For her new Strange Little Girls album, Amos chose to examine and interpret songs by prominent male artists--Neil Yong, Lou Reed, Slayer, and Eminem among them--exploring the musical implications of the Venus-Mars dynamic.
How did you choose the songs/artists you covered?
In the end I sort of got together this laboratory of men and they became I guess you could say the source that I plundered over and over again to try and support my thesis, which was how men say things and what a woman hears. But first of all I had to know what a man hears with how men say things before I could understand and agree with my thesis. And so after I started researching I realized that the idea did hold up, and I heard it quite differently than they did. But I was intrigued to see the songs that meant something to them. And all the songs that ended up on the record had to resonate with our time now. And I started piecing together like a modern mythology. Even if the songs were 30 years old, they had to be able to really feel like they made sense in our time socially and internally.
What kind of research did you do with the men?
X-raying their brain! You really do kind of learn a lot about a person when you watch and listen to the songs that mean something to them. What I began to kind of learn after a while was that every man had at least one song where, how do I put this?, they are stuck in that time. Any time they hear that song it's like a time machine. They can entry-point back into 1986 when they were walking on a beach with Adrianna. Whatever. And they're back there in that moment holding her hand with that song in that moment. And I was really drawn to that, because I know that maybe I feel that way about songs, but it's hard to know how somebody else sees it unless you really sit down and take a survey. And so sometimes they would have they would talk about her perfume and this song. Truly they were back that year, that day with that person, anytime they heard that song. That's what it meant to them. So you know you might have said Rattlesnakes, for example, held that for somebody. And that tune had never really taken hold of my life. When it came out I heard it a couple of times, but it hadn't taken hold of my life. And then it was on the B-string. It wasn't on the A-string, and when I was messing around at the Rhodes there was an effect that was going on in the keyboards and all of a sudden the song just grabbed me and took hold because of the sound that was going on, and I tracked it that day. It's my favorite song on the record, so it's very odd how all that happens.
Did you find a large discrepancy between the songs that mean a lot to men and the songs that mean a lot to you, or to women you know?
The songs that do that for me are very different than the ones that were being put forth. These songs on this record were not by any means necessarily my favorite songs. That's not what this album is about. This album was really about crawling behind men's eyes and building bridges and being able to hang in their heads for a while. And the tradeoff was that they could crawl into a woman's skin and listen to how she sees what they say, which I thought was a fair exchange, actually. Because I've really thought about the power of words, and the way somebody thinks that they're expressing themselves. And they think they know what they're saying, but the other person is not hearing it that way at all. And I just started to really kind of hear how certain people heard things. I should say how certain men hear things. And the one song I had to do because it kept coming up many times was "I'm Not in Love." And some of the guys after really thinking about it kind of turned to me and said, "You know, it's a pretty fucking arrogant song." And I said, "Yeah, it is, isn't it? 'I'm not in love, so don't forget it.'" It's like what, is he saying this as he's making love with her?
Was there a formula you used for changing the original into your version?
Each song started to have its own kind of development. No different than kids as they're growing up. Some kids grow up on a sailboat. (I know there's one of them out there in the world.) "Heart of Gold" had that upbringing. When the guys brought that one to the table, in their reminiscing state it was like, "You know, when I heard that song I thought about traveling the world and wouldn't it be kind of great if my girlfriend could just really understand that I love her but I've got to travel the world, and if I meet up with someone else it's nothing personal and maybe she could understand?" And it's like, "You want a woman who'll put up with your bullshit. Looking for a heart of gold? Looking for a heart of Jell-o!" It was a certain point where one of them could understand, but a couple of the others just had this sort of little fantasy going about how great it would be if a man could just kind of just be the eternal prouerre. So there were a few things that were kind of working for me as "Heart of Gold" started to resonate. In this time that we're living in it's hard to find any kind of fantasy of a heart of gold. I think that sometimes it's really kind of daunting when you go out there in the supermarkets and just have to run the gauntlet from the oranges to the limes without being killed or wanting to kill somebody. Just the lack of politeness in people. It's just this fucking selfish kind of world that has no manners. I would just like for Miss Manners to make an appearance. And I'm a bit of an anarchist, but I just think, "Anarchy with Miss Manners!" You know, there's protocol in anarchy. You know, there just is. So "Heart of Gold" sort of became a desperate, desperate sort of plea for my twins, my characters. And they kind of took on the persona of being in, I would say, honorable righteous thieving against the white collar corporate world. And it's not really my comment on Warner's AOL because they're all relatively the same, whether it's that or Microsoft or whatever or whomever. But I think we all know that a lot of these companies think they're above the law. So "Heart of Gold" became about my girls being able to go for the bouillon‚access, infiltrate, and trying to find the integrity and if they couldn't find it they were going to break them where they could. And they've made peace with that. Would you want to hang out with them? I don't really know you, but if you were having a war with say, Universal, you might want to know them.
Why did this piece have twin narrators?
Sonically, it got dictated because in the tracking it was two lead vocals, which no other song had. That determined the characters.
How did your lab of men communicate their ideas with you? Was it a formal process, or were they free to call you up with a thought?
They called me on the phone. I really did put it out there, and you know I was looking myself, but I was so intrigued to see what music was defining their sphere, how they saw women, what it meant to them romantically, passionately, violently, when they're pissed off‚the whole gamut‚when they were being thoughtful. And I kind of loved that sort of infiltration, the integration of the whole gender thing being able to really set up camp inside their psyche. But then as I told you, there's a tradeoff and I didn't know what it was going to be. I didn't know that there was a female character that I then had a slice of a woman that would kind of be able to have access to me any time I would sing this. So any time I sing "Rattlesnakes" that woman has access to me.
Was "channeling" these personas difficult for you emotionally?
Well I think there are a few different things that sort of just came up. A think a little it of me got in the way of "Enjoy the Silence," because I think I snuck out a little bit in that one just because that song expressed my feeling of motherhood in a way that no other song has for me. And it wasn't written by a woman. But those are the pictures that I saw when I rediscovered this. And the person that brought it was not thinking of motherhood. It was a European guy who brought this one to the table, thinking of where he was when he heard it that year and partying at the time. But the '80s, as you know, were quite a big party. They weren't really violent times‚not like [these] times. It wasn't about the whole "Yo, bitch!" thing which is so tiresome, and [there] wasn't the subjugation of women of gays. People wanted freedoms for other people, and to try and find some kind of magic, not some kind of domination and being dominated. Which was also driving the record, too. I mean, that had been clocked and observed and it was driving me also to try and figure out what was going on.
Did the existing pop legacies of some of the artists you covered influence you at all?
You'd have to be living under a rock to not know what some of them carry with them, but I don't know any of them personally, and so I wasn't seduced by that. That didn't color the way that I approached it. You might call me cynical; I don't know if it's cynicism or if it's just trying to not live in fantasyland, but I don't expect that anybody can do more than their job. And that's being very fair. Some of these people might be great poets, but their politics I might not agree with. Some of them may be misogynist. Some of them may be people that I might just go, "You know, what a great poet; a great songwriter, but kind of a creep." But that can't stop you from acknowledging, "Wow, this person had their hand on the voltage. They were able to channel some pretty fierce thoughts." And so all of those things were existing. I if [people] mistake that these are my heroes they're really confused, and that's not what I'm saying. You don't have to have your thought expanded by a guru or a hero. It can be somebody that you might be having an argument with, but they've shown you a perspective that exists that you need to a least try and hear. And so instead of me just going, "You know some of the male heterosexual meanness that I've been hearing the last couple of years geared toward women ä " I didn't want to do the same thing back. I don't want to fire off this kind of reaction. I said no, no, I really think that they need to realize how powerful their words are; they can wound and they can heal. And I'm going to go to wordsmiths. I'm going to go to the men themselves [to] do it. Their own tribe. And I feel like after the research and after hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of CDs, these are the powerhouses. There are other powerhouses, there's no question. But I was dealing with the subtext of our times. This is not a real compassionate time. It's got a lot of rough edges, and people are very impatient with each other. This is not a lovefest. This is not 1968. So I felt like whatever your feelings are, this is sort of a mirror for part of the mythology of our time. I didn't feel like segregating was the way to do it. To go to all women artists with an all woman panel? No, I was like, "No! That's not how were going to exchange anything here." And the men have to feel like they can crawl inside these women.
Will they be able to?
Some of them have. Some of the men that worked on the project felt like, "I didn't know you would hear it like that, you know? I've never heard it that way." If I had done it with my own material, I couldn't have done this, because there's no point of reference. There's no perception. To have a perception something has to already exist that isn't from your own being, because then it doesn't matter‚you're the mother of it. A mother will always love her child unless she's very sick.
How much of this project was inspired by the thought of your own daughter growing up and listening to artists like Eminem?
I don't know a whole lot about Eminem. I think he wrote a really powerful song ["'97 Bonnie & Clyde"] about domestic violence. He aligned with a character. I didn't align with his character. I didn't have empathy for his character. There were people that did in the lab. (There were men that didn't want to have anything to do with it.) But there were men that said, "You know, the bitch did him this way and fucked him over and the captain lost it." I said, "OK! You know that she's a bitch then." Not one person really was thinking about it from her experience. Nobody was kind of pulled back going, she had friends. She has girlfriends that she told her side of the story to. And she spoke to me. And I've been in a car against my will before. So of course, her experience immediate plugged in. That's what hooked me. And domestic violence has been going on since the beginning of time, but even with all the freedoms for women that we've achieved in the West, it's not going away. He's a powerful writer, whatever you think of him. And like I told you before, I'm sure with quite a few of these [artists], we would not agree on a lot of ideas. Because if somebody thinks women should be subjugated or subservient because they have a really small internal male, then we're not going to see it the same way.
How much of the lyrical content did you have to change in order to communicate the different narrative perspective?
I didn't change a word of the Eminem track. Each track was approached differently, but the whole point of that particular one is that my version is occurring at the same time as his character's version. She's in the back as she's dying. In his version she's dead, but as I've always said to the guys, "You better check that your wife is dead. Check that pulse, boys. Check it before you start moving out the furniture and the crystal. You just don't know before you start moving the mistress in." But as she's dying, she is hearing him. We're hearing it through her filter, but she's hearing it as it's happening.
Not having heard the album, I wonder how you are able to convey that different point of view without changing the lyrics. Does the context of the music make the transformation clear?
When you hear it, that'll answer it. In some cases, you won't even recognize it. It was so funny, someone played [the Eminem track] to his 15-year-old and 17-year-old and they go, "That's really creepy. We can't listen to that again." And he goes, "Why? You listen to it all the time." They said, "We've never heard that before." He said, "You listen to it every day of your life." They said, "We don't know what you're ä what?" Same song, didn't change a word. Of course, the music‚ that's an important part. That's a whole other palate that you're working with.
That was the goal. There were a few songs that I did turn upside down as far as structure and stuff, but not ["Bonnie & Clyde"], because that goes against the whole reason for doing it. You're hearing it through her filter, hearing him say this to her daughter. It's occurring at the same time, so everything he said she's processing and that's what you are hearing within milliseconds of his version. This one is just staggered by point one in her mind, as fast as the mind can process.
The others, though, some of them you might not recognize at first, and that's why [it's not like,] okay, I found the formula and just did it for all of them. Each one had to be dealt with, with its own rules and laws. Each song you have to find entry point. I don't have the keys to these songs. I'm not their mother. I don't have the DNA. If you needed to do some kind of genetic match, I do not have that imprint. So you have to find how to get inside them. And sometimes it would be through the chord structure. With "I Don't Like Mondays" I did it [as] more of a child's lullaby, because the song is about kids killing other kids. [Bob Geldoff] wrote a commentary on this when it came out, the killing that had happened in America. And when the San Diego killings happened again, Neil Gaiman, who was one of the guys in the lab, called and said, "You gotta do 'I Don't Like Mondays.'" And I said, "Yeah, that makes a lot of sense." And he said, "From what angle are you gonna take this one?" It's tricky, because I have to be able to embody the perspective, and I couldn't hold the mass killer perspective. It's not where I am in my life. Now, I could hold the S&M chick in "I'm Not in Love," whatever that says about me or doesn't say about me. But I had to be able to hold the character, so my character is a Texas cop and she shows up at the school. She had to do killing too, because she had to shoot the whole day down. It was written about a gal killing, so a gal in my version needed to have killed that day also. So it's the cop that went and found the first body in the stairwell, and then killed the kid that was killing. And she's having a very hard time with it because, [although] she's licensed to do it and "allowed," it didn't feel right.
How did you make the characters come to life in the photographs you did? Did you take suggestions from the team, or did you dictate the looks based on what you saw in your mind?
I had lived with the "girls" for a few months, and when I talked to the teams and was going to be working on the visual side, I would tell them things that I knew about them‚ sometimes very private things about them to help make them come into the third dimension, to be tangible in the flesh. So [Kevin Aucoin] did the make up, [Thomas Schenk] was the photographer. He brought in the hair guy‚the wig guy‚[Ward Stegerhoek] and [Karen Binns], with whom I've worked for years and years as a stylist helped‚she brought the encasement for the flesh.
What was it like to finally see in front of you the people you had been seeing in your head for so long?
The question of identity is something that comes up a lot all through your life, and then once you start thinking you know who you are ä I don't think I am these women, and yet I'm very aware that I portrayed them, however they feel outside somehow. It's like they do have keys to me. So it's a strange relationship that I have with these women. You know, once you think you kind of know what your likes/dislikes are, then they all sort of change. What your beliefs are. I think it gets to a place in your life where ä for instance, the "I'm Not in Love Girl," she's got a whole erotica thing going that's quite dangerous, and I'm not at that place in my life now. I have been in my life, where power games were the aphrodisiac. But now what's erotic to me is not at all what's erotic to her. And yet I was able to house her. She was able to find me.
What do/will your fans think about the new album?
It hard to know. I try and respect that [it's] everybody's right to react how it makes them react. Sometimes I'm reacting to someone's work [by] what it pulls up in me, not just as this completely objective force [where I'm not] looking and having my buttons pushed. Sometimes I think we wall would like to think that we can [do that]. But if a work is powerful, it's going to pull stuff up in you, and more than anything I would hope that people would see the possibilities of identity‚that we all are more than just what our family thinks we are. Do you ever feel like you've been sort of molded as if you are this [certain] person? Then you kind of get this little horn in your head and think, "You have no idea." I didn't want to go to my [high school] reunion this year, because people's ideas of who I was or what I was have just I hadn't begun to explore certain things in high school.
It's I find this might sound kind of weird to you but some people have these impressions of you that's why I don't read the press at all and I try and just stay away from people's opinions. I have people I go to that are pretty gutty and honest with me and will give me a read on things that I respect and think is coming from a fair place. Sometimes I think it's none of my business what people think. Because sometimes people have impressions that are so, you know, they've taken it from an interview. They have no idea that hat's been edited by seven people maybe. They have no idea that I've had 12 interviews that day. It's just a very odd thing, "Well how could she have said this?" You don't know if I said that! And how it gets colored and shaded, it just becomes very disheartening if you're reacting to that all the time, so you just have to go, "You know people will think what they think and you cannot control this one."
Do you ever feel that you're misunderstood by the mainstream?
Oh, I don't know. That's a tough one, because I think we're all misunderstood, and sometimes I think we're also understood in the strangest circles. It's a very odd question, because it's a complicated answer. It's not the obvious all the time. Or it is. Does that make sense? Sometimes the person you think would get you does get you. It's very simple. And then sometimes somebody that you're so close to, there's no way you can put something where they don't hear it wrong. They think you're insulting them and you're just not, but you can't say it right.
As far as the mainstream goes, though, you and I both know that the mainstream is a very dangerous place. It's the hare's race; it's not the turtle's race. And the thing about the hare's race is you win big and you win big quick, but you also can become rabbit stew the next day for the mainstream, because that's how the mainstream is. There's no loyalty. It's usually not about the music; it's about them. It's about "Do you fit into the mainstream's need at the time of projection?" Whereas when you're more in the underground, it's very much about a body of work. It is the turtle's race. It isn't just about a single or a fad or a new part of the fetish of the week. So I just try and stay away from that. I think it's just a more solid way to live as a musician. And as a musician in the mainstream in music very few people can play their instruments.
One of my friends, [Karen Binns], a stylist from Brooklyn who is out of her mind but probably says the most accurate things said "It's easier to get a record deal than it is to work in a bank!" So anyway, the mainstream a lot of times is not about musicians, and as a musician I'm kind of fortunate to even be able to work in the music business. It's an oddity. And there's some of us, but a lot of us aren't in the mainstream.
Were there any "cult artists" who influenced your career or your music? Do you have any cult heroes?
It's hard to know what is cult and what isn't. I think that just musicians who have been true to their vision, whoever they are, have influenced me. And a lot of the ones that have been around for a long time. Whether it was Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. They believed in what they believed in. I don't know about their lives or what they were like as people. That isn't what I'm talking about. They're not people who have influenced how I treat my friends. I'm talking about your philosophy as a musician, your integrity as a musician. If you turn on that, something will die inside of you. There is an apprenticeship that happens, I believe. It's been going on for thousands of years with musicians. You know, it is a craftsmanship. And I think that just because you're famous doesn't mean that you've been true to the trinity of musicians and the code of it and the code of what it means. And what it means is that you've tried to honor the muse and let the music come through you and the music plays you. Instead of letting the fame aspect ä I'm sure it's similar to like heroin or something, where it just takes over you like the dragon.
Could a mainstream artist have put out an album like this?
Of course. And there are mainstream artists that hold true, but I don't get into naming people or not naming, because you always hurt people's feelings, and I don't get off on hurting anybody's feelings. I feel like I'm gossiping and that isn't my thing. If I'm going to go after somebody I would call them personally. I don't take my feuds publicly unless I'm just leaking and my shadow's all over the place and you caught me out.
What has been the most important aspect of keeping in touch with your core fans?
Reading the letters, making myself available before the shows, which I do every show. And you just get a sense. It's more ä listening. And what I find in the letters‚it's pretty consistent every year‚is everybody has a story to tell. You might look at somebody and say they seem really boring to me, but everybody has a story. Everybody has a unique something. They might not be able to see it in themselves, in fact quite frequently they don't, and that's part of the pain. And so a lot of times in order to feel good they have to lord it over somebody else or make somebody else feel shitty to feel good. You know that old saying, "Why do I want to go to a party that would invite me?" People have a real desire to be shit on. It's a strange thing, the defecation concept of "I don't deserve this," or you get the other people who need to defecate. It takes both. You don't get sadists without the other side.
Is it true that you will be touring without the band this time around?
Musically, I'm just going to have the keyboards. The piano will be there and a few of the vintage keyboards. It's really more of an intimate sort of thing. I haven't done it in this way since 1994. It's pretty challenging to do as a musician. It's a very different kind of show, because when you're with a band you're having a conversation with the other musicians that are onstage. Even if the audience does not join in on the conversation, the conversation still can stand and work amongst you onstage, amongst you three or four or six or however many there are. When it's you, you have to be aware of every drink of water, every breath, every part of the show. There's no down time. It's rhythmic from top to tail. It's a very different thing. The drummer doesn't just take over while you take a sip of water and the show goes on while you gather yourself. Even gathering yourself has to become part of a rhythm and part of a conversation, so it's very stripped and very naked in a way.
There are things about it that are exciting, but you have to surrender to what that means. That means you have to be okay about being exposed, which I'm not so sure I am about, but you know I understand that there can still be mystery in the exposure. That's really where the mystery is‚it just depends on what you're exposing. I mean, you know, we're not going to have a gynecological exam. Not at my show, but you might at the arena down the street depending on who's playing, mentioning no names. That always does kind make me roll my eyes because I'm going, "God, I hope these 16-year-old girls aren't thinking that 'pushing it' means pushing your tits up, you know?" It just makes me go, "Please define pushing it for yourself‚and not your ass in someone's face. There were seventy right answers‚that wasn't one of them."
But you recorded the album with a band, right?
The show isn't to recreate the album, the show will be 10 years of music. Me and a Gun the EP came out in 1991. It's been 10 years since then. Little Earthquakes then came out a few months later in early 1992. Actually the Little Earthquakes prerelease was coming out in England in 1991. So it's been 10 years, and there'll be 10 years of material and every night will change. I'll probably start it the same way because that's what defines a tour usually for me. Probably I'll start the show the same in West Palm that I'll start it in San Francisco, but nothing else may be the same. Just because then you don't get confused that you're back in '96 starting with "Horses." I started the show with "Horses." On the Choirgirl Hotel tour we were starting the tour with, if I remember correctly, "Precious Things." So there's always kind of a tone set.
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