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Performing Songwriter (US)
Mother of Invention:
by Bill DeMain
Visitations, messages from other worlds, contact with strange beings ... no, it's not a vintage episode of The X-Files. It's the songwriting world of Tori Amos.
As a songwriter, Tori has always been very colorful in her descriptions of her creative process. Seven years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine, she described her songs as female visitors.
"Some of them aren't even human looking, but they're a form that feels kind of female," Tori said. "And they come say 'It's time for you to put down in music my essence and what I'm trying to tell you.' So I feel the essence of a song and then it completely leaves me, then I have to start again. I don't know if you've ever had a dream where you've written a song and you really love it. It's great, then you wake up and you can't remember it. This is kind of the same thing except I'm awake."
On her latest album, appropriately titled Strange Little Girls, there was a twist to her creative slumber part: Her female visitors came bearing the words of famous male songwriters.
"I've always found it fascinating how men say things and women hear them," Tori says of the songs she covers on the record. "Words can wound and words can heal, and both are included on the album. A person has to take responsibilty for their words. We as writers cannot separate ourselves from what we create. All of these songs were created by powerful wordsmiths, whether you agree with them or not."
The 12 songs are filtered through the eyes of 13 women (one song features twins). Tori says, "Each woman approached me and said, 'I have a point of view on this song , that you may want to know, that may change how you hear its meaning."
Here's how Tori descibes the girl who sings Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence": "She a showgirl, and I call her Isis. She might moonlight over in Vegas. She's the oldest of the showgirls there, and she's been around a while. There's a mothering quality in her; she seses the other women who come through the doors and get extorted. She sees who the puppeteers are, and she sees when they're lying there, bleeding."
And here's the girl who sings Slayer's "Raining Blood": "She a French Resistance woman whose sister was killed. She went to the underground after the death of everyone she knew. She's calling on certain powers, no different that the ones Himmler and the Nazis wer calling on, only they used the dark forces. Our French Resistance woman knows myths and is calling on power and working with alchemy."
Tori took this musical Stanislavski-ism even further, giving each of the these characters a physical identity. The Strange Little Girls CD package features her in the guise of her 13 female visitors, each beautifully made up by Kevyn Aucoin and photographed by Thomas Schenk.
For the 38-year-old artist, this kind of fierce committment to music began early. The daughter of a Methodist preacher, Tori was pounding the keys when she was a mere 2-and-a-half. By age 5, she'd won a scholarship to Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. Six years later, she was expelled for playing by ear and improvising. As a teenager, Tori gigged continuously, playing everything from Gershwin to U2 in hotel lounges and gay piano bars. All the while, she was honing her writing skills.
Following her love of music, she eventually moved to L.A. and released Y Kant Tori Read (out of print), a heavy metal album that unfortunately was more about image than content. It stiffed. Four years later, after intense self-examination and a move to England, she reemeged with a newfound confidence and a whole bevy of strong songs. She was signed, and her ablum Little Earthquakes shook the British charts with seismic jolt, bringing a flood of popular and critical acclaim. Since then, she's released five albums and built a worldwide following. Like Dave Matthews Band and Phish, Tori is an artist who connects with millions of devoted fans without getting much radio paly. In some ways, she's like the prog-rock artists from '70s - ELP, Genesis, Yes - in that she makes heady, complex music that invites listeners into a richly imagined world. The main difference between Tori and Greg Lake is that Tori has sex appeal. Lots of it.
Her erotic persona is carried even further in her mesmerizing concerts. By her own admission, she "makes love with the audience." Whipping her bright red mane in a frenzy, undulating against the piano keys and singing in a voice that can rise from a velvet whisper to a tempest's raging howl, she often appears to be approaching orgasm on stage. Of her performing approach, Tori comments, "I have a repsonsibilty to give all of my being, which I make a commitment to."
I talked to Tori a few weeks after 9/11. She was just coming off an extremely moving performance on Late Night with David Letterman, covering Tom Waits' ballad "Time."
How do you think the experience of interpreting these songs will feed your own writing?
When I'm listening to music, I don't always anazlyze it and put it under the X-ray machine. I can just listen and enjoy something. But once I was taking this project on board, it really became like getting a hold of the architects' blueprints and sitting with them, as a fellow architect, and seeing how they would resolve things. It's very different from some of the choices I've made in my own work. So I kind of saw ways of doing things that I haven't before.
Did you choose these songs out of your love for them?
No. Even though I have love for some of them, and respect for some of the writers, the project was more about how men say things and what a woman hears, which led me to how men say things and what a man hears, which led me to songs that resonate with men, not songs I thought did. So I fondly called this "the laboratory of men" (laughs). It became this forum and this research group for kicking around all sorts of thoughts.
You've said you 'had your way' with these songs. Can you elaborate?
Each song is different. There wasn't a set pattern I applied. I had to take each song as an individual and really listen to it. I go back to the architect analogy. It's like I was dealing with 12 different architects and some of their buildings and what components they used. I really had to find my way into each structure. It's a sonic structure, yes, but similar rules do apply.
When you were learning to write songs, did you do a lot of this kind of thing?
No. I enjoyed it, and I spent time with other people's songs, but I didn't deconstruct them. I had to deconstruct if I was really going to make this project what I hoped it would become. A few years ago, I did this to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," too. It has to have a premise, and it has to have a point of view, and it has to hold up. The reason "Teen Spirit" had potency was because their version was tapping into that male rage at the time and expressing it. I took on the character of the anima in that one, and it had a certain potency. I could only take it on because they didn't. They had their hands truly on that 220 voltage, and it exploded and ignited this flame all over the world. They tapped into something that was existing in the mass consciousness.
When I was listening to your version of Eminem's "Bonnie & Clyde," I thought it was almost like a Jacob Marley ghost of conscience singing it back to Eminem.
Well, I'm working with his information here, not his personal life information. That's not my interest. It's no different than who inspired Shakespeare's Lady MacBeth. Years later, we don't know who that person might've been. But we do know how we feel about Lady MacBeth, and I have my own pictures of Lady MacBeth, and I know a few (laughs) walking around on the planet today. So when I speak about it, I need to separate. It's really important. I'm not dealing with these male writers and what their personal pictures were. I have relationships with the songs as myths. In this song, the woman in the back of the trunk spoke to me, almost within minutes of hearing the song. Her hand reached out of that trunk and pulled me in and said, "You need to hear this how I'm hearing it, as I'm dying. What he's saying to our daughter. It's the last thing I'm ever going to hear." And that one was clear as a bell.
Were there any songs you couldn't find your way into?
Yes. One of them was Public Enemy's "Fear of the Black Planet." I thought, a woman who's considered a white woman, singing in "Fear of a Black Planet" was something that could work and needed to be done, especially when you consider what the song is about. But by the time I thought I had knew how to achieve it, I was in the mix room and I was running out of steam and I needed an anti-inflammatory. My head hurt. This project took a lot of investigating.
Tell me about covering "Time" by Tom waits.
The song was brought by a man who had just recently lost his best friend, in death. And so death became a real kind of threat in this. The essence of death and the character of death kind of walking in and said, "Death singing time, Tori, is something you need to think about." And death wasn't saying, "It's time that you go," but she was saying, "It's time that you love." And I thought death saying that was something I needed to hear.
Your performance of that song on Letterman the week after the terrorist attacks was very powerful. What role do you think songwriters and musicians can play in the country right now?
You as a songwriter, whoever you are, have to really align with the idea of "What is your purpose?" Some songwriters' purpose is to make people laugh, and they're magical at it. That is their gift. That's no everybody's gift. It's a special one. It's very tricky to do that. Some songwriters paint almost like sonic canvasses for people to step into, to escape the television set. Some artists tap into that place in the heart and can walk with sorrow and walk with you in all the trenches, and that's their gift. And all of these gifts, I feel, have their place now. Not only were the two towers split wide open, but we were, and our emotional self has been. So there is a need for any kind of emotion, whether it's fear or anger or sadness or escape - all of it.
When I interviewed Don Was, he said he didn't think there were any contemporary artists who had the moral authority to comment on this intelligently. Do you agree?
No, but he's older. Sometimes older people need to justify their generation. I think there are quite a few songwriters who can and who will be able to. I think the Dylans and the John Lennons are great, but I think there's an arrogance if you think they're the only ones who can address this. They aren't around. At least Lennon isn't. A lot of songwriters from that generation aren't at their potent place now to comment. This is not neccessarily their time. Maybe there's some kind of strange idea that only the people from Woodstock can have comment on this. Well, you know, the kids who were in Union Square feel like they can comment. They weren't at Woodstock. And they will because it is their story too. It is their myth. You can't take that away from them just because you might not think these young writers have earned their stripes. You know, this is so different than the Vietnam War and how it belonged to songwriters from an older generation. This event, America being attacked belongs to a new generation. The young ones. Younger than I. Maybe we've been a bit arrogant about them, thinking that they don't have the stuff to address this. Let's just see. I think Don Was has been a powerful force, but c'mon. I think that all of us, including me, know that sometimes it's tough to pass the mantle. But it has to be passed. You pass the torch, and you realize there will those who will speak about it. And then we have to realize that time has moved on, and that's tough sometimes, don't you think? It's very important that you don't think I'm having a go at Don Was. I have a lot of respect for him. But I see it differently. There are a lot of songwriters out there from Coldplay to David Gray to Fiona Apple - who knows what they're going to come up with?
I've read several articles saying that the frivulous pop music of the past few years will lose its popularity in the wake of the attacks.
Yeah, but then who's going to entertain the troops in tight jackets and panties? I just don't see Ani DiFranco doing that gig. Geri Halliwell does it very well.
As an artist, you don't fit nearly into any kind of format. How did you get around that?
I just kept honoring myself. I said, this what I do: I'm a girl that plays the piano. This is what I do. So if nobody comes to see me, guess what, I'' be in my living room playing the piano. Now I hustled and I got my work out there, and it's not like I didn't take it to the street, because I did. I played for as many people as I could, and I keep honing my craft, and I keep trying to just explore myself and explore my writing and share it. Sharing it is why we do it. I don't think we're writers if we don't want to share. But if nobody wants to hear it, I'm still going to do it. I'll share it with myself. And then I go listen to other people and they share with me, and it makes me feel much better.
You always have a lot of inspiring things to say in your interviews. How would you feel about teaching young songwriters?
I don't know if I would be any good at it. In some ways I don't know how a lot of the fundamentals. But I do understand about other things. Sometimes it's more about people aligning with what they know. Sort of being able to understand that concept of shape-shifting. We don't create this stuff on our own. We co-create it with the creative force itself. Call it the muse, call it whatever. I believe that. And if you don't believe that, then she's going to get pissed off at you and just not come and visit you anymore and you won't write anymore songs (laughs). We are just part of it.
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Tori's Essential Reading & Listening:
For books, Robert A. Johnson's Balancing Heaven & Earth. He's a Jungian mystic. I call him mystic because he's about the age of Dalai Lama now, and he's, to me, like Joseph Campbell. He's one of our great thinkers. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers and has been a huge influence in my life. His book American Gods is right on the money as far as I'm concerened. Gods from other cultures that were brought over by the settlers and then abandoned and ended up as morticians somewhere, or gas station attendants (laughs).
With records, it's hard. I don't want to leave anybody out. I'm really working on having a community. I used to get in this thing as a younger artist that it was so competitive. The music business sets it up this way- that there's only room for one kind of voice- and that is not so at all. So if I pick one now as a new artist, the I feel like I'm leaving out a lot who should be acknowleged.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos