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Word (UK)
February 2005

The Sense Impressionist - Tori Amos

How Do You Go About Writing Lyrics?

The song - the entities, the creatures - usually arrive musically first, but then I get a word. It's like a gift. It's like the music is giving me a clue, a word or a phrase, a sense of what this being is like. Imagine all these women coming to visit you and you're allowed to romance them and you're not cheating on your wife. That's what it feels like! Then I immerse myself in that word. I start tracking it, like a lioness tracks dinner.

Here's an example: I've just finished a song on my new album called 'The Power Of Orange Knickers' and the word that came up was "terrorist". Tricky one! What rhymes with "terrorist"? Assonance is your best friend here. I thought about how people are using that word right now - whether it's people who run kingdoms or are killing people, or both. Maybe it could mean domestic terrorism, somebody you let in your house or your room or your body - invasion! Then I put the word "kiss" in there to create a paradox as it's the furthest thing from "terrorist". I've always been a John Lennon person. My husband is a Paul McCartney person but I love a twist in the story. I love the tension of opposites. I love dancing with the devil - but the devil's a dictionary, not a dick!

Other times words just come up when I'm in a coffee shop or I'm watching a DVD or looking at a visual art book, always exploring myself, and I write them down. I have chalks and coloured pencils and write them in this notebook and create a rotating palette of words. If I'm looking at a painting I'll sometimes write down the title or just how I reacted when I saw it, and sometimes when you start writing things down you see a word combination you've never seen before. You've got to expand your ideas. It's about stretching yourself. Sometimes I just open a dictionary at random, just look at where it falls open, pick a word and start from there.

I've got one song I've just finished which only had a title - 'Martha's Foolish Ginger' - and a chorus: "If those harbour lights had just been half a mile inland who knows what I would have done". I've actually been working on this song for eight years but couldn't figure out how to finish it. Then I suddenly realised the title was the name of her boat. And with that it was liberated, unlocked and everything came clear!

What's the best lyric you've ever heard?"

There's so many but I've always adored "I could drink a case of you, darling / And I'd still be on my feet" by Joni Mitchell (A Case Of You on the album Blue). Why? It's obvious! We all drink our men! I've gotten drunk off my men loads of times and if you can make that happen in a song, fantastic! It's both mediums working at once - visual and sonic. And you can taste it too. This is a transcendental lyric. It transforms itself.

Are there some emotions that are easier to write about than others?

Dissappointment. It's something we all experience. We've all been let down by somebody. If you can't deal with disappointment it terrorises you. So that's how I deal with it, by writing songs. Another of my new songs Parasol is a good example. I saw a painting by Seurat - Seated Woman With A Parasol - in a book on Impressionism. I was drawn to it and I started to think about Victorian women and then some women today, the type of women who don't want to intimidate their partner and so allow themselves to become reduced so the other person can feel confident.

Best opening line?

Well that's got to be from MacArthur Park: "Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / as we followed in the dance between the parted pages / and were pressed in love's hot fevered iron / like a striped pair of pants." It just drew me right in the first time I heard it. It paints a picture.

Are there any golden rules?

You have to know when you're turning into a cliche. If a phrase starts turning up in Friends - "I don't want to go there!" - then it should never turn up in a song. If a phrase appears in more than one movie, avoid it. Avoid any colloquialisms. And you have to be able to edit yourself when ideas are just not working, realise you're in for a rewrite. It's a great line but it's for another song. And try not to cuss. It's so easy to do. You have to be more powerful and provocative than just using a swear word.


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