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Words and Music from Studio A (US, radio)
WFUV, New York City (90.7 FM)
May 17, 2007
Tori Amos interview and live performance
songs: Velvet Revolution, Father's Son, Beauty of Speed
["Caught a Lite Sneeze" instrumental plays over Tori and interviewer's intro.]
Tori Amos: It seemed to me that, when the songs were coming, there were so many varied styles, and I was either making many records, or I was making one record from many perspectives.
Rita Houston: The new Tori Amos album American Doll Posse is technically a solo record, but following the lead of her songs, created five distinct voices to contend with. Tonight, on Words and Music from Studio A, a conversation and performance with Tori Amos.
Rita: Hi, I'm Rita Houston. If Tori Amos has proven anything in her nine-album career, it's that there's no halfway when it comes to creating art. And if you didn't agree before, her latest project - the 23-song American Doll Posse - will make you a believer. And American Doll Posse is in fact a project, moving beyond just recording songs to create five unique personas - Pip, Clyde, Santa, Isabel and, of course, Tori herself. But it's more than just playing dress-up, too, because each of the "the girls" - as Tori calls them - has her own unfolding life and perspective. Musically, Tori's signature piano sound mixes with a few guitars on the new album, so before we head into Studio A for a solo visit, here she is as part of the American Doll Posse, and the tune "Big Wheel".
["Caught a Lite Sneeze" instrumental ends. Album version of "Big Wheel" plays.]
Rita: "Big Wheel", from the brand new Tori Amos CD American Doll Posse, here on 90.7 FM WFUV. We're delighted to welcome Tori Amos to the studios. Hi.
Tori: Good morning, Rita. How are you?
Rita: I'm fantastic. It's great to see you again.
Tori: It's good to see you.
Rita: American Doll Posse is your ninth album, and Tori, I have to say, there is nothing, nothing like this record. The inspiration for it, the story behind it, and of course the songs, like "Big Wheel", the tune we just heard there, just great new stuff. So congratulations on it.
Tori: Thank you.
Rita: Fantastic piece of work. The inspiration for this came from a feminist perspective in some way, in that you're embodying the characters and the range of a group of women on this project.
Tori: It seemed to me that, when the songs were coming, there were so many varied styles, and I was either making many records, or I was making one record from many perspectives. And when you start thinking of powerful women with many perspectives, for me, I went back - "Where have I seen this before?" - because you don't see it now so much. A lot of women with different perspectives seem to tear each other down, or we're pitted against each other. So I went back to mythology, particularly to the Greek pantheon, because I knew that, well, if I were going to really give us a jolt in the arm with some independence and to stand up to that right-wing patriarchy, we had to bring on the mother gods.
Rita: And the process of all this coming together, it revealed itself slowly. Did it surprise you? Were you like, "Oh, what am I in the midst of here?"
Tori: Yeah, I think there were days when it was really daunting. And maybe if I hadn't done Strange Little Girls, if I hadn't had all these years of writing songs and realizing that I didn't have just one thread. I knew that we didn't have what I normally have. So I was getting flashing lights from the beginning, from the songs themselves, saying "you cannot just treat us as a typical project, you cannot look at this as a singer-songwriter's record with one kind of production that will work for all of us." So I was getting those signs early.
Rita: You left yourself in the cast of characters there. It seems like you would almost have to have yourself be one of them, right?
Tori: If I hadn't done that, then this wouldn't be anything like it is. Because the whole point is that anybody on this planet can realize that there are other facets to themselves, but you have to bring yourself along, and you have to be willing to take part in this. Otherwise, you're just living a dual life. You hear about these people that have this one life, and then they go off at night, and nobody knows that they're seeing the gay lover, and yet they come back as a teacher and a mom and you're thinking "Oh my goodness! Does her left hand even know what her right hand's doing?" And as a piano player, it's quite essential for your left hand to know what your right hand's doing. So yeah, unless I was a willing participant, then it didn't seem to work as a theory to me. The whole theory had to be that the reality that I wake up with can transform - so can you, so can the girl going to class in an hour. That that's only one image, her in class, when she goes to lunch on Sunday to see her folks. That's only one part of little Katie. There's another Katie in there, or a few.
Rita: Right. Certainly. And how about, in terms of a writer, character development is something that great writers need to get good at and dive in. As you dove in and spent time with these characters on the record - these different facets - did you find that some were easier to kind of see, "What is Pip gonna do next? What is Santa really about?" Did you find that some were like your friends, and others you were like, "eh, I don't like her so much?"
Tori: I wake up every day thinking "What is Pip going to do next?" Believe me, just dealing with the rubber issue on the road, it's giving me a headache! Pip is flying into London very soon, and all the girls have been in piano practice rehearsals because they all have to learn how to play, really, almost as well as Tori within three weeks. So they've been under lock and key; no rubber for her. And yet Pip's story is very challenging because, with the world changing as it is, then Pip is discovering things - very simply, her story is her father's been killed, he's been in a tragic accident, he used to be a senior analyst for the CIA. And she was very close to her dad, to her parents; she's an only child. Of course, she holds Athena - Athena was close to Zeus, there is that thread that we keep in our story. And so she is stumbling over actuals that she wouldn't have her in her life maybe wanted to uncover. She is being forced into this world to figure out "Wait a minute, what's happened to my father? Why did it happen?" And his ghost is appearing, very much like old storytelling, where the ghost of Dad is coming back and speaks to Pip quite a bit. And so, yes, her story is changing, but by December, hopefully I'll know what it is.
Rita: It's very interesting to give a character time to unfold.
Tori: Well, the one thing I know about this - and this is where improvisation comes in as a musician - with this project, the scary side of it, but the really titillating side of it for me, 'cause I'm a preacher's daughter, I love danger. Come on, I'm Tori! I need an anti-inflammatory, you have to know that. I mean, so that's what my job is in life. I'm here to kind of say "Hey bishop, did you ever think about maybe Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but a prophet, and that was not profitable." I mean, that is my job. So, I do know that as we take to the road - we hit Rome May 28th - the girls will take stage every night, a different one will take stage for Act I, and then Tori will take stage for Act II. And as they get to know the public, and the public gets to know them, well, it's going to change, isn't it?
Rita: Yeah. And people are going to respond, and sort of inject - there's going to be a process there.
Tori: Yeah, there's a process, and you have to - me as the writer knows that you wait for moments like this. Because it's dangerous. It's out of your control as a writer. The record is only the beginning. The release of the record a couple days ago is only the beginning, because their stories and the live show, they go until Christmas - we hit America in early October. So by that time, all kinds of things are going to be happening. All kinds of love affairs, all kinds of falling out, and jealousy, and that's just what the story is. But the fact that we don't know where it's going, and that the public is kind of part - they don't even realize it, how the story will unfold.
Rita: So cool, and like I said, there's nothing else like this. No-one else has ever taken this approach before. Tori Amos is our guest here at WFUV, American Doll Posse is the brand-new album. "Velvet Revolution" is a track on the record. That really jumped out at me, and one that I loved. What can you tell us about that song?
Tori: Well, I think in researching Pip's internal world and her character, because she holds Athena and the warrior goddess, she's very much about "How do I use my power, and not misuse it?" A lot of her contemporaries are involved in overreacting and reacting, so their anger turns violent. And in order to become wise with that kind of power, then you have to temper that. So yes, in researching Pip, I've been on all these websites, trying to understand what her father would have been exposed to. So I was fascinated with the idea of a velvet revolution, and I had been reading that in Iran, the one thing that was really threatening them - because you know, guys blowing up stuff, that is not a shock to them, that is not the counterculture. The counterculture there would be, as Vaclav Havel so showed us, that a velvet revolution could shock the world.
[Tori plays "Velvet Revolution".]
Rita: Tori Amos live in the studios here at WFUV, and a tune from the new album American Doll Posse. The structure of many of the tunes liberated you from the sort of verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Not exclusively, but in some instances. Was that a relief, to kind of get out of the "Writing a song, you need three verses and a bridge." Was that a freeing part of this project?
Tori: Well, I think because there was this window that had opened, knowing - I mean, the songs sort of surrounded me. This is a poetic conversation we're having. They surrounded me and said "Okay. Because this is not a typical singer-songwriter record, you have to now - since you're bringing in the mother gods - you have to go to the rock gods and go listen to that music that turned the tide in the late '60s and the early '70s. You need to go and listen. We have to have testosterone. If we're going to achieve what we need to achieve, you can't have all these chicks without some testosterone." So I went back, and I studied early David Bowie records, I studied The Doors. That was my time to go back to source - the root. If were going back to the root of our female ancestry - not the beginning beginning, but pre-Christian, to the Greeks - then I had to go back to some of the roots of rock-and-roll.
Rita: But that wasn't a first for you, was it? Or was it a first for you to really dive into Bowie and a bunch of that stuff?
Tori: Well, as a composer. When you're talking about writing [and] studying structures, I studied structures while I was making Strange Little Girls. I had to listen to those songs, which were all male-written, too. And that was a beginning of me being open to a different way of sonic architecture. You have to figure that, as a songwriter - yeah, you build sonic buildings in a certain style, after a fashion, until you walk into, I don't know, a musical Gaudi, and you say "Hang on a minute! How did they come up with that cove in the corner? What's the exit point here? How did they do this? It defies all law." And that's the same musically. So yes, I was going back and forcing myself to see how other writers did it.
Rita: Right. It's always interesting to hear the sort of research that quietly happens behind any project.
Tori: Because if you listen to American Doll Posse, it's not like you overtly hear any of that, but of course it's all in there, and it's all a part of the work an artist does every morning when you wake up. I think for you to find - when you're making so many records, when you're making your first record, it's not that difficult to be great. It's tricky, but it's difficult to be always coming up with new material that doesn't sound like the first batch that you put out. There are only twelve notes. And yes, I know, there are loads of combinations. But you do sometimes hear on the radio - "Oh! That's a Blondie song!" Yet it isn't! Meaning it came out three weeks ago. And you say "Boy, that's just like that Debbie Harry song twenty-five years ago, thirty years ago." Or, "That's that Elton John song! That's "Tiny Dancer"! I know it is!" And no, it's a big hit from last year. And you know, I don't even think those writers are aware of it. If they are, they're being very, very naughty. But if they're not, which my guess is, that they're not aware. And that's the trick, Rita; you have to be a ferocious editor.
Rita: Yeah. I'm thinking about how, coming up and learning about music, for a lot of us women, we learn from the guys. Because they were the ones who were, sort of, thinking specifically of the sort of classic-rock era. Now I look at my next-door neighbor, Mia, who's seven, and I think "Thank heavens Mia has a totally different reality, growing up, of what happens when she turns on the radio." And an artist like you are obviously a part of that. Do you see a difference over the passing years of women being able to influence the arts in a much stronger way? Or is it something that you feel like it's always been there [and] we just needed to dig around more?
Tori: No, I think that in the early years - you have to give credit to the Joni Mitchells of the world, and those people that had to carve their place in this musical jungle. There are different times where - if we're really honest with each other - people are more open to feminine expression, to women writers. I'm not talking about the divas, that's always been there. I'm talking about the composers, and the ones with the point of view. You do sometimes have these, what do you call it, a sort of renaissance of that. And then you have a backlash of that. It always happens. And so, because of that, you have to sometimes seize the moment when you know it's working in your favour. Since I've been around, there have been really dry times for women, when it's been "we're playing too many women on the radio," and no. And that happens every few years. You have a time when the floodgates open, and they're a little more kind to us, generous with the gals, and then there are times when it's "yeah, we've had enough of this, so bring on the boys." There's rarely a time when there's too much testosterone for radio, or for the media. I mean, a guy can have dribbling sentiments, and he's an emotional poet and a genius. A woman does it, and it's cathartic and she needs a therapist. It's just true. Sometimes I see some of these guys and what they're saying, and I said, "Man, if I said that, I'd be crucified. Forget it. Are you kidding me? The enemy would be carving me up." But some guy talks about seeing a Tarot reader and all of a sudden, he's sensitive and brilliant, and I'm thinking - yeah, losers.
Rita: Is there any sense from your perspective? 'Cause I feel it a little bit, that that might be changing and evolving. Or is it only just an illusion?
Tori: Maybe. Maybe here at Fordham University, but you need to come travel with me. It depends on the day you get. Because I do think that these stations - it's very exciting what's happening in music in that, with the Internet, and with the public being more exposed to what's out there, it does put on a lot of pressure to more of the commercialized expressions of media. So yeah, in that way it helps, because you've become bigger fish in this very big pond. And that's really important, because it puts pressure on what their standards are, so that's good. But you do have to combat it sometimes, because it's a very young industry, for women. You can become older as a guy, and - Johnny Depp is my age, and Brad Pitt, and they're at the height of their career, and they are the romantic lead. But women in that business that are my age, they are not the lovers that they're shagging onscreen. Those chicks are ten years younger. And that's why I was so determined in "Big Wheel" to claim that MILF moniker, because it's like, you know what? I'm not interested. These boys may know how a woman tastes, but I know how they think.
Rita: I'm glad you brought us back to that tune, because I did want to hear you talk about that song, "Big Wheel". Tori Amos is our guest here at WFUV, and it's always awesome to have an opportunity to hear what's on your mind. So thank you for that. The next track we're going to get to is "Father's Son".
[Tori plays "Father's Son".]
Rita: All right. Thank you. Sounds great. Tori Amos is with us here at WFUV, singing from many different perspectives on this new album, American Doll Posse. The reviews for the record have been fantastic, all over the world at this point, and I wondered - your fans have always had a very strong attachment to you. Like many of the great musicians. Fans are very passionate. Do you have any sense so far on what the reaction of the hardcore Tori fans are yet to American Doll Posse?
Tori: No, I don't, yeah.
Rita: I guess that happens when you get out on the road, probably.
Tori: Yeah, I mean, I don't go on the message board. I don't get involved. You can't, as a creator, because once you put things out, you have to let it go. It's sort of like, imagine people listening when they went to college. Their parents had to let them go. And they can't follow them around everywhere, saying "okay, here's your lunchbox, and how did it go today?" No. You can't do that, or you'd be a freak. So as a mother creator, the songs look at you - it's strange, because they're born, and then they're walking out with a bottle of tequila down the road, saying "See you, I'm going to school." And yeah, you do get attached, and that's why I've learned over the years - I have contemporaries who read everything, everything about what's happening. And you see, you can't win. Because if you read the good, you have to read the bad. And it doesn't mean that the bad isn't truthful sometimes. Neil Gaiman, a friend of mine, used to be a music journalist before he became a very, very successful writer. And he told that in the old days at Melody Maker, they and other journalists would kind of draw straws and say "i'm going to take the opposite viewpoint on this, and see who can convince the public otherwise." So sometimes this is not about the music. Sometimes it is about the journalist being a great writer, and just stirring it up a bit. You can't hate them for that. That's what they're paid to do. So I understand that. But as a writer, you have to know where the work is, you have to know where you stand with it, and then you have to let it live or let it not graduate.
Rita: And music is - any art, but music especially is wonderfully subjective. It's what we all love about it.
Tori: Well, of course.
Rita: So there's no right or wrong answer either.
Tori: Well, no different than food. There are people that will sit there at their fast food lunch and say "This is just fine cuisine." And you have to let them have that opinion.
Rita: Right. Yeah, that's the beautiful thing. I mean, even where I sit at FUV - we play a song sometimes, and people email "Why are you playing that? That's terrible!" And it's like, well, someone down the hall from you doesn't think it's terrible.
Tori: No, and you have to say, "What do you know? What do you know about it? You only know what you like! You confused individual." No, come on.
Rita: So that where it gets tricky, though, when you do have that reaction.
Tori: Send them to me. Send them to me. They can tell me what key it's in, okay, write out the bars for me, if you know so much. Yeah, right. But honestly, Rita, no, that's why you can't. You have to let them go. You sit there with some of the greatest musicians you respect and writers. I have a control team, you send it, you do your edits, many songs did not make the record because they didn't come up to snuff. You say, "Okay, that one didn't make the cut for whatever reason." It breaks your heart. There are at least ten on the floor over at Martian Studios that the drummer wanted, or that Mac Aladdin wanted, or that - Marcel really loved one of these tunes, and he said "Tori, I loved that one," and it's too slow. We didn't get it.
Rita: Martian Studios. What's that place like?
Tori: Well, let's take a drive down the dirt lane together, you and I, okay? We're in our Saab, say. It's a nice day, you and I have the top down. I've picked you up at the train in Exeter. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive into Martian. We're in North Cornwall. There are no streetlights. You're in agricultural country, so you can see the stars at night. There are no streetlights for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles. You're twenty minutes, fifteen minutes from the ocean, from the coast. And there you are, coming down the dirt lane. And the cows might be out, because they're next door, and they might be going in to get milked. And then we go into the green of the big farmhouse at Martian, you pull in, and then there's the three-hundred-year-old barn made of stone and brick. And once you walk in, you walk into NASA. And there are a few recording rooms, and it's one of the bigger control rooms in the UK. We're just opening it up to the industry this year sometime - we have a little band recording there now - and then we roll in, within the next 48 hours, the band, to rehearse. So there's a place to stay in the back, there's a residential and there's a steam and sauna, and a big Viking longhouse, big kitchen, and a hangout room. So yeah, it's really much a compound, and you get a lot done.
Rita: So for you, specifically with this record, would you go there to write? Is that your place where you work, or is that your place where you meet with the band and kind of go over arrangements and such?
Tori: No, that's where we record. It's a proper recording studio. It is state of the art. It's not a home studio. No, no, no, no. It's the real thing. And Peter Gabriel had told me years ago, "you have the engineers" - I was really close to Mark and Marcel at the time; I married Mark, and Marcel's one of my best friends, he's here engineering today - he said to me, Peter, "Look, if you're going to develop records year after year and stay around, you have to have a workshop. And you have to do it so that it's comparable to a studio you would go to in London. Build it and you will never look back." And so I listened to him, and I did it.
Rita: And you named it Martian Studios, which is so cool.
Tori: Well, as a girl from Venus, you know, as a Venusian, what do she always want? Well, you want that Mars, don't you, you have to have it. So the Martians are - they're happy Martians.
Rita: Give us a little - as you just painted a picture of the studio - where do you write? Where's your office, if you will? And is there such a physical place, or is it anywhere, anytime, any thing?
Tori: Standing in line trying to borrow a piece of paper from the woman in front of me, or anything I can get my hands on - napkins at a coffeeshop. It's wherever you are, if you're an observer of life. To be a good songwriter, you have to be the observer, not the observed. So usually you'll never see me running around, looking like Tori Amos that you see on the - I understand when it's performance time, that's a different expression, that's the world of theatre. But when you're a composer, you have to be really in disguise and incognito, or people, they're very skeptical about being relaxed around you. Can you imagine? I wouldn't have any friends because they think they're all going to end up in songs. And they're not wrong! They all end up in songs, and I'm dogging all of them! But the thing is, nobody knows who it's about.
Rita: That's probably the fun part for the writer.
Tori: Always. But Husband, he'll say to me, "Wife, I don't want to know who you're writing about in that one. I don't want to know." So he doesn't. And it's better that way. He can enjoy the music - he has his own opinions about what it's about - and he lives in happy bliss. It's fine.
Rita: Works for everybody. Tori Amos is with us here at WFUV. "Beauty of Speed" - tell us about that song from the new record.
Tori: Well, this was recorded with duelling pianos. So the Bosendorfer was on my left - it was a big 9'6'' in the recording. And I am in love with this piano, I am in love with her. She's not my writing piano; she was a recording piano that Bosendorfer sent down, and she won't be going with me on the road because it would destroy her. So she'll go back to Bosendorfer and they'll send me another one. But this one - if you hear it going up on the market, you need to snag it, because it's one of the greatest pianos I've ever played. She's on my left, and then there was an upright on my right, and that's how I got the sound for this.
Rita: Unbelievable. Well, Tori's here in our studios to play this one live for us today.
[Tori plays "Beauty of Speed".]
Rita: That's very cool, thank you. That's Tori Amos with us here at WFUV. Beautiful melody on that track. You get to live the dream, too. Not only do you do all of this, then you get to dress up and have fun with it all, too!
Tori: Well, the costumes have been coming in for the girls, and I must say, Santa's wardrobe is to die for. It's one of those things where I would not - just my style, as me when I wake up in the morning - would not have thought that I would go for that kind of thing. But it's very feminine, and it's very sensual, and you look at it and you think, "that is just going to help my marriage, that."
Rita: That's got to be a fun part of the project for you. Beyond the theatre and the performance of getting on stage every night, but just developing the looks so many of us girls growing up, like, we played in our minds in that way, of dressing up and wanting to wear this or wear that. And you really get to do it.
Tori: Yeah, and you begin to see that the choice that you've made is not the only expression. There were a lot of honest choices - meaning, there are other images that you realize, as you get older, that you could have pulled off, and that are true to your inner spirit. But you made a choice. You dyed your hair one colour; it doesn't mean you couldn't have dyed it another colour. I mean, if we're dyeing, why not? Let's not say that, well, "but this is really me, this hair dye is really who I am". All of them could have been you, let's be honest. And so, that's what I've been looking at as I get ready for the stage show. I do have to go into character, though, it takes me some time. I can only really hold one besides Tori. Because for me, it's not something I can just with a snap of a finger just access.
Rita: Right. And the whole process of coming up with looks and hair and makeup and playing around with that, do you enjoy that part of it as well?
Tori: Well, I had a partner on this - Karen Binns, who I've worked with for years and years and years. She's been with me since Little Earthquakes times. And she's really a visionary when it comes to expressing the outer with a project. She's sort of an Artistic Director. That's how I see her. And yet we had hair people and makeup people who are very, very talented, and the photographer, Blaise Reutersward, was just one of the - it was a highlight for me to work with him. So it was a huge team of people, and yet Karen and I started working on this a year and a half ago. So we were building the looks. First I had to build the inner and the psyches of the girls - including Tori, because she has to shift, she's in a new context, it's not just about her, and I frankly think that it's very good for her, and so she's had to shift somewhat. So Karen had to take all this onboard, and we would sit and develop this, well, for a long time.
Rita: Wow. It's very cool. American Doll Posse is the brand new album from Tori Amos, our guest here at 90.7 FM. It's been great to spend some time with you.
Tori: Thank you so much.
Rita: Now, we're going to turn you loose here to play DJ for a moment. You get to share a guest DJ pick with us. Anything at all. Whatever you feel like playing.
Tori: Well, I think one of my favorite records of all time is "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix. I just think it holds up today, and it's inspired me to write so many things.
Rita: Here it is.
["Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix plays.]
[transcribed by Paul McCulloch (SweetOnes from toriphorums)]
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