home / interviews
American Songwriter (US)
Q&A with Five Faces
by Evan Schlansky
Tori Amos has been melting hearts and defying expectations since 1992's Little Earthquakes. On the pianist/songwriter's latest album, American Doll Posse, she adopts the persona of five fictional women.
How did the songs on American Doll Posse come to you?
Normally, I'm able to detect a musical theme from song to song. I get a hint of what a project is going to be when the songs start coming to me again. Usually there's a time after I finish a project I'm kind of in that now where the faucet gets turned off for awhile. Then it's more about drinking in information and observing. I start collecting in my musical toolbox experiences and observations and sounds and rhythms, and I just start building that up again. And when the sounds start coming, whether that's a year later or whenever that is, I usually know, "OK, so, this sounds like a Hammond organ, this could work well with this kind of composition," and I begin to see a framework. But with this record, I was getting too many varied songs to put them all into one, to make a decision as a producer about what to do. I was either making many records, or I was making one record with many voices. I chose the latter, but you start thinking, "for this to work, it's pivotal that the arrangements to take it song by song, instead of as a whole record." A lot of the time, I look at the whole work. Pieces have to work together for there to be this sonic installation. It can't just be random things thrown together, it doesn't work. Sort of like a meal where you have Japanese and Swedish and Indian and Thai, but after a while, it's just, uhhh there's no harmony in it. So that was the trick.
In addition to being a great vocalist and pianist, skills you can practice everyday, you're also a great lyricist. Where does that come from?
I've read a lot in my life. Maybe a lot of poetry, from Rimbaud and Baudelaire to Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, some of the great poets of our time. It sets a standard you start to look at how certain people describe emotions, or describe something visual that they see. I think as a songwriter you can get trapped into writing songs that are like the ones you hear on the radio, and sometimes you want to do that and sometimes you don't, because by the time your song comes out, that'll be dated. So you have to think, where am I going for my reference points? And sure, sometimes I will hear something that makes me think, "well, I like the way that they were using alliteration, I like the way they are making your senses work in this song," but you can apply it to what you're doing while making sure it comes out in a really different way. So yeah, of course, I'm always trying to expose myself.
Visual artists affect me a lot too. Cause when you think about it, if you're looking through art books, say you can't even get into the museums for whatever reason, so you go online and look at pictures, and just in looking at a Dali painting, you can start describing it with words and as you start jotting down what you see, then you can say, "oh my goodness! I love this line, I've never heard anything quite like it before." So I go to different mediums. Usually not other lyricists, not other songwriters, because you don't want to steal. I listen to the good ones, I know what they're doing, I know what they're up to, but then you have to go do your wood shedding.
As someone who's written so many songs, how do you keep originating new melodies?
That's a good question. I think that it's a mixture of having a discipline when you're in writing mode. I force myself to sit down and I tape it. Then I listen back when I'm rowing on my rowning machine, or if I'm on a long drive, I sit and listen to it back, and then you begin to pick out "oh wait a minute, just when I was improvising, there was a turn of a phrase, and I like that progression, and I've never heard it before," so I'll write down, and I'll know, this is something I need to use. So again, you're starting to collect, as a filmmaker would, scenes that will eventually become a whole film.
Do you think there's a limit to how abstract lyrics can be? Are you attracted to abstract lyrics?
It's a mixture. I think sometimes in order for the listener to apply a story to their own life, abstractions good for that, because it doesn't quarantine a song into your own event which is bad. In that way, there is a narcissism to that, as a songwriter. And you have to be smart. Sometimes songwriters are sitting there telling you exactly what happened and I say, "why are you doing that?" "Because it's true. It's truthful." I say "fuck truth! Everybody's falling asleep!" So you had an argument, but it was in the loo, gross, I don't want to know about that, unless you're some funny British person and are able to pull that off. So you say, "OK, the argument part's good, keep some of what happened, the linear." So you bring the linear moments into it, "she picked up her heels and did it dah dah dah " But then you have to take us into a place of almost existentialism. You're crossing dimensions of thought. I think sometimes you want to take people on such an adventure, an emotional adventure, that you have to apply different techniques. Sometimes you say, okay, I want this listener to feel trapped, from beginning to end, so that they're suffocating. So everything you do is focusing on all their senses, so that they can't move at the end of it. You have to ask yourself, "but how do I achieve that?" That's where the real work comes in. You have to think, how do I create a sonic environment, so that they're claustrophobic. Sometimes I'm sitting with the musicians and I'm pointing at pictures, saying "it has to be like this. I want people to feel this." And I'll show them the picture, and they think well how do I do that? Now that's abstract and I get it.
The problem with abstract is, if you pull it off, then hooray, but if you don't, then nobody seems to be affected. Word association is a great tool to use, because you don't think certain combinations would work together. But they do generate a response for somebody. You just have to watch. Test something out on people when you say certain words. I love word association, because it's graphic you put two ideas together, like "bowling ball" and "stomach," that people might not think about. All is fair in songwritingcas long as you're not stealing too many notes.
Does having a classical background help or hinder with pop songwriting?
Well, depends on what kind of music you want to write. For me, it's a part of what I do. It's hard to measure how much it affects my day to day. Probably more than I know, because it's ingrained in the brain. It's foundational. Some people grow up with folk music, and you just know it in their writing. It's not a negative, it's just, that's what is. And so you have to ask yourself, "well, if I expose myself to different kind of styles, not just one kind, then does this give me a broader compositional base?" I was learning classical as I was being exposed to music by artists of the mid to late '60s. And that's some of the best songwriting of our time. So as a little girl, my brain was just infused with all of that. When you get it when you're really little, then that's how your brain thinks. That's the structure, that's how it works. And some of those structures were really complex, when you think about it. That's why songwriting sometimes today, you'll hear it and you'll think, nobody's going to be listening to this in three years, it doesn't have any legs. Because there's some kind of buzz phrase, there's some kind of catchy thing for three minutes, but there's no way you're going to hear it in three years it's too stereotypical, it's the status quo, there's nothing about it. Whereas, some of that Beatles stuff, it's still around today. I remember taking it to the Peabody and they said, "this is not gonna last."
But clearly they were wrong. And there's a reason why it lasts. So I think we as songwriters have to always look at songs by Hoagie Carmichael and Cole Porter as well as The Beatles and the Stones, and even The Doors and David Bowie. Some of those songs from that time, why when you analyze and really look at it I don't know if other songwriters really analyze other songwriters' work. I do, and I'm glad I do. I started doing that in my teens, and it really helped me to improve my writing. Because I started to see tricks. How do you resolve this musical problem? How did they get the b section of the melody? And you began to see how they did it. They turned a phrase around or they went a third up, up, they didn't know what to do with the melody so what did they do? Well, they worked around their own melody to make another melody, they had a natural pattern, and in order to make another pattern, they turn the pattern on their head. There are all kinds of techniques you can use.
In 2001 you released the covers album Strange Little Girls. Were you worried your interpretations might polarize fans?
You're going to think I'm awful, of course I care how the fans react, but as a composer, I don't give a fuck how people react, because in a hundred years time, it will either have been a good move, or not. And right now, everybody might think it's the best fucking movie and the music is dead. Remember Salieri? And Mozart? With Salieri, everybody was singing it at the time, are you singing Salieri today? Who fucking cares. At some restaurant in London that's crap.
My point to you is, as a songwriter, greatness is not measured by how many eaters of fast food there are, there's more fast food eaters and beer drinkers than there are of good wine. So you have to know, am I making good wine, or am I making Pabst for the planet? You have to know what you're doing. Now if you want to make your house payment, you do Pabst a couple times, look yourself in the eye, be a mercenary, go do it. But you have to know, you may be composing something or you might be interpreting something that people may not understand at that time for all kinds of reasons. So you better know who you're pulling in on your team, the brutality that you're going to get back from those that you think know what they're talking about. So that's why I think, with that record, we made the right move by making that record. People get close to the songs, but the point was not to deliver the songs as they'd been delivered. There's no point to that. Go listen to the original version. The whole concept was a woman having a different perspective on the things coming out of a man's mouth. And how a woman hears it, how a man says it. And that's why to me, that worked. If you're just gonna sit down and cover something, it's a dangerous game. Unless you have a really different take on it.
Do you have an idea of what it's like for a man to enjoy your music, do you think they take different things out of it?
Sure, I do, and I think that's good. I think, I mean, it's hard to make blanket gender comments, because if you're musically oriented, then you're going to respond differently then if you're not musically oriented. And there're women who are one way or another and there are men who are one way or another. Sometimes I do think that guys traditionally like to rock. They really like it when the arrangements are complicated and there's a complexity to it. The guys I know, anyway. I don't always make records like that so sometimes it's more skewed, sometimes its more internal, sometimes it's not about plugging in a really kicking it with the band. This record's more like that, so guys seem to respond to it. When I get into a kind of a Tori on Ecstasy kind of vibe, the women are there cruising with me, and they can kind of hang out on that E-trip for a while. And the guys are kind of saying, "OK, if I can shag her to it, then I'll play this game! [laughs] It's different cause that's a stereotypical conversation that we're having. A lot of the guys who listen to the music don't necessarily want to talk about the music. They want to say, OK, there's a bar of nine here. They want to talk about that. It's a mathematical way, or architecture, they're into that, as opposed to the emotional.
What has the response been to your song "Hey, George," [sic] which opens American Doll Posse, and is addressed to our President?
Well, there's been a lot of commentary on it. But that wasn't a surprise. When you start thinking about the British angle, and George Bush and King George, you start thinking, we have to bring in the masses. The crux of that song is really what has gone wrong in America. It's really a song that addresses us. He's just kind of the guy we're talking about, but we are talking about, how did we get here? And it's very different than a song that's pointing the finger. It's as pretty intimate conversation you're having about the tragic place that we're in, a heartbreaking place. You had to get the people's emotions. Unless you permeate the place, people are very defensive of where they are with their politics. If you start pointing the finger, preaching doesn't get you very far, I don't think. But getting under peoples' skin, getting intimate about this subject, was the only way for this song to work.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos