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PopMatters (US, www)
August 27, 2007
In a Posse's Strength: An Interview with Tori Amos
The artist splits personae, splits her vote, and defends her shoes. Tori Amos talks to PopMatters about this and more.
by Matt Mazur
The first thing you need to know about Tori Amos is that her work ethic rivals that of the Bionic Woman. She composes a new record usually every other year, and somehow flawlessly pulls off grueling tours for each new album. Tori is also a whip-smart businesswoman who can bring home the bacon -- looking damn hot in her Louboutins. And all the while the fit chanteuse is able to maintain a degree of domestic bliss with her sound engineer hubby Mark (aka "Husband") and their daughter Natashya (aka "Tash"). The second thing you should know is that, for the love of God, you should not to try to steal these shoes if she throws them near you during a performance. They're really expensive.
Over the course of her career, Tori has flirted with a dynamic range of topics, themes, and sounds. This is a woman who is like a brave mad scientist, unafraid to conduct even the most unholy experiments: She gave us an Ayahuasca-induced Southern Gothic masterwork (Boys for Pele), a mysterious technology-tinged examination of her own personal loss (From the Choirgirl Hotel), and an entire album of thoroughly feminine, re-invented covers (Strange Little Girls) that were originally composed by men -- men including Eminem!
At 43, she even put out a re-mastered, tricked-out box set that spans her entire career and is shaped like a miniature piano (last year's A Piano: The Collection, obviously). With the help of journalist Ann Powers, she released her autobiography Piece by Piece, which gave her public yet another brave look into some of her most personal thoughts, triumphs, and lessons. Lest you think she is too prolific, by the end of 2007, this apparently super-human woman will have played more than 1,000 live gigs across the globe.
Aiding Tori in her apparent quest for world domination is her much-discussed throng of worshippers. Tori Amos fans have been called by a number of different names: Intelligent. Overzealous. Temperamental. Strong. Girly. Weird. Cultish. At least I assume that all fans are these things because, well, I am, without a doubt, all of these things at various times. I am proud to say that I count myself among the singer/songwriter's legion of devotees, and have since her debut album, the confessional Little Earthquakes, was released 15 years ago, which seems like yesterday.
Over the last few years, with nine proper studio albums, and a seeming omni-presence on the music world's radar, Tori has cleared a path through the world of music with her mix of magic, grit, and intellect. Everybody knows her "rock star myth" by now: a child piano prodigy who studied at a chi-chi conservatory, Tori preferred Jim Morrison and Robert Plant to Mozart. She's a proud minister's daughter, devout family woman, and a self-proclaimed "MILF" who, in another life, was an LA rocker chick in leather pants with lots of hairspray and a penchant for road rage.
Nowadays she calls mystical rural England home, but remains firmly attached to her stateside heritage, as evidenced by American Doll Posse, a hypnotic character study of a record that examines the voices of women in a contemporary world at war. If you don't know her backstory by now, it's not a really too big of a deal: simply pick up this album and prepare to bow down to her mind-bending lyrical skills, siren-esque vocal abilities, and her mastery of the beast known as "Bö" -- her glorious Bösendorfer piano. Tori has recently said that she is embarking on a new phase in her career, and the new record reflects a sort of gleeful abandon and composure that comes with an artist's honesty and willingness to experiment.
She is currently directing her own particular brand of sweet/salty ire towards terrorists, world leaders, and the cynical. While she might not actually be out to conquer the planet, she is aiming to destroy, once and for all, the lingering stereotype that she is just "a girl with a piano" by employing an armada of amped-up guitars and gorgeously crisp dream-rock production that references everything from the Stooges and T. Rex to the Doors and girl groups of the 1960s (and everything in between). Despite the record's nostalgic kitchen-sink sheen, there is something distinctly modern and distinctly "Tori" about the proceedings. And there is something on the record to please even her most selective supporter.
Rallying around the singer in this enterprise are the "Posse" characters: Santa, Pip, Isabel, and "Tori" -- a cluster of thoroughly glamorous misfits who are shouldering some of the creative burdens for the artist on this ambitious venture. Each has a separate look and Haute-glammy wardrobe; they have their own songs, and even play their own set that opens up each night of Amos's current world tour. Lucky for "Tori" they all wear her size, and can all play the piano, too.
Amos, who is renowned for her live show, appears onstage fully costumed as these characters -- each inspired by a goddess in Greek mythology. In the grand tradition of artists like Elton John and David Bowie, Tori now brings a level of investigational, costumed theatricality that can only be gained with supreme confidence and possession of epic musical abilities -- the kind of ballsy effervescence that lends strength and humility to truly gifted performers when they decide to pull an Elvis-like maneuver and wear an off-the-shoulder, red-white-and-blue-sequined American flag jumpsuit for a performance, as Amos quite daringly (and cheekily) did this past July 4th in London.
Though often mislabeled as dark and serious by her critics, Amos has a playful sense of humor as evidenced not only by her costumed antics but also in her work. On "Posse Bonus", the singer, tongue planted firmly in cheek, instructs her listener to eat their greens and their broccoli. Conversely, one track after that ("Smokey Joe"), she lets a battle-fractured Pip sing a chilling duet with herself about murdering a man. It's this sort of musical unpredictability and sonic balancing act that has kept her fans coming back for more and has kept the haters hating.
Love the woman or hate her all you want, but even the staunchest haters can't deny that she is cranking out vital contribution after vital contribution to modern music. This legacy to rock music, particularly her contribution to female musicianship, will go down in the history books as one of the most prodigious and phenomenal of its time.
It's not every day someone like this calls you up on the phone for a chat. I had always foolishly said to myself that I would never want to interview someone I admired so much in a professional setting. These delicate issues brought about a horrible conundrum for me: do I put on my "fan" hat or my "reporter" hat? Tori has famously talked about the different "hats" she wears throughout her day (mother, wife, producer, singer, etc.), so I decided to wear both, which luckily was cool with her.
Throwing caution to the wind, I summoned up the courage (and held back the nerve-induced vomit storm gathering in my rumbling belly) to chat with a gracious, funny Tori Amos about everything from the joys of wearing rubber to how the upcoming presidential election reminds her of Shakespeare in Love.
Your new album American Doll Posse has a strong opinion about world leaders and their policies, and can be read as a "political" or "protest" record. On the album opener, "Yo, George", you ask questions about "the madness of King George" and throughout the record, notably also on "Dark Side of the Sun" ("Is there a way out of this? / If there is I don't see it") you seem to be imploring people to react to the war and the injustices taking place. You also bring an intimate familiarity with Christianity and its mythology to the table. Do you think the world is going to end in our lifetime? Do you think the rapture on its way?
It seems as if it's a global crisis. Not just something that's targeted to one area. I'm in England right now and the floods are devastating. A lot of people have been really affected that we know. So, whether in our lifetime the world is going to end or if in our lifetime the changes are so many, that it might seem as if it's going to end. I do like that R.E.M. song, I've always really thought it was poignant -- "It's the End of the World as We Know It". And it does seem like these predictions that people have been making the last few years -- now they're really starting to happen. Almost as if it's been expedited. Its on fast-forward, it seems to me. And the question is: "What is it going to take for us to in order for us to somehow approach this?" These are questions. I don't have lots of answers. I have lots of questions. And you and I both know, though, if a good part of the population is self-involved and they're not asking these questions then the changes won't happen that we need to happen. We need big changes. Big. But I don't think they will occur unless the masses demand it. My question to myself was: "Well then. How then do you get to the masses that maybe were on the fence of filling less time and just a sense that apathy set in?" And that has been my burning reason to try and get these people who aren't so far from seeing the truth to choose to see it. And to realize that everybody is needed in order to make the changes we need to make. So our world doesn't become a disaster zone.
American Doll Posse is a classic concept record and as a writer, you are known for going the extra mile as far as mapping out each record's origin goes. Why do you make the artistic choice to go with complex-themed, epic-length records as opposed to a more traditional, shorter album? What sparks your interest in this intense exploration of the term "concept"?
Well, I've made a lot of records now and so I've made some that are the traditional ten to twelve songs, twelve songs for me, and that worked for those records. For other records, you get involved almost in a double album structure. This generation isn't really used to that. It's funny. One of my nieces -- ADP comes in a double album, a double vinyl -- and she looked at it when the pressing came in and she said, "What is this? A Frisbee?" Husband, he couldn't stop laughing, he just said "Frisbee?! This is lacquer, come smell it!" She had absolutely no idea. And so it goes to show you that that tradition, it's a tradition that people don't necessarily understand, that form. If you think about it, playwrights have been working off of Greek tragedies for thousands of years, that form, what it's like to bring that to the stage. And that that has been retained for thousands of years, whereas the idea of the double album [laughing] didn't last very long. And I decided everybody was so obsessed with "tunes" -- as in "I-tunes". I thought well, then, I'm going to give you an "I" album. A double "I" album and not a single "eye" as in Cyclops.
You said that you tracked 30 songs for ADP? Can we look forward to anything from these sessions coming out?
Well, I don't think I'd use those. And I don't know I am just thinking about it in my mind. And the main reason I am thinking about this is because just in touring Europe -- we haven't even hit the States, much less Australia yet, relationships are developing with different members of the Posse and the audience. And so I kind of am thinking what songs would they do now, now that they're out of the closet? And now that they're relating to people and they're in 3-D? It's just something that intrigues me and yet I know that every good story has to come to an end. And so, it might be that, and I'm not sure yet, but I think were going to do a live DVD of the show with all of the girls represented. So that somehow tied in with that, the girls could do a song or two as part of their farewell. Because, they gotta go. I don't think they're quite ready to go yet and the public seems to not be ready for them to go quite yet. The people that are coming to the shows, I mean.
Since I am a huge film nerd, and since ADP is kind of a character acting piece set to music, I was wondering if you could talk about some female acting performances that have had an effect on you in your life, especially in relation to creating the Posse? You've talked about Thelma & Louise and Night of the Hunter in the past. Which great women of cinema have stuck with you?
Barbara Stanwyck. I think that for me, when I look at it in context, when you look at her character now, with women's rights and what has been gained and what has maybe been lost, it might not seem so shocking. But when you put it in context -- and my mom and I have talked about that a lot -- the strength that she gave to other women and the strength that she had internally in herself, at that period of time in history when women didn't have that "power" in the real world. But she was a very powerful woman as far as her presence onscreen, and the roles she played. So I have always though that, again if you saw her in the 1990s, then you would say still that that's a strong woman. But the fact that it was in the '40s, especially for somebody like my mom. She made such a huge impression on my mother -- the idea that you just didn't have to be someone's wife, which I thought was very important. I have to tell you one more thing: Marilyn Monroe -- Niagara. I just loved that. I hadn't been into her, but one of my friends made me watch Niagara and I watched that and I just thought that there are a lot of young women that try to be dangerous Aphrodites, but she, in this role, was really dangerous. And she was seductive. To see how a woman can use her seduction and act as if she doesn't have a brain in her head but really is plotting the whole thing and is destroying people's lives. I thought it was really well done.
Thank you for forcing me to explain to my own mother what a "MILF" is -- after I sent her your record for Mother's Day. I was wondering if perhaps you had to explain that term to your own parents and if you'd like to tell us about it?
My parents, when they heard the song ["Big Wheel"] for the first time were in my truck and I was driving them down the coast somewhere in Florida. They heard the album in my car, on my truck stereo while we, you know, just got a little picnic and drove up and down. And they had the lyrics in front of them. [Laughing] My dad is half deaf, but my mom's not. He turned around and said "Mama, what is this M-I-L-F? What is that Mama?" Mom said [affecting a genteel Southern-accented imitation of her mother, the famous Mary], "Oh Ed, I don't know what that is. What does that mean?" And I just said "Oh, Mom, let's just not." [Again doing her mom's voice] "Oh dear, what? You think I'm born yesterday? That I can't handle your shocking information?" And so I told them. And my father blushed and my mother roared. You know, as a minister, he knows that I live to try and bring sexuality into a place of acceptance and goodness. Just because you are in touch with your sexuality doesn't mean you're demonic.
One day in the future your daughter might question some of your lyrics like in say, a racier song like "Professional Widow"? Are you worried about that day?
Oh, we're already at that day. Tash is 6 and wants to be a film director this week. She's hiding behind doors and filming people. And not a whole lot misses her. She's just at this place where she'll say [using another accent, British this time, like her daughter's] "Mummy -- Mind the vocabulary Mummy. You're going to be seeing some of the other mothers from school. You have to keep 'Tori Amos' in line." And I say, "Yes, I know, right..."
The "Image" is a major part of the American Doll Posse concept, which is interesting given that in the beginning of your career you sort of eschewed the whole glam thing in favor of something a little more pared down. I was wondering how does the music world and public receive you as a strong, sexy woman in her 40s, and what do you think these opposing factions expect something different from you as far as the "Tori" image goes?
I think when you see the show, with the music and the body movement -- still photos are tricky, even if they're done really well. When a character can come alive, then you're experiencing it from all senses, not just visually. But sonically and even taste and smell because when you're in a venue watching it, then I think you understand its performance art. Not just as in "this is an image" but this is a "consciousness". This is a facet of a woman that feels very natural and when you see them I think you get a sense of "Wow, they're very different" from when "Tori" comes on to whoever's on before her. They're different. The energy is different, and I think it is about the energy. Even you all have an image that you project to the world. But that might not be the only person who lives inside there. It's a choice that you've made to present yourself in a certain way. And I had to come to terms with the fact, as I was seeing all of these different styles of music coming to me and hearing them. I knew I was either making many records or one record with many voices.
And I started to think "Well, hmmm." The redhead image is something that I've developed over many, many years. But I would be lying to you if I told you I didn't love wearing rubber. I absolutely adore it. You must admit, it makes sense that after many years of all those songs and all that narrative that if you come out of the box wearing rubber tights then that's your image. So, in order to have a shift from that you have to do kind of the polar opposite to have a similar effect, if that makes any sense. You know, just to wear them, anybody can do it. But to wear them when you're coming from a place from story and substance, I think that we equate certain images with a vapid kind of brain and I wanted to blow that out of the water a little bit. Because why shouldn't smart people feel groovy too? I don't understand why the insipid stupids must get all the cool looks! So I thought -- "you know, hang on a minute!" You can be confronting the right wing and feeling really seductive at the same time.
As you probably know, I've shunned Aphrodite and have been more comfortable with the warrior. Pip wasn't that far energetically from my spirit, but to open up to Santa was really difficult. Because I have equated, wrongly, the Aphrodite archetype, I have a picture of what that looks like in our modern society. And I was corrected by somebody who really has studied mythology for years. She said, "No, You are looking at damaged Aphrodites or diluted Aphrodites. You're not looking at that character type being fully expressed. So if you're going to do that you need to be fair and go read the myth and you're going to see that Aphrodite was no stupid tart." And so I read the Aphrodite myth and I had to change the way I was thinking. I really misjudged her ability to think. I hadn't given her a lot of credit. I just thought she was a sex bomb. She liked sensuality and she liked being intimate. That's for sure, but you can't punish somebody for that, that doesn't mean that they're not intelligent.
There are literally hundreds of songs in your canon at this point and that's not even including covers. Do you ever forget that certain, more obscure songs even exist? Like for example do you sit down to the piano at tour rehearsal and think to yourself "Oh yeah, I wrote "Mountain", that's a good one..."?
Well, I'm glad you reminded me of "Mountain". Because I need to get the band -- we need to learn "Mountain". We just do. [At this point I egg Tori on to whip the immensely talented "boys" -- Jon Evans, Matt Chamberlain and Dan Phelps, into shape] Yeah -- no cracking that whip. They needed a break from me. I love them so much, though, they're my buddies. I just adore playing with them. Playing with them, it pushes me as a player so I find it really exciting. We all decided before we left Tel Aviv that we knew that we had to make our lists of things that we had to put in our repertoire. So yes, "Mountain", "Sugar", all those songs will be coming.
Does this mean we might get to hear "Datura" [the never before played, experimental eight-plus minute epic from Venus] on this tour, finally?
It just needs to, doesn't it, though? It's just really hard. Matt [Chamberlain, the ace drummer] looked at me and said, "We have do it"; I said, "I know." How we're gonna do it, I don't know, but we're gonna try to do it.
You mentioned you just got back from Tel Aviv. Many artists refuse to play shows in Israel, and there are several academic boycotts of the country that cite state practices against Palestinians. Did you experience any ethical conflicts when deciding to play there for the first time?
Quite a few people have flown into see me over the last many, many, many, many months. And you begin to realize that there are citizens within countries. There are some people in the world who think America should be boycotted right now for what they're doing. Yet I am not those in power who have made these choices, and neither are millions and millions of other people. So, as an American, you can't just align me with the administration, you can't do that. It's one thing if you're going to play a state dinner, it's another if you're going to play to human beings. So I chose to play to humans and it made a lot of sense to me. I've been there before, I went to Jerusalem before. This time I stayed pretty much in Tel Aviv, with Tash. It was beautiful where we were and the people couldn't have been kinder and warmer to us. And I think a lot of them have a lot of questions about trouble in the Middle East and what's happening. When you listen to them, they have to live with it every day. There are all kinds of viewpoints about this. It's a very complex matter.
Name your poison: Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?
Well I can't say my poison, Matt. Because even if I did I just think that would be -- and I know you're gonna think that I'm copping out but I'm not -- I think it's irresponsible of me to do that. Because my goal is that we get people talking about it, and making the right choices for the right reasons. But you know it's one of those things. I might make a choice that ultimately, in hindsight, that will not be the right one. I have faith that if enough people get interested, as we get closer to it, more will be revealed. Do you know that saying, from Shakespeare in Love? "It's a mystery?" Remember in that moment when they didn't know how they were going to figure out who was going to play Juliet because the guy playing her had lost his voice? And there's this little scene where somebody says, "Where are you going to get a Juliet?" and they go, "I don't know. It's a mystery." It'll all work out. And so don't you think that if more people are getting excited about it and focusing on it than what I choose to do ... I think I should keep it quiet. I'm definitely supporting a Democratic candidate because we need change.
That's a very diplomatic answer.
I can be diplomatic when I'm not calling a person a "cocksucker".
Actually I saw something about you yelling at somebody from the stage and throwing your shoes at them, when they were being loud in Eastern Europe?
That was a security guard who was really laying into a fan. During T & Bö [the solo piano section of Tori's show] of all things! I just thought, "Don't hold a whole audience hostage". And so everybody was turned around watching this scuffle so I just said, "Excuse me! Can you bleep?" And he didn't stop. And then when I called him a cocksucker, I realized he couldn't speak English and I needed to learn how to say cocksucker in Bratislavian. Actually every language is different. And then that didn't work so I had to take off my high heels.
Did somebody try to steal your shoes?
Yes! They tried to steal my shoes after I threw them! And I looked at Smitty [Tori's massive personal security guard], [who] of course [saw them]. I looked at one girl and I said, "Forget about it sister, I want them back!"
Were they Christian Louboutin?
No, they were Kurt Geiger, but they were white patents -- I love those shoes and I play in them all the time as "Tori". Smitty had his eye on them -- he knew where they were.
And there you have it. Tori says: "Democrats, yay! Shoe thieves, nay!"
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