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May 9, 2009
Interview: Tori Amos
by Darren Harvey
Tori Amos is at her London hotel, freshly recovered from a bout of food poisoning that forced her to cancel a gig for the first time in her 20 year recording career. She's in a reflective mood, and it's clear she's not used to being out of action.
"For a get-up-and-go gal like me, it's taken for granted that you can wake up and tackle everything. I'm doing a world tour every other year, I'm a mom, this super achiever... creating is my fire and water. Being sick puts it all in perspective. Without my health I couldn't create music, and without music I would not be this person, I wouldn't see the world in this way."
Her new album Abnormally Attracted to Sin is, like all her work, strongly influenced by this personal vision of the world; by the sexual, political, religious and economic forces which shape our lives. She talks about her songs as stories; not formal narratives as such, but character-driven sketches in which grander issues are played out. Issues such as tolerance and power relations dominate this album; though it requires more than just a casual listen to uncover them.
The album is a more opaque work than fans may be used to. Its treasures are manifold, but it gives them up slowly. The tone is stately, its atmosphere created by muted electronic effects; and the lyrics demand interpretation before digestion. "Yes... I see it as a sort of sonic seduction going on," she says.
Like all of her recent albums, Abnormally Attracted to Sin is replete with female characters; some oppressed, some in control, some in situations of self-sacrifice and compromise. She feels that the route to understanding the album is getting under the skin of these characters; and in particular how they interact with a modern world in flux. A world where, in particular, the fixed gender roles and power relationships of her early work are turned on their head.
"When you spend time with the music and delve into it, it is very much a record set in our new world. Our old world is gone -- it's a world now where the meaning of success has to be redefined. A lot of people -- men in particular -- have lost their jobs so if you define your success by being a provider, and then you lose your job and are therefore unsuccessful, where are you left?"
"Our stock definition of power -- that was the bankers. What does that equal now? Integrity in stealing? In creating the problem and being rewarded for it? That's powerful?" Of course not -- as she implies, that rulebook has been torn up.
"As a songwriter it is my job to tackle these concepts and put them into the feeling space, not just the head space, and look at the knock-on effect. 'Maybe California' [a standout track dealing with a character considering suicide] comes out of that kind of crisis, when the husband comes home after being fired ... and then what happens in the bedroom? It's over."
"And it's often the women who are keeping their jobs, because they are cheaper -- and a lot of the higher paid men are losing their jobs to inexperienced 20 year olds. They leave saying what do I do, what have I become? And so how do you remake the world after that? Talk about divide and conquer of a people! This is how the system works, this is its destructiveness; and I think the record investigates this. The idea of power might be redefined too -- now, maybe, you can only find your power by giving of yourself, and not by taking. That's what [opening track] Give is all about."
Individuals, even unsympathetic ones, are largely absolved from criticism on Abnormally Attracted to Sin: instead, it's social and political forces which are subject to scrutiny. As ever, the concept of patriarchy comes under direct fire, as on the visceral "Strong Black Vine," with its jerky rhythms, roughed-up strings and talk of "that evil faith." Here, one monotheistic religion blends into one another -- "It's looking at this whole idea of intolerance within religion, whether it's courtesy of Christianity or Islam or Judaism."
Sometimes, though, her characters are bound by their own sacrifices rather than by oppressive forces. On her new single "Welcome to England," life in a foreign country creates this tension and feeling of ambivalence: the foreign country being our sceptred isle, and the protagonist of the song a dead ringer for Amos herself, who divides her time between the US and Cornwall.
"It's a story about one person leaving their world to go to their lover's world. It's England but it could be anywhere. When you leave your friends and your family and your life, to live in their world. Sometimes their world just doesn't become your world, and if then they become the centre of your world, problems ensue, because that should never happen. And so she is having to find the pieces that she has scattered all over the place in order to live in his world... and she can't even pretend that it's her world because it's not."
The relationship between character and songwriter seems very close here, doesn't it?
"Of course there are ties there. When you are a writer you have to separate yourself in some ways, because you have to make art, but of course you get driven by ideas and feelings that you have. While there are things I can smile about in England, this is my husband's power spot; this is his power nexus, this helps define him. But I am not an expat person who can just disconnect themselves from their country. I don't have a network here, and I have made a choice not to have a network here."
"Why?" I ask, and then realise that I've fallen into to the trap of assuming that every American rock star -- or every American, for that matter -- is a closet Anglophile. Not so in this case. "Why? Because my story is different to his. I know who I am. My mother's [Native American] people are from thousands of years ago from another land. It's no different than if you asked my husband why he hasn't integrated into America. He would say it is not his country, that he doesn't want to go and try to be an American. Well I don't want to try to be a British person. Though I like some of them very much, and there's plenty that makes me smile about England."
British stoicism makes her smile, though the flipside of this -- British grumpiness -- drives her crazy. "I think you are at your best when things are at their worst. Then your humour is great. But when things are good you don't value it. You had a great economy until recently, but whenever I peeked in it was 'complain, complain, complain.' After you have a few sunny days it's too hot. If you have weeks of hot weather it's a heatwave, and everyone is depressed. Sometimes I think the British don't know how to embrace abundance and success."
"In many ways you and the Americans are opposite. The Americans forgive themselves for what they have done in the world. That's one extreme -- of course they haven't owned what happened with the Native Americans. But I think the Brits have so much guilt that they don't have any boundaries, and so they don't know how to say no to intolerance."
Colonial guilt, she feels, scuppers our noble intentions of tolerance: by tolerating everything, the English end up tolerating intolerance in others. "Because you can't say no, you don't know to protect the values of the West, which America does. I understand that this is a real American swaggering attitude that can really grate on people's nerves... but if you come to the States and you don't want to play by our rules of tolerance then the attitude is 'get the fuck out!' Here it's not like that. What you need is tolerance on all sides."
The culture gap is palpable: the American melting pot versus British multiculturalism. Her views may not tally with those of the average Guardian reader; though they clearly have liberal roots in the humanitarian founding principles of America. I'm reminded of a recent online interview where her comments led to a virtual flame war, with contributors rancorously debating her views on religion, gender issues and American politics. She's intrigued by how such an innocuous starting point -- the idea of tolerance -- leads to such extreme reactions.
"Isn't it intriguing that I am talking about the problem that we are not tolerant of each other's ideas, and that it in itself causes a problem? It's fascinating that trying to talk about respecting each other brings such a reaction. I don't know how we are going to be able to go through these times with an attitude like that. I think a lot of how people react to what I do actually tells you more about where they're at. But that's my job."
She clearly does her job with passion and dedication: and alongside her intensity and fearless challenges to authority, she's thought-provoking, highly articulate and never less than charming. There are few simple answers in her world, and consequently her opinions are refreshingly difficult to pre-empt or pigeonhole. She's a complex artist for complex times, and whilst she'll never feel at home in England, it's certainly good to have her here.
Tori Amos's Abnormally Attracted to Sin is released on 18th May through Island Records. She plays a rescheduled date at London's Savoy Theatre on 11th May.
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