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American Songwriter (US)
May 15, 2009
Girls on Film: An Interview with Tori Amos
by Jonathan Curtiss
Sultry songwriter Tori Amos is back with a brand new album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. The deluxe edition of the LP, her first for Universal/Republic, includes an accompanying video, or "visualette," for each song.
What was your inspiration for the theme of this album? The "visualettes" that accompany the songs seem dark and gritty, how did you come up with that idea and did it affect how you conceptualized your songwriting?
Some songs were created independently of a visual, others were written around seeing these montages that Christian Lamb was creating. This all got started because we were doing something else. Life happens while you're doing something that you didn't plan. He jumped on board the bus on the West Coast. We were filming the live show and he was doing pick-up camera work all the way down the coast. I would be shown these little vignettes that he would put together along with live recordings, music from one of the shows that night and I said 'Cut this off, let's turn the music off. This is wrong.' And I'd look at them and there was another story. I think he was filming at a certain point in the tour when the world was changing, it was the crest of the crash. It was the crest of things, our world that changed overnight was just beginning this shift. So the songs were written in stages. There was that group. But some of the songs were not "inspired" only by the visuals I saw. Some of them were coming from things that were happening so fast, the changes, and then he would go away and think about 'Do we have visuals for this?' I didn't know I was making a project with sixteen short films.
When you say changes, are you referring to when you left your previous label, Epic?
I mean life. Everybody seems to have had their life turned upside down for one reason or another at that time.
How did it feel debuting songs from the new album at SXSW?
The way I got my head around SXSW was once I realized that there was no way that I could launch this record alone on the keyboard, there's so much production work, it really is heavy on that side of things, that some of the compositions couldn't stand alone at the piano. They weren't designed that way, they weren't composed that way, but some can. So I thought to myself, 'Well if I treat SXSW as hopefully a strong female solo performance without other musicians, then I'll design a show. Instead of 'we're launching a new record live,' which would have been impossible to do. So we got rid of that idea.
Do you plan on including the visualettes in live setting, like sort of a crazy psychedelic '60s show?
I love crazy '60s stuff! But I'm not quite sure about the look of the show yet. However I think we're recognizing that it's not a solo female show. It just can't happen. But we're deciding right now how it will look like. I don't know if the visualettes need to live alone. It's such a personal experience.
Yes, it gives that impression of such intense introspection. To the point that I was wondering whether it was parallel in expressing what these songs were written about?
Well, they go hand-in-hand. Between Christian and myself, this was never ever about making a video. When I saw how he sees things, I thought... well first, everything is pretty much Super 8 (film). He had been filming all the concerts in HD, and there's still a little bit of that in the visualettes. But for the most part, everything is in Super 8 and I love the nostalgia of that. You know those old French films from the '60s or late '60s? We would entertain, we would talk about how we were watching this woman's life unfold, you don't know if this guy's following her around. But in reality, that's what Christian was doing, Christian was following this woman around the world and just happened to be there sometimes during moments when things were changing in her life.
Which is interesting because while it's obvious Christian was following you around, lyrically, in the songs, especially "Maybe California," you seem to be speaking towards an audience, a second party, or another presence so to speak.
Well that's it. It got to be where I could just sing him a song and we didn't really have to talk in depth about it. We got to a place where we knew that if we didn't have any footage that we shot already, I mean I would be meeting up with him round the world. It's a definite collaboration. When there weren't visuals that existed, when "Maybe California" was written without the visuals along with a whole other slew of songs, things were happening in stages, then he would just e-mail me and say 'We got film of this.' Here we are filming now, sixteen little short stories, and it was just going to be a montage or two to go along with a live concert DVD, which we still haven't edited yet because the world changed, the songs need to comment on that.
And I think the second phase of the project which happened in July (2008), I was in the States for awhile, I ran into Doug Morris, my mentor, who I hadn't talked to in fourteen years, ever since Under The Pink. He was really the main reason for my success, for the breaking of those records. The fact that he just fell out of my life overnight and then fell back in again, just as suddenly. It was an accident, I was doing a distribution deal with a distributor in the States, I was looking at different ones. I left the Sony/Epic system, I had had enough, I didn't want to go back to that. At that point, those 360 deals were being offered and I just thought 'How disrespectful.' I mean, come on, that's like offering me up to be a mistress. So I was looking at distributors and I just didn't know. I thought it was going to be this little independent release, using a distributor through the website but the universe just did not have that idea. I was out eating with a group of friends in California and somebody walked by the table and said "Hi" from Universal and her phone rang and she said she had to take it and twenty minutes later she's still on the phone pacing back and forth and my friends said, 'You know who she's talking to? She's talking to her boss' boss. That's Doug Morris!' And I just walked up and interrupted the call, I couldn't believe I did that! And the first thing he says to me, he doesn't ask me how I am, he just asks, 'Tori, are you out of Epic?' I said, 'I'm out,' and he said 'We need to talk.' So over the next couple of days, he said, 'You're a control freak, I love you for it, now go be a control freak.'
Well that was probably the best advice.
Yea, exactly. He said, 'Go be an artist.' So I told him about the film and he said, 'Look, if you go over budget, we can pick it up.' So I said fine and we had a joint-venture deal, we were partners. I had paid for everything as it was already, the film crews and all that all by myself so I had no idea that this was going to be what it became.
You seem to allude to this idea of change a lot, was meeting Doug Morris, with his past as a mentor, a catalyst for the songwriting?
No, well I can't say that it didn't have it's own spark because it did. But there had been so many people coming in and out of my life and so many upheavals for everybody, for all different sorts of reasons. It's not just an economic shift, I mean that is happening all over the world, so it is effecting everybody. But I'm also thinking about people leaving my life, they have to go, go find jobs some where else. People are leaving your life. People are coming in and there are plenty of other things of course, but it would be sort if boring to reveal certain details. So songs like "Maybe California" were coming from a place of seeing that, as songwriters it's glamorous to talk about the struggle of teenagers surviving those challenges, and people in their early twenties. But the idea that our backbone of society, our nurturing mothers, are starting to fall apart. I started to see it and to feel it and go through it as well. Just being exposed to stories where 'she' had a job and 'he' lost his job and they have a family and it all starts to fall apart because 'he's' not a provider anymore. So his self-worth is out the window because we choose to judge him for that.
Yea and I think a lot of men can relate to that, which also becomes interesting because once that idea of gender identification sort of goes 'phhftt', the question becomes....
'What's my personal value?'
Exactly. 'Where's 'my' autonomy? How do I validate...'
'What does success mean?'
Precisely. How do you define success as a songwriter? Whether it be this far along in your career or when you first began, when do you feel validated by what you've created?
Well, when people talk about the songs as friends, as important to them. When people have a relationship with the songs, separate from me, how they feel about me. Then, in that moment, I know that I was able to translate this creature, this song-being, in the right way. Because it's a real struggle sometimes, it's a struggle to stay out of the way. Or... or to get seduced. You know there's this huge seduction of, 'Is this a song that anybody will ever play? Is this song structure...' I mean, what is a modern song structure? Sometimes you go back to some of the really old structures of the '30s and it becomes new again because that form hasn't been used in a while. A successful songwriting moment for me is when I'm not trying to write something for a demographic, for a format, and yet people have a truly emotional response to it.
Who is 'Ophelia' (from the new song "Ophelia") in your mind?
Ophelia is a group of young women that are tangible, that actually exist. I do think that there are moments when you think that you're out of that stage. But you can fall back into that self-destructive place. It's almost a chain of being drawn to rejection. Have you ever wondered why some women, some people, are drawn to that regressive, invalidating sort of a relationship? There's a lot of it and maybe Ophelia, along with the idea of breaking this chain, where for people to feel powerful, they have to have power over somebody else. Sometimes that isn't a lover, sometimes it's a boss, or you may have a parent like that or some other family member. You just have to find ways, once you're not under their roof anymore, to decide, 'Am I drawn to this for some reason, is there a pattern in your life where you're drawn to people which you had never realized?' It's this chain or pattern that you have to break.
Right, like some sort of intrinsic awareness of yourself you never saw before?
And sometimes you don't even know it? I think in "Ophelia", she's not even aware of that because the traits are never exactly the same. Sometimes it's pretty well disguised at first, because it's not necessarily overt. It's more covert, that idea of power. Something really simple, like the withholding of compliments, that her work doesn't get encouraged, nothing she does gets supported. There's that little seed of doubt that gets put in the 'coffee' everyday. Just a little, a li-little bit so that you don't even notice. Sometimes I think that we take examples, as songwriters, we always take the most obvious examples instead of the examples that a lot of people experience. It's never these harrowing stories and tales. It's the details in life that as an observer, as a songwriter, you watch. You watch people in a coffee shop or at dinner you watch how they relate to each other. Usually it's the subtlest thing.
And it's so complicated...
It is complicated! It's never like 'Bang!' 'Punch!' It's complicated.
Which is present all over the album and its lyrics. Why did you choose to title the album Abnormally Attracted To Sin?
There are different ways to look at it. How we judge ourselves based on our patriarchal view through a faith system. It intrigues me how their perceptions of sin and definitions of power are just something that we take on board without ever pulling back for a minute and saying, 'Hang on a minute, that's demeaning!' So why have we defined erotica as something that has to be demeaning? Why can't erotica be in bed with spirituality? As a minister's daughter, I was really brought up in the idea that sex is in the regions of the devil. And if it's going to be in the regions of anything other than negativity, in the realm of the profane, it seems it would have to be only in the realm of procreating. There are all these rules for you to not feel, later, shame about it on some level. It's almost like you have to choose 'fun' and really following what I'm feeling or a spiritual path. That just seems to me to be the most controlled concept that we were given and have been following for a long, long time. Which busts up relationships and marriages and why you have these illicit affairs. Why can't I have an illicit affair with my husband? I mean I'm having one! But it took me awhile in life to see how divided I was amongst myself and how the institutions of religion keep the masses under control.
You wrote in your description of the album that Jesus was always the example of compassion in life, that passionate example of that kind of personal freedom as opposed to dealing with the mechanics of future generations...
And also the judgement of personal choices. The word 'Christ' may be in Chistianity but I don't see a lot of the compassionate Christ in Christians when they're analyzing other people's lifestyles. As I was moving through what I believe in, I began to get to a place where I didn't need to get the approval of anybody to get my spiritual outlook. That's where I think we stumble and you hand your power over to somebody else. My self-worth has to be based on how I feel about myself. So all these definitions of sacred sexuality has really changed for me over the past several years.
So it is a bit autobiographical?
Most of it. Some places more than others.
You have a pretty stellar group of musicians with you on this album. (Matt Chamberlain, drums; Jon Evans, bass; Mac Aladdin, electric guitar; John Philip Shenale, strings, Wurlitzer, Hammond), all session musicians you've worked with before. On a technical level, do you write melodies by being a foil for each other musically? Does the music come first, do the lyrics come first, is it sort of an alchemy of both?
The songs are there before the guys starting working on it. So the songs have developed. Some times it's a phrase, a lyric that has found it's way all the way here and I start singing and humming around it. Or some times I get a musical passage and I think to myself, 'This isn't just a bit of salt, this is something that I need to base something on. This is the heart and soul to a composition.' You just have to learn to the read the signs. You're getting inspiration all the time. Sometimes it doesn't seem to click but it's there.
What was the inspiration for a song like "Police Me"?
The whole idea of remote viewing and how people analyze each other through information and email. In the West, we have very little freedom. They can go through anything. They can request and demand any information, as if we're criminals. Under the guise of righteousness, aspects of the governments in the West, because I travel and play in different places, they can get into all kinds of stuff. All of that control connected with the idea of remote viewing.
Tori Amos' Abnormally Attracted to Sin hits stores May 19.
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