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July 15, 2009
The Popdose Interview: Tori Amos
by Katherine Hoffert
Tori Amos is a powerful woman, and a very influential lady. She's the reason many people love music; she's the reason many people play music. Her ability to inspire and evoke emotion is unparalleled, and her unequivocal passion, honesty and commitment to her own muse have moved audiences the world over. On her tenth and latest studio album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, the minister's daughter takes on the role of liberator by redefining sin. Exploring how we come to be controlled, she offers a new concept to the dialogue -- erotic spirituality -- and, through the women in her songs, reclaims power from the patriarchal belief systems that use their definition of sin to shame and control. The result is an album that's as uncompromising as it is emotionally salient, purposeful and full of transformative power, much like the artist herself.
Drawing from the diverse sonic architecture she's amassed over the course of her two-decade career, Amos brings out the full arsenal of instrumentation on Sin's 17 tracks, and continues to push her own boundaries on the production and compositional fronts. The carefully crafted album features haunting piano balladry ("Curtain Call"), classic Tori waltzes ("Ophelia," "Maybe California"), spacey synth baths ("Give"), proggy Zeppelin-esque riffs ("Strong Black Vine"), showtune flare ("That Guy," "500 Miles"), and sometimes all of the above (seven-minute closer "Lady in Blue" and single "Welcome to England"). Neil [Gaiman] is still there when you need him -- "Neil is thrilled he can claim he's mammalian / ‘But the bad news,' he said, ‘Girl, you're a dandelion'" ("Not Dying Today") -- and another influential character, Doug Morris, Amos' mentor at Atlantic Records whom she credits for breaking her into the mainstream, returns behind the scenes for the first time in 14 years via her new joint venture with Universal Republic.
The album hints back to the logic in art and packaging of Scarlet's Walk (Epic, 2002) with its secret website and accompanying 16 "visualettes," or silent movies. Directed by Christian Lamb, these visualettes are comprised of footage he shot during Amos' American Doll Posse tour, along with live footage and new material, and were integral to the process of Sin.
Popdose caught up with Amos on the phone at her home in Cornwall, England as she prepared to take Sin on a three-month world tour, which kicked off in Seattle Friday, July 10.
Who are you bringing on the road with you this time around?
Matt Chamberlain will be playing drums, Jon Evans on bass, and I've got a lot of keyboards with me this time. Four at every station! I have two set-ups: both include the Bösendorfer and a Muse keyboard on top of the Bösendorfer -- it's a small keyboard, but it does a lot for being so tiny -- and then there's a Yamaha keyboard, which does all the Rhodes and whirly sounds plus other samples, and another Muse is on top of that, so I can get all the sounds that are on the new record.
Will your daughter be joining you on the tour as well?
Oh yeah! It's her fifth world tour. Tash backstage kind of holds court. She has her "dressing room" that's usually called something. This time it's called "Tasha Chanel," that's based around her mentor Coco Chanel. She's obsessed with fashion; she's on all the designer's websites.
Do you think she wants to be a fashion designer one day?
There is a side to her that is really drawn to that, but she seems to want to be an actor who can sing, who wears great fashion. But it's hard to know where her imagination and her desires will lead her career-wise.
The other thing, because she'll be at some of my shoots, like the one we did for this new album in New York... when she comes on set, she watches the process of the sets -- the lighting, and the photographer, and the editing, and the stylist, and the clothes, and the hair and makeup -- and she does get fascinated by the whole process. I think that she's more drawn to how these things are created -- not just the end product, but the components that make up the creative arts. She's talked to me about maybe wanting, one day, after she's a well-known actor and retired at 19, to start directing. I find that maybe she's drawn to certain subject matter because she's been exposed to certain things.
How has having an 8-year-old around influenced you creatively?
Just being with her I think opens up my perception in a way that... when you're a grownup, as you know, sometimes you get stuck and trapped in thinking like a grownup all the time and following grownup rules. We have to be responsible and disciplined. Even when you're an artist, you do work within rules, a structure. So, Tash sometimes shows me another way of building structure, just in her stories and playtime. For instance, the other night we were hanging out together just taking a walk, and she was a tour guide. This happens on the road, too, in different forms. She'll be my tour guide wherever we go, whatever country we're in -- even if we've never been there before. And so while she's the tour guide, she'll be on top of the table and say, "Please come to the show, Britney Spears is singing tonight," and she'll get up and do Britney Spears. And then she'll say, "So-and-so is here tonight... Beyonce!" And she'll do Beyonce. And she's got a really good little voice, so it's quite something watching her sing some of these songs, especially the more, you know, explicit ones. But I don't stop her because I feel like her creativity has to be protected, she has to feel like she can explore it.
Back to that photo shoot and the photos featured in the new album's packaging, how did you come to work with the photographer Karen Collins?
I really enjoyed working with Karen Collins. The way she sees women is why I wanted to work with her. When I saw how she shot women, it was very different than a lot of the other photographers that had been suggested to do the shoot. One of my managers and I went through all the suggestions and, frankly, started finding our own photographers -- and we found Karen -- because we felt that what we were looking at was just making women look like vulgar, trashy objects, even though these photographers, some of them, are "celebrity photographers." I just felt, no I don't want to do that, I want a narrative or an artistic approach, and I was just really drawn to the way she sees women.
Imagery is very locked into your music -- especially on this album with the visualettes, but even with the early albums, the photography never felt like an afterthought. Do the images come from the ether with the songs, or do those concepts develop later?
After. For me the music is always the foundation -- for everything. Even the visualettes, in a way, because the music needed to be written before Christian could really edit. It was a collaborative process in some ways because I saw his montages from the road. He was on the last tour filming the live DVD -- which we haven't even edited yet because I got distracted by this project. Sometimes that's how projects happen, though. You get completely motivated and you just have to do it.
Tell me more about the impetus for this new album.
I was on the road, and I had been writing songs on the road, but when I saw Christian's footage -- they weren't the visualettes yet, they were just montages of him jumping on the road and filming everybody, and our lives, and the shows, and backstage, and during the shows, etc. -- the way that he composed his narratives, it made me stop what I was doing and really look at it. Because he had music from the live show, I was distracted so I needed to shut the music off in order to really see what the story was. As soon as I did that, some of the songs that I'd been composing started to slip right into the visuals. In that moment, I knew, "Oh Jesus, this will be the next project and there are going to be probably 16 or 17 of these." So that means we were going to have to shoot it. And it took us a year and a half to do it.
Songs on Abnormally Attracted to Sin, especially "Strong Black Vine," have such metal tones -- what were you listening to on that tour when these songs were written?
There was a lot of electronica going on. When you're out with a big crew and the band, everybody's playing their music. So I just sort of eavesdrop and listen to what people are listening to. That's how sometimes I get pushed, because I'm listening to something that I wouldn't necessarily pick up or know about. And I think those start to be jumping-off points. I was working a lot with different sounds on the keyboard while I was touring. You know, you soundcheck every day for two hours, I have a keyboard backstage, so I'm able to build things for the shows. Consequently, what can happen is that I'm building music for the next project. So, if you imagine you're building a palate. And I've said this before, but if you're a writer, for example, and you're writing ideas for a book, you start building moments, ideas and settings, thought lines. And so you start developing a whole color chart. That's the thing with writing songs.
Do you think that elements of the musical you've been working on seeped in there as well?
Absolutely! I think "That Guy" very much was inspired by the musical process, without question -- to the point where "That Guy" might end up in the musical, because I can't say that the song wasn't influenced by writing the musical. And I'm still in the process of writing the musical. Certain songs have come out of that. Just because it ended up on the record doesn't mean that it shouldn't be in the musical as well. There isn't a segregation between the work that I've been doing for the last couple years and writing the musical, because they go hand-in-hand and they're being written together.
You once compared Little Earthquakes to a diary, Under the Pink to an impressionist painting and Boys for Pele to a novel. In those terms, what is Abnormally Attracted to Sin?
The whole world has changed in the last year and a half. Globally, there seems to be such an unstable world where people don't know if they're going to have a job or a home, or be able to go to college. There is very little security anymore of what my life will be in a week from now, or month from now. So this record is really maybe a snapshot, or moving picture, of what our world is in a time of paralysis and, hopefully, finding ways to survive. Not in the old way, not by being dependent on, "Oh, if you just get me a job I'll be OK." We have to find our own resources within ourselves. The whole world is being remade -- governments, belief systems. So this record, to me, was really about redefining. You could call it a Dictionary for Sin. But to combat the patriarchy version. The record talks about ideas and concepts that are about control and how to have power over a person. So I'm trying on myself other women. If you arm yourself and you're able to combat things by redefining what they mean... if your idea of a powerful person is somebody that has power over you, well you've gotta change that. Because that's not a powerful person, that's a person that abuses authority. And so it's getting really clear about what these things mean. "Strong Black Vine," which you mentioned earlier, that's about intolerance, so sonic choices were made in order to match the emotion. And this woman who's singing it, a part of me, was willing to fight ideas that governments hold dear, and certain religions that say if you don't believe what they think then you don't deserve to exist.
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