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The Skinny (UK)
August 30, 2009
Tori Amos: Reclaiming Sin
by Paul Mitchell
Tori Amos' glittering career has been a personal crusade, one which shows no sign of abating
"The shock is that there's nothing shocking," says Tori Amos of her forthcoming as yet untitled collection of solstice/winter songs due out in November. "It's not a typical kind of seasonal record, where you're just playing covers of old songs. It's about reworking them." She explains further that this reworking process is as old as the songs themselves: "When these songs came to America, a lot of the lyrics to old carols would get changed here and there. Some of them were taken from old pagan songs. So it's really about finding the best bits and building on them from there.
Of course Amos is a singular songwriter in her own right, and it was unlikely this aspect of her creativity would be entirely displaced. "There are also some original compositions. There are tubular bells, concert bass drums, timpani, harpsichord, piano, full strings full brass. Yet it's all surprisingly straightforward. There's no, 'She's a Hussy, Merry Christmas' on it, not this time."
Amos has just returned from a gruelling 29 date trip around North America, and despite (at the time of speaking) there being a two week gap to the first of her UK shows on the Sinful Attractions tour, she finds herself immediately immersed in the production of this next release. Acknowledging her arduous schedule, Amos delightfully intercepts a nascent, rather clumsy cliché by playfully suggesting that there is "no rest for the very wicked!"
A more suitable segue could not be found for discussion of the album that is being promoted by the upcoming live dates. Abnormally Attracted to Sin, released this past May, is Amos' tenth studio album and treads familiar territories, those of religion, sin (of course), and specifically the dynamics of women's relationships with these concepts. As ever, it's hugely autobiographical, the American composer has yet to shy away from the often-anguished, deeply personal baring of the soul that is almost her trademark. Discussion of one song in particular, I'm Not Dying Today, with allusions to a bout of severe depression, prompts a deep pause in the conversation. "I think that record came out during very troubled times. And so, when you have a minister's daughter talking about sin, there are going to be many levels and layers to it."
When asked if, after fifteen years of exploring the aforementioned themes in her work, whether aspects of her perspective have altered over time, she is oblique yet simultaneously forthright. "Don't you think women have been dealing with these issues for hundreds of years, since the patriarchal authority decided what was sinful and that anything natural for women, giving birth for example, the sexual act, couldn't be spiritual? There's a segregation within the female psyche between the sexual and the spiritual... we've been splintered since our forefathers hijacked Jesus' teachings and formed the early Christian church. I've seen how powerful the church is, particularly in the States. There is a real effort on the part of the right-wing and puritanical aspects of Christianity that tries to control the masses by getting people to buy in to their definition of sin. That's basically the core of what I've been dealing with and it's about constantly redefining that."
Amos' views on feminism are not restricted to interpretation from a religious/personal perspective. She notes wryly that her new home Britain "is an anomaly in that the class structure is such an issue for people. The primary issues in Britain would appear to be that you are less as a woman if you don't come from a certain kind of family. This applies to guys too. But what I have noticed is that a lot of women that I meet in Britain feel as though it is very difficult to rise to the top here. I find that curious and I think that goes back to how the class system works; in a lot of ways society seems very male-driven and that's where the power is held. So, it's a different kind of patriarchal authority but it exists nonetheless".
Given Amos' record as an outspoken, actively engaged feminist, does she sometimes wonder if the intense scrutiny to which the lyrical content of her work is subjected might be eclipsing her talent as a composer, musician and vocalist? "Sometimes maybe the conversations about the subjects can overshadow the compositional structure itself. But think about it, there are some songwriters where there's really no subject matter to talk about, and I'm not one of those."
So, a tacit appreciation of the privileged position she enjoys as an artist who is taken seriously in an intellectual capacity? "Yes, it is, but I've worked hard for that position, dealing honestly and openly with my emotions whilst trying not to expose the people I love. It's a thin line to walk; I'm not going to lie about that. My father once asked 'Look, if I'd been a dentist, what would you have written about?' and I just said 'That doesn't excuse your behaviour!'
Playing Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on 8 Sep.
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