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V magazine (US)
Winter 2012 (December 4, 2012)
After 20 Years In The Business, Tori Amos Has Recorded Some Of Her Classics, Backed By Metropole Orchestra. Here, She Reveals An Affinity For Funerals, Medicine Men, And Metalheads
Photography: Amy Troost
Fashion: Jodie Barnes
Text: T. Cole Rachel
When Tori Amos released her breakthrough album, Little Earthquakes, in 1992, she was something of a revelation. While so many of her peers were grunging out and detuning their guitars, Amos's music slayed with a different kind of intensity. Though her piano-driven songs were almost always pretty on the outside, the subject matter -- sex, God, empowerment, joy, destruction, and an almost palpable sense of personal mysticism -- was anything but light. Twenty years and 12 million album sales later, Amos is still as fiery as her signature sweep of red hair. Her current album, Gold Dust, celebrates her expansive songbook by reworking select hits, backed by the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands. The result is the kind of grand, emotional sound that keeps her loyal following coming back for more.
Did doing a project like Gold Dust require you to go back and reexamine your feelings about your previous material?
TORI AMOS: Well, the songs that were originally chosen to be arranged and performed with the Metropole were initially meant to be for a live concert. I didn't know that eventually we'd record them. So I picked songs that could create a narrative for just this one evening. I wanted to choose songs that covered a story from death to birth.
I remember seeing you play on the Under the Pink tour in 1994, and it was the first time I'd ever seen fans burst into tears at the sight of a performer. It can't always be easy to be on the receiving end of that kind of energy.
TA: I had to learn how to really ground myself and just hold a space and listen. It's a very delicate moment. I've learned that it's not really about me as a person per se, but that really I'm just the link between them and the songs... I truly believe that the songs are alive, they are conscious. I think some classical artists have talked about their songs that way, like Stravinsky would say, "I'm listening, I do what they tell me." I feel that too.
Have your process for writing songs and your feelings about performing changed much over the years?
TA: Songwriting is so difficult. It can be euphoric, but mostly it's just lonely. In order to really write, I always have to break the routine. To not have to placate someone else or walk on eggshells, I have to go away. To be a wife, a mother, and a writer? Uh huh. When I'm touring, I just step into being Tori. Backstage, just before I'm about to go on, my husband will say to me, 'Look after my wife,' and I tell him that he'll get her back after the show. He is my sound engineer -- his hands have been on my faders since 1994. It's funny, I'm a wife and a mom, but Tori Amos -- the person onstage -- is sovereign. She's something different.
Were you fairly cognizant of that early on in your career?
TA: I feel like the really effective performers do that in order to stay alive. When you hold on to that 220 volts at all times, eventually it burns you alive. That's why certain musicians turn to drugs and alcohol -- they've had their hands dipping into this incredible sonic light, which can burn you up if you don't handle it right. I prepare before I go onstage, no different from how a medicine man in Native American culture might prepare himself. You are a vessel. The muses are there to be served, and if you start to confuse yourself, if you start to believe that you are the muse, they will leave you.
Were you always comfortable performing in front of people?
TA: My mother says that I was playing the piano at age two and I believe her. She is, after all, a good Christian lady and part Cherokee, and not one to embellish. She says I could play before I could talk. My dad was a minister and eventually would have me play at funerals and weddings, it was cheaper than hiring an organist. I would do variations on themes when I played the funerals, and I eventually did that when I played the lounges. It was harder at weddings because the requests were very specific -- the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" -- but the funerals were much more interesting and I loved playing them. I mean, would that happen today? A nine-year-old playing the piano at a funeral or a wedding? Probably not.
Can you imagine a time when you might stop playing live?
TA: Me in a pair of stilettos and at the piano at 80? Why not? Somebody needs to do it.
The media depicts you as this ethereal creature, but just because you are playing a piano and not singing in a death metal band doesn't necessarily mean that your music is any less intense.
TA: Yes! The metal guys always seemed to get that. Those guys were always very kind and generous with me. I mean, I did cover a Slayer song. I have a real affinity for metal guys. They understand it's not always about having the volume at eleven, it's also about the power of the pen.
So what do you feel is the biggest misconception that people might have about you?
TA: I like a good laugh. I don't know if I'm funny, but I do love to laugh.
The music industry is so different now than it was when you started. Do you ever think about how different your career might have been if you had not come along at the time that you did?
TA: Yes. This being my 13th album, you know, there are other artists who have been able to do that -- to have that kind of long career -- but most of them are from the generation before me. If I were just coming out now? I don't know if I would even be thinking about a 20 year career. It seems to be something like a revolving door -- people come in and out -- but there aren't a lot of people from back when I started, back in 1992, that are still doing this. I mean, there are some people -- the giants like Springsteen and Stevie Nicks -- they are still out there, but they were the generation ahead of me. Of my own generation? Not too many.
The culture of the Internet makes it harder for musicians to organically grow a fanbase in the same way. Having a million Facebook friends is not necessarily the same thing as building up a fanbase by touring.
TA: That's not our culture now. There was something to be learned from that experience. For Little Earthquakes I was playing small town halls. I didn't just get to play Radio City one day, I had to build the audience up by going from town to town. I toured for a year on that record.
It was a fun time. I guess it has occurred to me that things operate differently now, but I don't think it's necessarily helped artists that much. There is something to be learned -- something you achieve -- having to play shows five or six times a week and be in a different town every night. You learn how to capture an audience's attention. You learn how to be in front of four or five hundred people and perform. You also learn what works live and what doesn't. That's how the songs have developed over the years, from all the touring. For this new album I played with an orchestra for the first time, which was a big change. I realized that I was responding differently because I was playing with them and not for them.
Do you find that the experience of playing certain songs changes radically over the years?
TA: Somebody asked me about that recently. It was something like. "You're not so silent anymore, so how do you still sing 'Silent All These Years' and have it mean something?" I said, "How do you know that I'm not silent about certain things?" So, do I see different pictures now when I perform these songs? I know what that film reel looks like and I can usually access whatever it was that allowed me to hear the songs in the first place. I really believe that these songs existed before I was able to hear them... I was just able to finally hear them. And maybe that's because of a conversation I had or some experience and then suddenly the valve opens up and I'm able to hear it. But once a song is written she continues to grow and evolve and have experiences.
Sometimes people tell me about their own experience with a song and then that also becomes a part of the song's lineage when I play them. People stop me all time -- in coffee shops, wherever -- and tell me about their experience with the songs. I feel so lucky to have that.
What will happen next? Will you perform again with an orchestra?
TA: Yeah, I'm doing six shows in Europe with the Metropole orchestra and one show with a Polish orchestra. Here in the states I'm going to do something with NPR... doing something with an orchestra here in the states is proving more difficult because of union laws and scheduling conflicts. You don't want to perform with an orchestra in front of an audience unless everyone is properly rehearsed... it's not the sort of thing you want to have go badly and then end up on YouTube. I don't believe in busking when an entire orchestra is involved.
Credits: Makeup: Christian McCulloch (Tim Howard Management); Hair: Barry Lee Moe; Manicure: Rica Romain (See Management); Photo assistants: Henry Lopez and Aaron Thomas; Stylist assistant: Camilla Holes; Makeup assistant: Chisa Takahashi; Hair assistant: David Colvin; Location: Sandbox Studio, NY
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