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The 405 (www)
January 7, 2014
interview with Monty Whitebloom
Happy Birthday: The 405 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Tori Amos' 'Cornflake Girl'
by Doron Davidson-Vidavski
There was very little about the commercial reception which Tori Amos' 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes, met with to indicate that its follow-up, Under the Pink, would garner the success that it did two years later.
All things considered, Under the Pink remains the flame-haired singer-songwriter's best performing record in the UK, reaching number 1 in the Album Chart and spawning two Top 10 hit singles. The first of the two, 'Cornflake Girl', peaked at number 4 in the Singles Chart here. It celebrates its 20th birthday this week.
Recorded in a hacienda in Taos, New Mexico, 'Cornflake Girl' was produced by Amos and her ex-boyfriend, Eric Rosse, and proved to be a sonic departure from the predominantly girl-and-a-piano balladry of previous singles such as 'Silent All These Years', 'Winter' and 'China'. Flanked by a percussive, foot-tapping rhythm section, piano and mandolin, the song's lyrics were both idiosyncratic and captivating, while the chorus of "you bet your life it is" emerged as the uncanniest of hooks.
The inspiration behind the song came from Alice Walker's novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, which also subsequently influenced 'Blood Roses', a track on Amos' third album, Boys for Pele. Set in a fictional African village where FGM (female genital mutilation) was still a common-place occurrence, the novel harrowingly portrayed the brutal practice and its effect on young women. For Amos, the striking element in the book was how the procedure was carried out - and its cultural norm was perpetuated - by women (invariably, the mothers of the circumcised girls). She was concerned with the notion of women betraying each other and wrote the song using esoteric imagery and language drawn from her own relationships with other women, one of whom - Rabbit - also gets a mention in the middle-8 and closing line of the song ("Rabbit, where'd you put the keys, girl?").
Speaking to the New Review of Records in 2004, Amos said that the novel "kind of floored me." She went on to explain: "...with Cornflake Girl, the idea was that I always had this sisterhood and it was just blown to bits. I was betrayed by someone, a girlfriend, who gave me a pretty shitty deal. Her opinion was - I'm a shit - it depends on whose table it is that you're having arsenic at. I think the disappointment of being betrayed by a woman is way heavier than being betrayed by a man. We expect it from you guys. It hurts, but I'm not shocked."
As for the dichotomy between a so-called cornflake girl and Amos' construct of a raisin girl in the song's opening lyrics, the singer told Dutch music magazine, Hitkrant: "You have the cornflake girls and the raisin girls and they are two different beings. Cornflake girls are narrow-minded and full of prejudice, whereas raisin girls are open to everything. My song is about... the idea that women are always the good ones and men the bad ones, which is not always true."
In an interview with the Baltimore Sun in the summer of 2004, Amos gave some details about the creation of the song's sound. "Originally, Steve Caton, who played mandolins and guitars on the record, came up with this little line on the mandolin and that was the 'Ding ding-a ding ding' with the strumming to it," she said of the intro. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs that it had to be a whistle. I want the cowboys coming over the hill. Eric was laughing his head off and the mixer, Kevin Killen, said to me, 'This whistle is naff, Tori.' And I said, 'Well, guess what, Kevin - when you make your own song, you can put your own mandolin on it. This is a whistle. Fucking put it in. Put the sample in'. So I got my whistle and I'm happy as a clam to this day."
One of the quirkier elements of 'Cornflake Girl' is the fact that after the second chorus it shifts direction into a middle-8 (of sorts) consisting of, essentially, three different parts, which extend over two minutes. The first, instrumental, bit sprawls beautifully into the 'Rabbit' line we mentioned earlier, before leading into a mantra-like sermon of "and the man with the golden gun thinks he knows so much", which then reverts to a powerful, instrumental section with a piano-driven crescendo, showcasing Amos' talent as a musical virtuoso.
On her 2003 career-retrospective, Tales of a Librarian, Amos revisited the sound recordings from the 'Cornflake Girl' sessions in 1993 and chose to share a different mix of the track, on which the "man with the golden gun" refrain was pushed to the background in favour of a different line only barely audible on the original version: "to close this door I know it's not easy." Regardless of which line Amos performs, when played live (either solo or with band backing), the middle-8 of the song always retains its special spark.
In those olden days when singles habitually came out on multiple physical formats, 'Cornflake Girl' arrived jam-packed with b-sides, spread over two CDs, among them a cover version of Joni Mitchell's 'A Case of You' and a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic, 'If 6 Was 9'. Amos' distortion-rich rendition of the latter starts heavy and noisy before calming into a music-box lullaby with the refrain "what child is this?" It's stellar.
The video for 'Cornflake Girl' was created by English film directors, Andy Delaney and Monty Whitebloom, a.k.a BigTV and to wrap up our retrospective, The 405 had a chat with Whitebloom to find out about his recollections of making the video and working with Amos.
Hi Monty. When and where was the video for 'Cornflake Girl' shot?
It was shot at end of 1993 and finished early in 1994. We filmed it on Hollywood's oldest sound stage, Triangle, which was Mack Sennett's studio.
What's the most enduring memory you have from that particular shoot?
Anxiety. A woman we had on wires, paying a female Icarus, actually fell and broke her arm!
Who came up with the treatment for the promo and did you find it easy to execute the idea?
Andy and I came up with idea. It was a very small budget and we wanted to make it feel like the dream world of a child, so we used very crafty camera effects, stuff we used to do as children.
Do you remember what your first impression of Tori was?
A breath of life!
And do you recall what you made of the quirky lyrics to the song on first listen?
We didn't have a clue! But after meeting Tori we wanted to make something slightly surreal and scary.
Were you surprised by the success of the single?
Not at all!
The video was apparently deemed "too alternative" for the American market so a second video was shot for the U.S. release of the single. How did you feel about this?
We just did our thing. People in the USA at that time were making very conventional, boring videos in the most part, and our vision just did not connect with that. We were in our own world and were unaware of the response. We were making it for Tori and that was all that was important to us. We were very na´ve!
Do you think that, 20 years down the line, each of (i) the song and (ii) the video endure?
I think the song is great. And watching the video again, I think it has a certain charm.
Have BigTV And Tori's paths ever crossed again over the years?
A couple of times. She lives very near me in north Cornwall.
Finally, if you were approached today with this single, what kind of mood/treatment would you suggest for it?
The same, I reckon!
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