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NDR.de (Germany, radio)
June 1, 2014

Tori Amos interview

I: Let us talk about your new album, the title is Unrepentant Geraldines. Do you think it's important to be unrepentant?

Tori: I think as an artist there is a time in your life when you stand by your work and you have to, kind of, become part of it, as a shape. I talk a lot about sonic geometry and that you as an artist, you're not just, this is a mask, this is just a physical mask, but who you are as an artist, all the chord structures and the rhythms and the contrapuntal lines that are occuring - that's what then creates your shape and your frequency. And, therefore, at a certain point, even structures that you might not think are your best, they are still part of who you are. So, yes, you have to stand by what you believe.

I: And who are the Geraldines?

Tori: Well, you know, for me Geraldine is any woman. This picture of a woman called Geraldine from Ireland captured my imagination. Mainly because she was running, she was having to run and she was having to repent. And for a long time women have had to apologize for what they were thinking. I had a grandmother who would walk in the room and say: 'I know exactly what you're thinking. You need to start praying now!' And I'd think: 'You have no idea what I'm thinking! I haven't even thought in yet!'. So for a long time women have had to apologize for what they were thinking about. Maybe not so much now, the young ones coming up in the 21st century.

I: Since your album Night of Hunters you sing together with your daughter. What kind of experience is that for you?

Tori: She has a perspective that's very unique. It's different from the one I grew up with because I grew up in a religious household. I think that influenced how I saw things and I was rebelling maybe, possibly. So I would read anything I could get my hands on: mythology from other cultures. She has been brought up in the world whereby she's not forced to believe in something. She's encouraged to read what she wants and, therefore, it's a different energy, it's a different type of outlook on life. And so when I'm exposed to how she's thinking then it really gets some ideas sparking.

I: Did she want to become a singer also?

Tori: I think she is drawn to telling story, whatever the form that takes, if that includes music, or if it includes film, or it might be a combination of both.

I: But what kind is it to sing with your own daughter? It's like family on stage a little bit or, I think, it may be different from singing with another singer?

Tori: Well, as he said to me 'I don't want my Mom in the room. I want the producer in the room. And I don't want my Dad in the room. I want the engineer in the room'. And we understood that, because as a Mom I can be overprotective and she'll just look at me and say: 'I've got this Mom, I'm ok'. But she wanted to be pushed and so she wanted to be treated like a professional.

I: On your new album also there's a phrase, I will quote: 'Before you drop another verbal bomb, can I arm myself with Cezanne's 16 shades of blue'. What do colours mean for your work?

Tori: Well, I guess I was fascinated by the idea, and it was Rilke, I think, who originally said this, I read that, that Cezanne would paint with at least 16 shades of blue at times. And that started to get me thinking about a painting ??? black clock, which then expanded the idea of age and what is the definite definition of age for different people at different times in their lives. I guess the idea of colour is in immediate for because when I'm hearing songs, they can appear as shapes, shapes of light, different types of light, but they morph into different shapes as I'm hearing them. And it's always been like that since I was really small. So I was two and a half when the muses would tap me on the shoulder and all of a sudden you might get, I don't know, 16 bar phrase. And it's complete in that moment, but then there's nothing else. So you're forced to go on, I guess it's like a hunting expedition, but you're hunting for frequency. So, therefore, you have to sometimes take yourself out of the routine and out of certain situations in order to find the rest of the song.

I: Your songs are also often about your inner life, or someone's inner life: emotions, dreams, I could see nightmares in the videos as well. It's something like an inner journey. Why it's so important for you?

Tori: Well, let's see. We all have messages and you can call them 'inner demons' that live, hide behind the heart or somewhere in the head and in order to really know what they're thinking, sometimes it's only through a song that I can understand what they're up to. And, therefore, they have to be invited to come out and be creative instead of destructive. The only way that I've been able to deal with those demons is to outcreate them. So if there's a destructive streak that we all have, even though we might not be aware of it, it's there, it's finding ways to call them out, out of their hiding. So see they're hiding behind my heart, to call them out and to get them to co-create and make music together, and then you begin to know what they're up to.

I: In your videos I saw also loads of religious symbols, spiritual symbols. What means religion to you?

Tori: Being a minister's daughter I guess means I was exposed to a particular doctrine at a certain age, so I was a child and then a teenager. Therefore, at a certain point I had a lot of questions about this doctrine and belief system .It's the Methodist doctrine so it's not and extreme type of Protestant belief system. However, I was drawn to explore other ways of cultures defining spirituality and that led me to Native American path. My mother's people are eastern Cherokee nation. And so I went back in time trying to understand what some of the relationships between a human and the universe, the Earth,what those relationships were and how they responded to nature, this types of things, how you treat other people. That became a lot more important to me: how people treat each other than what you believe in, because people believe in all kinds of things, but they're not very nice sometimes, aren't they?

I: That was my next question: What it meant to you that your mother was Native American because it has a lot to do with politics also, how did America treat them, what was their past.

Tori: America has not been held accountable for how they treated their native, how we treated our native people, because those of us who are Americans we all have to raise our hand and say: 'That truth hasn't been taught in the schools. Not really, not the truth'. And it's quite horrific what happened, it was genocide, and therefore that truth is distasteful to certain people that might have the authority to decide what's taught in the schools. And so it's been something that we've tried to bury a bit, as a nation, because it is so distasteful that we don't want to really have to look at the blood on our hands. And I've been talking about it for a long time, and again I'm part of the Europeans who colonized as well as part of the natives who were there and were defeated. So it's been, having both sides in my DNA, I've had to look at it holistically and try and understand it and explain it to my child so that she understands it. And my mother has an unbelievable quality to love. She has this unconditional love. Maybe because of this love I'm able to see things that I might not be able to. So she is incredibly forgiving and yet she is a Christian, so she holds those two worlds together and she does really try and walk the, how'd you say, Christ consciousness path, how you treat people. So having her in my life has got me to see all kinds of things I wouldn't see.

I: When you were very little you went to a famous music conservatory, a school, a music school. You were 5 when you entered and you were 11 when you left that school. Why?

Tori: At the time conservatories had a certain way of teaching music and that's changed drastically now, in a good way. Because there was, I don't know, a belief that classical music needed to be approached in a certain way. And these guys, as we all know, that were the composers in their day, a lot of them were anti-establishment and were really shaking things up. So, therefore, how they were taught really wasn't accurate. And, therefore, it took me a while to open myself up to how great they were as composers. And I guess I wanted to learn more contemporary artists at the time. And so I ran up against the authority and they said something to me like 'Why do you want to learn The Beatles? They won't be around in 30 years, anyway their music'. It was that type of attitude, very close-minded, and I said: 'Ok, this isn't for me'. But thank goodness many years later Deustche Grammophon gave me an opportunity to revisit the work of the masters which really explored in my brain and opened me up as a writer.

I: Who do you like the most?

Tori: That's a difficult question because it depends on the story you're trying to tell. So there are moments when Schubert as a songwriter, he's one of the greatest songwriters that's probably ever lived. But also having said that, I guess the early 20th century composers, there was something about it, Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring is one of those things that really changed my life.

I: I know.

Tori: Right.

I: It's so wonderful. After that you started to sing in bars as teenage girl. That's quite interesting. What do you think if you look back?

Tori: I think that my Dad deserves a lot of credit because he took me to these bars. He got a lot of grief from parishioners who thought that a minister shouldn't be taking his daughter to a bar but as he corrected them and said: 'My goodness, it's a gay bar. Is there any safer place for a thirteen year-old girl than a gay bar?' He was absolutely right. They couldn't understand it because they had such a judgement against the lifestyle. But see, we're back to that hypocritical viewpoint whereas if you're part of the Church: are you walking that Christ consciousness path of unconditional love or are you walking a judgemental path that you have to live your life this way, and this way, and this way, and if you don't then you don't deserve the love of God? And so I found that all really boring and tedious, all that kind of thinking. So being able to play music to people, not to a type of person, but to anyone, became what inspired me.

I: What kind of experience do you want to have with the audience if you play for them?

Tori: That when they walk away they are inspired to go be great. Cezanne said something that really kind of kicked me in the pants in a good way. He said that when he went to the Louvre he recognized that they were masters surrounding them and of course there were some where the technical proficiency was very obvious. But they didn't do it form cause they didn't have the magic, they didn't have that thing. There are artists that will be :'Listen to me, look at me', you know, the narcissistic artist. But then that artist will get to a point, and I think we all step into that point in our lives, that's part of being an artist. But at a certain point you realize that what you want to be part of is a tradition where you're able to give back, with that type of power, and that type of force. The engines are ??? when people come to see you they walk out and they want to go and create themselves. So when he said he looked at certain artists, certain masters, and they made him want to be a better painter that's what he did for me. Cezanne's work did that for me.

I: What kind of role played piano in your life?

Tori: Well, you know, we're hearing a lot of cars right now and as a piano player I thought I was in a Formula 1 car. But see, in a Bosendorfer I could go across the galaxy. I wasn't just confined to a race track or to Hamburg or to, you know, the Autobahn. In a Bosendorfer, I could be sitting in a very religious living room and I could be halfway across the galaxy. Because it was magic carpet and it could go through dimensions. But that's what frequency can do and sonic architecture, you're building out of the ether. So with a thought you can be anywhere, a thousand years ago, if you're telling the story correctly and you're using the rhythm and you're allowing the piano to play you. You know, that's the thing, you don't play it, you allow it to possess you. And as a player, you don't play from this, or from this, you play from your core and then you surrender this core so that the piano plays you. And you have to allow it to invade your body. It's kind of sexy, when you think of it like that.

I: I can see that on your performance.

Tori: It's a dance, isn't it? You know, it's a dance with this idea of piano, but she's alive and she is really beautiful to me.

I: And she is a 'she'?

Tori: Yes, she is a 'she'. Yes, bet your life she is a 'she'!

I: As a preparation for this interview I saw also your very old videos, like for the album Y Kant Tori...

Tori: Y Kant Tori Read, oh my goodness, ok, fair enough.

I: Do you watch them today or what do you think about the spirit of your career?

Tori: Well, my daughter kids me about how high my hair was. That hair spray was probably more important to me at the time, how much hair spray I was using, than my song structure, which is fair enough. I mean all artists go through different times. And the music industry at that time was very driven on a commercial path and I succumbed to that. I stopped playing the piano for a while and building structures with 'Uh! That is my inspiration!'. And I was tired of playing bars so in order to get a record deal I needed to make a particular type of record, with a particular image. And that LA rock-chick thing was happening. And so I drank the ... as we all have done, maybe not everybody does but I did. And it was a failed record, thank goodness. Thank goodness, it was a failure. I made a commitment that I would never compromise on the quality, realizing that I might write something that I look back and think 'Could I do better now?' Possibly, but at the time I did my very best at the time and nothing less was accepted. So I made a commitment that I wouldn't be seduced by producers or record companies. I mean, have you ever wondered, have you ever asked yourself: you might discover an artist and you think: 'Oh my God, they're so unique, listen to this song!', and you've just heard them for the first time. And then on their next record, it might be their next record, they sound like everybody else. And you see, so what happens? I'll tell you what happens: people get a hold of them. And that artist begins to think that in order to compete they need to sound like everything else on the radio, instead of finding that original voice and expanding on that original voice. But very few know how, when it's happening to you, you don't know it's happening, you don't see it that way. You think: 'Oh, I'm gonna be working with so and so, and I'm gonna be writing with so and so' and look ??? success. But what happens is the reason that people are talking about you is because you had a unique perspective. And then you don't even know you're turning your back on that perspective. And that's what happens. And because I had a failed record I had all these fairies and eyes, little gremlins around me, in a good way, saying: 'Stay true to your vision, stay true to your vision. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, who are original thinkers'. And that means you probably won't get along with everybody. And I'm not part of the boys club, that's fine, I'm not part of girls club either in the industry, I want my own path, I stay true to the vision.

I: I find it very interesting that one of your biggest hits, Cornflake Girl, seems to be a nice summer song at first sight but really it's about a very serious topic.

Tori: Yes, women betraying women in all types of ways. I'd been reading Alice Walker's book The Temple of My Familiar that talked about women betraying each other for female ??? and that was the shocking understanding that I had on what we are capable of doing to each other in the name of culture or in the name of thinking we're doing the right thing. But what we do to other women that we say we care about and love in order to uphold some kind of tradition. And then I started to have to look around me and see how on a day-to-day level, how we can betray each other, as women. We might now want to admit it but or look at it but how we, you know, when you see a friend of yours and they're failing at something, they didn't get the promotion, and secretly inside, come on be honest, secretly inside in your life you might have said at one time: 'Oh, that's too bad'. But really we feel a little bit of relief, because when somebody else has a failure, isn't it sad that that can feel like a win? And it's these little, subtle things that you begin to look at and the song start saying: 'You know, we need to talk about this'. Because really, somebody else's success should have nothing to do with your own path, except to inspire. But that's not the truth, that's not how it feels sometimes, and we all know it, so we not talk about it?

I: And what does 'cornflake girl' mean exactly?

Tori: Hmm, a friend of mine and I had this language that is very difficult to explain. She's from Brooklyn and she would talk in riddles and rhymes and associations, so they would be word associations. And a 'cornflake girl' 20 years ago in our language was somebody that wasn't to be trusted and a 'raising girl' was somebody more whole wit, that you could trust, down-to-earth. But it was our little language that we have built at the time.

I: Your private language together.

Tori: Yeah.

I: Ok. In an interview you say that in our times it's not so easy to become older. And you said it's because 'women have to be hot'. Can you explain that?

Tori: Ok, well. In the music industry if you really think about those record contracts and who's getting them, there are gonna be a lot more guys that are 50 and up getting those major contracts. And that's because culturally the grey hair and possibly the belly and those things can be an afrodisiac, and that's because power can be very sensual. It has a draw, doesn't it? It draws you in. And, therefore, a powerful man at 50-55 is very much still a leading man, the object of desire whereas I'd say to you that women in film that are over 50 are usually not the object of desire. They might be the protagonist and they might be the one whose story we ??? by :Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, and they are over 55 obviously. However, it's different in music industry. We're not creating roles for the Meryl Streep character and then going and doing a rock show. What you have to do if you're the songwriter, I don't mean the entertainer and you've got the young ones writing the words for you and the music, you have to be potent and you have to be able to resonate with people now, on all subjects. So I had to find my own path, my own way to express songs about things that are happening now.

I: Your whole music seems to me like a big research what it means to be a woman. Do you have any conclusion for me?

Tori: I think it's pretty amazing being able to be a woman at different times. I don't know what it's like to be 20 years from now but my daughter is telling me 'But you'll be rocking 20 years from now'. But I'd say to you that there are different times when you feel an energy, a force and that you can hold this force and ??? and work with it. But then there are times whereby you don't know how to find it. And the key then is, taking yourself, putting yourself into different situations whether it's traveling and observing, listening to other people stories. So stop thinking about your own problems over and over and over, just turn that off. And then become receptive, a clear canvas, and listen to someone else, because it's in a listening that then you begin to hear different rhythms and different chord progressions. And you think 'Alright, I'm changing how I think in this second, right now from how I did maybe three days ago. And that's ok that I'm changing my perception That means I'm still alive. And it's ok that my opinion's changing.

I: Thank you very much.

[transcribed by Karolina Kucinska]

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the World of Tori Amos