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The Quietus (UK, www)
June 19, 2014
The Strange World Of... Tori Amos
With her fourteenth album recently released, the prolific singer-songwriter and composer sat down with Alex Macpherson to reflect on some of the more overlooked moments in her back catalogue
Alex Macpherson sat down with Tori Amos during a recent stop in the UK to promote her new album Unrepentant Geraldines to talk about eight of her songs, alongside two covers, that she hasn't touched on at length before
'Hotel' from From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
You haven't talked much about this song over the years. What the hell is going on in it? From the production that sounds like a computer game shoot-'em-up to the cascading piano section to the strange light organ coda, it doesn't sound like anything else before or since.
During the sessions of From the Choirgirl Hotel we were creating our own loops. There was a small group of us pushing each other and it was an experimental time. 'Cruel' was one of my favourites from that time. With 'Hotel', "she" wanted to be her own sonic destination and was really making it clear that "she" would accept nothing less than that. On the one hand, there is always a question being asked -- what is the intention of the song and how do we take that etheric expression and turn that into a tangible form? I began to see the songs as feminine geometrical shapes -- not floral, but there was a perfume about them, and yes, they can contain male protagonists within them.
Then on the other hand there is the technical side. Mark [Hawley] is telling me that Matt [Chamberlain] and I tracked 'Hotel' together; Matt had a click in his head and I played the keyboard and the piano and sang to his drums. There was a group of five of us during tracking in the studio that was made up of Matt, Mark, Andy Gray, Marcel van Limbeek and myself. Then other players would come in after basic tracking with the five of us -- one by one once we had the drums, piano, vocals, and programming locked in.
'Datura' from To Venus and Back (1999)
This was an evolution of Choirgirl. The same team as before were building the tracks. There was a lot of experimenting going on. 'Datura' has two drum kits on the track in one of the sections. On Venus, there are times when Matt was playing on electronic drum pads through a guitar amp with guitar pedals -- the song 'Lust' is an example of this.
The subject matter of 'Datura' was guiding me. There were biblical references to contend with and possession energies. Subjugation and controlling energies as well as empowering energies liberating the heart and mind. As we all know, some controlling energies can be quite clever in how they get you to be "in service" to them instead of inspiring you to become your own essence. On some of the records -- including Unrepentant Geraldines -- the songs are going after restricting forces that we allow to prohibit our relationship with creativity.
'Teenage Hustling' from American Doll Posse (2007)
For a while during the '00s, you were fond of performing as various characters. Did you find that this enabled you to access pieces of yourself that, for whatever reason, you felt unwilling or unable to "as" yourself? The raw anger of this song -- and the others performed as Pip on American Doll Posse -- strikes me as an example of that.
Working with archetypal myths pushed me out of my comfort zone. Exploring the Greek goddess pantheon was important for me in order to grow as a woman and as an artist. Checking in with the Posse from time to time is something I try and do and bring them into the creative process. Pip lives on and I guess I have changed by knowing them. I had read a book that talked about the idea that each woman carries with her a different amount of the mythical archetypes within her personality. And I thought to myself, then if I am, as Tori, more of a Demeter archetype and less of the others, than I need to allow each of the other archetypes of the Greek pantheon to crawl under my skin. This exploration was channeled into music and story.
Of all of them I enjoyed learning from Pip, who carried the Athena myth. She has an intense energy and although is not warm and fuzzy, carried an integrity of mind, which attracted me to her. Also, she did not swoon over men and was tough to impress on that front. She saw through male and female agendas like a hunting dog. She taught me to observe people's intentions. She could be unforgiving.
'Professional Widow' (Merry Widow Version) from Hey Jupiter (1996) and 'Raspberry Swirl' from From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
Your voice is a force of nature on this. How much forethought went into unleashing that on the audience?
There were circumstances that were happening at the time. If you have chops, it's one thing to have them, but then you need the intention. It's about the force behind it. It is not in a place of compassionate beauty. But you can't put it on. If you try to do that blood-letting when you don't feel it, it sounds false.
This was a specific performance that I think was captured at its best -- I can remember it very well. It was a very confrontational time in my life for all kinds of reasons. There were a lot of upheavals and power struggles going on in many different areas of my life.
Boys for Pele was a really tough record. I had been met with a lot of resistance to it and got a lot of flak for it from critics because it wasn't commercial, there wasn't a proper single... believe it or not, it was Neil Gaiman who was whispering in my ear saying, it's a tough road now, but in 20 years' time you'll look back and think, because you did this record you will have been able to do all kinds of projects. If you did another Under the Pink -- he told me at the time -- you won't have a long career.
When 'Professional Widow' did make no. 1 a year later, having made the rounds in Ibiza, it was a wild experience, having gone through a year of hell. Boys for Pele was ripe for extreme interpretations because of the raw energy that was in the album's DNA. It was rejected by the commercial world but began to be embraced by creative thinkers. There was a guy at the label in the States, at Atlantic Records, named Johnny D. He was passionate about the talent out there at the time. So Johnny D cultivated collaborations and was determined to have Pele played all over the underground club scene. It seemed to me as if the energy of Pele herself, a volcanic goddess, was opening passage ways and morphing herself into many forms of expression.
Your voice on Unrepentant Geraldines is very pretty and clear -- a real contrast to how raw and confrontational it used to be.
Yeah! You go through different phases, but it has to come from an authentic place. Otherwise it's disingenuous, you're just copying yourself. You go through periods where you're really there. The problem is if you stay in a place for 15 years, you're not exploring more.
'Oysters' and 'Wild Way' from Unrepentant Geraldines (2014)
I hadn't done it this way since Little Earthquakes, when I was writing to survive. I wasn't under contract for a pop record, I didn't know if I'd ever make a pop record again. The workload was heavy, but I was under contract with Deutsche Grammophon for two classical records and then under commission for The Light Princess.
These songs would just come on a personal level, in order for me to figure out what was going on in my other words. Sometimes they would take a while to come. 'Oysters' took a few years, because I guess there was a real change: I can look you in the eye and say 50 is an amazing age. The energy is unbelievable. But 49 was hell. Awful, terrible. I was obsessed with Diane Arbus' story and what she went through, and that's what drove this record in the beginning.
It's about the culture of projection. Mark said to me, if you don't think men go through the aging process and those looming thoughts, you're wrong. I said, yeah -- but no. Let's look at this culturally. In Hollywood, some of our big leading men are in their late 40s or 50s. Their love interests rarely are. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, etc. And they seem to be at the height of their powers sensually and sexually. There's an aphrodisiac that happens, even in the rock business, with a man that knows. Whereas a woman who has knowing and wisdom, it's respected and can be cool, but it's not always sexy. It's not an aphrodisiac.
I would like to think that there are women who will break this. There's a shift that's right now upon us that's happening, that possibly will change things. They're all there -- I never name one, because I have respect for so many of them -- but they're all right there. But will the public be ready? It's supply and demand.
The oyster, through a process, can make the pearl. It fascinated me that the pearl was within and yet it takes us a lot to see that. Accepting that time's moving on -- it's a tricky thing to find power in that, to tap into this divine feminine energy. It's not malevolent or benevolent, it's a force. And when you grab that force... we're back to intention. It's working my way back to being very clear about my intention at all times.
That links into how the appeal of your lyrics used to be in how you used riddles and wordplay to disguise what was actually happening -- but Unrepentant Geraldines is your most direct album, lyrically. Was this to do with the ageing process as well?
Yeah, I think you're probably right. I'd been working for a few years on narrative, narrative, narrative. It was freeing not to have to do that -- but the story elements needed to be there. You needed to know what the emotion was in all the songs. I was pushing to know the women, to really know them, in every song. The girl who was singing "I hate you" on 'Wild Way' -- I got to know her very well, and my husband did too.
Obviously he and I know everything around that. But he's a very quiet and private person, so it's tricky -- his ears would be burning because he knows I'm talking about him. He just doesn't chase it down. If you put yourself in his shoes it's a little weird, because he's working with me but powerless about that.
Well, he knew what he was getting himself into when he married you.
Yeah, he knew!
'Juarez' from To Venus and Back (1999)
This song was the first time I'd heard of the female homicides taking place in this Mexican city -- but not the last.
We have extremes happening, don't we? All the girls getting kidnapped in Nigeria. The fact that the world is divided, and religion is a big part of that. And it is men who are in power -- even though you think in the West, women are encouraged to be independent and educated, able to look after themselves and not just marry well -- but women are subjugated in all kinds of places. In Britain, in America as well. I don't know where it's going.
Unrepentant Geraldines contains your most direct calls to overthrow the patriarchy in some time -- almost in a maternal sort of way on 'Trouble's Lament' and the title track.
Hopefully not in a condescending way! Maternal... you know, yeah. Or older sister. Nobody wants that [waggles finger], that's not the spirit of it. You know how it upbraids. It's more like... you know Satan, and I know Satan too. It's just that I've known him a little longer. Personifying Trouble was important. It's seen as a pejorative, but it isn't necessarily.
'Rooting For My Baby'/'Three Babies' (2014)
On the opening night of your tour this year, you covered these songs in one -- a Miley Cyrus cover and a Sinéad O'Connor cover. What was the intention behind this? It struck me that you covered two of their most maternal, nurturing songs.
You know, they're both great artists. It seemed to me that when you look at life from a certain age and have been in the music business, you're going to see it a certain way.
However, what I wanted to do was acknowledge both artists. That there is a place where both can have their power. Imagine jumping ahead and looking back on it in 20 years: you can see that Miley's video was very inspired by 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. That was the mother. And the mother was commenting to her creative offspring. But what I'd like to throw in is -- and Tash and I have these conversations all the time -- is that an overtly sexual path is wrought with complications. You're going to have to transcend that. Is it empowering? Miley is a great artist who's making a choice and being rewarded for that choice. Artistically, how she moves through it will be fascinating, because she's capable.
But what I would say is, if we as the public are going to look at this, we can't just look at one artist. It's in a lot of places, but we don't comment on certain artists. Why is that? Is it because we think they're great dancers, that they look a certain way, that their bodies are a certain way, we think that makes it OK?
Why this discussion is important is because we might not like something, we might think it looks desperate, we might not be inspired by it. But that's taste. You don't need to watch it and you don't need to feel sorry for someone else or talk about whether they're doing it for shock value to get attention. It isn't our path to walk someone else's path. All these artists are quite capable of walking the path they need to walk, but what we have to be careful of is singling one out.
But guys have had women in cages, contortionists on stage with them. These women were making, what, £700 a week back in the day, while the guys were making bank. Are we OK with that? Were we OK for women to be objects while the guys were making bank? Now the women are objectifying themselves and making bank, is that our issue? Because the men are out of control. And more women seem to have this issue! My question is: so, girls, we're fine when our sisters are contorting and bending over and having dildos on and up them on stage and making a basic salary -- but we're not OK when the women are profiting? You're fine when certain women are doing it, but not others?
If you're against all overt sexuality, that's your choice and you turn it off. But if you're going to put this issue under the microscope, you have to be neutral. Leave your personal taste out of it. That's not the point. I can tell you, if I looked like Beyoncé and Helen Mirren put together, I'd be sliding on a goddamn giant tongue. Maybe! Maybe not! But that's my choice.
There are double standards.
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the World of Tori Amos