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Under the Radar (US)
September 25, 2015
Tori Amos on Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, and The Light Princess
Looking Back and Moving Forward
By Frank Valish
In the Spring, Tori Amos reissued her first two albums, 1992's Little Earthquakes and 1994's Under the Pink. Groundbreaking works of honesty, emotion, and unbridled passion, the albums were the sound of one woman kicking against convention and showing herself as a songwriter for the ages. Twenty-some years later, it behooves us to be reminded of how revolutionary these two masterworks were at the time. While Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink still stand on their own as works of a songwriter without peer, they were strikingly different from what passed as mainstream or "alternative" music at the time. In the early- to mid-'90s, the American music-buying populace was riding high on a wave of grunge. "Alternative radio" was fast becoming mainstream, and a male-dominated mainstream at that. Little Earthquakes provided a stark antithesis, an alternative to the "alternative." From the opening lines of "Crucify" to the spare piano of "Silent All These Years" and the brutal a cappella confession of "Me and a Gun," Little Earthquakes was a slap in the face to all the posturing of the day and a work that will still knock you off your seat 23 years later. Its follow up, Under the Pink, found Amos branching out with more abstract fare but with no less vigor, honing her pop smarts in songs like "Past the Mission," "Cornflake Girl," and the opening track "Pretty Good Year."
Now, reissued with a slew of additional content, from B-sides to live cuts, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink are presented in their most essential form. Amos, whose musical The Light Princess, created in collaboration with Samuel Adamson, will see its Original Cast Recording released on October 9, spoke with Under the Radar, taking a moment to look back on those first two albums that set the course for her career.
Frank Valish (Under the Radar): What sticks out for you looking back on these two albums?
Tori Amos: It was a time in my life, particularly with the first one, where there had been no validation for me writing songs in this way. So it wasn't a known fact that people would respond to that type of songwriting from me. It was just something that I had to do. And I needed to tell it in that way. So what sticks out to me is that it was being told without knowing what the response would be. And then the second one, Under the Pink, was being told, those stories and those songs, after having some affirmation. But I chose not to go with a commercial producer at that time, because it didn't feel like that was the right choice, and so I stuck with Eric Rosse, who had done the four extra tracks. Doug Morris [then chairman/CEO of Atlantic Recording Group] and I had made a deal, once I turned the first portion of Little Earthquakes in and he rejected it. He and I laugh about it now, because he did get it. He really did get it and once he got it, he did everything he could to get it to the world, and most importantly he got me to Max Hole, who was over in England who then believed in the B-sides and that whole culture, which was putting out songs with B-sides and so on.
One of the things I've always wondered about is what sort of sexism you experienced in the industry at the time you came up. You talk about, even in the liner notes of the reissue of Little Earthquakes, how it was rejected with the suggestion to add guitars.
Well, there was a stereotype that the piano was associated with greats of course, many greats, but that that era had happened. Acoustic guitars had made a resurgence with Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, and a lot of male artists as well. But the piano, as a contemporary instrument or an alternative instrument, hadn't really made its mark yet. It hadn't had its resurgence. So at the time it was about convincing people that they had to perceive it in a different way. And that's why performing live became sort of a lynchpin for people who then embraced listening to the record, because the live performance style that I do and have been doing for a long time was a little bit different from what people associated with piano. They had a mindset of what that might look like for a woman, to play the piano. And we just had to blow those doors open.
Your playing did not fit the stereotype.
It didn't. But they had an idea of what piano music meant. They had an association in 1990 with what that meant. You don't understand. I turned this in in 1990. At the end of 1990, Doug flew me over to meet Max Hole in England and I had to play live for him and the people he brought in in order to then take the next step, which was playing live around the world, and figuring out when to release it. The Me and a Gun EP came out in October or something in England. And then the album came out after that, and it came out in America in 1992. So it was quite a process. Lots of hurdles to jump over. It's very hard to explain to people now, who might play the piano and it's an accepted form in contemporary music, to try to take you to where it was in 1990. It was different than the '70s, you see.
So you feel that the hurdles were more due to the instrument of choice rather than the fact that at the time it was a very male-dominated industry? You look at the records that came out in '92, and there's yours and there's Sinéad O'Connor and PJ Harvey's debut and Madonna, and that's about it.
Yeah, I know. And mine was with the piano. They could understand guitars. And it was a very male-driven industry then as far as A&R. Jason Flom originally signed me. He came to see my show over the summer when I was in New York this last tour, and we had a laugh, we had a giggle, and he of course signed Lorde and many other females over the years. However, Little Earthquakes was very different to what record labels were signing and putting out. And I wasn't signed to put that out. I put out Y Kant Tori Read. And after that didn't work, I just said I have to do what I believe in my heart. I have to make music that I feel is honest. So they kinda looked at me and said, "Okay." But then I turned it in. [Laughs] Oh my god, it was absolute shock. But to be fair to Doug Morris, he played it to people he respected and they said, "Well just get rid of the pianos and put guitars on and it'll be fine." In some ways I wish I could go back and be a butterfly on the wall and watch it go down, because he and I were alone and really had this negotiation in his office. Because there was no way I was letting them do it. It was just not happening. I didn't own the masters. But I just said, "Well you have nothing to promote because I'm fucking off and there's just no way. You're not doing it." He said, "I can do it." I said, "No, I know you can do it. But somebody over at Geffen wants to buy it just as it is, so let's make the money back and you'll get an override and a cut." And I'm sitting there negotiating with him. You know, I'm not an attorney and I wasn't a manager. But it was just like, "Look, man to woman, we're going to have this out." And we did, and we came to an agreement that if I turned in four more songs, and he gave me like two grand to do it, which means, studio time all the musicians everything, feed yourself pay rent, whatever, then we'd keep the songs intact as they were. That didn't mean that we wouldn't remix them down the line, but it meant that we wouldn't re-arrange them. So he negotiated with me. And not a lot of record company chairmen or presidents would sit there and do the negotiation with the artist then and there. I've always admired him for doing that. I told him, "You need to take it away and go listen again." And he said, "Yeah, I will but you turn in those four tracks for me." And I did. And not only did he embrace the four new tracks, but he re-listened to the record and he said, "I get it. I understand what you're trying to do, and I think we need to call somebody that I have a lot of time for and who's British and his name is Max Hole and he runs the British side of our label."
You had to fight for it.
I've had to fight. Yes. I've had to fight for all of it. I'm still fighting. I'm fighting for The Light Princess. Not to bend your ear and distract you, but The Light Princess Original Cast Recording is coming out on Universal. And it's only been at State-run theaters. It hasn't taken its step into the commercial world. It's first step is through the music business. Because of the battles I've been waging for over 20-some years, those at Universal came to see it and they said to me, "Okay, go produce it. And do it in a way that you believe it should be. We're not going to tell you to take the darkness out. We're not going to tell you to not gay it up. We're not going to tell you to make it good for the Christians. We're not going to tell you anything to do because we just want you to go make it great." I am under no illusion that that's not always going to happen once we enter the commercial world, whether it's film, whether it's Broadway. I have some battles ahead. And the thing is, I'm always willing to apply a good idea, but a lot of time people make ideas based on "If we do this, we're going to be commercial," and I have been fighting and screaming for years saying, "You're a fool." You don't dumb something down and become more commercial. You have to be brave, and if you're brave, the people will come, but you have to know who you are. You have to know your own fucking mind. You've got to know your art and you have to know your intention. And if you know that, then the people that need to come will come.
And you were initially standing behind those ideals as it related to something that you had made a decision to confront in yourself that you hadn't before. So it sounds like it was almost two tiered, because you were fighting for something within yourself and also externally to get it out there.
Yes, that's true. But I'm still fighting. For different things. For example, I'm fighting for teenagers to tell their story without making it so that teenagers roll their eyes and say, "No that's what a 7-year-old who's pretending their 16 would think." If you're writing a story about teenagers, which The Light Princess is, about teenagers becoming adults, we're going to address that. Sometimes it's been subversive, and sometimes people are shocked, and sometimes people are torn. Because as you know, teenagers becoming adults is not always warm and fuzzy. They can confront adults in a way that can just make the hairs on your neck go up. It isn't easy listening. And the subject matter in life when you're dealing with certain issues isn't going to be easy listening. That doesn't mean it isn't beautiful. It can be beautiful. But it can be harrowing.
Did people, as a result of the first album, expect you to be a confessional type songwriter with the next one, and was there pressure there to follow up even though you had success with the first record?
It wasn't necessarily pressure from one source. I think there might have been a collective idea to team up with a very successful and respected producer at the time. But I didn't feel that was my path at the time. I felt that I needed to explore the next stage and the next stage was the stories that I learned while touring the world. I hadn't been around the world before. So I was gathering stories and experiences and felt that I wanted to go make a record with Eric Rosse, who was the person with whom I made the four songs when I negotiated with Doug. That doesn't mean that these other great producers that I'd worked with in the past didn't inspire me. They did. But I also knew that I needed to set myself out as a producer. I was co-producing with Eric and I learned a lot from him. But I also felt like, not just as a woman but as a performer who happened to be a woman, I needed to be in the driver's seat. I realized that being in the driver's seat, I would need to delegate. Because I'm not an engineer. I'm not delusional about that. There are a lot of things I can't do. Most things I can't do. In fact, I'm unemployable in most cases. But the one thing that I can do is that if I hear a good idea, from anybody, I will apply that idea. I'll at least try it and apply it. So there's no hierarchy when an idea comes in. I'm not seduced because you happen to have a position. I know that you might be there for all kinds of reasons, and that might not be because you know your own mind. You might have gotten to that position for god knows how. So that's why I wanted to produce. Because I wanted to be able to delegate different jobs and to pull different teams of people together and to find ideas and try them. And I didn't want to hand that over to producers in the '90s. I do have a lot of respect for some producers, but a lot of times, they take over a project and I felt the songs needed to be the center of the project. And everybody needed to kind of be midwives, me included, another midwife. So that was why I was determined to fight that fight.
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