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Tori's Course on Creativity (US)
University of California at Los Angeles
UCLA Mathematics/Program in Computing (PIC)

February 27, 1995

[listen/download mp3 (alternate source from video)]

Intro text and transcript by Kyle Dodson

The suspense beforehand: People started lining up for the event at 9 am (it was at 12pm). Tori's parents were sitting in the front row so a lot of fans were chatting with them while Little Earthquakes played over the sound system. I would estimate 1,000 people were there since it was totally packed and the grand ballroom here holds about that many people. An announcement was made before Tori came out that 1) she would not be signing autographs, 2) she would be making a statement before she started answering questions, and 3) when she was making her opening statement she did not want anyone to take pictures of her.

Tori was given a warm welcome, and as you know from her concerts, dead silence soon followed. She was she wearing a blue tight bodysuit with short sleeves, a light blue skirt, black leggings, and olive green, knee-high, suede boots. Her hair was dyed as usual.

A chair was placed on the stage for her, but when she came out, she didn't just sit in the chair (in fact, she never once sat in the chair), instead she hiked up her semi-mini-skirt and slid back along the arm of the chair. The arm of the chair had a knob at the end of it so as she was straddling the arm, she placed one hand on the mike and one hand on the knob. You could tell she was in total control.

Without saying a word, Tori took the microphone and started wailing out these long, incredible sounds, "HEEEEEYYYY", changing vowel sounds and pitch. She did this twice. Then, she let out a sound so high that it became a whisper (you know the sound you make when you try and sing the highest note), and then she would drop the pitch down until you could hear her very highest singing voice.

Tori Amos: This is how I tone before I sing. This is what's speaking to me. I want you to hold open your arms like you're going to get a blood transfusion, you know? Okay? It's okay. I had all this blood taken from me, right, this week. Because, um, I was very ill. But what it is, is instead of me taking blood from you, or anything from you, I'm gonna try and give you something.

(This is where Tori performs a sort of Indian spiritual chant, in which she sings no words but rather more "HEYS", and she kept her rhythm by patting her stomach and stomping her foot. I must say this was the best part of the event.)

Tori Amos: The important thing to for me right now, is I, yeah, I have a lot of technical skills. I can play pretty much what I need to play. I've been playing for 29 years. That's not enough for me anymore. I encourage you to hone your skills, whatever your creative craft is. But the most important thing for me right now... so I've really come to just give you mmm, me today. What I'm having to work on. Um, I'm having to now find this place (pats her heart). I'm very good with this place (points to her head), very, very good. And most of you are exceptional at this place (head), but not so great with this place (heart).

I've been studying with .. (sighs) .. some people that understand this place (heart), and it humbled me greatly. Um, the craft is something where, if you think you're terrible, then you've got it all wrong. And if you think everything you do doesn't need improvement, then you're wrong, too. And that's okay, to try and find this balance, that happy balance. Instinct. They don't teach you that in school. They don't teach you that tone can create and move people to do things that you could never imagine. There was a group of maybe 20 people who couldn't stop spasms in wheelchairs in Wales. And this boy I had seen, because I can peek at my audiences before I sing to them. And this poor boy was in such spasms, and I tuned in to him, and I just tried that night to let the music go into his molecular structure. Because, you see, it's really in there, in the DNA, and inside there the tone shifts. The patterns, the things we're all scared about. The protection layer. And so I sang, and by the end of the concert he was like this (Tori stands perfectly still). Because tone has that power. So what I'm asking you all to think about, really, right now, whether you are gonna be gardeners or lawyers or thieves, whatever, please be good at it (laughter), but I want you to find your own tone. Not my tone, that's not gonna do you any good. And not the person next to you that you think's so bitchin', their tone, because it's not your bitchin' tone.

Um, it's really, real important that you find that place, because all the information in the world will not give you power. Success, that's, I mean that's a hoot. That's really funny. I know all these famous people. They're pretty much a mess. This is about being a creative force. Not about a famous person, that's a bore. That's very boring. Creative force, there are not a lot of them out there. There are not a lot of them making music, or making films, or making medicine, or anything else.

So I'm going to start to take questions in a minute, but the most important tool that I can give you, is to spend 15 minutes alone everyday. The bathroom is a really good place because people don't want to go in there and disturb you just in case you're doing something really gross (laughter). So, in your bathroom, you know, whatever, close the door and take that time to be real with yourself. I mean really real. I mean so real that there's no censorship. So, think about that and I'll take questions. Are we lining up? Is that what we're doing? Is somebody helping me? (laughter) I'm okay. Yes?

Question: Well, first of all, I want to thank you so much for the gift of your music. I find it incredibly healing, especially your first album. And I wanted to ask you, do you see yourself continuing somewhere in the same vein, you know, very heartfelt, emotional-type music or are you trying to spread out and try new things or what's coming up for you next?

Tori Amos: ...I don't know if I've really gotten to my heart yet, to be honest. I'm a very good poser. Hm. Um, the next record is my boy record. I've had all these boys in my life, so um... they're gonna pay, really. (laughter and applause)

Question: When I heard that you worked with Trent Reznor, I had no idea what to expect, but what was it like working with him?

Tori Amos: ... (Tori smiles) (laughter) Well, it's been a learning experience ... (laughter) Yes?

Question: Hi Tori, I wanted to know if there was something specific that prompted you to write Little Earthquakes?

Tori Amos: Um, it's kind of like trying to stay alive. At that point, Little Earthquakes was my first, um, attempt at getting out of the egg. You know that little chicken that kinda kicks out the egg (imitates chicken) and says, "OK, um, what have I really not been saying all these years?" You know you can wear the plastic snake pants and put 15,000 holes in your body, which is fine. Enjoy it (laughter). But what am I saying? I'm just saying absolutely Nothing. So I started to think about ... what is the most powerful thing I can do for myself?

The truth is actually the most shocking thing you can do because nobody really hears it much. So when you start saying things truthfully, and I mean truthfully, there's no greater (sighs) freedom than that, and I was really dying. So I had to find out, I had taken on all of these belief systems. Whether you go from .. Christianity, to Buddhism, to God, I'm going to be one of those Mary Magdalenes, YES (raises arms). I mean, to finally say, "No, wait a minute, I'm just, who's this redhead?" Dyed of course. But, you know, what are my beliefs? Not what you want me to believe. Or what I should believe. But what do I really, really believe? And if there are a million people telling me I'm out of my mind, that should really be inconsequential. Because it's not your truth, it's gotta be mine. And the same with you, you know?

Question: I was wondering what your connection to Neil Gaiman was?

Tori Amos: Ah! Neil Gaiman is at my house right now in London. Neil writes the Sandman comics and um, I think we inspire each other very much creatively. I guess you could say he's my brother.

Question: Are you going to be working together on anything?

Tori Amos: I think so. He's writing a BBC series, and I think I'm gonna like, try and make some music like the Pink Panther for him. We'll see.

Question: I was wondering where you find most of your inspiration?

Tori Amos: Well, like everyday, you know, when you're just ordering your um... Guiness (laughs). I was going to say carrot juice, and then I thought, no I don't know, I think there are more Guiness drinkers here (laughter). You know, if your life isn't creative, it's not like you go away and say, "OK, now I'm going to go write." Every waking moment has a creative force, which all of are if you choose to be. It's like now, it's when you take a wee, it's when you're just walking down the street. You know, what I find is, I'm not present. HELLO!? You're like on to your next class, right, you're already there. You're with me right now people. You're no there yet, you haven't failed that test yet (laughter). You know, you're here, be here. That's the whole thing. As a writer, when I am singing, and when I'm expressing. It really has to be about This moment. Because what we do here can maybe change everything I do for the rest of the day. For the rest of the week. You see, that's the whole thing. We're all kinda taught how to be unpowerful... you're taught how to Not focus. You know, it's really a hoot how great it is, the um, I kind of think it's a conspiracy. Not the President, he, like, they're just too, like, um, sophomoric for this concept (laughter). But I mean beyond that, you see, it's really here (pats her heart) where things change. It's here. With you people, if you can't be controlled. The way you think, the way you express, what you hold back. I'm really interested in what you don't tell me, it the thing we hold back from ourselves.

Question: On your first album, you sang with a sense of insecurity, a sense of weakness, like you were reaching out to something secure. But on your second album, you had a renewed sense of strength, you were the secure figure. Between albums, did you have some sort of life catharsis?

Tori Amos: What really happened, you guys, was that I sang those songs every night to people like you. And we made an exchange. And I started to feel... the whole purpose for Little Earthquakes was trying to find my voice. That I had shut away for many reasons. It's like, have you ever imagined just standing there, and your cells are exploding like somebody is screaming, "HEEEYYYY!," so loud at you.... I mean, how can you sing anything when you're like that (Tori imitates a frightened person who is shaking). And then you try and act cool (Tori poses like a cool high-schooler) (laughter). But, where do you find your voice, where you clear that away so that you can .. (sighs).. really get there, and not feel like you're going to get annihilated. Not necessarily by another person. Because you're 20 or whatever, and they're not in your life.

But it's that thing in your mind that has hold on you, it's like this barbed wire fence around your emotional being. Don't let them tell you that the mind is greater than the heart. That is a trap. The mind is very tricky. I don't trust my mind. It's really good, but I don't trust it. You see, I trust my heart right now, and if that meets my mind I might be alright. But the one thing, um, Under the Pink was really about ... going after archetypes, like the patriarchy in God, going after how women dog each other. How the whole concept of the sisterhood, hmph, that's a joke. Girls, -- for 10 minutes -- the guys have done so many horrible things for the last few billion years it's getting Boring bringing them up any longer. Let's talk about how we are choosing to be victims -- in the West. Let's not talk about Asia. Let's not talk, that's a whole different place, the Middle East, let's talk about how we dog each other, the way we compete against each other, what we do to each other. If we're going to be strong we have to look at this. Alice Walker has spoken about this, so many women writers have talked about it. It can't be about competition. We've taken that on. I call it the harem mentality, you know, 40 chicks for one guy. No wonder we think like that. But we have to change that in our own life. If we expect... It's not the guys, the guys aren't our problem anymore. They're not strong enough to be our problem (laughter). I love the guys, don't get me wrong. But some women are tougher and harder and crueler than any man I've ever known. If you learn about gender, okay? When I talk about guys I'm talking about archetypes. I'm not talking about boys... that, you know, are trying to create in expressing themselves. Many more boys are much more in touch with that side of themselves than some women. I know, so let's just stop making those excuses. But Under the Pink was about archetypes. I was not ready to go back into my irrational self. I was just too exposed. So hopefully on this next record, I'll be able to do that again.

Question: Are all of your songs based on personal experience, or do you just create some that are fictional?

Tori Amos: Well, it depends really, doesn't it? I mean, it's the etheric realm, where I don't know what's real or not real sometimes, you know. I think, um, anything that's from your observation, even if you're watching... This whole front row, right? We can all see the same thing and write about it, and it will be a completely different interpretation, because of where you (points) grew up, because of what you went through, you're gonna see it differently. You might be laughing your head off, and that woman on the end might be pulling her hair out. You know, you see what I mean? You can only interpret something from what your experiences are. What is objectivity? I mean, Jesus Christ, I went to church for four days a week for 21 Years, do you think I'm objective about Christianity? Give me a break (laughter).

Question: I was wondering if there's any artists who have influenced your music, and if there are any artists you plan to work with in the near future?

Tori Amos: Um, let me think... Dali, I think was a big influence (shrugs and laughs). I just pick up paintings. I'm kind of not really versed in that world but I just get a lot of books and I look at them and just .. don't know what I'm really looking at. But the colors .. give me tone. It's about tone. When I meet someone, I hear a tone. You know, I could look at some guy and... there was this guy on the plane I met, Peter Gabriel's percussionist, we didn't know he's from Africa ... and he looked at me and he went (imitates a piano player) and I went (imitates a congo player) (laughter). And we sat down for three hours, in the middle of the airplane, and just started humming to each other (laughter). And um, that's really all we talked about (laughter). But it kind of changed, shifted everything. You see, it... it doesn't all make linear sense?

Question: Are there any musical artists who influence you?

Tori Amos: Well that happens all the time really. You meet people, a lot of them are not even well known. You just kind of walk and hear some old guy playing the piano, and you just go (looks interested), "Let me kind of sit for a minute. Yeah."

Question: I was wondering how you developed your spirituality?

Tori Amos: (Tori pauses and smiles) (laughter) All, um, um... (laughter) It's about really being able to be... ugly, you know. When you go... I can be ugly, I can be beautiful. I can say really stupid things. It comes back to accepting, and that's the hardest thing for me, not judging. You know, when you just go, "Oh my God! That just didn't come out of my mouth!" Hey, yeah, it did actually.

You know, everybody kind of has different path, and everybody gets inspired by different things. The things that I'm saying today are not going to affect a few people here. Just will not affect them. Which I have to honor. Something somebody else will say will affect them. Do you see? It's really respecting that, ... everybody has a different kind of... a... blueprint? And certain things touch off in you, that don't touch off in them. Or, vice versa. You know, some people could sit and look at like architecture blueprints and (heavy panting) (laughter). You know, they're Alive! Fascinating (laughter).

Question: My boyfriend thinks that every time we're apart, it is ruining our relationship... How do I balance this relationship with my desire to foster my individual creativity?

Tori Amos: Well, (laughter, because Tori is being asked for advice about this) What's very important here is that you need to respect your boyfriend. And if you really respect him, you will not try and do his work for him. You got me? He needs to not look towards you for strength. That's the thing, I was in a relationship for a long time where I looked to him for strength and he looked to me. So what happened? I wasn't there for me in those places and he wasn't there for him. We just became like you know (holds arms out, like two people suspending each other in the air), holding each other up. So what we finally said was, "I have to go dive into this pool." And he was actually ready to go dive into his pool. And it was a very difficult thing to say, we have to respect each other enough to let us do this. Some people can stay together and do it. Some people aren't ready to dive into that pool. But I think it's going to start hurting you, if you try and do his work for him, because you're not respecting you and you're not respecting him. Everybody's gotta own their own... everything. It's fun.

Question: (A girl gives Tori something she had prepared and this is Tori's reaction)

Tori Amos: Okay, I love this, this is for Neil Gaiman right. I'm the mail girl. And um, (laughter) No, it's true. Where I live in North London, I live on the canal. And there's this, um, hole right underneath the piano, and if you go underneath the canal, in the boats, you can Wave to me and I'll wave back (waves frantically) (laughter). And it's really funny because you get, you know, all these Germans who are on the boat touring, and it's like (stern face looking up). And you know, I wave to them back (waves frantically). And they just sit there, it's quite a dizzy. I take all the mail down to the boats, see? Because I live in the little canal house, and I take it down, and it's great, great being the mail girl.

Question: I'm going to give you a break and not ask a really deep question. You're a consummate performer, so if you could play for anyone in the history of the universe, made up or real, what would you play? For whom? And what shoes would you wear? (laughter)

Tori Amos: Um, Lucifer (laughter), wait a minute! Penny Lane, um, flip-flops (laughter and cheering). I just want to say, I think Lucifer has a very rough job. And I think he's tired of it. That's what I've been told anyway (laughter). And what I hear is that, um, you know, he's a little tired of holding this space for mankind/womankind. All our shit that we don't claim, he's holding it. He's like a big sewage dump. He's really bummed (laughter).

(2 questions were asked here, one about a concert, and another about a social group. Tori didn't really say much.)

Question: I had a question about your piece Yes, Anastasia. Does that have something to do with a Russian figure?

Tori Amos: Yeah, I was reading all about Anastasia Romanov, and um, sometimes just certain stories kind of grab you by the throat. And it was interesting how I... I've lived in England on and off for four years, and um, they are more interested in these kinds of things, I think. And I would be reading so much about how they hadn't still determined whether they had found Anastasia or not. And that this woman who died a few years ago, everyone believed that she was lying. Not everyone, but most people said she really couldn't have lived through that. And I tend to believe that it was. So, she had died, and when I was very ill, in Virginia, I kind of got visited by this figure and she said, "Write my story." And that's what I tried to do.

Question: You seem to have a very intimate relationship with the piano... What is your relationship with the piano? How do you feel about it?

Tori Amos: Well, um... I think when you approach any instrument... a lot of times I see people just kind of use their instruments, whatever it is. There's like lack of respect that you have. You know, there's some pretty amazing players out there, I don't know how well versed you are in music, but technique is something that quite a few people do have. That's something you can achieve, you know. And yet, so much of it is soulless. There's just no respect for the instrument, the soul of the piano, the guitar, whatever you play. I've had a lot of chats with people that play their instrument and love their instrument. And it's so different when you go and honor your instrument. I mean, you're not like fucking using it like it's a whore. A lot of times people, you know, they go up to it and it's such a use. And you sense that, and you feel it. And that's a way for them to, you know, get things from it, instead of you're partners, where you work together. That's such a problem. You know, there is so much that I read and hear and see, especially coming out from your all's time now. But there's no respect and honor for your instruments, for your pen, and where it's coming from. Don't think that you can snake through that. I mean, if you found that, good on you, fantastic, that's great. But the idea that, you know, when you think that there's something in your life you're missing, it's really your relationship with that part of yourself, and you can choose to express that. Or you can choose to just go, "Oh well, that's fine." That's your choice. I can't do that anymore.

Question: I read in an interview with you that you were suffering some sort of arthritis in your hands, or carpal-tunnel syndrome. How has that affected your playing, your touring?

Tori Amos: It makes me really bitchy. Yes... I mean, you play through it. You can't do anything else but play through it. You know, you take the anti-inflammatories and you do what you can.

Question: I was wondering, why have you released so many b-sides and singles?

Tori Amos: In England, it works very differently than here. You have the opportunity to do that if you want. And there were a lot of songs that weren't gonna ever get a life, ever get heard. So they kind of said to me -- the songs said -- "You know, just let me go somewhere." And so I try and put the ones on that don't go on the records, so that they get a chance to be heard.

Question: Your first album had quite an addect on my life... Your songs are so poetically written, do you write poetry also?

Tori Amos: I've written a lot of poetry. Earlier when I was talking about the craft and the skill that you develop, that's something that you choose to... mmmmm, I think, keep expanding on. But it goes beyond that, really. Because it has to come from a feeling, you see. Cleverly written words, I'm beginning to see through now, in my own work. So, I can't trick anymore. Not that I did for Little Earthquakes, but I did sometimes, and I do sometimes. So what I'm really trying to get now, is to balance the skill and the craft with the instinct. Because just having one or the other, for example, you know when somebody comes up to you and says, "Oh my God! My boyfriend and I have split up. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" And you're just like trying to look at like, what Cindy Crawford's wearing on television, because that's a bit more interesting, actually. (laughter). You know, just because you're feeling something, right, people, sorry, but it doesn't mean that it's going to translate. And that's where the craft comes in. It's balancing out, okay, yeah, I have this feelings, but I can have a thousand ways that I want to tell this story. There are a thousand ways and rhythms and sounds or, you know, as a painter, how I can express this. And then that just comes from, you know, your experiences. Every trip you take, everywhere you go, you're like a camera, and you remember as a writer those imprints, and you pull them out of your noodle, right? It's like cold spaghetti. And then you start writing about them again. That's why when I say living your life creatively, you're gonna use all this information. You know, information and knowledge are real different things. You can have as much information as you possibly hold in your little brain, and my brain, and that doesn't give me any bit of knowledge. So, I just want to encourage you all to be creative forces, because I've been all over the world now many times, and it's starving. Starving for creative vision. And don't think your vision isn't special, because each one of you is different. Nobody's had Your experience.

Thanks a lot. (cheering)

Related information

* Two days before the UCLA talk, Tori Amos was asked about it during a radio interview.

You're gonna be a teacher, I hear?

I'm going to be lecturing at UCLA next week.



Where do you start? How do you begin? What do you say?

I don't know. I'm gonna walk out and just smell. What I do, you know, you use your sniffer, a bit like a wolf. You just go out there and go, "Ok, what do these kids want to hear? What do they really..." I think I'm gonna show them some tools that I use when I'm writing. There are two sides. There is of course the skill side, you know, that you develop. There are ways to get and work on your work and make it better. That's kind of like sculpting. And then of course there's the whole instinctive thing. How to get to your source. How do you find your source? Not trying to be somebody's else's idea of creativity. [KABC, Los Angeles - February 25, 1995]

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