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The Big Question (UK, TV)
October 27, 1996

Tori Amos interview

[watch on youtube]

Mark Lawson introduces: Hello, today I'm in San Francisco where the singer-songwriter Tori Amos is half-way through her world tour, taking in 200 venues. She's one of the ninety's high priestesses of pop, famous not just for number one hit albums such as Under The Pink but for her distinctive personal philosophy, which leads fans to queue up after concerts to ask for her advice on their problems. Like Madonna, Tori Amos draws on religious imagery and experience in songs which are confessional and often designed to shock. In one song she playfully raises the possibility of Christ having been a woman. Tori Amos's father was a Methodist minister, her mother was a Cherokee native American. A child prodigy, she was sent to music academy at the age of five but was thrown out for preferring Lennon to Liszt. Now at thirty-two, she's one of the most talked about names in contemporary music.

[ 'Why are we here?' ]

Tori: I was brought up in a really theological household. So everything was based upon Christian ideals. And I think my dad really wanted to be Billy Graham or James Dean and he finally decided that Billy Graham was the right choice. And I was much more akin to my grandfather, my mother's father, because he, being part Cherokee, was the one that would take me on walks a lot and say, "What do you see in this heap of dirt?" And I'd say, "Well, a heap of dirt, Poppa" and he'd say, "You are not my granddaughter. What do you see?" So he was the one that began to really kind of remind me of "the old ways", whether you talk about it in Celtic mythology or Egyptian mythology or native American, the belief that it's the balance of male and female energy, that they are equal, that the word does not just pass through the patriarchy.

Mark: You were what is called a child prodigy. You were exceptionally talented at the piano at a young age, which was why you were sent to the Conservatory. Did that seem natural to you?

Tori: I think that I have been a musician before. I think that ... I don't believe in just having one experience of life-form. I wouldn't say I believe in traditional reincarnation 'cause I don't really know how it works. But I think that you have a soul and I believe that you keep going.

Mark: But why, because you had this exceptional talent for music, why would you have to have been a musician before? Why could you not just be a once living human being with an exceptional talent for music?

Tori: I just remember things too well. There'll be pieces of music, especially classical music that I'll hear and I would know what it was supposed to do. I remembered it. I knew where it was going. And I would hear somebody in class play it and the teachers would be saying, "Well, that's how Mozart would have played it." and I'd say, "How do you know? That's not right." With a lot of my compositions they would say, "You can't go there. You can't resolve this chord here. It's a weak resolve." And I'm like: they're dancing in the isles to my weak resolve. So I guess the weak resolve is the choice then for me.

Mark: Have you then made up your own rules or are there rules in a society, any religious rules that you accept?

Tori: I think there are a few basic rules and I don't know where they come from. When I talk to different medicine women, they seem to believe this also, which is honour, honour yourself, honour somebody else and to me that's very basic.

Mark: Yeah, but when you write a line like 'we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem', do you think: they're not going to like that, those Christian republicans, those fundamental Christians? Do you think: I'm going to shock them? Do you want to?

Tori: I'm very aware that when you uncover a stone that people don't want to uncover for whatever reason, they're usually gonna want to put the stone back. Just because it gives you another reflection that you have to look at. I'd like to think that I'm questioning programs that have been passed down for a long time, as are other painters, other musicians, other writers. A lot of times it does come from the arts, where people are questioning that which they were told was gospel.

Mark: Do you see yourself as a prophetess of any kind?

Tori: Or a jester? (big smile)

[ 'Is anyone out there?' ]

Mark: You said growing up you sensed that there was something wrong or wrong for you with the religion that your father was preaching. You say in one of your songs 'I think the good book is missing some pages'. How did your belief evolve? Would you share any beliefs now with your father for example?

Tori: Yes, I think now he, he says to me women haven't been honoured in any of the major religions like they should be. And I'll be: (sigh of relief) this is progress, this is really good progress here. You know there has been the whole Mother religion that has not been passed down. When I say, 'Muhammad my friend (starts singing) it's time to tell the world we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem', I'm talking about the female part of that which we term God. And don't tell me that God could be male or female, in every bloody book I've read, in the Big Three: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, he's definitely a dude. And I'm talking about the feminine part of God that's been circumcised. That is what is coming alive now again.

Mark: So your argument against religion was not that it was rubbish, that it wasn't true, but that they've got it wrong, they've misinterpreted it.

Tori: It's half-truth. Things like 'love your neighbour as yourself', hey, that's good stuff. And I think there's truth in all the major religions. I think there's truth in the barroom. I think there's truth in the whore-house. I think you can find a lot of wisdom if you're open to it. You might get a lot of garbage too. But you're going to find if you're open because everybody's had a unique experience. They probably do have a truth to give you. If I'm inspired by the Mary Magdalene, if I'm inspired by Muhammad, if I'm inspired by, you know, Janis Joplin ... the point is that I take what I believe is truth and develop it into my own being and then why would I need the institution? Don't think they don't know that.

Mark: But why historically have so many people needed it? They need that structure. They accepted it.

Tori: I don't know 'cause I'm different. I've ...

Mark: When you say different, is it that you're more intelligent than people who accept an established religion or what?

Tori: Oh Mark, come on, I mean, to even go there is ... just really pees on everybody else, doesn't it? I'm not that kind of person. I will say that there's something in me ... you call me a good hotten dog, you call me whatever you want but when I smell a wabbit, I smell a wabbit and I go (sniffs) wabbit.

[ 'Where will it all end?' ]

Mark: You talked about the soul going on and never dying but what, does it involve movement towards something? What's the progress?

Tori: I guess if we had a few physicists here it could be kinda interesting to see what they had to say. From what I understand matter never dies. It keeps reforming itself. You don't get rid of it. Well I think that that's very similar to the soul. That you don't get rid of it. It keeps expressing itself in a different form, whatever those forms are. But I think, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with your soul. And if you kind of, you know, think it stinks and it smells, then you're probably bumming that you've gotta be with it for the next trillion, gillion, however years, that it just doesn't go away. But people can talk till they're blue in the face and well, tell me that it doesn't make sense, that I think it's weird, then I go fine, maybe it doesn't make sense. But innately I just know. Like when my left hand when I'm playing, when I go to a certain change I know that that's right for that moment. I know that I've had other experiences outside this dyed red head girl's body because I know that. And I can't prove it to you.

Mark: Christians believe that they'll be judged after death, that they will be judged by God on what they've done in their life. You presumably, in your scheme of things, don't believe that this will happen.

Tori: I believe that what I do is something that I carry with me. It's not something that you get away with or you burn in hell for or, you know, strip, strip, strip all the skin and put the salt on and gross, gross, gross torture. That's kid stuff in my opinion and yet ouch, it can hurt. But to know that you have to look at who you are, to look at the games you're playing, to look at what you're up to, to own your shit, that to me is really what ... exist.

Mark: And if it turns out, after death that the established church isn't right, for the sake of argument, there's this conventional God, they bring you before him or her or him/her (Tori laughs). What would be the first question you would ask?

Tori: Got any 1800, on the rocks, with salt.

Mark: 1800?

Tori: Tequila. (smiles)

Mark: Tori Amos, thank you.

[transcribed by Schiltz Mia and Ruud van Melick]

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