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November 1999

"The Wire" Feature

Stars, Planets, Wine and Song

by Michael Hill

Tori Amos' to venus and back is definitely a case of truth in packaging. The two-disc set displays the singer at both her earthiest and her most far out. It's sexy and spacey, sometimes simultaneously. Amos' initial ambition for the project was simple: she set out to create a valentine for her fans, recording and filming her first concert tour with a full-fledged band for a proposed DVD release. And indeed, she delivers some of the music from her Plugged Tour '98 on a CD she subtitles venus live, still orbiting.

But when Amos returned to her secluded studio, Martian Engineering, in Cornwall, England, to sort through the live material with her engineer husband, Mark Hawley, things didn't turn out quite as planned. New songs started coming to her - and, in Amos' case, they indeed arrive. As she often puts it, these songs are real-life female characters who show up at her doorstep and move in. Some may call it inspiration, but Amos sees it more as a visitation. How tangible are the tunes? In conversation the songwriter refers to each one as "she."

On the album of new songs that emerged from these sessions, venus orbiting, Amos ventures far afield from her usual piano-based instrumentation. She and her Martian team constructed a meticulously layered electronic sound that often uses her voice as a multi-tracked special effect. Though evoking the "e" word suggests a move toward something like Ray of Light-period Madonna, Amos isn't simply trying to be trendy. She's much too idiosyncratic for that. These machine-driven arrangements come off more like the work of tinkering craftsmen, not nerdy programmers.

But to venus and back is not all deep and dark, which is good news for anyone yet unconverted by the cult of Tori. "Glory of the Eighties" is a terrific bit of time-traveling; it reaches back to that decadent decade, when Amos was prowling the Sunset Strip rather than talking to the herbs in her quiet Cornwall garden. For the most part, though, to venus and back is forward looking, in its promotion as well as its contents. In August, Atlantic Records broke new major-label ground by offering "Bliss" as a downloadable single for sale across the board through Internet retailers.

In person, Amos is soft-spoken but she's also intense and smart, carefully reaching for words that often build, not surprisingly, to convoluted conclusions. She reveals a streak of humor and mischief, and - given the many times she compares songs and situations to bottles of fine wine - a healthy appreciation of the good life that goes along with being a rock star. You were something of an Internet pioneer with "Bliss." How interested are you in the possibilities of the 'net as far as music goes?

Tori Amos: I'm not an either-or person. I'm excited about the whole MP3 thing, I think it works for some people, but I'm really into the integrity of people showing appreciation for the artists. Not everything is free. Good wine is not free. As a hostess, when people come, I always serve them good wine, but I think if you're going to a vineyard...They give me things to drink, but there is reciprocation. I usually buy a case. With computers, there's a way to be generous but a way to give respect. Do you ever visit the many Web sites your fans have set up?

Tori Amos: I kind of stay away from that. People's opinions of what I'm doing are really none of my business. The "Bliss" video has some remarkable footage of your fans.

Tori Amos: It was done at one of the last shows. I was going to do a DVD. I don't know where I stand on that motion now because we put everything into the venus record. I mean everything. Nobody slept; we were on a high. You have to imagine, we were at Martian Engineering, making the venus record. Venus [the planet, that is] was in the sky in that part of the world, in spring and summer. And there are no lights where we are. It's really in the middle of the fields and there was some elixir... and it wasn't just the wine, because we never partook until we were done.

"Bliss" hadn't been written [when we shot the footage] so it was put together by the guy who shot it, and he also shot all the photographs [for the cover of venus]. I had no idea these photographs were going to be for this album cover; these photographs were just taken. He had shot the photographs for the cover of Spin years ago, my first cover, and I got on with him very well. I had him come along and do some shots while we were on the road, to try and capture this moment because I knew we were taping everything. Sometimes you're creating something not knowing when you're going to use it. The subject of your fans' devotion also came up in your recent Spin cover story.

Tori Amos: The Spin article was an opportunity to capture the people that are in that video, there are thousands of them. And they chose to write about a professional doll maker. She's very talented, but she's a professional. That's fine, but that's not the story they say they were telling, to follow some of those shadowy creatures that go from one gig to another, who've left school. They've left college, they've taken their tuition, they're gone.

I'm not advocating that or not, but as a writer that's wonderful. This isn't fabricated. Some of them were being tracked down, some of them were hiding in cars with other people because they had to go to college and do a degree they didn't want to do. They're very much out of control and in control at the same time. It's a very dangerous line they're walking and yet the one thing they say - and I love the ballsiness of it - is "What I'm doing now has absolutely no passion, so I come to the show to remind myself that I'm going to do something with a lot of passion. I don't know what it is yet, so I'm buying time," and that's a huge element that comes out. With any luck, perhaps these fans will come to have a more mature appreciation of you once they've dealt with their own issues.

Tori Amos: Some of them don't stick with me and some of them do. I've had women come up to me and say, "I want to thank you for getting me through a difficult patch in my life and I can't go to any of the shows or listen to the music now because it throws me back to that patch." The video for "Thousand Oceans" has some equally intense characters, although they're actors this time. It's a gorgeous song, too.

Tori Amos: In the song there is this ferocious commitment to finding this person. I don't know who the song is singing about - it's different for different people when they hear it. She has this depth of love for a daughter or whoever it is. I think some of the other songs look to her sometimes for that kind of resilience. "Juarez" [based on a true story of unsolved murders of women on the Mexican border] is the other extreme, when you're so cut off and severed from any kind of humanity that you can mutilate another person. You've got to be pretty close to soul death, to lose your own soul, to do that to another person. And that's happening right now, it's been going on for the last ten years.

There was a place where the [album] title came to me, inspired by a great bottle of wine with my girlfriends. [My friend] Natalie was the one who looked at me and said, "You'd go to Venus if you could." And I said "Wherever that is." Of course, we know the planet - and we're all looking galactic because of where we're going - but there's also the mythology of Venus, which is the feminine. So it just came to me.

When the title was in place, the songs just seemed to storm through the door and say, "sit down." It was an onslaught. A few of them came at the same time. We had "Lust" on the boards and "Spring Haze" on the boards, and I'm trying to figure out who's living in what camp. I'm getting limbs of women and I'm trying to figure out what goes where. This nipple doesn't belong with that woman. I was a sculptor. You get confused and drunk with it at a certain point. "Glory of the Eighties" is a great evocation of a particular place and time.

Tori Amos: The decadence of the '80s in L.A. brings out a smile. I wasn't into the L.A. [hard] rock scene even though I had big hair and I had thigh-high plastic boots. I think I was more into the gothic witch thing. Pirates. It was that whole dressing-up moment, Adam Ant with tits, but not really - his were much cuter than mine or my friends'. We used to wake up and go to Retail Slut and pick up a few pieces for the week. There was a balance of thigh-high plastic boots and going to see your shaman. I liked that. It was all happening at the same time. Everything was so much on the outside, pleasing things on the outside, but there was a lot of camaraderie that I really adored. A lot of us were friends, going to see different bands. It wasn't competitive in the way it became in the nineties.

In the '90s...well, you're doing your yoga thing, you're eating the right foods, your friends at PETA aren't giving you too much shit - and I like my friends at PETA. [In the '80s] people were calling in to the Live Aid charity and doing blow at the same time. And I found that very honest. There was a shadow aspect that people weren't hiding as much. Was it difficult to balance all the music - the new material, in which you take such a different approach, and the live songs?

Tori Amos: No. The engineers are really theoretical, they come from that place. I come from a real emotional place. Things have to add up geometrically for the engineers. I mean, they're not just guys who play with buttons. Engineering is their life passion. A lot of things were designed - effects were designed - by hand. We were playing with eq's and compression, using compression as an instrument, taking it to new levels for me. It was not just about any cheesy programs. That wasn't acceptable. If we were using a program, it had to be right for the character. The music rewards headphone listening.

Tori Amos: The engineers planned that. That is the gift from the Martian.

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