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What's Old Is New Again
With Tori Amos, There's Never a Dull Moment
Not much of what Tori Amos is doing on her current tour is really new. Given, she has a new record, Strange Little Girls (Atlantic), but all the songs are covers. None of them are new. She's touring alone, but Tori's done that before, too. It's not like she hasn't toured in years either. She's made it out on the road rather regularly the last few years in support of her previous record, from the choirgirl hotel.
So why, then, is Tori able to sell out show after show, from one city to the next?
The answer lies not so much is what Tori does, but how she does it. Sure, the songs are mostly "old," but she's taken each one and twisted it and made them uniquely hers. Where each of these songs had been sung from a male perspective, Tori has seized them and forced us to look at the female side of the songs; that side was most likely hidden or neglected and we probably didn't want to see anyway. Still, are these revelations, in and of themselves, enough to fill concert halls?
Possibly, but again, it's how Tori does it all - how she performs - that makes her rare. Whether alone or surrounded by a full band, Tori Amos connects with her audience in a way that few artists are able to. That's what makes her special. Mick Jagger and Eddie Vedder are able to pull you in with charisma. Bono, somehow, is able to speak for the masses. Gwen Stefani wants to have fun. They're all incredible performers that can command the stage and have that certain presence. Tori Amos has some of those qualities, too, but what she is able to do that most others are not is to reach right into your soul and somehow make it feel like she's singing to you. She's touching you. She knows you.
Equally important, she makes you feel like she wants you to know her.
When we saw her again for the first of her three sold-out shows in Los Angeles, it was the same Tori we've seen before. It doesn't get old. After over an hour and forty-five minutes of passion, including two encores, she continues to amaze. From the opener, her cover of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," to the last strains of her cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," Tori gripped the fans and drizzled emotion all over them. It's that passion that makes it so powerful - each time she performs a song, it's a little different, a tad more personal, a bit more yours.
Each of these reinterpretations adds new life to an already vivid landscape. Two of her classics she played, "Caught A Lite Sneeze" and "Crucify," while Tori live standards, seemed just a little different. The "personalization" isn't lost on her fans, either. They notice the lyrical changes and the subtle differences that Tori throws in.
That's how you sell out three nights in LA and countless others around the world.
Tori is known for being equally personal when she's not on stage. When we spoke to her, it was obvious that while she may have never met you before and she may never meet you again, these few precious moments are yours, completely. Tori was engaging, thoughtful and deliberate - she's not regurgitating the same old answers to questions she's heard before; she's considering them as though it was the first time she's been asked and she wants to make sure you get where she's coming from.
Read on to learn how it all turned out...
VOX: In "Death: The High Cost of Living" you wrote of a conversation and relationship with Death. It seems that the relationship has continued on this record.
Tori Amos: Yes...didn't know that...I didn't know that my relationship with the essence of Death was going to continue and develop. Neil and I have talked about how everyone's perception of her is different - she looks different to everyone. She came to me as this bright, beautiful being...almost angelic, as opposed to the image that we're conditioned to expect. I come from this heavy religious background, where Lucifer is portrayed as this dark and demonic thing. She came to me as this light - so bright, calm, very grounded and beautiful, you know? I loved that. No one has asked me this question before, so I'll talk more about it, if you don't mind.
VOX: No, please, go right ahead...
Tori: All these years, I've been on a search to find the essence of Death and build this relationship. Sometimes it's brought me to baby demons or to other things, types of demons. And as I learned more about her, whether it be through relationships, medicine men or women, the occult, literature, illness...we could go on, but any events that could show me a little more of that relationship with the darkness. By the darkness, I mean those things that are hidden from us, not evil or... Lucifer is seen as demonic or satanic, but I don't associate Lucifer with Satanism. I don't associate Lucifer with being male necessarily, either. She can be a lovely light that shows people a little more of the hidden things and open them to things that they weren't aware of. There's that line, "It's time that you love." It's was very different when Death said it than when I heard it from somewhere else.
The real power, the most powerful aspect of Death is compassion.
VOX: You wrote the intro to "Death". Neil Gaiman did the intro on your tour folio. Now he's written for you on Strange Little Girls. Seems that you both have quite the mutual admiration society going. What is your relationship with him like?
Tori: We have umm...we have, I think a creative relationship - for whatever reason it's based on...hmm, brutal honesty...with a spoonful of sugar. We would rather hear it from each other, rather that the scabs were picked open by one another than to have it done by the New York Times. Anything that they're going to say he's already told me. We've covered all the angles of every argument beforehand, and we know what's coming.
But I wouldn't call it a "mutual admiration society" thing - we get pre-reads on each other's work. I get the privilege of pre-reading some of his work. On American Gods I had the distinct privilege, I think, of being one of the pre-readers...Artists have people around them who are their think-tank. They're non-judgmental, but equally honest. Once an artist brings you into their circle...you have a duty, as a comrade, to hopefully have a...a Mag-Lite in your pocket or boot - those things are quite cute, you know - and you use it to really look at things closely. And you have the honesty to say, "In chapter seven, you lost me." And you want to hear it from them. Neil and I have that sort or relationship.
VOX: How did you and Neil meet and become friends?
Tori: A gentleman, Rance Hosley [Editor's note: We're unclear on the exact spelling] - this was when I was in LA - he had dated a friend of mine from the East Coast before, and he stayed with me in East Hollywood. This was before Little Earthquakes was finished, back in 1990. He showed me The Dolls House - I think he just had it on him. That was the beginning of my exposure to Neil Gaiman.
A little later, Rance went to this comic convention - he's an illustrator - and he took a tape of Little Earthquakes with him. This was just a few weeks before the record was to come out, and he gave Neil my tape and my number, there in England. A little later I got this call, and it was Neil. He said "You're quite good. Have you thought about doing this professionally?" Or something like that. And I told him that yes, I had, and it was coming out in America in a few weeks. [Laughs]
VOX: Do you think you'll ever write a proper book, in long form?
Tori: No! I understand my art form. I'm comfortable with what I do...
VOX: In a sense, your songs are like stories in themselves.
Tori: Yes, they are, but the laws and the rules that go into a four minute or five minute or seven minute song, with sound as an integral part of the creation are not the same laws and rules that go into a three-hundred page work with no sound to fill in the spaces. It's a very different thing...
VOX: Since you've lived in LA, would you agree with Neil's idea that it's a "45-minute city?" I believe it was in Smoke And Mirrors that he described it that way.
Tori: He did? That's funny. I suppose it depends on where you stay. What's in where you're at. If you're in some old, decadent, but useful place, you may have nearly everything close by.
VOX: I think he was referring to how long it took to get to various meetings with Hollywood-types.
Tori: Thankfully, I don't have to deal with Hollywood-types. Neil has the whole writing-for-film thing that he's involved with. I'm incredibly fortunate. I'm the captain of my own ship, so to speak. I turn in the work I want to and they deal with it. It's not about "do they agree?" I give them what I want done...Little Earthquakes was rejected, but that was that. After Y Kant Tori Read? I realized that that I have to look myself in the mirror every morning. I decided that I needed to battle for what I believed in. If I needed to have a battle with the president of Warner Brothers, then so be it. I was prepared to do that. That's where The Twins [from Strange Little Girls] help out - if you're going to do battle with the president of Warner Brothers, they'll come in handy.
VOX: What was the selection process for the songs on Strange Little Girls? Why these songs?
Tori: Well...it came down to...I started to get a sense of something when Husband warned me, when he became aware of the direction the project was moving in, that I don't know all of the thought processes men have. He said it's no different - men don't know what women are thinking about at a particular moment any more than women know what men are thinking about. I said, "You've got to be kidding me! Try me!" So if you're going to choose some psyche of men to understand, you need a point of reference.
So, I wanted to find out what we were listening to after we had shared a "romantic moment." I was thinking that we're listening to the same stuff. Come to find out he's listening to The Clash afterwards! I'm like, OK! I'm glad I missed that...
After that I realized I needed to get a brain trust of sorts, so I pulled in all kinds of different men from different backgrounds and created my "Laboratory Of Men" so we could have discussions about these various treasures - song treasures.
You see, I knew that I needed a premise, and that was "How do men say things and what does a woman hear?" But also, "How do men hear what men say?" What are those songs that represent important moments in their life, as touchstones, so to speak? Songs that are, and always will be important to them. How did those songs speak to them? There is a hidden side of the men that women sometimes don't see - it's hidden from view, and sometimes we're able to uncover it, sexually, but emotionally it can stay hidden.
Arriving at that premise was very critical. You know, because the view changes depending on where you're standing - I can't expect you to see what I'm seeing. If two people I know are in an argument with each other, I would pull back and see both sides, but even that was different, and neither person can see the other's perspective.
So, we tried some bridge building of a sort, to get some communication going back and forth, to allow a woman to see and listen to what was going on in a man's mind and also to allow a man to spend some time in a woman's skin and see how she heard what he said. It was a powerful thing. You see, the seed for all of these songs came from the men, and it was germinated in the woman's voice...
It comes from the idea that there are these lines of segregation - I'm not being negative here, and I want to be clear about that - but I felt that this was an album and a process that needed to be done. That these women of sovereignty had a voice and that those seeds that men had created could be sown in that way. This segregation...the segregation has been created along heterosexual, male music boundaries, and even along racial lines, and in many of these songs women are subjugated, and these songs are tapping into something.
Limp Bizkit make great records - we're not coming from the same political stance or from the same perspective on things - but those records speak to a sexual power play, and some of it is dark and it's underground, and it's about wanting to do harm. It's not just "I want to do her and I've got a big dick."
VOX: Well, "Nookie" seems pretty obvious...
Tori: Yeah, but it's tapping into the male sexual fantasy to get a hard-on. If you're going to really take a look at it, there is this...idea of getting off on wanting to beat faggots - bitches and faggots. And there are songs about wanting to put a chainsaw through a woman. Now, the Dixie Chicks wrote a song about murdering a guy and I wrote "Waitress" for God's sake. Murder has always been a part of our society and it's not going to go away, but when you have this movement, with a need... and there is some definition to it, and then it starts to become almost mainstream... it becomes troubling. Some will say, "It's only words." But I hope that if there was suddenly this trend, where white women were singing songs about killing black men and torturing them, that a black man would stand up and say that they had a problem with it. I don't know about whether these themes are "wrong" and I'm not try to make a judgement call, but when you have stuff that has hate in it, hate towards a particular group, where it's about beating and killing the "bitches" and the "faggots," that it would bother some people.
I'm not talking about "bitches" as in whores here, but "bitches" as in it gets used as a reference to all women.
These songs all come from powerful wordsmiths, powerful male voices...and this is not an investigation of these men at all. I didn't turn over those stones or do that sort of research, so this isn't an indictment of the men who wrote these songs. The men are the mothers here - they are the mothers from which these songs came forth. There's a great saying I heard - "Some things you only tell your mother." I think that's very true. The saying also says, "Some things you never tell your mother." If you're a man with any sort of class or values, that's also true. I think for men, those are very true statements. But my relationships were with these songs - not these male mothers. I developed very deep relationships with the women who came to me from these songs.
That worked with my premise. There were others, too. I was going to do a Baroque version of Iggy Pop's "Sick Of You" but the harpsichord wasn't ready in time, and I was tired by then.
VOX: Were there any other songs that didn't make the record?
Tori: One song was Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet." I really respect Public Enemy for their intensity and conviction, but the song really spoke to me. There's that fear for a white woman, on a planet and she's very conscious of what she's faced with - these black men, who may be a potential lover, and the specter of her white father, and what it's going to do to him if she ends up with a black man. The tension, the question of how her father is going to deal with it. It goes far beyond that - it's not a simple question.
VOX: Which song did you feel the most personal attachment to?
Tori: "Rattlesnakes"...it's not a touchstone song for me, but it ended up as one that I was very close to.
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