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MSN Music (US, www)
February 8, 2007
By Alan Light
Special for MSN Music
"At the end of the day," says Tori Amos, "if I'm not inflammatory, I wouldn't be Tori."
Even over a transatlantic telephone line, Amos is a whirlwind. Calling from her home in England to discuss her recent five-disc box set, "A Piano: The Collection" (Rhino), she displays the freewheeling, free-associating, free-speaking attitude that inspires such devotion from her fans. Conversation veers into painting, architecture, literature and studio technology, and she's not afraid to challenge the iTunes empire with her opinions about the way her music is delivered digitally.
"A Piano" is a lavishly packaged collection that contains 86 songs from Amos's 15-year career -- hits, alternate mixes, dance versions, B-sides, unreleased material found in storage boxes and (most difficult for her to include, as she explains below) demos of a few of her classics. Though she has previously released a two-disc retrospective, "Tales of a Librarian" (2003), and a fleet of live albums, including a bunch of Pearl Jam-style authorized bootlegs, "A Piano" attempts to capture the full scope of a groundbreaking artist who is equal parts Laura Nyro and Led Zeppelin. And Amos says she's proud of what she sees in this body of work and of the effort required to make it. "It's hard to come by sometimes," she says, "being better than good."
MSN Music: What was most surprising to you as you revisited this material?
Tori Amos: When we listened to the mixes, I was able to hear how the music sounded in the control room before it got put to cassette, vinyl, CD. Certain CDs aren't holding up as well sonically now because we didn't understand -- or didn't have -- certain technology yet. We've come so far digitally that it doesn't surprise me that George Martin wanted to revisit the Beatles' catalogue. It's just not designed to live in a digital vocabulary.
So the first thing was the sonic quality, which is good, because it was such a huge project -- much bigger than I thought it would be. I have more than 300 songs now, each with many different mixes. And the way the tapes were stored over the years, many have been perverted.
What do you mean?
As the record industry has imploded, one of the first things to go is the tape libraries. In some cases, the original mix had not been stored properly and was simply unusable. The released versions of these songs already live on, say, "Little Earthquakes," so I wasn't just trying to replicate those; I wanted to take new technology and apply it.
I'm such a pain in the ass. I make the engineers do so many mixes it would make you angry -- "OK, can we bring the oboe up in the 37th bar?" And thank God I do, because now we needed it. So after gaining a reputation as an ant-f***er who drives everybody mad, the engineers said, 'We will never complain about that again.'
It took months and months -- much more than I thought. I really didn't understand how involved it was going to be. And it was painful to be honest with myself and recognize the mistakes in the choices I made.
"Boys for Pele" was the first job I was in the producer's chair by myself. I pulled in a drummer that just didn't work, and Manu Katche came to drum after that original drummer to fix the parts. We were at this Irish house I had acquired to finish the record. Manu said, 'Let's retrack everything and get the groove right.' And I thought he was out of his mind -- we could never have recreated the sound of the church where we first recorded, so I just said no. And that was just inexperience. Now I wouldn't think twice about going back in and redoing everything.
As a producer, you have to give your artists the confidence that they can do it again and again and again and again until you get it perfect -- not good, but perfect. So that was me as an artist making that decision because it would have been really hard work. But now the producer wouldn't take that lip from the piano player.
How was assembling "A Piano" different from figuring out a set list for a tour? It seems like that would be the other time to think about a whole catalogue taken together.
The work is a living sculpture. It's alive. But when you're choosing a specific performance for a box set, it's permanent. The decisions I was making are no different from an architect building a building -- you're not going to go in and redo the new World Trade Center once it's up. It's finished; it's set in stone. So I had to be completely present and accurate. On tour, it's constantly changing, performances are different every night. But this is concretized.
You've always approached your albums as such complete, singular works. What was it like pulling them apart and reconfiguring these songs?
All the albums I've done exist and will continue to exist in that form. But I was really inspired by the Zeppelin remasters in 1992. Some people can get it right. And sometimes you can really screw up something that was better left untouched. But there's technology now that didn't exist then, so no matter how good George Martin and the engineers were, there are things that can be improved.
The actual compiling of the work was key, so that certain work wasn't competing with others. When I finish an album, as narrative, that needs to live. But it's a sonic exhibition, a sonic installation. If you're going to MoMA and you see an artist that you haven't seen for a long time, that Chagall can affect you very differently because of what you see around it.
I was surprised that there's not one cover version on this collection. Your covers have been such a recurrent part of your career, including the entire "Strange Little Girls" album, which isn't represented here.
I felt that "A Piano" needed to come from the piano as a composer with a woman. This is a representation of me as a singer/songwriter. Me as an interpretive performer is not what this was about. This had to not be me pushing up on somebody else's scene.
A box set has to have 20 years -- or for some people, 30 or 40 years -- of work behind it. I have a lot of pride in that work ethic, that I could generate this much material. So the box was about original ideas coming from a piano. Live performance is different -- that can be about music that inspired me, and having been a piano bar player for so long, that's another facet to the artistry.
In the booklet, you write about how resistant you have always been to the idea of releasing any of your demos or songs in progress. Why did you decide to do it in the end?
That was the closest Mark (producer and husband Mark Hawley) and I ever came to the word "divorce." I say that tongue in cheek, because the best part of our relationship -- well, one of the best parts -- is that when we get confused, the professional side takes over. And he said, I won't be doing my job unless I vote for the demos to make this box set -- it's imperative. To me, it's similar to showing your sonogram pictures to the Internet.
Neil Gaiman (science-fiction writer and sometime Amos collaborator) and I talk about this all the time. He really exposes his process and doesn't feel like he's giving himself away. But if you ask me what songs I'm listening to now as I compile the ideas for the new album, I wouldn't tell you. What goes on as you make a CD is as sacred as what goes on in the bedroom.
In the end, we did think that the demos would give people the idea that you don't just sit down and record a finished piece of music, you really have to work for it. Part of me has been very inspired by reading about how Max Ernst or Georgia O'Keefe achieved results without ripping off their palettes. I had some of that in the book I did with Ann Powers. So we thought the demos might help prove a point to young songwriters that want to give up because they don't achieve it.
Bob Dylan has often spoken about feeling like a transmitter for his songs. Finally, though, in the "Chronicles" book, he started to address the fact that it's also a lot of sweat and hard work to get them done.
You do see yourself as a conduit, a transmitter, just because of ego issues. Songwriters who think it's all about them can't keep it together for 20, 30 years because the hubris takes over.
So how does it feel to listen to the demos on the box?
Oh, I don't listen to that part. I can't. But that's OK. The artist in me can't, but the producer can and not blink an eye.
I really have to divide myself to make the decisions that the artist can't. As the years have progressed, it's gotten easier to tell the performer to leave the room.
Since albums, and narratives, are so important to you and your music, how do you feel about the new digital world and the fact that your catalog can be cherry-picked in whichever way a listener wants?
Steve Jobs has too much control. To call it iTunes and not have iAlbums -- I don't like being railroaded. It should be the artists' choice how people hear the work initially, even if it means losing half of their sales. Choosing just some of the songs is like walking into a top restaurant and telling the chef, "I want to pick the ingredients apart and make it this way."
It's a narrative -- if you cut up "War and Peace" and just sell it chapter by chapter, I don't know that those writers would have agreed to that. "OK, Charlie, let's sell these few pages of 'David Copperfield,' we'll just let people take what they want ... ." I don't think so. [Editor's note: Charles Dickens did make "David Copperfield" available in installments.]
Jobs has done a great thing. But I think it's dangerous, and if he's really a great man, really a genius, he needs to understand that maybe iTunes could expand its thinking, and maybe it could even get better. Let this be taken by creative minds as a way to grow, not as an insult. I'm not stupid, I'm not trying to cut myself off from the entire digital community.
I have a friend, a young student, who is a huge Tori fan. She bought "A Piano" because it wasn't on iTunes when it first came out, but she told me that if she could have waited and downloaded the "Bonus B-Sides" disc, and saved the money, that's what she would have done.
Well, I can't be held hostage as an artist to the fact that she doesn't have the cash. Maybe 10 years from now she'll have more money than any of us, who knows?
I'm a motherf***er, and the reason she likes me is that you can't guilt me into saying what she wants to hear to make her day. I am going to stand by what I want for the songs, period.
I wasn't going to let this box set become "Boxing Helena" in the first six weeks. I knew that I would deliver what she needs, but no way was I going to let the sonic perverts cut up this music.
I don't make singles, I make albums. I don't shoot just one crotch shot -- that's not what I do. I'll give you the crotch shot -- but at least put me in a pair of Louboutin high heels.
Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.
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