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May 5, 2009

Songs In The Key Of Sin

With a new record, Abnormally Attracted To Sin, soon to be in stores, Tori Amos talks dangerous sexuality, (secretly) dirty song lyrics, and the pitfalls of worshiping Madonna.

By Noah Michelson

The last time we talked to Tori Amos, perhaps the most famous pop banshee to plunk down at a piano bench in the last 20 years (if you count Y Kant Tori Read, her poorly received, though in retrospect undeniably smart, foray into the industry back in 1988), her career had just split wide open -- again. No stranger to being batted around by the big boys at first Atlantic and then Epic Records, in the spring of 2008 Amos finally announced she was going indie. Now with Universal Republic Records as her distributor, Amos will release her 11th album, Abnormally Attracted To Sin, along with a DVD featuring music videos -- or "visualettes" as she calls them -- for each of the tracks, on May 19.

Out chatted with Amos at her hotel suite in New York City a few weeks ago to get the lowdown on spiritual eroticism, her (secretly) dirty lyrics, and why it's never a good idea to suck up to Madonna.

Out: At its center, Abnormally Attracted To Sin is about sexuality and spirituality and how the two intersect. You've often dealt with those issues throughout your career but what was specifically happening in your life -- or in the political realm or in popular culture -- that you spurred you to create this album?

Tori Amos:
People are still in a state of paralysis with the changes that have been happening over the last year and a half. There have been huge upheavals for everyone and how that affects everybody -- whether you have a job or not -- is that if we define power as being able to generate money or material things, you have got a whole lot of men out there who are powerless. So how is that going to play itself out behind closed doors? There's a strain that's going to be put on lovers -- gay, straight, bi, whatever it is -- because its power that is the aphrodisiac in the bedroom. So it's how we define power. And what we are attracted to. Because if we're attracted to somebody who has to have power over us and demean us, then we have to start asking ourselves, "Wait a minute. What is that in me that's turned on by that?" Then it takes me to the idea of a spiritual eroticism.

Which is?

For so long the idea of dangerous and sexy has been associated with profanity and demeaning behavior and somehow being subjugated because we're not allowed to have the dangerous, erotic relationship with our partner who respects us. My husband is a big preacher of this: why is it that men who really want to value their partners are not thought of as sexy and hot? We will talk about the fact that some guy who has naked women on his Blackberry seems to be real desirable with everybody -- men and women -- instead of a guy who says, "I'm not going to take your picture and show everybody. I'm going to take your picture because I want you! And why isn't it enough that I want you? Why isn't that hot?" So it's been really exploring and marrying these different ideas of can you be in control while you have gold handcuffs on? And what is demeaning and what isn't? The key is power. The definition of power. And there are some songs where the women are feeling powerless, like in [the Abnormally Attracted To Sin track] "Maybe California."

It makes me think about the queer community as well, because of the way we've been programmed to think that what we do in the bedroom, or even outside of it, is fundamentally wrong.


So it's interesting to think about how we then become empowered -- especially when even in 2009 giving someone a blow job is still seen as a potentially evil thing. It's ridiculous.

Exactly. It's how we've been programmed to define sin.

Which is what you're looking at with this album.

It's really what I'm fascinated by. What the patriarchy has judged as sinful and we say, "OK! All right!" The power that the patriarchy has had on our self-worth is so insidious and to me it's why there are so many affairs. Because once you walk into marriage --some kind of commitment with somebody -- then the illicit, natural side of our nature gets amputated. If you're trying to be a good parent, then there's the idea of, "What happened to that side of me that used to be a passionate creature?"

It doesn't die. Or it shouldn't.

Yes. And why do you need to have some kind of experience where you destroy your life to realize, "Wait a minute. I really liked that I liked this person." But why all of a sudden instead of being able to -- or wanting to -- do this with them I end up doing it with a stranger who doesn't know me, who doesn't care about me. If I'm in trouble or if I'm sick they're out the fucking door. If the champagne is there -- they are there --

But what is that?

What is that? Like you said -- we are programmed for so long that sexy is out there somewhere [motions to the room] and sacred is in here somewhere [motions to chest] and you're never going to have sexy and sacred in a relationship together. And I think it does depend on who you're with, but I think you really have to work hard to break those programs because they're so entrenched. And [the Abnormally Attracted To Sin track] "Police Me" is very much about being encoded. As you know with the archetypes from the last record I was really trying to find sides to myself that I hadn't allowed myself. I don't need to put on Pip's [one of the five "dolls," or personas, Amos created for her last album, American Doll Posse] garb to walk into that. That was a huge place to get to.

So that's something you realized after doing American Doll Posse?

Yeah. All these different sides of [the dolls] -- they're with me now.

And you can access those?

I can access those. And I needed to access those because sometimes we do become how people see us. Instead of, "Wait a minute -- this not how I think. This is not how I see it and I know I'm going to be unpopular with my friends..." Some friends have been changing for the last many years.

It's interesting you say that. When we talked last time you didn't seem to be in the best place. I don't want to use the term "beat down" --


-- But you didn't seem like your usual self.

When was this?

Last May. And I heard that recently when you were playing the SXSW festival some fans yelled, "Welcome back!" and you responded, "Thank you. It's been a rough couple of years." What were you referring to? Were you talking about record label woes?

No. That's just part of being a professional artist. You're going to have the drama. [Epic Records] wasn't a good place for me to be. It's good for some people but it wasn't supportive for artistry at the time. But now I'm with [Monte Lipman and Doug Morris at Universal Records] and they're really into creators. There are all kinds of people over there. I've known Doug since the mid-80s. He looked at me and he said, "I know what you do. You're at a home now where I don't want you to be anybody but Tori and I want you to do what you do."

That's a gift.

That's a huge gift. And I think in your life you don't always get to be with your mentor. And maybe because we were apart for 14 years -- we didn't even speak. It wasn't a bad thing. He left Warner Bros. -- he will tell you he was kicked out of the system, locked out of his office -- and then built this empire. And while he was building his empire I was meeting other people. And thank God I did because I met some amazing people. But a lot of people -- as soon as I met them, they would be axed. So I would just get to know somebody and then after seven months they're gone! So it was just me, Johnny [Witherspoon, her manager] and Chelsea [Laird, also her manager] really, and my crew and my team and the musicians but sometimes you're just sitting there thinking, "Why am I handing my work over to these people who only see it as product?" It wasn't music. You know if people are excited about music or if they're just there to get the stock shares. And I was not in the right place. But some of those people are gone and they have a new group [over at Epic] and they've sent us really wonderful well wishes, but at the time they weren't there. What I would say to you when you talked to me in May was that I was in a terrible place. And during the last two years a lot has happened. But I wouldn't have written this record if I hadn't been pushed -- for all kinds of reasons. I don't want to go into all of it but "Maybe California" doesn't come from nowhere. You're not able to write that by having a drink with somebody who's had the experience and you haven't. You have to be pushed to that place. And I figure if I could be pushed to that place, then other women have been pushed to that place.

We've seen it before with a lot of mothers. There isn't always a lot of support out there for them. And sometimes they just snap.

Maybe we're getting somewhere that I haven't gotten to before in interviews. Maybe because we've been programmed to be mothers in a certain way. And somehow, it's all good and well talking about being a mistress in the bedroom and a mother at play group, but in life and in reality your responsibilities change when you're bringing up another life. Maybe the last record helped me break down certain images I have of myself, but then events can happen to you that you just don't expect. Things happen to all of us that seem like this is a time that people are being pushed. Where I'm pushed, you could maybe sail right through. And vice versa. But yeah -- the last year and a half or two years, just circumstances seemed to happen.

But they got you to where you are now --

Yes --

You have a new album, you're creating, you seem to be thriving doing what you want to do --

I'm on my front foot, not on my back foot. There was a place when I think I was being defeated by circumstances but I've made a lot of changes in my life -- Universal Records is only one of them. So many aspects of my life -- Mark [Hawley, her husband and sound engineer], Tash [her daughter], and I are [clasps hands together] but there were moments when it was us against the world and questions about -- I have strong, strong ties to America. Strong. This is my home. England is not my home. And I really have been pushed to recognize that you can live in places for years and you're not home. I'm learning that you can live somewhere but you're really a guest there. And once you come to terms with it -- that you're not accepted there and that you're there because you love somebody -- you realize there are a lot of sacrifices that you made for love. So does that put strain? Of course it does. And especially if there are outside forces -- government forces -- loading their guns at you.

Government forces?

You have to figure -- I travel and play all over the world and governments are broke right now. So don't you think they're trying to come after people? And I've been caught between two governments. So this has forced me to learn about the power they have. "Police Me," "Strong Black Vine" [from Abnormally Attracted To Sin] -- you think you're in the West, you think you're a part of a system of justice, but my God, what I've had to do in order to -- I mean, I have the strength to fight a government. Luckily mine is on my side.

But that's the thing -- it's the old cliché: if you can come through these tests you end up all the better for it --

You do, but people kill themselves over stuff like this!

Of course.

When I wrote [Abnormally Attracted To Sin first single] "Welcome To England," England can be anywhere. It just so happens to be biographical because Mark is British. These forces were loading their guns and I was touring -- I almost don't want to say where I was because then that fucking tax man is going to say, "You wrote it in our country!" Anyway, I got a phone call telling me, "These guys are coming after you" and I thought But I'm an American and I've always done the right thing! Nobody cares. Nobody cares! That's why in the visualette there's Tori in an American flag jumpsuit because whether you are going to your partner's home or are around his friends -- it can be a country or it can just be going out to dinner and you just know I am not accepted! They don't want me here! And you try so hard to fit in and you start chopping off pieces of yourself to get along and you wonder where's the sage and the tobacco and the sacred smoke? Because the ancestors are not here -- they're just not here! You begin to say, "There are people I like and there are things I like but in order for me to claim myself I just realized I've got to get on a plane and go back to what is my power spot."

And that's America?

I see myself more as a citizen of earth and I'm not an expat -- I'm just not. And to be one of those Americans who knows "I'm a guest" [in England] -- I've probably outstayed my welcome as far as the British government goes. But being forced to make a choice and then waking up one day and realizing you're forced to make that choice or it's being made for you and you're saying, "Hang on a minute!" You can't just choose. So when you talked to me things were black and that's before a whole second part of the record got written and developed when I came back to the states for Comic-Con. And I was on my home ground where I wrote Little Earthquakes and there was a metamorphosis that happened. I passed by that little house where I wrote it and I thought, I took on a lot back then -- I can take this on. I can fight. But I had lost how to fight. I had to change everything to fight -- all kinds of people had to change. The one thing that kept me going was the love that Tash and Mark had for me. I just saw that I was becoming totally devastated and beaten. Look at the system and what the system has done and the way that people are so enslaved. And you look at Obama -- and I know he's one man but can he turn around the subjugation of the masses to the way the system is? You know, the tax system -- you have to be a fucking brain surgeon to figure it out. And I just think people are so burdened in our day-to-day existence -- how can relationships survive when you're thinking, Oh my God! The mortgage and the bills and the loans and the credit cards and the -- Fuck! And so it's not just the sexual programming, it's everything that has to crumble.

I saw a few of the visualettes and when it comes to the fashion, you turned it out!

[Laughs] Karen Binns, my stylist, does great. She's really talented so it's good to give her a name check. She pulls in stuff from all over the world.

You've been with her from the beginning.

From the beginning. It was about having this opportunity of having so many little movies -- have you ever met Karen?


She's originally from Brooklyn. She lives in Europe now, but she's originally from Brooklyn and she's black with white Jean Harlow hair and she's a wild woman. But I love that she lives and breathes fashion. She knows a lot of the up-and-coming designers as well. We have our relationships with people who've been around a long time like Viktor & Rolf, who are always great, but then you get other people who might not be the Top 20 but who are doing great, great work.

And you're certainly not afraid to just go there. Like that outfit you wore for Comic-Con --

Thank you!

Who was that?

Margiela. Clearly I don't think some publications understood that but that's because when you take something out of context then of course it can get confused. But the people who know what they're doing and know what they're talking about realized, "Oh my God! That's Margiela!" with that neck and that --

Exactly. And where better to wear it than Comic-Con, where you have people walking around wearing gills or dressed like storm troopers?

Right! There were some people there who were afraid to get involved. Karen and I were talking about it and she said, "You are your own superhero, sister." You cannot be worried about how it'll be interpreted because intelligent people who know fashion will know, and those who don't will just show everybody that they don't. It's one of those things that when you're working with those really maverick European designers who have been there for years doing exciting stuff, when you walk outside - and it's nothing against them but if you're going to walk out of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and get outside of that circle and move into the dangerous designers, then you have to realize that some people don't understand anything other than High Street.

You worked with Christian Lamb, who filmed Madonna's last tour, on the visualettes.

It took us a year and a half to film this stuff and I'd I get a call from him and he'd say, "I'm going to be filming with Madonna here, can you fly in?" And I'd find myself scheduling my life around Miss Thing -- without her even knowing it, of course. And I'm sitting there and the husband is saying, "Where are you going?" And I said, "I don't know! Where's Madonna?" And he said, "You're not serious!" And I said, "I am serious!"

* Did you hang out with her?*

Of course not! No! No! No! Two lionesses, different parts of the Serengeti. And it's fine -- I have great respect for her and her work ethic and what she does -- I do. But I remember this little artist who has sold many records herself coming up to me and she said, "I went up to Madonna and I told her how much she meant to me." She's sitting there confessing this to me a couple of years ago and I'm thinking Stupid!

Why would she do that? Why? Why!

Why! And I've become like Mother Confessor and she's sitting there with me in the British Airways first class lounge and I'm thinking how the fuck did I end up with this while she's having a hang-over and she says, "I just have to tell I say to Madonna, 'You have meant so much to me and to my career...'" And I'm just waiting for it and she says, "Madonna just looks at my shoes and says, 'Those are so last season.'"


And I said, "But why did you go to her with no self-worth?" Because she's going to hate that! "If you really have been influenced by her, so-and-so," I said, "Then look in the mirror and be the gorgeous women you are! You don't need the approval." And come on -- Madonna's going to smell the blood.

She's ready to lap it up.

And I said, "You set yourself up for that one." And this singer said, "But I just didn't know why it was necessary for her to respond like that." And I told her, "It wasn't necessary but you set yourself up. Take some responsibility!" Tongue up the ass - it's just so boring.

Finally, I have to ask you this because it's been killing me for the past five years. On the song "A Sorta Fairytale" [from the album Scarlet's Walk] you sing about "pulling back the hood." Are you talking about the hood I think you're talking about?

[Huge smile] Oh, I want you to think whatever you want to think.

* That is not an answer!*

I want you to take it there! I want you to take it there!

Because then when you sing about "tasting heaven perfectly"--

And my mom thinks it's talking about a convertible! And you know what? Let's just let her think that.

Abnormally Attracted To Sin is in stores on May 19.

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