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May 15, 2009

Our Favorite New 'Sin': Tori Amos Talks Trouble Of All Stripes

by Eiseley Tauginas

On her 10th studio outing, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos went out on a limb. Or three. She took it back to fundamentals by reconnecting with her life-long mentor, Doug Morris of Atlantic Records. She found a new approach to songwriting by pairing with filmmaker Christian Lamb, using his montages of life on the road before writing her piano and orchestra-fueled tracks for the album. And she incorporated the simultaneous existence of being both a full-time touring artist and a mother with a growing, eight year-old child. While meeting with Amos during a stop-off in New York earlier this year, the petite, soft-spoken siren was every bit as endearing and articulate as we'd hoped, helping us navigate our way through her new album while passing on a little sage life advice as well.

You reconnected with Doug Morris, your mentor at Atlantic, rather coincidentally, when you heard someone on the phone with him in an LA restaurant. Was this event what propelled the record?

Doug has been the only mentor that I've ever had. That went away for a while, and we hadn't spoken a word in 14 years. Just because life changes. After I saw him that day in LA, this whole wealth of the material flood-gates started to open. Maybe it's because when you're working with somebody that believes in what you do, you can cross into another dimension of creativity.

And then?

I was ready to start making a very different kind of work. I had been working with film director Christian Lamb, who was making montages out on the road with me, and I always thought that they would go well with a live concert. Eventually, songs started to be written around these montages.

What creative role did you play in these montages, later called Visualettes?

It was a creative marriage with Christian. The films weren't like a still photograph shoot that you might do in one or two days. This was something where we worked together, on and off, for a year and a half. We wanted the same thing, and had a similar aesthetic. On "Strong Black Vine," we really wanted to cover the idea of intolerance in religion. We filmed in New Orleans for a portion, and he found methods of pulling it in all kinds of ways to make this vision complete.

Certain songs on the album reference California, and you spent a great deal of time there before the album Little Earthquakes. How'd you feel about being back?

I think what's pivotal for this conversation is knowing that when I wrote Little Earthquakes, I was at the bottom of the food chain in LA and really struggling. When I was there working on this album, I was looking at my life, and realized so much time has passed from when I was writing that first record there. The world has changed. When you think of the presidents that we've had, and the wars that we've been through, and our innocence at that time. I was recognizing certain things that I don't have to deal with anymore. Then there are also things that I do have to deal with now that I couldn't have even conceived of then.

And the song, "Maybe California"?

In that song, I was investigating the idea of a mother wanting to kill herself, and as we filmed it, I think that we knew that we were doing something and talking about something that doesn't get a lot of attention. It seems as if there's a lot of media exposure to self-destruction when you're a certain age, but when you're supposedly responsible, it's almost as if you're not allowed to have those feelings. I wanted that song to be something that other women could really relate to that might have those feelings in silence.

Another theme of the album is having control. Are you at a point where you're exerting authority, or are you stepping back?

I'm trying to be very clear about what I define as powerful, and what I'm attracted to. Even though we're in the 21st Century, there are a lot of women who choose to be in violent relationships, or just in a relationship where you're not respected or treated well. The song, "Ophelia," is exploring when a women doesn't feel powerful within herself. Songs such as, "Strong Black Vine" and "Police Me," are about where she feels really powerful; enough to take on a government, much less a guy. And "Curtain Call," is really exploring how you value what you do, opposed to, maybe, how the outside world values what you do. And we go back to the idea of valuing yourself, the idea of valuing your choice of sexuality and spirituality in a relationship. The question that I think it raises is, "When are you in control, and still in a mutually powerful place?" or "When are you being subjugated?"

How have your views on religion changed as your daughter gets older?

It's more about spirituality, than the institution of religion. I've found, over many years, that the institutions themselves, lack compassionate actions. There's a lot of judgment going on, and shame, in order to get other people to be a certain way, and we go back to this idea of tolerance. Tash, [my daughter], is pretty focused on the difference between "Jesus loves the little children," and the institution itself. She travels a lot, so she gets exposed to different cultures, and her belief seems to be growing and blossoming. Even at 8, she's really able to distinguish the difference of patriarchal rule from the love of Jesus. I'm fascinated to see that in her.

Her exposure to music is much different than yours as a child, as you would sneak listening to music when your pastor father was away. Is music still is this secret escape for you?

It absolutely is. It's how I deal with most things in life. Music is a world. I can be sitting in a room, dealing with this red-tape stuff that we all have to deal with, and another dimension opens, and I haven't left the room, and music just comes as things that I've never heard before, or things from the past that almost open up my perspective. God, you can get really trapped in life, and different things take you out of it. You can take a little pill, you can have a little drink, but to me, that doesn't solve the problem. That just postpones it. You can shop, you can have an affair--because that will distract you--but that doesn't solve it. For me, it's creating something, so that you have a different perspective, and you don't feel victimized by a situation.

You previewed some of the songs from the new album at South By Southwest for the first time. What was that like?

I was alone at the piano, and I figured there was only so much I could do. In some ways [this album] reminds me of From The Choirgirl Hotel, which was also ambitious on the production side. Playing this album alone at the piano is challenging, because if you've never heard the record, there's no way that you're going to get a good view of it. I just said, 'Well, you just need to give a storming woman-alone show.'

What general advice would you give to young women?

What a difference a day makes, because change can happen rapidly, but not just one way, it doesn't all have to be negative. You can have two people who get the same negative, rough news, and yet, one is able to sail through it, and the other is drowning. If you can just hang in there, and not react, and take yourself out of the equation--Sometimes I step out of a situation and see it from a detached perspective, so it's not happening to me anymore. Then you give yourself the room to realize that things can turn around in a day, or a week, just because of who you happen to meet, or run into, and your circumstances.

Anything else?

If it's too loud, turn it up. That usually works.


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