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June 6, 2014

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz

Interview: Tori Amos: 'I'm Not 30, and I'm Not Going to Pretend I Am'

By Brian Ives

How do you even classify Tori Amos' music? As a classically trained, Led Zeppelin-obsessed piano player/singer, she's created her own genre over the past two decades.

Still, her new album, Unrepentant Geraldines, could be referred to as a "return to form," following 2011's classical music inspired Night of Hunters, and 2012's Gold Dust, which saw her re-working previously released songs in classical arrangements. She's also spent a great deal of time in recent years working on the musical The Light Princess.

In a wide-ranging interview with, Amos talked about how turning 50 -- and some key advice from her daughter -- influenced the album, The Light Princess, as well as many of her famous friends and collaborators, including "Sandman" creator Neil Gaiman, Trent Reznor, Michael Stipe, Armin van Helden and even Robert Plant. Oh, and her husband/engineer Mark Hawley, who will likely be appalled that we're writing about him. You've said this album is influenced by the fact that you recently turned 50, and that "I'm not going to wear 50 the way the media says I should wear 50." 50 is a weird age for someone in your line of work.

Tori Amos:
It is a weird age. I have to define it for myself. Everybody does. Everybody has to define how they're going to create what they want to say, Not to take away from actors at all, I have lots of friends in theater. They would agree with me, [but] roles and stories are created for older people. When you think of the fantastic Meryl Streep and the fantastic Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Judi Dench, Julie Walters, Susan Sarandon. Women we love. Stories are being created for them, because these women are so important, which is exciting. We want to hear what they have to say! In the music industry for the bards... I'm not necessarily talking about the Vegas entertainers with the dancers, because that is a bit of a different genre.

But a lot of my male contemporaries are thought of as being at the height of their magical powers. The Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, guys that I adore. But no one says they shouldn't be singing about the subject matter [that they sing about]. I have to make sure that I'm singing about what I want to sing about. But you have to be timeless. I'm not going to do "Granny rock" now! So doing the rock and roll version of August: Osage County isn't what people want to hear in a rock venue.

I would suggest that the bands you mention are also victims of ageism as well; the music blogosphere is always very excited by whatever the shiny new toy of the moment is.

Interesting that you mention the "shiny new toys." Wow. When, in a culture, do we value people that are telling stories through our lives. When I was growing up, and you were growing up, there were people that we were looking to, to tell stories. I still look to them to tell their stories: Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, the Stones. The question though is: can we now, in our culture, say "Yes, we want not just the shiny new toy, but we want to grow with these storytellers." That's the question: are we creating a climate where this relationship continues between artist and culture?

Pop culture doesn't seem to incubate that kind of relationship too much, but artists like yourself have a level of trust with your fan base. But it's harder for someone in your position to get on MTV or on magazine covers. Audiences in their 40s and over just aren't catered to as much.

That's what is motivating me to do this record and to grab 50 by both hands. If you'd talked to me at this time last year, I don't think... I wouldn't have been the best company. Because I was working through some of these ideas, and I was looking at the reality of what the music industry is for women 50 and up.

I don't want to just be good for 50. The last thing is for people to say, "You know, she gave a good show... for 50." Screw that! I want to give a good show [period]! My daughter said to me, "Mom, if you're telling me that you can't be as powerful as you were at 30, then what is the message you're telling me?" She had tears in her eyes. "You're telling me that at 50, I have to be a shadow of myself!" And then she just looked at me and said, "Go rock." And the earth moved. And I looked at her and I thought, "I know what I have to do."

After a few projects that were sort of a departure, were you ready to get back to your earlier style of music?

Creating with all these other musicians, actors, creators, the British National Theatre [on The Light Princess], as well as with the Metropole Orchestra [on Gold Dust and the subsequent tour], you begin to see how other people get inspired. So, by doing all these other projects, I started to get new ideas that maybe I had years and years ago, but by taking myself back and immersing myself in other forms of music, there was this window that got created. I had these little songs -- I was calling them "secret sonic selfies" -- because I wasn't playing them for anybody. Which is incredibly freeing! I kept them for a couple of years. And then I played them for Mark, and he said, "Yeah, I think you need to record these ones now."

People are fascinated by the relationship between you and Neil Gaiman. Is the line in "Trouble's Lament" -- "I wager she got betrayed by her friend Despair" -- a reference to the character from his Sandman series?

Yeah, that's a reference, without question. "Her friend Despair!" After all these years, she's still my friend! Neil's one of my best friends. My brother Neil, my spirit brother of over twenty years: he ends up skating through many of my songs. There's a shared love for mythology there. That's a real driving factor in our [respective] work. I always wanted to be [Gaiman character] Death! Everybody wanted to be Death! Didn't you? But not everybody can be Death.

You've said that women speak to you about being trapped in their lives. Was doing different projects, like the classical albums and The Light Princess or editing the graphic novel Comic Book Tattoo Tales Inspired by Tori Amos your way of getting out of a sort of trap?

Maybe. Working with narrative, and working with the amazing creative team on The Light Princess, writing for different vocal styles is a way of filling the well with other influences. The director, Marianne Elliott would be on me and Sam [Adamson], my writing partner, asking, "What is the plot line through this piece? Where is the plot maybe slowing down?" My God, she rode us in ways we've never been ridden before. So, of course that effected the storytelling on this record. How could it not? That was what writing for the British National Theatre did for us. But the great thing was, it wasn't commercial theater, so from the top down, they told us, "Do not dumb this down."

Do you think that your music can be intimidating to certain men?

I don't bite! You must admit that on the album, guys come out pretty well. There are songs -- "Invisible Boy," "Selkie," "Weatherman" -- where the guys are the romantics. In "Weatherman," he loves his bride so much, and she dies. He can't move on. That's how true and deep his love is. Nature itself not just pities him, but decides to bring his wife back to life by painting her through the seasons. Men can love so deeply and be romantic, but they can't always show it. I think gay men are supported more in showing their emotions, and sometimes straight men have to come across as macho, but [straight men] can really be more romantic than some of the women. But gay guys are really encouraged to talk about their emotions, and sometimes straight men don't have a place for that, except maybe with their partners to really talk about what they're feeling. "Wild Way" is really about this. That couple is not being kind to each other right now. They're saying things that really go very deep and rip the heart out of the other one. And even though they love each other, they want to hurt each other.

In "Wedding Day," the line that jumped out at me was "We'd hang on to each word that the other would say" -- past tense.

Well, first of all, my husband is a muse for me. Mark, he's very quiet. He's British, rides a motorcycle, supports Arsenal, and the last thing I think he ever thought would be happening to him is that some woman would be talking about him, globally. It's just the worst nightmare for him. And yet, he's one of the sound engineers and hears it getting recorded. When I'm singing these songs, I'm singing to him. He's the first one to hear them. It's a strange relationship, that we work together and he's hearing these things, and they're about him. He's my boyfriend, he's the love of my life, and yet -- as you know -- to have a marriage for sixteen years, we've been together almost twenty years, you're going to experience all kinds of things. And if you love each other enough, you work through it. For many people, their wedding day happens before they've walked that dark road. Whether it's illness, or the death of a parent, or a miscarriage, or career changes. These "little earthquakes" that happen. That song was about a marriage being tested. But they do ok (smiles).

In "Sixteen Shades of Blue," the line "At 33 she fears she'll lose her job/because they hear the ticking of her clock." Not many songwriters are writing for that audience, but what inspired that line?

As I said, turning 50 has been an incredible ride. It's a shift, particularly if you are in front of the camera in the music business. For women, we're not thought of at the height of our magical powers, sensually. I'm under no illusions about what I look like. I'm OK: I'm not doing bad for my age, I'm fine. But I'm not 30, and I'm not going to pretend I am. So, while I was thinking about this, and accepting where I am in my life, younger women would talk to me about what they're going through. Somehow I just end up around conversations. Teenagers, [saying] "We have to make a decision about what we're majoring in. We have to decide who we're going to be for the rest of our lives." Then there's the twenty-somethings. I've had conversations with women, here, in New York City: "I owe a fortune [in college loans]. I've graduated [college]. I can't get a job. My life is done." I'll say, "You're only twenty-two!" And they'll say, "You have no idea what I'm dealing with. I can't get a job: I'm qualified. I don't know where to go. I've made a mistake, I've screwed my life up." Then you talk to the thirty-somethings, who are saying, "I should get this promotion. But if I go and take time to have my family, I'm not going to get this promotion." It was very humbling to realize that each age had its challenges. So I got to a place where I said, "Fifty's not so bad!"

You were one of the first major artists to collaborate with electronic dance artists and have them do remixes on your songs. What's your take on EDM? Some people who play instruments look down on it a bit.

It's all valid.

That kind of music used to be on pop culture's fringes but now it's everywhere.

When you approach it like an art form, then it's not repetitive. The key is, when you hear something, that there's a uniqueness to it. That it's not just copying. Because when you're just copying... it's just a copy. It doesn't come from a core place. [Working] With [Armin] van Helden [on the "Professional Widow" remix], that was coming from a core place because of the combination of where he came from, the song, the great George Porter Jr.'s bass line, there were a lot of things operating there, that became "Professional Widow." What is always good is when you have people in these fields who do want to be visionaries, that don't want to just copy, but want to create something unique. To do that, you have to step out of everything else you're hearing and say, "I have to add something original to this."

One of your peers who is an original as well is Trent Renzor, who sang backing vocals on "Past the Mission," and who you referenced in a few of your lyrics. What was your take on him when you first heard him?

He's a great artist and I think he's been expanding his toolbox for many years. When I see people like Trent that continue to develop, it pushes me to want to develop. Knowing the soundtrack work he's done and how great it was, it did inspire me to do my research for The Light Princess, and to make sure that the score was where it needs to be.

Years ago, there was a rumor that you and Michael Stipe recorded a song backed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Is that true and will it ever come out?

We had fun, well, I thought we had fun! Yes. I don't think it's what the movie company wanted. They thought that we were going to write a ballad, and we wrote a song that we thought was really... fun. Who owns that? I don't know, some company must own it. I'm not quite sure. It's not in my jurisdiction.

As someone who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, what was it like to record a duet with Robert Plant?

It was surreal, because he has given me some of the best advice that I've gotten in the music industry. At a time when I was finding my feet with my success... I've taken that advice with me over the years, and it's helped me to forge ahead and make certain decisions. So, playing with him that day was... I can't even find the words. I was very present in that moment, I was watching the players and hearing the voice. It felt natural. But it was magical for me, because I was eight years old when I was first listening to them.

What was the advice he gave you?

I don't think I can tell. But it was how to deal with your own career when you want it to go in a certain direction, and maybe the record label wants you to go in a different direction. He was really there for me when I was having a tough time in the '90s.

I think he has a black belt in that particular art.

He's a champion. He is a trailblazer. People like him, or like Springsteen, they show us the way up the mountain, doing it their way.

Tori Amos kicks off a North American tour in Vancouver, BC on July 16.


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