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October 19, 2021
We've Got A File On You: Tori Amos
by Rachel Brodsky
For Tori Amos, a piano is not merely a musical instrument. It is an entity with whom one can have entire conversations. Its pronouns are "she/her." If you ask Amos about it, she'll say it was initially the piano's idea to reimagine Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" back in 1992. Nearly 30 years later, the experiment has more than paid off; the beloved singer/songwriter's spare, unshakably haunting cover has more than 15 million streams on Spotify. As the B-side to her early single "Crucify," the cover served as a powerful (and, unfortunately, divisive among Nirvana fans) thesis statement for who Amos was as a performer: prophetic and imaginative, mystical and dramatic, unafraid to address taboo topics of religion, politics, and sexuality in pop songs -- and equally unafraid to ask, "Why shouldn't this punk song be a piano ballad?'"
Mentioning how Amos "converses" with her most famous instrument is not meant to diminish her -- or the piano, for that matter. Amos is passionate and alive in person; every sentence she speaks is soaked in intention and meaning. Everything sounds extremely thought out and purposeful. It's no wonder she had such an adverse reaction to Britain's lockdown (Amos lives in Cornwall with her daughter, Tash, and husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley). At first, Amos kept busy, promoting her book, 2020's Resistance, virtually. But, in early 2021, when Britain entered its third lockdown, Amos, who admits how accustomed she is to constant travel, "entered a very blue place."
Out of "the muck," as she calls it, came Amos' 16th studio album, Ocean To Ocean, a riveting project about coping with loss and grief -- and having no choice but to stare those things down. The 11-track record is a towering, lavish experience, seamlessly combining Amos' art-pop melodies with straightforward lyricism about the omnipresent doom and dread that has come to define these last two years. ("Speaking of my grief/ Speaking with trees/ I'm almost sure/ That they are grieving with me," Amos sings on the album's lead single, "Speaking With Trees.")
In the lead-up to Ocean To Ocean's release, Amos called me from her home in Cornwall to talk about her latest work, and for a little career retrospective, looking back at her first turn as a "Cornflake Girl," performing alongside Tool's Maynard James Keenan, and what it felt like to perform "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in Ireland shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain.
A lot of Ocean To Ocean is about working through grief and grappling with Britain's many lockdowns. Other than channel those feelings into music, what are some things you did in the day-to-day this past year to cope with this kind of frustration and hopelessness?
TORI AMOS: I think the first year in 2020, when the lockdown happened in March, Mark [Hawley], Tash, and her boyfriend Oliver, he came down because, not to go into detail, but somebody in his family is immunocompromised. Meaning they have to be protected. So it was a quick decision. And, of course, we thought the lockdown would be a couple weeks... I thought. I'm not scientific. And then five months later, we had spent that time in lockdown.
During that time, though, a lot happened. We put out a book [Resistance: A Songwriter's Story Of Hope, Change, And Courage]. I was very grateful we were there because we were able to broadcast from [the studio]. So we were doing radio with audio from the studio, and we were doing visuals, like we did the Hay Festival. We did virtual book tours, visually and audio. So we were really busy trying to figure out how to do this in a new way at that time. But by the time that third lockdown hit, which was just after Christmas, say, early January 2021, the songs I had been writing, where I had been, just was not working for me anymore.
I just found myself in a very blue place. That bores me. [When I'm blue] I normally jump on a plane and then go have an adventure. You know, go explore something. Go to the desert. Just go somewhere. Be in awe. But I couldn't find it. And so I had to, I called it writing myself out of this private little hell of mine. Because when I say, "Meet in the muck," when somebody says to me, "Fake it until you make it," I'm like, "Fuck off." Sit, I will pour you some Patrón, and meet, and let's have a discussion. I'm not interested in that... not Hallmark, greeting card. I'm allergic to those cliche, new age-y concepts that don't make any sense to me.
That reminds me of how people are talking more and more about the inherent capitalism to wellness culture.
AMOS: Yeah, but what's genuine, and what's a money maker? What's the intention? Because, look, somebody trying to make me feel better, because they're trying to talk about, I don't know, [how] they're great at astrology. There are some people that I feel do what they do very well, but they're not in an unrealistic place with what we're actually dealing with. So on one hand I was trying to get myself out of that negative energy, but in order to get out of it, I had to first admit that I was in it. I didn't want to get into another one of those greeting card sayings. So I had to write from the place of despondency and grief.
You know, the music, I've never not played live this long in a long time. I mean, in my life... I guess I felt trapped. I felt like we were under house arrest, although I'm in one of the most beautiful counties in the world. So I would try and shame myself like, "You are so lucky, you are normal. At a recording studio. What is your problem?" And I just said, "My problem is, the songs I had been writing aren't taking me out of this dark place, so the muse is going to start its signal. Write some others." And I said, "Well I don't feel like it." And they said, "Well, that's right. Then write about not feeling like it. Write about being on your knees in the mud, in the muck, in your own soup."
Keeping in mind that there is no official relationship between "Cornflake Girl" and your starring role in a Cornflakes commercial... How did you even wind up appearing in a commercial for Cornflakes?
AMOS: I had been in a commercial with Raquel Welch that was, I think, a drink. It's a drink that she did, and I'm one of the girls in orange in the back. There are three of us, and I have the wild hair. And the director had told me to be really animated and active back there. So we were up on risers in the distance and she was, I think, singing a song or some... I can't remember what she was doing, but she was the star, of course, of selling this drink.
But you'll see this, I don't know, it looks like a coked-out fairy jumping around with frizzy hair in the background, and I almost got thrown off the set because she thought I was obnoxious. But I was just doing what I was being told to do. That same director directed the Just Right [commercial]. And he said, "You know what, you play the piano, come do this." So they cut off all my hair, though, because on set they didn't want this LA hair image like I had gotten, I don't know, blended up in a drink in the Rainbow Room off Sunset. So they cut my hair. They cut my hair for if I wanted to do the commercial. And, of course, it helped pay the bills, pay the rent, and keep lights on.
Looking at the music videos you made for Y Kant Tori Read, your '80s aesthetic is wildly different than how you were presented as a performer the next decade. How much of your styling was within your control when you were first starting out? Were there other cut-your-hair moments?
AMOS: Look, that was all my own horrific, tasteless work. That was what a turd of a fashion sense I had, but I was caught up in that culture which I was, I think, 10 years after Adam Ant. And I'll tell you the two words that weren't involved, that were then involved in my life once I went to London, are "Karen Binns." And you can follow Karen Binns. She's been styling me since '91. But she's a mixed-race woman from Brooklyn who moved to London, I think, in the late '80s. She was a stylist and still is.
She was quite -- what do you call it -- she was wonderfully tutorial for me. And she would just say, "Right, this is so wrong. What are you doing running the streets of London in a Patagonia? What do you think you're going to do, climb Big fucking Ben?" And I said, "But it's just what I'm wearing." She said, "Wrong. Come. Let's go." And then we would go to the flea markets or whatever. I didn't have a lot of money. But when you're with somebody with an eye, as you know, you might have a great eye, but I just didn't. All my senses were in my ears. Not my eyes. So, yes, I was filling a slot, but I could have filled it better on Y Kant Tori Read. I have to take credit for that.
When you made your late-night TV debut on Letterman in the early '90s, what was the feeling or combination of feelings you were having that moment?
AMOS: There are a couple things with this. When you don't have experience, you're learning on your feet, and you're learning on live camera. Of course, the cameras were rarely live, as we know, but they shot it as live. So if you stopped it, oh my goodness gracious. I was too terrified to stop it. But you learn quickly in rehearsals, if you see the camera, and for some reason there were times when you could see yourself in the camera, and you think, oh no, I'm not looking great. But if you stop, she stops. And that studio was a polar ice cap. It was freezing. Always. So that nobody would sweat.
Well, not only did you not sweat, but your fingers couldn't move. And so you just want to be in Mukluks and a huge coat because you're shivering. But I remember, if I could, I'd have heating pads. I don't know if they were invented the first time I did it, but I did it many, many times. And then I'd have heating pads on my lower back, when you're in a skimpy something, to try and stay warm. The last thing, that isn't a small thing, is that the audience is usually lit, and most of them are not there for you.
So, very different than when you're playing live or at a concert and you're playing these songs people have come to see you play. So there's a different energy. Therefore, when you walk out and you realize sometimes the room was not only physically cold, but emotionally cold, too. "What is this girl singing about 'Crucify'? What?" And they hadn't really had their drinks yet. So it was very challenging learning how that whole thing, not just Letterman but Leno, all those shows, how they worked, and what you had to tell yourself psychologically. How you had to play this.
And the vocal cords. It's almost like white smoke is coming out when you're singing, it's so cold. Yeah, so your cords are cold, too. So you're backstage with the ginger and the honey and the lemon. And you're just hoping that ginger kind of warms you up. It's a skillset that, I think, some people really developed. I always found it quite challenging, if I'm honest with you, the live TV thing, because, I don't know, it just didn't feel effortless.
Is it safe to assume that playing Unplugged was a more welcoming TV experience than the late-night spots?
AMOS: Well, yes, you're right that it's a completely different experience than the live TV [spots] because it has a myriad of guests. And people that have come, a lot of times, are there to see David Letterman or Jay Leno. They're there just to go to the show. And whoever they get, they get, right? Whereas, what you're talking about here with Unplugged, they're trying, I thought, to get the very best performance that they can from the artists and the musicians. They're trying to set a tone so that they're creating good television. And good television is usually, whether there's something heartfelt, there's something shocking, there's something unexpected, or it's just magic. Or all of the above.
So I don't think that they were fussed about what it was, but I think they wanted the artists to have a good experience. That's what I felt anyway. Of course, there's pressure when you're going into any of that. For me, I found that there's pressure. But pressure can be sexy. It can be. It isn't always. I'd say the late '90s are different because there's so many variables that are out of your hands, that you cannot control. Just say that night you've got buses of right-wing Christians in there. And I'm doing "Crucify." That's not necessarily going to be kismet.
When you're at Unplugged, it's more tailored for the artist. And what you have to try and get beyond is, it's very close quarters. People are all around you. And I'm talking about some pretty emotional stuff, and it can take you to a place of memories. Some not always so happy. But you try and get your audience to agree to go with you, to dive into that pool with you, so there has to be a level of trust. So before I would go out and do those things, and I still do this to this day, there's a technique that I use, where I ground myself before I walk into a room. I ground myself from the lower back of my spine deep into the earth with, it can be with whatever you want. With some people it's, I don't know, a rope. With some people it could be a metal. It could be a water fountain. It could be the strings of a guitar. And then that way I'm able to then allow the songs to come in. But you're not you anymore. I can't speak for the other performers, but I am not me when I do that. I'm not T your friend or the wife or the mom. I'm holding the space to let the songs and the muses come through. And then when it's done I have to give it back. And the problem is if you don't give it back then you can't, I can't retain that type of energy.
Have you not given it back before? How did you learn to do that?
AMOS: I had to learn how to give it back because, see, what happens is you get greedy. You want to hold onto that feeling. You don't want to let that go. That is a feeling like I've never felt in my life, when they come through like that. It's very hard to describe. It's an aphrodisiac, it's magic, it's a rush. The endorphins are unbelievable. But if you don't, then what happens is I feel like the sacredness has gone and you get into, it's like, "Tori, this is not yours to hold onto, it's theirs. You have to give it back. If you don't give it back, I think you start getting into fame whore material."
There's been an uptick in coverage around Nirvana's Nevermind, as it just celebrated its 30th anniversary. At the time that album came out, what was it about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that felt like a worthwhile song to rework?
AMOS: When I saw [the music video], I was doing something in Sweden. I think it was MTV. I remember just staring at the television, listening to this song. And after it was finished, I turned it off because I just couldn't take anything else. I just needed to understand what that moment was because it was kind of earth-shattering. I think for most people when they heard it for the first time, I hadn't heard anything like that. There was an energy to this song. While I was sitting there in the silence, the piano kind of just showed herself to me. There wasn't a physical piano, but sort of the spirits of the piano. And she said to me, "Listen, this song is so powerful and so strong that it can hold a different read. You really need to partner with me and trust me on this." And I thought, I don't know about that, because this version is the thing that's blowing me away. And she said, "You have to trust me on this. The song is that strong. It can hold a different read on this. Go into the vulnerability of it." And that was sort of the key for me to go into the vulnerability.
Then, a couple of years later in 1994, when I was in Berlin on tour, and we all heard the news that Kurt had died, I think I can't remember another feeling except the day John Lennon died. And so by the time I got to Ireland, I didn't know if I was going to play the song or not. The Irish said, "You have to play it because we need to grieve. Please, you have to play it." So I paired [Don McLean's] "American Pie" and then played "Teen Spirit." And within a few seconds, once I started "Teen Spirit," I started to hear this crooning. And there were thousands of Irish people singing "Teen Spirit," the version that I did, in perfect pitch. I'm sure you've heard of the Irish, "the keening," when they grieve. I haven't felt anything like that before [or] since with an audience.
So to have been a part of that song, never having met [Kurt Cobain] myself, but to have some connection with it and be able to share that as people were grieving, it was something that I'll never forget. And I wish you could hear it. I wish I had a recording of it because it just sends shivers down my spine.
Speaking of MTV, I saw that one of the promotional spots you did in the '90s was appear on Loveline. Was that incredibly strange for you, doing promo where you're listening to people call in with their sexual issues? Like, one guy called to tell Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew about how he ripped his penis piercing...
AMOS: Well, I'll tell you, I had blocked that one out of my memory.
AMOS: Yeah. I guess we did a lot of different spots like that. Things like that. Was this the '90s?
Oh yes. 1996.
AMOS: Yeah, I think there was so much going on then, before the internet was really what it is, that these types of shows that you might not see today were happening. I don't know if this show is still going. But you would just go where you were told to go. That's just what you did when you were promoting a record. The album label would say, "We have this press for you to fulfill, you've got this." And you just go. So I wasn't always aware because it's happening so fast. There's so much happening in a day [and it] would be back-to-back, from morning until early evening, even sometimes later evening depending on your scheduled day. And you would just do these things without questioning. And sometimes I think what you ran across, I must have been surprised.
You look surprised.
AMOS: Yeah, I guess I was. I hope the guy was okay.
While we're still on the subject of MTV, do you have any memory at all of getting Punk'd in the early 2000s?
AMOS: No, I haven't seen the show, to be honest, I haven't seen it. So I didn't know the format, and I didn't know the young man [who punk'd me]. But after it happened I was quite relieved when I realized it was kind of a setup. To get a gotcha moment. So I was quite relieved that I had my nice fairy hat on and not my wicked fairy hat on.
You were very kind about it. This 12-year-old kid keeps asking you red carpet questions about 90210, acting like he thinks you're Tori Spelling. And instead of being like, "Well, I never," you were so gracious about it. Like, "No, sweetie. That's the actress Tori Spelling. I make records."
AMOS: Tash was two at the time, so I don't know if my motherly instincts were just at a higher volume than they might have been pre-that. If you had caught me in Boys For Pele times, God knows I might've, I don't know, taken out my lighter and just... set... I don't know.
Around that same time, you popped up for a cameo in Mona Lisa Smile. That moment seems like a standout in your list of "extracurriculars," as I haven't seen you appear in very many moments like it before or since. What was it about this movie that made you say yes? Did you know Julia Roberts personally?
AMOS: Well, [Julia Roberts and I] had a mutual friend in Kevyn Aucoin. Kevyn, bless his past now, he was the great makeup artist. You can Google him, and you'll find a lot of his work. He was probably the most known makeup artist of that time. And he was really a superstar, himself. So he would be going on Oprah. He'd have his books, and he would photograph different actors and different musicians in different settings, and put them in his book. So I had met [Roberts] through him. He had taken me to some things several years before, it was a small dinner party or something somewhere in New York. I can't remember the details. And she very lovely. So the call came that she wanted me to do this. It came through the proper channels, as it were.
The producer [Trevor Horn] was a famous producer, and I had worked with him before in the early '90s on something. I think it was Toys. He did records like "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" and Yes. I think he did "Kiss From A Rose" by Seal. Anyway, he was going to be producing and I hadn't worked with him in a long time. And it was Thanksgiving Day, I believe, in Chicago. That was the day we had to record ["You Belong To Me"].
I was touring, doing, I don't know, six shows a week. Mark and I went in there. And so the session went really well. And then we were all flown in to do the scene on set. That was really the experience. I remember Julia being gracious and lovely. And I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the experience. Of course, Trevor was there with a band, and that was all pretty fun and fascinating for me. Love a band. Love a big band.
I'm not sure most fans would expect the lead singer of Tool and Tori Amos to sing a duet together. How did you guys end up forging a connection?
AMOS: He's quite an energy. And I'd seen his performances. Don't ask me how, I didn't go live, but I had seen them documented. And so I understood the power of performer, the type of performer he was, and how he can transform an arena. And somehow we got put together. I can't remember all of the details, but we did. And we shared a love. I got him a really nice bottle of wine. And he hadn't been so much into wine. But I got him a really nice bottle of wine, and he became, you know, he has a vineyard now. So he's really taken it to a whole 'nother level.
I mean, when you give somebody a bottle of wine, you don't think, "I'm going to be drinking wine that they made from their vineyards in the years and years to come." But sharing a piano seat with him, and having that moment. I think we did a song called "Muhammad My Friend." And when you're in the presence of somebody who's really good at what they do, it's like you believe in magic. You know that magic really exists, and what magic is, is not deceptive. It's not trying to trick the eye, it's not trying to... you know what I mean. To hide where the marble is under the coconut.
It's not that. It's really about somebody who, like him, can walk in a room and just get behind a microphone and all of a sudden, you think, wow... I just stepped into a different frequency of energy here. Then you just want to jump with him, and so you step in with him. And when that happens it is kismet. I can't explain to you why. It's not necessarily anything. It's very hard to describe because it's not always that there's a chemistry that's anything more than respect. With two artists coming together.
Ocean To Ocean is out 10/29 on Decca.
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