One of the best pieces of advice I ever got out of my incredibly over-priced Ivy League education, which I apply practically in my everyday life, came from Professor Jane Gaines at Columbia University. In one of her infamous lectures on the modes and sub-modes of documentary film, she told us all that if we couldn’t find the right word for what we were trying to express in our writing, then we should just make one up that suits our purposes. This is a writing principle I believe Tori Amos also surely lives by. Flexibility with language is something that every writer should be open to; there should be no rules when it comes to words. Each writer is their own myth-maker, a storyteller refracting their experiences through various lenses and languages. The best of them, as Tori said in Piece by Piece “are the ones that whisper our own stories back to us”, ostensibly in their own language created just for the listener.
“I think she’s a fascinating storyteller,” said Matt Chamberlain in an exclusive interview with PopMatters. “There were certain songs that we were recording where I didn’t really know what she was singing about, but when she would explain it to me, I’d just go “WOW! How did you think of that?!” Tori has created a language all her own, a musical language, a vocal language and a written mythology deep and nuanced and brimming with feeling, unmistakably her own. It is unthinkable that her lyrics were once (stupidly) dismissed by Rolling Stone as being “impenetrable”, while at the same time millions of record-buyers were snatching up Boys for Pele from store shelves. More than a few people found Tori’s music and stories relatable and accessible, and this is one of her most interesting gifts to her audience: the ability to interpret her own lyrics and create a safe space that the listener can see both themselves and Tori in. It’s a daring intimacy few artists achieve. It is a complex mythology she shares with those willing to try something different, a world she has created with language and music that is unquestionably her own. “Mythology still something that holds a lot of value and inspiration [for me], as much as ever,” said Tori recently when she spoke with us for this series. “A lot of other people seem to be working with it too, all kinds of writers, novelists, poets, it’s where they get their ideas from. Mythology is really the bones of storytelling. It’s the bones of everything. I read as much as I can. And I revisit. It’s about revisiting these stories because when there are additions or retellings, I’ m so fascinated to see how [other writers] are choosing to re-tell it. Like, A.S. Byatt, I just recently read her Ragnarok and it made think I needed to go back and re-read those Icelandic myths again.”
It is almost impossible to believe that her stories all began 20 years ago with Little Earthquakes, Amos’ breakthrough album as a solo artist, released 20 years ago this year. Tori once said, and I am paraphrasing, that you can write your diary once and then after you need to learn how to be a storyteller. This is solid advice that I have followed in my own writing career that has served me more than well. It is fitting then that Tori’s “diary” record does the exact same thing as her newest record Gold Dust does: it can transport a listener back to when they first heard this landmark album, it can highlight the changes that have taken place in the last 20 years. It’s about the emotion behind the voice, behind the words; about the delivery of the message, not necessarily about the messenger or the words themselves; it’s the way she uses language to evoke the raw senses that can take the listener back in time. Smell the sage burning along the Trail of Tears on Scarlet’s Walk, while tasting heaven perfectly on “A Sorta Fairytale”. Hear the glacially crisp piano lines and sorrowful high notes of a song like “Cooling” (with the Delphian lyric “this is cooling, faster than I can”). Feel the deathly chill of a Russian winter on Under the Pink’s “Yes, Anastasia”, and then compare it to the regality and warmth found in the dripping strings of Amos’ 2012 Gold Dust re-invention.
Though Amos covers extensive ground throughout her catalog, each song’s “bones” has the imprint of her DNA. “I love writing with Tori because she makes me laugh and think, and because her music sounds like hers and no one else’s,” said Samuel Adamson, co-writer of Tori’s upcoming stage musical The Light Princess. When examining her lyric writing prowess, you will see that her topics can range from the supremely enigmatic (“furry muscles marching on / She thinks she’s Kaiser Wilhelm / Or a civilized syllabub” from Boys for Pele’s “Mr. Zebra”), to pragmatic (“girls you’ve got to know when it’s time to turn the page/when you’re only wet/because of the rain”, from from the choirgirl hotel’s “Northern Lad”) to confrontationally forthright (“you don’t need my voice / girl you have your own”, from “Under the Pink’s “Bells For Her”); which is where her singing style becomes an interpreter of sorts. To say that Amos’ lyrics sometimes maybe don’t make sense on paper isn’t meant as an insult, but it speaks to the fact that her vocal interpretations of these lyrics, the way she endows each syllable with palpable emotion, is precisely what makes her such a master storyteller. It doesn’t always have to be about how the words are arranged or assembled. They don’t have to rhyme, and they don’t even have to make sense. Simply put, how the words are delivered has become one of the most important aspects of Tori’s music.
From a writer’s perspective, it is the element of the unexpected in these stories, not knowing what twist or turn is coming next, that keeps me coming back for more, that keeps me excited about Tori Amos, the storyteller. In my own work, it is about trying to figure out new ways to navigate and articulate my own emotions and telling stories without making them about myself overtly, by hiding myself and my feelings in the words and phrases I use to describe what I am writing about; in a sense finding the emotional core of what I want to say and creatively expressing it. In doing this I have found my own voice as a writer and even as a person by watching and listening to Tori’s singular voice, a voice which always remains true to her personal vision despite criticisms. This was an invaluable lesson to me, as was witnessing her utter dedication to deadlines and timeframes. Amos’ iron-clad work ethic and discipline as a writer is simply inspiring. Studying her lyrical style and the storylines that she has constructed within her musical frameworks has shown me that you can be yourself, but also take on the personae of others within your writing, that your “voice” could lend “voice” to a world of characters that live within you. “She’s a person—and you can tell this in her music—who knows what she wants,” said Strange Little Girls guitarist Adrian Belew when PopMatters spoke with him in September. “She’s in charge. And yet she has a very vulnerable side to what she does. It comes through in her voices. And I say voices plural because her voice changes a lot. She never uses only one voice. And I think that really sets her apart too.”
Tori Amos has not only a thematic unity as a writer, tying threads through her body of work like fine needlepoint: heartbreak, blood, horses, maternity, winter, murder, insanity, love, Russia, bees, honey, glass, Jungian shadow selves; all dot the landscape of her body of work. These “voices” Belew describes are often shown through characters that make recurring appearances too: Neil, Marianne, Violet, Judy Garland, the American Doll Posse, holy men, the devil, and even from time to time “Tori” as both herself and as a meta-character. “She has different perspectives as a storyteller, it’s not just her singing about her personal experience, it could be a character in a lyric that she’s singing or a story she’s singing about in character, a scene,” said Chamberlain. “There’s a song about Napoleon, “Josephine” [from Tori’s effervescent 1999 album To Venus and Back], and when you listen to the lyrics, they’re from the perspective of his wife. It’s just so fascinating to me because I’m not a songwriter, as far as lyrics go, so getting in her head while we were recording, just to try to find out what it is that she she’s going for, as far as how she wants to frame it rhythmically… It’s fascinating to ask her what the song is about and how it should be presented.”
Hidden amongst “Josephine”’s “1,200 hundred spires” and empty Tuileries, is the lyric “in an army’s strength therein lies the denouement” , which references the historical, the metaphorical, and the poetically obtuse. Though the meaning of this lyric is wholly enigmatic, the sound of it is completely musical., much like the famous phonaesthetically harmonious phrase “cellar door”. J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of such classics as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, said in his 1955 essay “English and Welsh”. “Most English-speaking people… will admit that ‘cellar door’ is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.” This can be applied not only to that specific lyric from Tori, but in fact, to most of her lyrics across her canon, the words that actually shape her stories, much like “cellar door” shaped Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, where “nevermore” was a substitute for “cellar door”. “In an army’s strength, therein lies the denouement” shares this duality, the possibility of having a literal meaning, and no meaning whatsoever other than just sounding beautiful. Satirist and critic H. L. Mencken wrote in a 1920 magazine column that “poetry, in fact, is two quite distinct things. It may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single word ‘cellar-door’ is musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.” And this is what Amos as a writer and lyricist, has accomplished in her career: a fearless polarity of words, a conjugation of her soul into characters that is, simply put, her own language, open to infinite translations and to the impact of it’s potentially limitless meanings. This is a practical lesson that can be learned by spending tens of thousands of dollars on a tony university education or $.99 at the iTunes store. You decide.