Code Red: Tori Amos Performer Spotlight

Editing and Interviews by Matt Mazur and Joe Vallese

Tori Amos’ expansive body of work over the past 20 years has covered most musical terrain. From confessional outpourings of emotion, to thunderously-programmed electronic beats, blips and whirrs, to stinging guitar-driven diatribes directed at the religious Right, Tori has become known as both an architect and an adventurer, as well as a consummate player. She has transcended the “singer-songwriter” or “girl with a piano” labels once assigned to her to become one of the most important figures in contemporary popular music.

PopMatters begins a week-long Performer Spotlight series on Amos’ career today – our first-ever with a musician – with a very special introduction to her by those who know her work best: collaborators from across this storied and prolific career.

Each of the participants below generously gave exclusive interviews to PopMatters to celebrate the occasion of the release of Tori’s newest album, Gold Dust, and throughout the week’s festivities will weigh in on her two decades of making some of the most exciting and challenging music of our time.

We’d like to extend an extra special “thank you” to Tori Amos for always being game and making time to talk with us about her life and work.

“You know, Tori lives in a minor-key world and that’s ultimately more interesting than a major-key one. It’s probably not right to call her music operatic, but it has the expansive drama of opera, and that’s one reason it can take orchestral treatment as in the Gold Dust album. For most of us life on the whole is minor key, and the yearning that is necessary for drama lives in minor keys. You know, Tori lives in a minor-key world and that’s ultimately more interesting than a major-key one. It’s probably not right to call her music operatic, but it has the expansive drama of opera, and that’s one reason it can take orchestral treatment as in the Gold Dust album.

For most of us life on the whole is minor key, and the yearning that is necessary for drama lives in minor keys. She is suspicious of what she calls “happy chords” — though she uses a wittier word for “happy” that would look misleading in print. That’s not to say Tori is humorless, or beyond sheer joy. The twists and turns of her compositions, her complex harmonies and her strange rhythms, can surprise you with their sudden curves into brightness. Our project together is more collaborative than anything she’s done for a while, perhaps ever. She loves people, and she’s a generous soul, and I think she’s relishing it.”

Samuel Adamson, co-writer of the upcoming musical The Light Princess with Tori

“Cornwall is where I am a wife and mother and where I record the music. But writing the music, tracking down the stories, being open to it, taking these pilgrimages, that happens by traveling, by upsetting the routine. You need to upset your day to day routine. I do anyway, as a wife and mother, for the composer then to have her objectivity. You have to have a ruthless objectivity if you’re going to really write anything, and you can’t walk on eggshells mentally about issues if you want the songs to sear. You compromise yourself if your composer self is being held hostage to your personal self. It has to have its sovereignty. And I disagree with some of my fellow artists who seem to keep needing to have turmoil in their relationships to create “good” art. And that isn’t true for me. I think tragedy can bring on vision and creativity, I can see that, but you don’t have to keep destroying your relationships to have something to write about!

As a producer I delegate and I rely on Mark and Marcel a lot. It’s just the three of us in that control room, having it out sometimes to the point where, when we come back in [to the house], Tash will look and say, “Can I have my parents back please? Leave it in the control room you two!” But in her British accent.”

Tori Amos , wife, mother, producer, composer, singer, player, M-I-L-F

“A lot of times, she’ll have particular ideas about the feeling of it, she won’t have particular beats or rhythms in mind, but she’ll have a feeling. “Imagine yourself you’re doing this,” or “imagine you’re on a cliff, rain beating down on your face – I want it to feel like that” (chuckles). A lot of [her music] is very cinematic.

It’s always a blast playing with her no matter what because she is such a great piano player. She’s a musician, and not just a person who plays songs she writes. Sometimes I feel like I am playing with an improvisational jazz pianist who happens to have songs. If I do something interesting, she’ll look at me, get all excited and go off on a tangent with me. A lot of songwriters want you to play on their song, and you just play a part. She’s really open; she’s open to things changing. That’s why she’s such a great artist, she’s so in the moment, it’s pretty magical. I don’t know anybody like that!

Matt Chamberlain, percussionist and collaborator since 1998

“When I was [first in Cornwall], it was Mad Cow week. There were Hazmat suits everywhere. Lots of cows, you know? There was very much a community feel – her own chef, her own people. Very nice organization. The feel was immediately, ‘oh, we’re just sitting home making some music,’ and that causes you to relax and gets you in the mood where something special can happen. And something special did.

Tori is a great artist. She has something that is very unique. She’s a trained artist to some extent, but sometimes when you work with a trained artist they can’t do the artistic side. They can’t improvise. They can’t stretch out. They can’t do anything beyond their teaching. But she manages to have both of those things and I think that makes her really special. She’s a great player. I was really impressed by her playing. I felt like I was playing with a musician I felt I belonged with. I felt right at home. But it’s her singing that takes her to a more artistic area because her singing has so many things I find attractive. “

Adrian Belew, guitarist, Strange Little Girls (2001)

“Our very fist meeting was in London at this rehearsal soundstage called The Depot. We had three weeks of rehearsal, this was back in 1998, three weeks of rehearsal before we went out on the start of the tour for the From the Choirgirl Hotel record. It was one of those classic, giant room rehearsal spaces with a million bands playing. I remember Page and Plant were rehearsing down in the basement. It was a crazy scene!

In the morning, we get together, we’re generally recording at her space in England, and she would show us the songs in the morning, and she would just play it for us on piano. We just kind of gather around the piano, and she’ll play the song, and we’ll take whatever notes we need and talk about it for an hour or so and usually she’ll dictate the lyrics and we’ll print them so we can kind of see what the song’s about and we’ll talk about it. The basics just usually all happen live, everything together, vocals, piano, bass drums, all at once. We might play it three times or as many as seven times, and that’s it. The song is done. It’s been a really inspiring, organic process where I always feel like she leaves a ton of room for us to come up with our own things. Especially since we’ve been playing with her for so long, there’s a lot of trust in there, which is important if you’re going to make a record with anybody.”

Jon Evans, bassist and collaborator since 1998

“Tori opened doors for a lot of female singer songwriters to strut their stuff and not be quite as narrowly categorized. She blew the doors off radio format to some degree. Her music was genre-defying. She blew doors open for a lot of other artists, and doors that she didn’t always necessarily walk through after that. But she did open up those doorways. There was a real emphasis placed at that time on making things that sounded unique and different and staying away from sounding like everyone else. That was her orientation for sure, being very conscious of not jumping on some other musical bandwagon.

What really set her apart then, and continues to be the defining quality that sets her apart from other artists, is her unabashed live performance passion. It doesn’t happen a lot. It’s a very specific…being carried away passionately by music. It’s very theatrical. And that sets her apart from the rest. You see other artists who walked through those doors that Tori blew open and they don’t perform like that. At best, they sound like their albums sound. At a Tori show, you definitely do not hear what you hear on the album. You’re witnessing a live reinterpretation of the song at that moment. It’s very much something the “old time pro” performers, back in the beginning eras of recorded music, the people who made it were the ones who really had it, and who were able to challenge you as a listener. Tori’s got it.“

Eric Rosse, co-producer Little Earthquakes (1992) and Under the Pink (1994)

“I had been working with Davitt Sigerson, who had produced quite a bit of Little Earthquakes, for a number of years, and basically he brought me in [to the Earthquakes recording sessions] and prepared me and said ‘I think you’re going to like her a lot. You’re going to like the way she plays.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay, sure.’ And then I met her and I was flabbergasted. It was like, holy cow. The way she performed, her chord structures, everything was just meat to me, everything was just essential.

I love working with her because one of us will say something and it’ll just explode. She constantly amazes me. She came to my studio years ago right before Strange Little Girls and part of that concept was to play vintage instruments in ways that are new, ways that were evocative. So she came by and was playing this little Hammond chord organ, which I love because it’s so simple, it’s almost like a little Fellini organ. But the thing is when she played it, she didn’t play it like an organ player plays it. And it was totally great. It was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a new way to play that instrument!’ It’s those kinds of things that punctuate our work together. You give her something and she’ll make it into a festival. It’s the nature of her creativity, that it constantly is weaving some new sound or new approach or new concept or feeling.

Artists many times will end a style or approach they do and try to find something new. Sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes it can’t. Sometimes they spend years trying to cultivate that. Because Tori is so fearless, she just does it. She thinks about it, and then she dives into it, and really does it as opposed to just dabbling or experimenting. She jumps in both feet first, and as a result, I think she succeeds at it most of the time. And she ultimately gets a massive amount of knowledge out of it, and she uses it as a basis. She’s fearless because she will utilize what she’s discovered to move to another level, to a place you can’t anticipate from what she’s done before. I’m very lucky to be able to be around her and watch her be creative, and she allows me my creative growth too. It’s rare. It happens, but at this intensity, it’s rare.”

John Phillip Shenale, composer, conductor and string arranger since the very beginning