Spoilers: I am an unapologetic Tori Amos fan.
I am convinced that Tori Amos is a character actress masquerading as a recording artist, specifically a sonic character actress. Since her departure from Atlantic Records, where she put out the most frank, personal collection of any of her female contemporaries, Amos has been proffering a new one-woman style of storytelling through characters, personae, and archetypes. She has played every role in these productions: from mother, wife and troubadour to entrepreneur and vixen. She’s even taken on Demeter and Mary Magdalene.
While she has become many different women in her career, Amos has remained a singular voice in the music world, despite the obstacles. Think of her as the intellectual set’s Madonna: constantly reinventing her image, her sound and her mise en scene. Like Madonna, she is routinely criticized and dismissed by the (largely male) music press, as many powerful women over 40 in the entertainment industries seem to be. Nevertheless, she is constantly challenging expectation and documenting her progress and process with a marksman’s precision.
Amos’ enterprise is an extraordinary machine. Each new project brings a rigorous new set of restraints and challenges, and the patented “Amos formula” has yet again been re-worked with her newest venture, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. With her first independent record (distributed by Universal), Amos pushes the role of “sonic character actress” even further, with a unique, noirish visual component. Dubbed “visualettes” by Amos, there are 16 moody shorts shot by a director named Christian Lamb –keeping perfectly in sync with Amos’ career-long exploration of religious iconography.
In the first short, for the disc opener “Give” (with its eerie chant of “some who give blood/I give love”), who should show up other than American Doll Posse’s alcoholic Aphrodite, Santa? She’s reckless, dirty martini in hand, sinking in a dark sea of shimmering synthesizers and vodka. Amos, in turn, administers a full dose of left-handed hellfire over looped, sex-drenched stomps and haunted house keyboards.
On the CD cover, it’s classic glam-Tori: holding an Eyes Wide Shut-esque mask in a room that evokes the satin surfaces of Max Ophuls, styled like a smoky-eyed starlet from the ‘40s, and in a crystalline sheath and Cleopatra necklace, Amos is ready for the ball, and also for the battle. “Strong Black Vine” is Amos’ own particularly alchemic blending of feminine sensuality and blustery cock rock that mixes elements from classics such as her own “God” with the smuttiest bits of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and maybe a scrap of Ken Russell’s The Devils thrown in for good measure. It is aggressive, it is epic, and it is more than a little dirty.
I have listened to Tori’s records in many places, but this particular album was unveiled to me, inexplicably, two months before its release, in a publicists’ office in Manhattan. It certainly beats listening in a record store parking lot at midnight, as I did for From the Choirgirl Hotel, more than ten years ago. It’s been a long time since that record, and as sacred as it has become for devotees of the songstress, the new disc is a step back into this mold – structurally adventurous, sonically immaculate, and often jumping into very dangerous terrain without a net. As on Choirgirl, there are breathtaking breaks, thrill-ride bridges, and stunning vocal deliveries that provide Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s strong backbone.
Before the fan crowd whips out their flaming torches, it must be said that songs like “Fast Horse” and “Starling” refract Choirgirl’s world-weary melancholia in a way that references Amos’ past; but also, much like any working auteur, she uses these previous sonic landscapes as a launching pad for fresh ideas. Jane Campion’s films are all quite different from one another: The Piano and In the Cut couldn’t be any further apart in terms of style and mechanics. Yet, there is an unmistakable signature that identifies their maker, the woman who bore them. Amos’ masterful debut, Little Earthquakes, has little in common, sonically, with Abnormally Attracted to Sin, yet both are signature “Tori”.
A menacing new energy haunts the new record, but you also hear a nostalgic bit of bubbly electronica from To Venus and Back here and a sweet, folkloric smattering of Scarlet’s Walk there. Sometimes both appear simultaneously, as on the dynamic single “Welcome to England”. The title track, a quintessentially-Amos jaw-dropper, references the textures pulsing steadily on the title track of The Beekeeper, with its various loops and blips and free-floating space jazz. “Honestly, we had quite a hard time doing it, because there are so many different styles,” said an ebullient Amos. “The electronic side, then the big strings, it was like going to many different shows at fashion week.”
Closing with the elegant David Lynch-at-the-Black-Lodge dirge of “Lady in Blue”, Amos delivers an atmospheric ode to staying up late, choosing the wrong man, and smoking. “Lady in Blue” is the story of a woman, who runs into a man who she still has feelings for, and he for her,” said Amos. “But she made other choices, and when he says ‘you left the right man/ pillow cold/ but she won’t stray into other lands’, he’s with another woman, he’s with somebody else. He has a family. At that time in her life, she was just not at a place where she could settle down and so, in the end, she has her music and she recognizes that that is the resolve. He is not going to run off with her, but he still loves her. I felt that was important to the song, that it doesn’t give you that Disney ending, because life, a lot of times, isn’t like that.” The breakdown at the end of the song gets particularly gnarly in an homage to the electric arena rock of the singer’s last record, the underrated American Doll Posse, and it is one of Amos’ finest, grandest album finales, epic in design.
The towering assembly of the album as a whole rivals the best of any current U2, Coldplay, or REM record. Like the big boys, Amos has consistently made the Billboard Top Ten each time out of the gate, yet there is very little acknowledgement of the fact she has been on board as producer since the beginning, alongside her team of sonic engineers Marcel Van Limbeek and Mark Hawley (also Amos’ husband and guitarist). Is there still a place in the oft-pretentious world of modern rock ‘n’ roll for a woman over 40, married with a child, living outside of the conventional systems, who isn’t afraid to give up the sadness, the shoes or the sex?
What a Good Wig Can Do: The Interview with Amos
With every new record, there are the proverbial, derisive critics who decree she is “over” or that her records are over-long, and there are old fans, expecting Boys for Pele II, burning their fan cards and cursing her name for not giving them another harpsichord record. None of this has gotten her down yet, or stopped her from experimenting. To my mind, this is the artist’s ultimate function: to provoke an emotional, intellectual response and, in Amos’ case, to challenge listeners’ conceptions of what the “Tori Amos” sound is. The singer-songwriter dabbles into a bold new aural palette and comes up with another winning, sure-to-be-controversial work.
Amos chatted with me on the eve of the release of her tenth album to talk about collaborating with rock Gods and Goddesses, how bootlegs could potentially cause divorce, and why a gal sometimes just needs a good wig to add an extra element of surprise to both her marriage and her live show.
I’d like to jump right in and talk about your voice – an aspect I think critics often overlook when discussing your music. On Abnormally Attracted to Sin, there are so many amazing “vocal” moments, and I am thinking of the end of “500 Miles” in particular. How has your singing voice changed over the years?
I think that performing live, a lot, has changed my voice. Sometimes listening back to how you’re using your voice, with the bootlegs and things like that, can make you aware of ‘well, when I do this, and it feels like this, it sounds like that’. And so, over the years, it has changed, getting older, in a certain way. Maybe touring so much, I think the instrument; I work with it a lot. I think maybe if I didn’t tour so much, the instrument wouldn’t be growing and changing. You know how if some people don’t tour, they don’t use their instrument a lot? If you use it a lot, then you get to develop, it gets strong, and you begin to know how to handle it better.
Let’s talk about marijuana. On the record, there is “Mary Jane”, of course, and on “Fast Horse” you talk about wanting to find “the man who can smoke this out”. Then there is the sonic juiciness of the record. Is Abnormally Attracted to Sin the Tori Amos pot record?
(laughing) It’s something. It’s definitely a hallucinogenic something. I do. Maybe its also because the times in the last year and a half have been, from my perspective, just traveling around, and seeing the world, I travel a lot, and what I’ve seen in the last year and a half is a lot of people not feeling so abundant and, generally, like they’re on an ecstasy trip. So, I felt that the record could take people to places that might be dark in some places, but also could get you to these other dimensions. That was a very abstract answer, I’m sorry!
I’ve seen you live since (pretty much) the beginning and I am always amazed at how technology has advanced since, say, The Dew Drop Inn Tour, where you hoped to sneak a crappy camera in to a venue to get a blurry shot and you loved it, but now seemingly the next day, your entire concert is on YouTube. How do you feel when you look out and see a bunch of phones in the air at a show instead of lighters?
Well, as long as someone isn’t having a phone conversation during “Winter” (laughing). I understand that things progress and technology has changed. On one level, I am not somebody who is great with gadgets. On another level, I am married to somebody who is obsessed with gadgets, what they do, and as a sound engineer better know what they do.
That’s this kind of polar opposite world that I live in. I try and create a concert that’s somewhat different every night and I wanted to do the bootlegs [Legs and Boots, 2008]. The effort that it took from the crew was just…beyond. I don’t think Mark slept on that tour. I barely saw him sometimes. He would just be uploading stuff at four or five in the morning from hotels in the city and then getting to the next gig and the crew was all very supportive of that. My bus would roll ahead and I would sleep.
The effort to do that in that way was a huge commitment, but I think everybody on our side really wanted to achieve that. I don’t know if we’ll be doing it again this time…
Because you want to actually see your husband?
(laughing) I don’t want to get a divorce!
I wanted to talk about the magic moments, I’m thinking of the “Bliss” video at the mirror, on Welcome to Sunny Florida, where you are observed by the camera and the audience, snapping into “character” before going out on stage. Can you talk about this time? What are you thinking of right before you walk on stage?
Before I take the stage, I try and really put aside what is happening to me in my day, in my personal life, otherwise my show gets tainted with details that the songs really don’t want to be tainted by. Its one thing that you use emotions in your life to have the energy to sing certain songs, but it’s another thing if you are absorbed by events that are going on that are distracting and so I kind of go into this ‘letting-the-day-go’ process. Getting my personality sort of out of the way, so that I can be the right container to hold the songs, and to really ground myself, I ground myself firmly wherever I am.
And that’s a process, there’s a real psychological process you go through so that you don’t get thrown off-center or distracted by even your own thoughts. It’s about self-discipline because in order to do a show, night after night for people, you really have to think ‘ok, I have to put aside the ‘Tori’ of it all, and be an artist.
Everything will be there, waiting for me to deal with when I get offstage. The funny thing is, is that by the time I get offstage, I usually see it all differently, you see, because a transformation can happen through creativity. Perceptions can change.
You’ve always had characters in your writing, I always appreciate the detail you bring to character to the table. There is more to it than just the ‘traditional singer-songwriter’. You’re like a sonic character actress.
I think Judy Garland was that way, as well. They might not be singer-songwriters, but there are a lot of song women. I know people say they’re actress, but there is a level where, as you’re saying, they may be holding facets of themselves.
David Bowie is somebody who has been always able to do that. There are quite a few performers who can do that, where it’s not just like (laughing) ‘OK, I’m going to play my tunes for you tonight’. To me the songs are independent of me as well, so I try and let my body become a canvas so that the songs can then sort of mold and shape and take over me, in order to deliver their frequency.
You bring up Bowie, but I was actually going to bring up another rock legend: David Byrne. What was it like working with him recently?
I really enjoyed working with him. There are people, I think, they’re legends, yet they’ve been able to develop as human beings, as well, and you can sit and have dinner with them. I think he’s a fascinating guy and really laid back, and fun to hang out with. I enjoyed hanging out with him, he came down to the studio, down to Martian [Engineering – Tori and Mark’s recording compound], and we did this thing and had some dinner, had some good wine, and it was just a great experience for me.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that dinner! I really liked this quote from you, which is from the American Doll Posse era:
“I am the same age as Johnny Depp. At my age, in this business I am beyond the perception border, whilst Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt are becoming admirable and sexy just now.”
I really like that you address this openly. It seems there is a general reticence to talk about age in relation to women, especially in the entertainment industry. This quote from you made me wonder what kind of ageism a woman in power faces in today’s society?
If you look at women that are that age, mid-40s, if they’re dating younger men, even slightly, then they’re cougars. Which, I understand the sound bite, I get it, ok? I understand the Bravo channel concept.
But men the same age have a different chess game that they get to play in the industry, where it’s not looked upon as anything strange. In a way, they’re ageless, if you follow me. They can be fathers or objects of desire in their mid-40s without it becoming some kind of ‘oh, you’re old’.
The whole kind of ‘cougar’ definition means you’re prowling and, again, I’m just saying to you, that you don’t think of these men and their early- to mid-40s, or it [being] odd that young women are attracted to them, or young men are attracted to them, because they’re ageless. Whereas, once you hit your late-30s, early 40s, in the movie business and the music business, then I do think that you’re talking about the characters, the roles, that unless a story is written for you, if you are the ‘significant other’ of the guy, a lot of these women, the objects of desire, are not necessarily the same age as these men.
They might be women that are powerful or threatening but they might not be the love interest in the bedroom, you see what I mean? And this is something that women have to define for themselves, how they see themselves. Wisdom is a sexy thing.
One woman, who I would say is one of your few contemporaries, who I would say is “ageless” is PJ Harvey. She released White Chalk around the same time as American Doll Posse. Now Abnormally Attracted to Sin is being released in close proximity to PJ & John Parish’s A Man a Woman Walked By. What would a Tori Amos-PJ Harvey record sound like?
Well, we’d have to stop laughing and drinking in order to do it. We’ve run across each other many times over the years, we share the same agent. I haven’t seen her recently.
You become a mom, you get involved in your life, and she’s involved in her life, and you keep missing each other, from town to town and city to city but there’s always been goodwill on both sides on both sides of that fence.
I think that because we’ve both been creating for a long time and do very different kind of work. There’s always been a feeling of ‘wow, that’s another bird flying in the distance, doing beautifully.’
One last question and I will let you off the hook. We talked about “characters” and playing “characters”, and you’ve experimented with the physical manifestation of that on your last tour, and now the Posse has shown up on the visualette side of Abnormally Attracted to Sin. I was just wondering, how many wigs do you travel with and where they all go at the end of the day?
Tori Amos: (laughing) My husband wants to know that as well! I think he liked those women a lot! Will they be breezing through? That isn’t the plan right now, you never know who’s going to show up in Ohio, as they say.
These performances will all be with red hair. I think Sinful Attraction, which is the name of the tour, will definitely be having redheads, for the most part. You just never know who might show up in the encore, you know?
The Sinful Attraction Tour kicks off in Seattle, Washington on 10 July. L’Amos will kick out the jams with stalwarts Matt Chamberlain (on percussion) and Jon Evans (on bass), as the trio takes the show from the States, to Europe and finally to Russia for the first time, ever. Abnormally Attracted to Sin is currently available for purchase in stores and digitally.