The Lioness and the Wildebeests: Tori Amos on Going Independent

“I’m not a part of this business. I was playing music before people were peeing their beds,” Tori Amos told journalist Brad Balfour in 1993. Unfortunately, the music business didn’t seem to know that, and Amos never found a comfortable home within the conventional record label structure. After an acrimonious split with Atlantic Records in 2001, Amos signed on with Epic Records. Epic seemed an ideal match at the time because of then-president Polly Anthony’s commitment to keeping Amos happy, providing extensive promotion for Amos’ 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk and a high-budget music video featuring Adrian Brody for Amos’ single “A Sorta Fairytale”.

Unfortunately, things at Epic soured quickly. In 2003, Anthony was ousted as president, and Amos soon found herself working in a context just as hostile as the one she thought she had escaped. Fortunately, Amos’s creative genius had already extended itself to the business side of her work. Whether or not Amos felt she was a part of the music business, she was good at it. Beginning with 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel, Amos began recording at a home studio she built with her husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley. In 2003, Amos and her longtime creative team developed their own management group — The Bridge Entertainment Group — while Amos fulfilled her contract and released her next two albums, The Beekeeper (2005) and American Doll Posse (2007), on Epic; but the label was hardly her only means of distribution.

Through her website, Amos released a series of high-quality concert recordings called “The Original Bootlegs” in 2005. Though those recordings had little promotion, they sold well; well enough to motivate the release of many official recordings from her 2007 tour. Those recordings, known as the “Legs and Boots” series, were available for download just hours after each concert’s finish. In between those releases, Amos joined forces with Rhino Records to release a DVD compilation of all her videos and the Piano box set featuring remastered songs, unreleased material, and demos of several songs.

Yet, Amos realized that as long as she was under a record company’s contract, she still lacked ultimate control as to how her major works were presented. The only answer was to leave the label — a process that required a lot of ingenuity, some slyness, and perfect timing.

Now that she is finally free, Amos seems busier than ever. Though her last world tour just finished in December 2007, Amos has been writing a new album in addition to a musical called “The Light Princess,” and she just finished helping orchestrate the creation of Comic Book Tattoo, a book of comic artists’ interpretations of her work. Here she discusses the long road to freedom, what it’s like to give her songs “parallel worlds” in art, and why wildebeests can come in very handy.

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You’ve just announced that you’ve gone independent, so congratulations!

Well, thank you very much. It’s been a long time coming. A long, long time.

How does it feel?

Well, you begin to realize that you can’t blame a corporation now for the mistakes. You have to cover all areas of putting a work out into the world. It’s not just dealing with it from a creative side, but then taking the work out into the world and investigating all the possibilities that this can be done. So I think right now is a moment where we’re sitting down, those of us on the team, and looking at all the many different ways that you can put your creations out there and who you can partner with and that can mean many different partners for many different projects. So, yeah, it’s an exciting time.

It’s also a lot of work, it sounds like. How much control would you say that the record company had been having over your career and your music?

They don’t have any control over the music. But they have control over how it’s presented. Meaning, how things are promoted and marketed, not the look of a campaign. They have nothing to do with the creativity. It’s very complicated how deals get made, and you begin to understand that once you really step out of the artist side of the pie and you walk into the distribution side. So, you have to be willing to take on board a world that negotiates in secrecy a lot of the time unless you’re in the industry and know what goes on, [and] I was willing to take that on. But I’ve been in the music business a long, long time. Not everybody’s willing to take that on.

I have a really good team as well. I’ve been developing a team of people for over 22 years now. And some people have fallen by the wayside and others that we’ve worked with, maybe years ago, and now that I’m independent, you have your pick of the best of the best. And that is one reason that I really wanted to go independent because you’re not locked into the constraints of what a label is. There are so many financial issues that come up with the label: they make decisions based on their pocket, not what’s best for the specific work. And they also make deals based on their roster, and, politically, what will help this other artist that they’re expecting to sell x from. So, sometimes, certain artists are used to help other artists, and you have to be aware of what that means. And it can be done in a very negative way. It can have very negative effects. I know that probably what I’m saying to you sounds really abstract and, in some ways, it’s going to be. Until you walk through that door, and you understand how the deals are made, then it’s almost not a reality until you see the machinations at work.

I find myself thinking about how you have such a devoted fan base that you’ve worked really hard to maintain. Do you think you still would have made the same decision if you didn’t know that you had this huge fan base that would promote you by word of mouth and support you?

I’d be in a very different position if I didn’t have a group of people that were interconnected and that have been there consistently over the years so we knew that we could count on them. It makes you a very different force to be reckoned with if you have this than if you don’t. So I had faith that if I left the old structure with a team of people that, again, I’ve been, let’s say, cultivating, for many years now, I figured that as a think tank, we could figure out the best way for each specific project, how to take it out into the world and get it out there; and that means that you’re not locked in to partnering with one construct.

So that side of it is really challenging, and that side of it means [that] you get to explore. You get to sit down and speak to people. Once the news hit that I’d left, the phone rang off the hook! And that’s what you hope will happen, but you can never be sure that will happen. I had to make this decision for creative reasons and when I say creative reasons, that encompasses a lot of things. It meant that I did not want to turn another work into Epic/Sony and I knew that at a certain point, and once I knew that, then I had to mobilize and make sure that I was able to have the upper hand and negotiate my way out. But when you’re trying to negotiate yourself out of a situation, you really have to hope that the universe is on your side, that certain things fall into place, or you don’t walk away with what you want to walk away with, meaning, rights to your own music. And in order to do that, you better have some clever people on your team — and I do have clever people on my team.

I found myself wondering too [about] how you have this huge back catalog of songs that you’ve recorded that didn’t make it onto albums for one reason or another that maybe you didn’t want Epic Records to own. Do you see this as being a way to release some of those songs in their own context?

Well, that is a thought that is a good thought. I haven’t thought of it recently, but at the time I think I thought about it. You have to be really intelligent here, Erin — not that you’re not — but you see, the way that it works is quite nasty. Anything that you record under a budget theoretically could be argued that it could be theirs. Therefore, anything that wasn’t on the records was never, obviously, recorded under their budget. Do you see what I’m saying? So therefore, no songs were ever recorded for records that aren’t on the records. They might have been recorded at Martian Studios for my experimental purposes when I was not under budget. Do you follow me?

Yes. That is very clever.

And that’s the only way that you can do what you’re suggesting. But I also think another side to this is you want to be able to re-record songs within a period, a time-frame, soon after you’ve left a label, or you can’t do bootlegs anymore on a tour. See, there are recording restrictions that come along with leaving a label that can last up to five years. So we were able to navigate around that, again, because we have a clever team, and again, I would say to you, you have to read between the lines. Things just fell into place and the universe was on our side.

Sometimes things like this can happen because there are other things that are happening, explosive things that take people’s attention away from, maybe, the lioness sneaking off in the night with the cubs over the Serengeti and the hunters got involved with a stampede of wildebeests, and so you think, this lioness, now is the time to take the cubs, we have to go into the wide open, we have to, and we have to trust that maybe there will be some British tourists that distract the American hunters, I don’t know. And they talk about the war, you know, World War II, and you have to hope that the good old boys will be so involved with this and shooting the wildebeests that we can cross, and in plain daylight. And so that’s essentially what happened.

Can I ask you about one of my personal favorite abandoned projects of yours–the experimental-recorded-at-Martian-Studios-songs that might have been on the vampire album? Do you see yourself revisiting those?

Oh, what are they called? Do you know what they’re called? Were there names?

No, I was just remembering in Piece by Piece [Tori’s autobiography] how you talk about how you were going to travel to Eastern Europe and study Vlad the Impaler and dealing with the idea of loss and invasion.

Oh, yes. Now it’s all coming back to me. Well, that idea slips into things from time to time. I think as a conceptual work it got abandoned because I had so many miscarriages that husband said, “Wife, you’ve bled enough. There’s enough blood around here, you know, for years. You don’t need to go visit Vlad the Impaler’s story.” And I thought that, in a strange way, life took over my path and the need to explore that shifted because of the miscarriage experiences.

Fortunately, you’re exploring other things, visually as well as sonically. I want to ask about Comic Book Tattoo, which is different artists interpreting your work visually, including a lot of women artists in there, which I find wonderful. I was wondering if there were any stories in there that made you see your own songs differently.

A lot of them have. When I was sent the storyboards, some of them, the way that they were reading, I kind of cocked my head and said “I wonder how this is going to play out.” However, Rantz [Hoseley] and I discussed the concept and I was not going to interfere. I thought it was really important that the writers and the artists were not going have any kind of middling witness because this can’t be about what the songs are about from my perspective as I know them. They live on in their own way. They’ve spoken how they feel about themselves just by existing sonically. And then anybody and everybody has [their own] right to an interpretation of it. I felt that what was important about this is that it be allowed to take a turn that might be completely the furthest thing from the song’s intention when it was written. I had to allow that to happen.

Therefore, when I looked at the book for the first time, it was sent on computer for the first time; it had to be sent on computer, because it was going to be printed in Hong Kong, and that was the final stage, to put it onto hard copy. So everything was done and approved of through the computer. Therefore, I couldn’t look at it, you see, all at one time. I had to go page by page. And so I couldn’t jump around and I couldn’t thumb through. So I started at the beginning and I went to the end. And what I loved about it was that there are parallel words to the songs now that exist because of Comic Book Tattoo. There are alternate stories, and I find that that’s really—how do you say—this continues the circle, so the sonic inspires the visuals. And when I was hearing these stories, I started to hear music in my head, but not the songs they were connected with, because I don’t see these as “visual covers” of the songs. I see these as the freedom of an artist to tell a story that was inspired by a song, or the song is used as a jumping off point, or they follow it to a point, and then they take a turn, so the main thing that you need to know is that this is not about an encyclopedia of what the songs are about in comic book form. This was about a marriage of two forms that allowed freedom for them to dream.

I think it’s best we leave that there. It was lovely speaking with you, Erin.

You too. Thank you so much, and best of luck with all your projects.