Innerviews, music without borders

Tori Amos
Drama of the gifted child
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1992 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Tori Amos

Singer-songwriter Tori Amos finds herself perched between two domains. Straddling nirvana and internal exile, she finds balance through movement, images and sound. It's most apparent when watching her perform.

Poised on a piano stool, she confronts the audience in a confident, yet warm manner. She focuses on each member as her eyes shift from soul to soul. She's singing to every individual, as well as the collective that beholds her.

At the same time, there's an uneasiness about her. Her soul-baring songs mask a deeply fragmented psyche. It's one that's only just begun to solidify into the cool, self-assured aura she exudes in public.

In conversation, Amos attempts to remain calm and pauses before every thought to ensure each word clearly expresses her thoughts. She's unsuccessful though. For instance, when discussing the emotional purging that is Little Earthquakes, her debut release as a solo performer, her thoughts often coalesce into a somewhat tangled web. It's something evidenced throughout this fascinating stream-of-consciousness interview.

Was writing Little Earthquakes a cathartic experience for you?

[long pause] I used it as a way to completely reconstruct the way that I think. So, if you want to call that cathartic... I just feel, that for me, having a pizza can be cathartic, you know? So, what I did was try to recondition myself. I have to try to work on that every day, but we're brought up to think a certain way and we're not even aware of it. There's always a subtext running beside the conversation that's happening at the same time. Like right now, both of us at this table are trying to plant our positions. This is not normal. We're trying to find enough self-worth to come to the table, me included, but it's a bit different, because you can interview me, and I understand that relationship. But what happens, everytime you have dinner with somebody, you think you're having a date and there are many things going on at that table. This is with absolutely everything, so, writing these songs, believe it or not, taught me what it is that I'm really thinking and it gave me the keys to my subconscious.

The subconscious is where we mostly work from, but yet, none of us really know how to get to the subconscious, so what you do is bring your little credit cards of how you want me to view you and I bring you mine of how I want you to view me. That's not necessarily who you really are, because we've decided what we want people to see of us, so we're not really dealing with "How do I know who you are?" I don't know who you are! I'm sitting here trying to have a conversation with this person that maybe I'm on the road with for two weeks. Maybe they come and jump on the road, but if they can't admit they're a control freak, if they can't admit that what they're trying to do is break everybody down... the real war is with thoughts these days. The weapon is distraction. You can get your blood and your skin ripped off, but the real war is breaking you down here, and here [points to her heart and head], so that's what I've tried to do—write so I know what I'm really thinking. So, if I want to strangle you, I know why I want to strangle you instead of just "what is it you've said that could be affecting me so much?" I have to go deal with me instead of strangling you.

You spoke about getting in touch with your subconscious. Describe the process.

There are some wise women that I've run into who have given me some tools, but one of the biggest tools that started it was, 15 minutes a day—that's how it started. When my first record bombed, I had to deal with a self-worth problem. It's very easy to feel good about yourself when you have your job and you have your friends and girlfriend and all that stuff, but if you had it all stripped away from you, it would be interesting to see what your view of yourself would be. So, I was stripped of many things. So, [long pause] I ended up on my kitchen floor really and I was told that the first step in finding out how you think is to spend 15 minutes a day, because you can't handle more than that at the beginning of honesty with yourself. Fifteen minutes is a lot of time to be honest with yourself when you've rarely done it in your life. So, it usually would be in the bathroom, because that's the most intimate place—much more so than the bedroom. I mean, if you can be in a bathroom with somebody, and really be in it, that says a lot more than being in the bedroom. So, I would spend the time in the bathroom for 15 minutes being honest, no censorship—that means not how you should think, not what you think you think, because we don't really think what we think—almost anybody could be broken down if somebody is good and you have them in a room alone, especially for two days. You can have them talking circles around themselves because so few of us really say "I'm scared, yes, I have the potential to be violent."

Very few people are willing to admit anything that in their mind is a weakness. So, I started being honest for 15 minutes a day and it was excruciating—how I really felt when I felt like I was strong and being clever, what I was really doing was being totally intimidated, trying to make another person feel bad about themselves. I mean, I would rationalize everything. You can justify anything. So, that's how it started and then after the first six weeks of that 15 minutes of honesty, I was shocked to see what I was really thinking and really feeling. That means if you don't want to talk to your mother on the phone, you say "I'm so sick of my mother calling me" or whatever it is. No censorship! [animated and emotionally] If you feel like you want to jump somebody's bones, I don't care how old they are, I don't care what sex they are, if you're turned on, you say, "I had these feelings" and you might be so horrified! But you must admit things to yourself because they don't necessarily mean what you think they mean. You have to start thinking and open up this tunnel and it's very scary because we suppress what we feel with such judgement and once I worked through that I would start asking questions—but not at first, you don't question anything, not at first and I did this alone. So, it was almost as if I was my own teacher—I was my own conscience. And that's how it started.

You're very critical of Christianity and organized religion, yet you've spoken of your own "Jesus complex." In fact, you've even said you've wondered what it would be like to make love to him.

Umm, God's law and man's law are two different things to me. What mankind and womankind have made of religion whether it be Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever, it's very different from what the truths were. Now, to try to apply something even 20 years ago to today, there are truths in all things that you can glean out, but you have to look at what's happening today. To have 12 wives at one time was looked upon as an everyday thing for many reasons. There were more women to men at that time—they were trying to get tribes going. It was looked at very differently. A man having 12 wives today is looked at very differently now. Women had no say, which they have now, but only very recently. And in some parts of the world today, they still have no say. Why isn't it changing? [starts yelling] So, when we talk about religion and my unacceptance of the institution, it's because it must be held accountable for its abuse of the truth! And it has abused the truth! All of them! [resumes normal tone] So, my relationship with Jesus—being brought up as a good Christian girl, is an attraction to a quote, unquote, near-perfect man and it's also a resentment, and a hurt. Hurt can turn to hate because you hurt so bad—that he has denied, through the books anyway, sexuality with a woman. There's a real resentment that I have towards the idea that a perfect man, quote unquote, wouldn't soil his hands so to speak. So, there's a lot of that at play there—respect for the man, because of his strength and compassion and clarity, yet at the same time resentment that he felt sex with a woman or with anything was umm, not holy. That's how I feel.

You once said "your life went wrong when you stopped talking to the fairies and lost the magic." How did you get it back?

[long pause] When I'm really the person that I feel I am without trying to be what those around me want, then I am closest to things that aren't in body. I believe in things that aren't this. [points to her stomach] I think they're all around us. I think it's kind of arrogant to think that just because you have a body, that's the only consciousness there is—that's really small-minded. And if you wanna look at mythology from the Celts to the Native Americans, to the Native peoples here, you can go to any culture where they believe in the spirit world and if you don't believe it, you don't believe it. How can you even comment on it if you don't believe? But if you do believe, then you're rewarded, because you're working off instinct. It's not just what you see—what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears is very limited. We don't see far, we only hear so much.

If we didn't have microscopes, we wouldn't know what was going on with the whole other world that's smaller than what we can see with our own eyes. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. That whole thing about "if a tree falls in the forest and you don't hear it, does it make a sound?" A head of a record company said to me "Of course it doesn't!" And I just smiled, because there you go... [starts yelling] Of course it doesn't—500,000 people get blown up and you don't know about it? Does it mean they didn't get blown up? It's the same thing! [long pause as she calms down] The world just doesn't revolve around you and me. There are so many universes and that's so exciting, but what happens in here [points to her head] is a reflection of what I'm capable of understanding out here. You don't have a shit planet because you have clear thinking people—it doesn't happen. And you don't have shit people and a healthy planet. It will not happen. We're reflections of each other. That's all that is.

You just mentioned the head of a record company...

I didn't tell you which company though! [laughs]

How much control do you have over how you're promoted to the press and public?

Well, I have as much control in that I'm the one that decides what comes out of my mouth. I don't decide what the press writes, because you know, what people read is only half me and the other half is you! Anything that you read in the press, half comes through you and your experience and your openness or your closedness—your capacity. So, the other half is me. What you get a lot when you read those articles, a lot of it is their perspective. It's what I said before—if you're willing and you want to see something specific and you have your mind made up, you will.

You've been incredibly prolific over the last year. You're perhaps the first artist in history to release more b-sides than album tracks.

[Amos laughs]

Are these things you've had stored up or...

It was all at the same time. Umm, there are a few that were written recently—this year—which is kind of a drag because I put them on b-sides and I have nothing to make a new album with! I have nothing!

Nothing?

No, nothing! I don't know what's gonna happen. I have an idea of something I want to do which is gonna make a lot of people really wary. But I'm gonna do it because I think it'll be good fun. I'm gonna experiment with the piano in many ways. I don't want to talk too much about it because it has to develop itself, but I wanna lock myself away and start fresh. I can't try and write "Silent All These Years" again. If I do, it's trying to hang onto something that came from a real place and it wouldn't come from a real place now, if you see what I mean. If I tried to write "Silent" now it would be trying to write "Silent" again instead of expressing something new. "Sugar," "The Pool" and "Here In My Head" were all written this year. The others were recorded during the album, like "Take to the Sky."

I understand "Take to the sky" is about Y Kant Tori Read—your last group album.

Yes, yeah! Yeah! [laughs]

Why not save these tunes for the next album?

I love "Dutchman." There's a part of me that wishes I would have hung on to them, but you know, if I save it for the next album, I'll feel like I'm trying to hang on, crossing my fingers hoping I will have retained that place. See, I got a lot of acceptance out of this and I can't go into the next project holding on to that. I have to go now and umm, explore some more, because that's one reason you respect me, because I went into this, exploring, completely expressing, for the sake of that and I feel like if I held on to the b-sides, I'm holding on to the past because I feel I've reached something, instead of going "wait a minute." I can make another dish, but it's gotta be here [points to her chest] and I feel like so many artists try to make the same record over and over and over again or hold on to that time. But you know, when everyone else passes you by, all the people that are listening to you... one week, you try to hold on to that moment and they've moved on and you have to move on and it's a scary thing because people might not like the direction you take. But you can't stop growing and I know this here. [points to her head] So, I have to apply it because I realize it's the only way to make exciting music—because I have to challenge myself now.

One of the more interesting songs on the album is "Tear In Your Hand." There's a reference to it in the Sandman comic book series. How did you discover the books?

Neil [Gaiman, author of Sandman] and I have become really good friends. We would go out a lot in England and have a cappuccino and talk. The way we met was a friend of mine who loves comics dropped out of arts school in L.A. and needed a place to stay—needed a place to crash. I've known him for years. He dated and dumped a good friend of mine. They're quite a few years younger than I am. So, I let him stay at my place. It was gonna be for two-and-a-half weeks. Well, it became three months! This was during the making of the album before I moved to England, so it was almost three years ago. I was spending a lot of time writing at Eric Rosse's place who I have quite an involvement with and Ranz [the friend staying at her place] had all this stuff going on in my pad—hundreds of candles, Ministry playing, Sandman comics and finally I decided to get educated. Instead of resisting, I turned over the keys and started to immerse myself in what he found so interesting about his world. So, I read everything and Ranz gave Neil a tape of "Tear In Your Hand" at a signing before it was on the record—before I moved to England. Neil said "Well, this is pretty good" and he gets songs everyday. So, he called me up and we became friends. He came to my shows in England and that's that story.

Let's go back to your b-sides for a minute. A lot of kids say "Oh, Tori Amos—she's the one that covered 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'" rather than linking you to Little Earthquakes. Is that a blessing or a curse?

Never a curse—just because the song was so massive that you know it's one of the biggest songs of years to come. So, I don't think that it's about trying to remake a song and make it a hit. That wasn't the intention and everybody knows that. I did it to show a different perspective to a very hard tune and to still retain a level of the horror. That song's content is horrific to me. I feel many things about that song. But when I heard it, it's about abuse to me. And, I wanted to take it to the piano because people have this strange concept of what the piano is.

How did you react to the scrutiny the British music press gave you upon the release of Little Earthquakes?

Well, I claimed complete responsibility for Y Kant Tori Read. That album cover, the fact that I didn't stand up for the band or the songs that were written during the band. I allowed it to happen. I allowed the band to be ripped to shreds. Matt Sorum [drummer] was the only person that was asked to come back and play after they [the record label] said no to everybody. But Matt was brought back because the drummer wasn't working that they had gotten. So, they brought in the studio people and I allowed this to happen. The other side of the coin is I claim complete responsibility for the content of Little Earthquakes. Now, if you call "Me and A Gun" or "Silent All These Years" a corporate makeover, you really have a distortion on reality and it's so ludicrous that I was laughing my head off, because again, if you're going to take responsibility, you have to really take it.

I am the girl on the cover of Y Kant Tori Read—my body was in much better shape and I do regret the fact that I have dent marks on my body. I used to be lean, mean and I chose umm, my hairspray and I chose to not stand up. And yet I chose to stand up finally with Little Earthquakes. So, the funny thing is, you can't talk about the things I'm talking about and just be given these things to say by the press. You don't write the things I'm writing about because of a corporate makeover. The fact is that I get up in the morning and wash my hair and walk out and this is what you get. Where is the makeover? Is it that Cindy Palmato [photographer]—somebody really talented—took my picture and didn't give me false tits? I just couldn't understand the logic in that one. That one really threw me.

I think it came from a bitterness. We won't get into it, but one of the guys from the NME came out with "the big story" and I talked to them all about this, and it's like they came up with something that I was hiding in my life! How can you hide anything when you're talking about the things I'm talking about? You don't have those songs without having serious scrapes on your knees. I've never pretended to be a virgin, never at all. Of course, I've done some stuff. Of course I've been dishonest with myself. We all have. I'm just trying to now make a choice about why I'm making music. So, it was involved, that one.

Your songs have brought some social and political issues to the forefront that many choose to ignore.

You speak well. You'd make a good politician. And where are the real visionaries today? Everybody is encouraged to listen to our dying leaders, dying meaning their ideologies are dying. Instead of running to Christianity or running to Islam or running to whomever, we have to move forward. You bring the truth, you glean it like you separate the pits from the fruit and you take with you what you've learned. We don't know how to think for ourselves or how to reason. [starts yelling] What this generation needs to do is stand up and instead of passing the sickness to our kids, because, please tell me—what is the difference between us and our great grandparents? Believe me, when we're 50 years old, there's gonna be a young generation going "those fucking old farts, they're so closed minded!" [resumes normal tone] Where's the new thought going to come from? When are men and women instead of blaming each other going to look at ourselves? You see, what happens with blame is, if we're married [she grabs Innerviews' shirt and pulls closer] and you withhold from me, I'm gonna get you back if you can't honor me! [starts yelling] I'm going to get you back if you can't honor me! You know how I'm going to get you back? I'm to get you back sexually! I'll withhold there! [resumes normal tone] So, what happens is, we have a son and I put certain things into my son—my relationship that allows he and I to develop something.

How many men have a relationship to their mother that's very involved? With four out of five men I run into, it's very involved. There's so much going on in this dynamic, and then what happens? That son marries a girl, they go and have a son. We have to stand up and say "Hang on a minute!" We have to look at the sickness—what have I taken on from my parents, from the teachers, from those that are running the media? I have to make my own belief system, my own ideology. I have to stand up and say "I have to admit that I'm basically sick" and I have to find my own thoughts. When you go to Alice Miller—the student of Carl Jung who wrote The Drama of the Gifted Child and The Untouched Key—you see how to go in there and not become our parents. We've all become our parents who have become our parents who have become our parents. We just have Manolo Blahnik shoes—that's all that changes. We put it into a different slant. What have the '60s children become? Let's be fair about this. [starts yelling] I don't give a shit that they all smoked pot in 1968 or did mushrooms! I don't care! Half of them are right wing now! You see, it doesn't matter what you did when you were 22! Where do you stand today? These parents now—many of them—they look at their kids and it's "win the swim team competition" or this, that, the other thing. They have become—many of them—that which they were fighting against when I knew them as teenagers. And we'll become the same thing!

I'll keep that in mind.

Please, throw these things around and find your own thought. Because that's what we need to lead us out of our confusion! And I'll vote for you!

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Tori Amos