Catherine AD meets Tori Amos
Waiting in the lobby of the designated Kensington hotel, the concierge asks me again if there's anyone they can call. The interviews are running late and I am conspicuously out of place amidst the beige on beige. It's like sitting in a room made of mashed potato. Which only serves to make me more hungry. I surreptitiously sneak bites from a Crunchie from my bag - I haven't eaten lunch yet and I don't want to pass out mid-interview. I’m trying not to get chocolatey crumbs all over The Beige but then think I might need to follow the crumb trail later to find my way out of the neutral labyrinth of endless, uniformly buff corridors... Finally the PR arrives to take me upstairs and the Sunday Times photographer is busy setting up shots in the adjoining room with one scary-ass freakishly-real looking baby-doll as a mooted prop. There is more beige. I am feeling like I might vomit up a chocolatey mess any moment. And then, suddenly, there is Tori Amos. Resplendently red and orange, and immediately intuiting how out-of-place I feel here.
"You are very artistic - you are the most artistic person I've met.. I've had the BBC here this morning and trust me, it's a very different look... this is gorgeous...you are a walking art piece - that's what you are - it does show and that is a positive thing and it's got to make you feel good - that's who you are and you are doing the right job"
And this is Tori: generous, intuitive, warm and welcoming. Putting you at ease with her languid, almost meditative, way of talking, unravelling each answer with nothing of the polished PR babble we have come to expect from today's generation of stars. We decide to up sticks from the (beige) sofa and armchairs and both end up perched on the huge windowsill that overlooks Kensington Gardens and the gathering crowds of lunchtime picnickers and Princess Diana pilgrims. I enquire about how she's feeling after having to postpone her show two days previously, only to find myself in the unexpected position of discussing the joys of food poisoning with Tori Amos... We try to figure out the finer points of the acoustics of the room and where the best position for the dictaphone might be - both laughing that you can never escape the producer and the musician in you. Perched on a book, atop wood for the best resonance is the solution decided upon and so I dive in...
---CAD: The new record is called Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Are there any particular ones you’re attracted to more than others? Could you expound upon the title? – obviously it’s a quotation from some Guys & Dolls dialogue...
TA: I’m sort of attracted to… figuring out why people are attracted to what they are... because… you know, I have a sister that’s a doctor, and sometimes she’ll talk to me about… “This is not an emotional conversation – there’s something within the body and the brain that’s attracting somebody to something.” It’s this whole [Lacuna, implying Emotion, the Unknown human element, etc.] “Versus Genetics and Sociology question”, and I’m fascinated by... why people choose a self-destructive path.
CAD: And so that’s being drawn to the Dark Side as it were? That it’s maybe not a choice, but perhaps it’s something genetically inbuilt, or predisposed?
TA: Well, I don’t know. I think we’re all drawn to [it]. There’s so many answers in the dark, but it doesn’t have to be malevolent; it can be a place where Shadow exists [the Jungian Shadow, presumably], and you find… you bring your candle, and you bring your flashlight with you, and you try to find consciousness in the unconscious. I kinda see the darkness as the unconscious; a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be about… again, violent behaviour towards another creature – it doesn’t have to be about harm – and I’ve always sort of seen a different definition of Lucifer, the Light-bringer, as… it’s a tough job to hold, but a consciousness that holds all of that – of Humanity – that we don’t collect into ourselves, the sides of ourselves that we don’t claim; the things we do, how we manipulate, that we kind of lie to ourselves. Because, you know, nobody wants to really think – most people anyway that are sort of walking my line, that I am going to intentionally belittle somebody but it's sometimes from friends... it’s sometimes the people we pull into our circle, [when] they don’t say “God, you did a great job today", or "Congratulations or I support you or those things”. [Instead] they leave you with very little, so you start to crave… and you’re attracted to their acceptance, approval, support… that they Just-Never-Give-You, and the way they keep you there is by withholding it. And so in ‘Ophelia’ [a track from the new album] which is the classic song, it's like, “Why would you want people like that in your life”?
CAD: So, in a way, seeking approval from those who withhold it most, rather than accepting and embracing the approval that we already have in our lives…?
TA: That’s right – and why aren’t we attracted to people who want to support us and who like us? Instead of being attracted to people who don’t see our light? Thinking, “Oh God, if I can turn this person around, then I must be onto something here…””
CAD: It’s a really good question! Very personally resonant as well as a musician… But on the other side of that, I wanted to talk about the single ‘Welcome to England’ which seems to me in some ways to be an ode to your husband, as well as – obviously – about England and estrangement. I wondered whether it’s harder for you than it was to write what you might call “a positive lovesong”, than the songs from Boys for Pele, like ‘Putting the Damage On’ or ‘Hey Jupiter’?
TA: Well, I think…… to be positive about a man, and yet ambivalent about a place, was the desired goal for ‘Welcome to England’, because I really wanted the story to be about a woman who left her life, and her family, and her job, to follow her love – to follow her heart. It could be leaving North Carolina to move to New York – it could be anything – or leaving Manchester to come to London. Then you come to realize that His world is becoming Your world, and yet maybe you’ve taken on so much of His world… but it isn’t Your world, and you have to retain yourself in it. And she just lost that. Somehow. She lost parts of herself – whether she should have gone back more, or whether she… you know, sometimes when you leave a place, you cut those cords, and you think “Okay, fresh start – roll my sleeves up…” and yet… there was something, or maybe many things, that you didn’t really want to leave behind. That you do begin to miss. Sometimes it’s the mountains. Sometimes it’s the earth. And I think that ultimately – in this story she’s an American, and Yes, the parallels are very close – but it could be… I know so many people who’ve left, especially in the last 2 years because of jobs, and getting work. One of them had work [that was] going somewhere, that they'd had to leave. One of them has had to let go to move with the other, and so, “how to not lose yourself, when you don’t fit into your lover’s world” [is the message] – maybe that’s a good thing, because I don't think you necessarily should.
CAD: There seems to be a lot of songs on the record about this idea of Giving – this almost quasi-vampiric relationship, maybe. Especially in the first song, ‘Give’-
CAD: ...And all the mothers 'giving' on the record too... and so I wondered if maybe you saw your songs in that way? There were a lot of songs on this record that strongly suggested this idea of “giving” through the songs, and using them as a way to connect to people, and as a way to love. I can’t remember the exact lines, but you say something like: “some people give blood / I give love”. Could you elaborate on that idea?
TA: Well, I guess it’s the polar opposite of the vampire concept, where you don’t need to take from somebody, but… there’s a fine line in giving, and… being a watercolour that just runs off a canvas, where you give… so much that you don’t allow people to give back. Sometimes, there’s a fear of Receiving, because… that’s a strange place to put yourself in, but I’ve seen this and walked into this at different points in my life, where I’ve said “I don’t need anything from anybody”, then when you do receive something from somebody, it’s a lovely gift… but in being the only giver sometimes, you take away the other person’s opportunity to want to offer something up of themselves as well; and so, there’s a fine line. How far do you take this? There’s a danger element to it, like anything that can be taken too far. But I think that it was a really sexy idea, I thought, that to survive a time now [when] nothing’s abundant, everything is bleak, everybody’s pennypinching, that the way to survive destruction is to “out-create” it, so I think the idea was when everybody wants to take, “No, don’t don't try to take – you give”.
CAD: So, it’s about trying to reverse the order of things? To me, hearing you talk about that, it’s a very nice link on to the other idea that runs so strongly throughout the new album, of Motherhood, especially on ‘Maybe California’. How has motherhood has impacted not only your relationship with music, but also your life, and your "job" as a musician and a creator. How has that changed?
TA: I think as Tash gets older – she’s 8 now – she’s got to a place where she has her own ideas, and they’re very exciting and independent of mine and her Dad's. She’s in a new phase now, and I’m having to grow with it. I think… because she’s more independent, I’ve been able to give more attention to The Art, in the last few years. And so, I’m changed forever, being a Mom, because I think – my body changed, first of all, and I could see what a woman’s body can do… and when I was at my biggest, I think I was most freed of all those demons – there were so many! They just got kicked out of my being… maybe with her feet! [both laugh] Even though she was a Caesarean birth, for medical reasons… I believe that… by accepting my physicality, that was a huge shift… for me, as a Creator, and as a Woman, and there’s more of a… a sensuality I think in some ways, to the work… that is there, where[as] the work prior to Tash, has other elements that you can only have before you’ve carried life… I can’t… I don’t know that consciousness anymore, because once your body takes on another person, you can’t be a maiden anymore.
CAD: There is no going back is there?
TA: There’s no going back. You can’t know that emptiness anymore – and I don’t mean “emptiness” as a negative, I mean: you’ve been filled with another creature, and so… always & forever, that cord is real, and it’s pulling at you, and your consciousness shifts. The question is: how do you walk the line of Mother and Woman… independent of Mother, and that’s a challenge because I think some mothers, they can look back, and as much as they love their children… there’s something very sensual when your body’s your own.
CAD: Something that seemed to come through in the story of ‘Maybe California’ is this kind of tension about a woman being driven to such a point where she wants to leave her children, she wants to leave the world even… and the responsibilities... and the damage she could do if she did chose to take that route, and [so] the question of 'Giving' comes up again.
TA: It keeps coming up... I mean.. there’s a selfishness, and there’s a battle of selfishness, and a battle between… not selflessness… but the question of “what is self”. If you’re a Mother-Creator, then self has to include the Other. “Mother” includes the word “Other”, and… I don’t think I really realized that until recently. I mean it’s staring at us in the face. Whereas “Woman”… the word “Man” is included – and “Wo” is included… [unclear whether Tori means “Woe” or “Whoa” here...] it’s a different kind of Other. I think “Mother” can embrace what it took to get her there, which is sexuality.
CAD:...which is quite a radical way of thinking – this idea of sexualizing the mother, or even being a sexualized woman after you’ve given birth, or whilst you’re pregnant even, is taboo, isn’t it?
TA: It is taboo. And I think, with the new record, and the artwork, it’s very much about the idea of erotic spirituality. You know, I think when we were creating the photographs, they were being created while the music was playing, and the conversation… was very much with an Other, and the songs themselves, and what was behind that… and I think… sometimes as Mothers, you’re kind of amputated from the idea of the “Erotic”. Because, just the idea that “that woman that is holding that whip” [say], the idea that in two hours that woman can be sitting down, at a Haagen-Dazs, or (Tasha’s favourite) is Gladstone’s in the States, where they make the little ice-cream. But, the truth of the matter is that it depends on the temple – the temple of the Holy Spirit – and inside of that whip, and what's on the other side of that whip because that’s really metaphorical. To me, the pictures – the handcuffs, the whip – it’s very much about a mental-emotional conversation with… herself, or with this… Lover.
CAD: So, it’s saying that we must tend to ourselves as Women in order to be good mothers, to retain our integrity?
TA: You have to do both - there’s a balance. It really is about a balance, and when you let the woman go, then sometimes you find as the children are growing up, that we go back to ‘Welcome to England’ [the song] – you're that woman again – who, if you don’t give to yourself, but you are giving to everybody else, that you turn around, and you recognize but "I have nobody to give to anymore, and i haven't nurtured myself while I've been nurturing everybody else".
CAD: Thinking about this idea of the Mother figure, how has your relationship with your fans changed over the last 10 records in terms of your role for them? Do you see that as another kind of Giving?”
TA: Well, they’re changing too. There are so many different people, who have different relationships with the songs themselves… because the songs, when they get put into different compartments, they rebel, because they mean different things to different people. And they’re all Media [people] right now. It’s so amazing to me, when people are looking at these photographs, and [I get] such opposite reactions to them. And for me, it’s very telling… about themCAD: It’s like a Rorschach test…
TA: Well yes, one woman saw the whip shot, and said to me, “How can you be holding a whip?...”. It’s as if – as one of my favourite people in the world, Karen Binns, said – unless you are topshelf on a magazine, being a cliché, everything that is so obvious – unless it’s that – [this woman who objected] couldn’t understand. It was the men who understood… And it’s the men – gay or straight, both – who understand that. It’s a much more dangerous line, an involvement, to not just being going through the motions but to have the conversation before the tools are implemented, because the tools are only just… the tools; it’s the user behind them. And the fact that there’s compassion… and how are you using them?
CAD: I haven’t seen these images yet, so that’s probably a whole new interview…!
TA: I don’t think they’re meant to hurt! It depends on the user. It’s not necessarily about that! Some people are able to use these things as poetry, as metaphors.
CAD: You’ve always been very interested in that. The visual side of your work has always been about challenging people’s concept of “What Woman Is” and “What Mother Is”
TA: That’s right, and what is Sacred, what is Profane…
CAD: Going back to the Boys for Pele cover… [Tori with a gun, on her porch, showing a lot of leg; and on the back cover, suckling a pig]
TA: That’s right, and the idea that why should Elegance, Seduction, and Eroticism be… closed to Mothers, who work very hard, and then at the end of the day lose their husband to fantasy images on the computer.
CAD: We’re always stifling ourselves, and putting ourselves into boxes… [alluding to Tori’s early comment, but also the cover of Little Earthquakes with Tori photographed in a wooden box]
TA: ...and pushing them to find it somewhere else… because we go back to [the idea of] Mother and Other, and the responsibility of that [relationship implied by the one word containing the other]. It’s a huge responsibility, and the woman in ‘Maybe California’ can't bear it anymore. That came from real stories from women, at the end of their ropes, who came to me and stopped me, over the last year, and told me about their lovers or husbands losing their jobs, and they hadn’t, and then everything was deteriorating… because the male is so defined by being a Provider, and so when they couldn’t do that anymore, they couldn’t provide in the bedroom anymore, and so the whole relationship would break down. And one particular woman said, “if I take myself out of the equation, then they’d have to give him a job… and if I could take myself out, it would all be okay… and he would find someone else again” – and you’re watching the mind turning, and you have to say “Stop! In order to give so much, you’re destroying. In order to give, and give yourself away, you’re taking.” So that was what that was about.
CAD: You’ve long fought against certain sections the Church, and it's propensity to push guilt or shame on women and their sexuality, and I guess this follows on from what you’re saying… Do you think that things have got better in the last ten years?
TA: I think with Prop. 8 [Californian legislation that outlaws same sex marriage] it’s really up in everyone’s face. With that you push people back into secrecy. Probably the thing staring in everybody’s face – the biggest crime – is the human slave trade; woman and children. Yes, there are men, agreed – but it’s mostly women and then young children, and you think… what pushes us, in a society, to needing a slave-trade? The worker bee (in me) goes back to the hive, to the queen bee, who are the songs. I’d say I don’t understand. How can we fill ourselves, and our desires, with people in the professional sexual trade. Some people are driven to that, but some choose that – I know some – and it’s not for me to judge why, and they’re not just there for the money. Who made me God, to figure this out? I’m not talking [with this record, and it’s artwork] about a society that’s not consenting. What I’m really questioning is that the sexual slave trade that is so expansive, and everywhere that the secrecy to sexuality… Clearly, if we’re in a free society, what are we attracted to? Having power over another human, that has no power?
CAD: Very possibly…
TA: And that’s what I think – [with] Abnormally Attracted to Sin [as a title] – you get to decide what the stories being told, with the songs, and the visualettes, and the pictures, what they represent. But, not for one minute do I believe that Tori [the character] is in the sexual slave trade and there because she doesn’t want to be. She’s choosing to be there for some kind of reason, and I think… the whole thing just baffles me, and so – when you ask me “Is sexuality an issue?” – well, when the biggest crime we have is sexual abuse, with the trading of human… flesh. Then, clearly, there’s a big problem.
CAD: That leads me on to my final question. Does it concern you with this new crop of female pop artists that you see coming through, that there’s very little space for saying anything of value or having a voice to talk critically about femininity? It seems to me that in too many cases it's just a simulacra of quirkiness and kookiness but in fact it’s all so packaged and sanitized...
TA: Well, I don’t get concerned about that, because I think that… voices will demand to be heard. When the Muse grabs you by the hand, you know, you serve the creative force. The songs are independent of me, and yet we’re intertwined. (You know how it is! It's a very strange thing). The fact that the public enjoys all kinds of entertainment and expression… that has to be respected. And then there are those of us who talk about other things, and when you want to have another kind of conversation. There are those of us who want to sit down with that… wine that’s been aged a bit…rather than wine from, you know, 2006. There’s always room for a unique perspective But sometimes if you’re one of those artists, the truth is, you have to work really hard to be heard and you can’t stop. You have to keep fighting and you can’t say “Oh, the world seems to want this kind of music, so they don’t want me.” Well you just can't. You have to keep going.
CAD: So, you’re hopeful there will be another generation…? Pushing through…
TA: There must be! There has to be. Otherwise… we’re doomed.
CAD: Lastly, the impact of iTunes, and the way people are consuming songs in individual packages…does that worry you when you've spent such a lot of time and effort putting together this conceptual package with the visualettes?
TA: I can’t spout off about control…I know i am a control freak. Doug Morris told me to go and be a great one! The thing is - you can’t fight the Patriarchy - I use that term for a controlling system that doesn’t open itself up to other new ways of solving issues. How can I demand the public consumes it the way I've laid it out? It exists. I have a whole installation there – Visual-Sonic; it’s there – and some people will just come along for the post-show party, but that’s okay…
Abnormally Attracted to Sin is out now on Island Records. The deluxe edition of the album features a bonus DVD containing 16 “visualettes” directed by Christian Lamb.