Tori Amos is on tour promoting her new album Unrepentant Geraldines. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Jezebel about being on the road, her new album and the world premiere of her music video for “Promise,” her first major collaboration with her daughter Natashya.
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan since I was 17 years old, and a senior at a performing arts high school. Newly out of the closet and dealing with issues of major change and heartbreak for what felt like the first time, I discovered Tori by chance. Classmates were playing Strange Little Girls in the bathroom as they prepared for a show and, entranced by her voice, I ordered her entire back catalogue from Columbia House and then spent days crying through every album from Little Earthquakes to From the Choirgirl Hotel (known to hardcore fans only as Choirgirl). I annoyed friends and family with my need to listen to each album over and over and, one day, as my father and I were driving to school and I was trying to make him understand exactly why a nine minute live version of “Cruel” was brilliant, he shut off the CD player and, in his thick Russian accent said “No more. Enough of this music. I do not understand! Is she saying ‘You broke my heart now I break your house into bricks of shame?’” She wasn’t, but it would have been brilliant if she had.
Tori’s style has changed through the years. Her first albums were tinged with anger, loss and heartbreak. Her later albums speak more of contentment, of growth, and of motherhood. Through it all, she has remained unique. The same woman who dared to release “Me and a Gun,” an a capella ballad about rape, as the first single of what would be considered a pop album is still going strong, even if the tone of her material has changed and her signature red hair has transformed from a curly whirlwind of chaos to an impeccably styled burnt orange coiffure. (I’ve changed, too. I still buy all the albums and attend every show, but gone are the days when I belong to at least 10 LiveJournal communities devoted to everything from her tours to glittery Tori fan art.) (Just trust me on this and don’t look it up.)
When Tori and I spoke last Friday, she was in Mesa, Arizona. That week she had already performed in Oakland, in San Diego and on Conan. Our interview was pushed back twice. First, because Tori was in traffic and was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to fully focus on my questions; second because she wanted to get something to eat before she spoke to me. I considered tipping TMZ off to the fact that Tori Amos not only got stuck in traffic but has to eat just like the rest of us poor suckers, but decided against it (although Tori’s publicist agreed that this would have been a major scoop for Harvey Levin’s vault).
In conversation, Tori is just as warm, effusive and enthusiastic as one would expect. Not one for awkward pauses or small talk, she launched right into answering my questions (and called me “mark, honey” several times, which is now my ringtone) and didn’t converse with me as a performer would with an interviewer, but as one person talking to another about what she was up to. If I had to describe it (and transcription doesn’t do her tone justice), it was like speaking with your older and cooler aunt/parents’ friend. The kind of person who would bring you fancy soaps covered in crinkly paper from France (regardless of your age) and be open to discussing any topic you were interested in. She was easily excited, and that made for an interview that was much more of a conversation than a standard Q&A.
Check out the world premiere of “Promise” and read Tori’s thoughts on performing, feminism and working with her daughter below.
How is the tour going?
The audiences are unbelievable. We’re playing Mesa, Arizona tonight. We did play San Diego last night and the Greek in LA the night before. And we were up in your neck of the woods a few days ago.
Fans usually come see you before the show right? Or do they stick around after?
Well they do. That’s not the protocol. And everyone should know that. And if you don’t know that, you’re gonna learn it. Because after you and I speak, I’ll go out and do about an hour and a half and just talk to people and just listen to people and if they want to take a picture or whatever they want. That’s the time that I put aside to do that. But after a show, then I’ve got to get on the bus to get to the next city to do this all over again.
On Monday night fans were freaking out in front of the theater after the show, and I think you probably know why.
Tell me, why?
You played “Floating City” for the first time in your career, right?
There was a woman who I rode the bus home with who couldn’t stop crying about that song.
Well what happened there was two guys from San Fran had come to see me and stood in line before the show. They came to see me in Jacksonville, Oregon, and they said to me, “This is our idea. We want you to play “Floating City” but in San Francisco, Oakland. In our city. Because we love our city so much, and it’s getting so expensive to live in San Francisco proper that many of us, many people who are artists or writers or whatever it is, that don’t get the six-figure book deals can’t afford to live in the city that they love.
And they were talking to me about how they wanted this song to not only represent how much they love their city but to create an idea, an energy of a place whereby people will be able to develop and find places that are affordable but are magical as well. So that was why. I heard what they were saying, I thought okay, they’re a couple. And it really came from the heart. And I thought ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. I’m going to do it.”
You wished the audience luck before you played it.
Well you know sometimes, you never know how these things are going to go because you haven’t done it before and it’s not really rehearsed, But that’s what the live show is about. You try things. People, I hope, know that there has not been a lot of time put into it. Because there just is no time. There’s no time. And so you cross your fingers and you hope it works.
[Tori also played Rihanna’s “We Found Love” for the first time the same night.]
You’re performing a lot of the songs from your back catalogue on this tour, even more so than usual. Was that a plan or was that something that just “happened?”
It’s evolved. I think it’s evolved because it’s just talking to people. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is when you go out and talk to people that are coming to the shows, you get a real sense of things. When you isolate (and that might be because of the tour schedule for artists) I feel that you miss a link. You don’t have ears on the ground and there’s a disconnect there. And you can be playing at people as opposed to playing for people. And then having a conversation with people and utilizing the songs to have that conversation.
So you’re constantly evolving based on your own needs but also what people are asking for.
Exactly, and people are sometimes responding to events that have happened, of course in their personal life. But they’re responding to events that are happening globally too. And they’ll ask me something because of their relationship to an event that’s happening or their perception of it. And it gets you thinking as an artist well, okay, alright, this is really fascinating. I need to raise those blinds in my own eyes, open myself up to this person’s idea.
I try to hold a space for many different beliefs, and people are very passionate about some of their beliefs, and there are people who see things very differently at a show. So I try to get out of my own way and hold a space so that people can hold onto their integrity for their beliefs. And they’ll talk to me about it and they’ll talk about songs that have given them strength to try and fight the corporations or get information or shed light and they’re becoming activists. And then they’ll say can you play this song “Jackie’s Strength” because it gave me strength to be strong even though that song—you don’t think it has anything to do with that issue, but I’ll stand here and say “Okay well I never felt that way about “Jackie’s Strength,” but yes I will play it for you.” Thank you for opening my eyes to this.
My point to you is you try to hold a space. All those people might have different beliefs, but they might be drawn together in unity because of a greater concern.
One of the most unique things about your performances is that when you sing, even when you’re in a huge theatre, it feels like you’re singing directly to them. What does it feel like to know you have such an impact on people?
Well, you know, the thing is, in order to have an impact on people, your modus operandi cannot be to have an impact on people. You have to be a musician and serve the muses and you have to surrender, in a way, yourself. In order to empower, I must surrender and let them kind of take over my physicality. And stay out of the way. Because only by serving the songs and respecting them can you possibly have the correct intention, and the intention is that you seeing the song from a grounded place, a clear place, and an emotional place.
So in order to be that, your first thought cannot be, ‘I wanna go out there and blow people away.” That’s when you’re acting from your ego. And that’s when you’re performance is ego-based, and I have been there in my life, and we all probably have in different ways. But you’re a writer, you put the writing first, and you be the best damned writer that you can be, then you can’t control how people respond to it, but it’s within your power to tell the story and in a way that does the story justice.
Speaking of stories, you’ve made a career out of breaking barriers. That was especially when you released “Me and a Gun” as the first single off of Little Earthquakes. It was Important because it was sharing a really bold story. Is there is still space for those kinds of stories in music today? How do you think the landscape for women in music has changed since then?
I think there are always going to be writers who thrive and really are driven to write stories that have a genuine thread to them, so they’re not just telling the story because they think it’s commercial, but they’re telling the story because they are driven to tell the story. They can’t not tell it, I guess is what I’m saying to you. They have to tell it. And those stories will affect us. They are just going to stay with us because we feel as if they are talking to us.
We know when someone believes the story they’re telling. We know as listeners. We believe it. Or it’s Okay they’re saying this because it sounds like thousands of other stories that get played on the radio or thousands of other books that get published so it’s just a reconfiguration of another story, but it does’t sizzle, it doesn’t grab you by the throat and say stop everything you’re doing! You’ve crawled under my skin. And you’ve affected the way I see this now forever!
I’m going to tell you a book I’m reading. (Oh where is it? Where’s my purse? It’s right in my bag.) See somebody came to the show, gave me this book, and said “T, you need to be reading this book,” and she just gave it to me, and she said, “You have to read this. You’re going to really relate to this woman and how she answers questions.” It’s Dear Sugar. Do you know Dear Sugar?
That’s the thing where people write in their letters and she answers their letters, and it became a book. We need to get the author right. Where’s my fucking book?
You’re talking about Dear Sugar, right?
Yeah, what’s her name?
Yes, that’s it! Strayed. I think, when you’re being genuine as a writer, people reading that or hearing it, or when you go to a concert, they feel as if even though she’s talking to that specific person who wrote her the letter, as a reader I feel like she’s talking to me. No different from when you’re singing for thousands of people. It’s really the same thing because although you’re addressing thousands of people at the Greek, you’re really addressing one person, you see?
Does it feel like the entire audience becomes one person or you’re addressing each audience member individually?
Each audience member you’re addressing as individuals. And yet, they still all hold a collective essence. So you gotta operate on both at the same time.
It’s very Jungian.
Yeah. It seems like a paradox but it can work. Because when you address the personal. And I might have heard this story in line, and that’s why the song is getting played, but really there might have been ten other people with letters who have asked for this song. And then it becomes a collective, so you are singing because you’re motivated by different things people told you. But also then the song itself has its own essence. And I listen to the song, and then it might then speak to somebody who didn’t ask for that song, but it might speak to them in a way where they feel as if it’s directed to them because of their circumstance that day. And it’s that song that’s kind of, what do you call it…
Yes, the catalyst for their emotional response in that moment. And I trust the songs implicitly. I trust them completely. And when they tell my they’re coming, I just get out of the way.
You just say, okay you can come out now.
Yeah, I won’t stand in the way.
I remember that with “Cooling.” You said “Cooling” didn’t want to be on any of the albums and then she just came out.
Yes, she came out. The way she came out, possibly because of his it all worked out for her, she’s become treasured. And if she had been on a record, I don’t know if she would have been. It’s hard to say, it’s impossible for me to say that. But “Cooling” has had a really lovely life—continues to have a really lovely life.
I would say it’s had a really charmed life. Could we talk about your new video?
What was it like working with your daughter Natashya?
Well, it’s really fascinating. Because she has a perspective that is uniquely her own. We can see things differently and have different likes and beliefs and she shares it with me. She shares with me something and it might not be my thing, but I’m fascinated with how she sees and hears it and how it affects her. And she turns me onto all kinds of stuff that I wouldn’t know about because she shares. And because of that sharing, I share things with her too, things I’m reading or listening to, or whatever. It’s become very collaborative in that way.
The “Promise” story was, I was turning 50 and 49 wasn’t great. And she really kinda threw the gauntlet down and said “you know you’ve got to grab this with both hands. And you’ve to go out there and rock and you have to prove to yourself that you can do it. Promise me you’re going to do it.” And that was really the beginning of the promises, and I said, “Alright, okay, alright, I will,” And then the promises began, and then it became a song, and then it became a video. Have you seen the video yet?
It almost seemed like a mother-daughter photoshoot in a way.
Well we wanted it to be genuine. We wanted it to be true to how it all happened, and how it all happened was that it came from us having conversations, promising things to each other. And then having questions:
“Well what if this happened, would you still love me?Well, will you not judge who I fall in love with?”
“Well I don’t know, I can’t say that!”
“Yes you can if you love me unconditionally, yes you can.”
So it brought ups all kinds of things so that when we did the video it just seemed like it needed to be as close to the truth and close to it being how it all happened as possible—but with good lighting of course.
I noticed your glasses are becoming a part of your image too, right?
Well, we had to because I need them so desperately. So if you need glasses, and the idea of contacts—I just can’t be putting things in my eyes right now. Yeah, I can’t. At 50 it’s hard to begin that, for me, just for me. So with all the eye makeup that I wear and all that stuff I just didn’t want to. Therefore, the glasses have to work with the long, I don’t know that you call it… they’re not dresses really, they’re like wraps that I’ve been wearing onstage. With the leather pants. And it all needs to be put together, so certain choices get made because of that. You still have to entertain, and it has to be put together.
Have you performed “Promise” live yet?
No, I’m not going to perform it because it is our song. You know it’s our song. And she’s [Natashya’s] writing her own songs out here on the road. She’s got a guitar and she’s doing her thing, she’s developing, she’s 13. And I think to go from singing in the hotel rooms and the studio to global exposure on Youtube is there’s a couple important steps missing there.
This is coming from somebody who grew up taking the steps in the right way, in the gay bars or the small clubs, working up in the club circuit years later, playing small clubs before Little Earthquakes broke, then playing small venues. Then doing TV. Do you see what I’m saying? There were steps.
Milestones. And they’re important because I don’t think that you can discount how essential these steps are in making you and developing you as a live performer.
It’s like climbing a staircase as opposed to someone like Justin Bieber, where somebody just took him from Youtube, put him in a rocket and launched him into space hoping for the best.
Yeah, I don’t know if that was wise. I would say to you, if somebody really sat down with that kid, he would probably look at you if he’s being fair, and say did he miss playing some of those—like Nirvana did—did he miss the step of playing those wild small clubs, where people would wait in line all night to see a Nirvana or Pearl Jam. You know, all those bands, they got a following and people would come see them. To play those clubs where people are standing but it’s so intimate and real and raw and alive, and my god! Those gigs are unbelievable. And it does something to you as a performer. It just does. Because I came up that way too, and when you are playing Royal Albert Hall, you’ve earned it. It’s not an entitlement. you’ve worked to get there. You’ve had to walk up the ladder in steps, and you are there. And you know how you got there.
And you value it. And I’m not saying that he doesn’t value his experience. Because it’s not fair to say that—it’s anybody that has been thrown from one thing into an extreme, from just off Youtube and never having worked in the business before. So I believe if she [Natashya] wants to do it, her next step is to play some small clubs with her guitar and that’s what she needs to do.
And you’ll help her get there.
I’ll be in that audience, clapping.
Like you say in the song: You’ll always be there.
I will until she were to start touring, and then you really don’t want your mother with you, you know?
I have one more question: How do you feel feminism fits into your work? I see your work as deeply and organically feminist. Do you see it that way, or do you think ideology is too restrictive for art?
Well look, if you’re a real feminist, in truth then you’re a humanist because it can’t be about the matriarchy that just supplants the patriarchy. It has to be about humanity and equality for all. And that to me is the seed of spiritual feminism. Now feminism came out of a place with the suffragettes and issues that completely and absolutely needed to be addressed at that time and still need to be addressed in certain parts of the world.
For me now, in the 21st century in 2014, in America and in the West, it’s very much about human rights. Women’s rights naturally are very important to me and violence against women and those types of things, of course is something that I’m aware of, but also, there are a lot of men who are feminists that I know that are very concerned about women’s rights, and that needs to be acknowledged. There are a lot of men in my life that are feminists and I’d like to say that, as well, I’m concerned that the men in my life are being treated fairly and with compassion. And to me that is where feminism inspires me—it goes beyond gender. It has to. For us to be whole and for us to really have learned and for us to be giving back to the world, we have to consider everyone’s equality and humanity.
Thank you so much for speaking with me. What can we expect from you next?
You’ve been great, the next thing that’s going to be out is the “Light Princess” out in 2015, so look for that!
Some of this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Image via Mercury
Interview transcribed by Isha Aran