Ahead of her full orchestral show at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this week, DiS got to sit down for a cup of tea with the legendary songstress Tori Amos to talk about what still drives her creatively as an artist, her hatred of the term "confessional", and the anniversary of her debut album, Little Earthquakes.
Little Earthquakes is twenty years old this year. What are your memories of playing those early gigs in London?
Wow... I remember playing the Mean Fiddler and I was the first one on the bill in the small room. I would go up on the tube into Harlesden...when people have heard since they just couldn’t believe I was doing that! It was a bit of a rough area at the time and in ’91, a women alone walking...There are stories my crew had about being mugged going to the venue. I would go and I would open for all these other artists and bands. I didn’t know anybody and I would play to an empty house but because they were setting up their equipment, they would sit there and listen and then they would bring people the next time, and then other people would bring people. At a certain point there were people coming and it started to grow by word of mouth.
I heard one story about you playing a show where there was a buffet! Is that true?
Yes, it was a birthday party somewhere and when I launched into ‘Crucify’ their faces were just jaw-dropping shock because they had no idea what kind of artist I was playing at a birthday party. I think the Melody Maker came to that or the NME. That was another step into making people aware.
There are also stories about you playing solo one-on-one shows for journalists in your flat in those early days. Was that quite a strange experience?
Well no...Because I’d been playing lounges since I was 13 so there was an organic feeling. It didn’t seem strange to me. I didn’t want them to feel awkward so I wouldn’t always just sing at them or to them but I would just play the song so they could be anonymous in a way - experience it without feeling challenged or confrontational.
Little Earthquakes was an album that established you in people’s eyes as a ‘confessional artist’. Twenty years on, do you feel that the age of social media has diluted or changed the impact of any impulse to reveal through music?
That’s a good question. You see the thing is not for one minute do I think that I’m a confessional artist. If I thought I was I’d go find a priest or a therapist. When male poets talk about emotions, bare to the bone, then they’re just being ‘deep and poetic’ - it’s the women who carry the pejorative. ‘Confessional’ to me means there’s no filter and the filter is very much there [for me] and there is this precision. It’s not just as if you’re just exploding every emotion out there as if you just taken a knife and open up the organs, “here’s the whole lot” - it’s not like that. “Confessional” just sounds like a dumping ground to me, and meaning you have something to get off your chest instead of an active choice and the precision.
Across your catalogue there seems to have been a general shift away from the confessional and towards the narrative. Is it more difficult now to approach the personal in your songs as your daughter gets older or does that not have an impact when writing?
That’s where the mother and the wife have to get left behind and the musician has to take themselves off when it’s real composition time. Yes, I am aware of her being twelve and growing up and being online now and having access to everything but at the same time, if you are going to be the writer, if you start walking on eggshells then you’ve compromised yourself. It is a delicate balance to hold.
There’s always a strong sense of suggestion and allusion rather than explicit concrete detail in the songs...
You take a step back, sometimes you disguise certain things so that people aren’t exposed. So you don’t exactly know what’s it’s about. There’s a reason for it - the listener too can put their own pictures and assign names and their own life to it. The story becomes a shared one.
You’ve always dealt in female archetypes. What is their potency for you?
Maybe being brought up in the church with the Christian myth... yet they don’t see it as that, they see it as The Truth - and the only truth sometimes. I think having had such a dose of it where I didn’t really get to chose if I believed it or not - it was kind of a requirement. Because of that I ran to other cultures; to Greek, Irish, Norse. Egyptian mythology. I’m continually open to those stories and they don’t get tiring to me.
Was it touring with the octet for Night Of Hunters that inspired you to put together Gold Dust or was it something you had already planned to do?
We were doing it simultaneously. I’d started composing Night Of Hunters in Florida in Summer 2010 and then I had been invited already to play one show with the Metropole [orchestra] and in those rehearsals where it became clear that there needed to be a recording. And so, I would go back and forth from project to project and in between all this was the musical... [The Light Princess] - another workshop and we have a sing-through/read through of the latest draft at the Royal Albert Hall later in October. I know it’s been a process. Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre], who’s been the champion and mentor for this project said "this can’t be good, it has to be better than good". What we are trying to achieve is a fairytale and yet with a 21st century resonance that women will feel with it; not as if it’s a disconnect. There are issues a modern woman goes through but in a fairytale context, and there’s a paradox there obviously. Achieving that has been the goal.
How have your songs revealed themselves to you in new ways, revisiting them on this album?
‘Precious Things’ really wanted to come - and not all songs wanted an orchestral recording. ‘Cornflake Girl’ didn’t step forward - I think she might have liked a Big Band. When you are working an orchestra you have to “cast” the right songs that you think that they will be able to bring their emotions to and collaborate with you. Some songs were designed to be approached... ‘Jackie’s Strength’ can hold a string section, and so to take it to a full orchestra - it just lent itself to that. Whereas ‘Precious Things’ was a different choice but she really wanted to come.
Were there any that were reluctant comer to the party?
‘Winter’ and ‘Silent All These Years’ didn’t want to get messed with too much. They wanted to be retained but yet were open to other instruments. But I think ‘Marianne’ really wanted brass and woodwinds but she only ever had strings. ‘Gold Dust’ really wanted the full monty.
You’ve been so prolific over such a long artistic career. What keeps you focused and energized?
Well you have to push yourself. You have to find ways to stay stimulated. Sometimes it’s different projects that you’re doing that push other projects. So Night Of Hunters was really informing the musical, Gold Dust was informing Night Of Hunters and there’s a reciprocal exchange. And then in the travelling, and being in a different place... I tour to collect different images and different stories from people at the stage door.
With working on a musical and the classical projects, do you feel that the world of ‘popular’ music has anything left to offer you creatively speaking?
I’m reducing. That’s just simmering on the stove. I needed to really expand my vocabulary musically and to look at other structures.
With both Gold Dust and Night Of Hunters you seem to revisiting something of your classical roots. What drives this return to your origins do you think?
In listening to where things were... you know how sometimes songs sound like each other and some are very derivative of each other. I realised I needed to have inspiration from more complex works so that I was growing and that my rhythm vocabulary was growing, the melodic vocabulary was growing, the chord progression vocabulary... so you’re not making choices just because that’s all you’ve got in your arsenal.
Working of Night Of Hunters with those classical motifs as building blocks must have been very inspiring in that respect?
Absolutely. It changed how I looked at music, The biggest musical change has been in the last year. It’s been because of that - it catapulted the writing team [of the musical] - me and Samuel Adamson It really opened up possibilities that had been dormant for a long time or not really explored.
I remember reading somewhere that you have books strewn across the studio when you are writing. How do books inform your creative process?
Well, you have to keep increasing your palette and adding to it. And so I have an extensive art book collection in Florida, hundreds and hundreds of books... it is a really good resource.
How would you describe the importance of literature and myth to your songwriting. How has that changed for you over the years?
The poets, Emily Dickinson and Rimbaud, they were there and over the years people turn me on to other poets. People will say “hey, check this out“ and you expand so you don’t go to the same over and over again.
You recently started your own label, Transmission Galactic. What made you decide to do this now? Is patronage something that is important to you?
It’s a few things. It’s about developing artists and bands. Development sometimes isn't about overnight results. The 360 deal that the record companies have now - I don't think that’s morally right. We wanted to make sure that they’re not caught up on something like that.
I wanted to talk a bit about your work with RAINN. How important is the educational work of the charity like that when there’s been an increasing shift in popular culture towards the normalization of violence against women?
I am always appalled when somebody will come back and see me that might work for a domestic violence centre and talk to me about numbers and how it’s not going down. With all the technology we have...we are growing in so many ways but the fact that there are women that I’ve met in very secure and powerful positions in society - judges, doctors, all kinds of things...but once they leave and go home behind closed doors...the abuse.. physical, verbal. And the scars on verbal abuse are deep. And some of these women have said, to have the courage, to have the self confidence to confront it, to leave, to think they deserve something else is sometimes non-existent. They don’t know where to find it because of the shame.
Do you feel that music has a role to play, that musicians have some responsibility here as role models, thinking in particular of the Rihanna/Chris Brown situation?
You would think that artists would want to have that responsibility but some, I guess, feel that responding in that way is ok and I think you summed it up, by normalizing violence that those lines, those boundaries are very murky. It is excused.
Do you think that there new challenges that this generation of women is facing, thinking of your daughter's generation especially?
Yes, she can be having relationships with people on the internet and have no idea who she’s talking to. No idea who they are! People can lie about who they are all the time and that concerns me. Another thing that concerns me is that everybody takes pictures of each other and how much that’s happening. Also the bullying I’ve been told about... that girls are being bullied by their boyfriends if they don’t take certain photographs. And so those kinds of things that young women are being faced with...I didn’t even think about it in the old days. The stakes are very, very high. We’re progressing in the technology stakes but we are not necessarily becoming more conscious.
Gold Dust is out now. For more about the album visit the official website - www.toriamos.com
You can find out more about the work of RAINN - the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network co-founded by Tori Amos - at www.rain.org