Performing Songwriter: Tori Amos
By Chris Neal
The first line of the first song on Tori Amos’ new box set A Piano says it all: “Look, I’m standing naked before you.”
That sentiment, from 1992’s “Leather,” sets the stage for 14 years during which Amos has bravely and nakedly followed her idiosyncratic muse wherever it has taken her, a winding journey during which she has gathered a core of loyal “Toriphiles” whose devotion is unequaled in pop music.
A Piano is more than a cut-and-paste sampler from Amos’ seven albums of original songs. Assembled with great care by Amos herself, the five-disc set features alternate mixes, new remixes, unreleased material and canny sequencing that make it both a retrospective and a fresh artistic statement in its own right.
We caught up with the 43-year-old Maryland native at the beach house she calls her “American hangout;” she spends most of her time at the home in England she shares with husband Mark Hawley and their 6-year-old daughter Natashya. As “Tash” and her cousin played nearby, Amos took a break from planning her mother’s birthday party to talk about the piano and A Piano.
The title of your new box set brings your musical life back to where it began: a piano. What is your first memory of playing one?
In my dad’s study, where he would write his sermon [Amos’ father, Edison, is a Methodist minister], there was a big black upright that somebody in the church had given my family. I remember crawling up onto this wind-y stool—you could wind it and it would get taller—and I would barely reach the keys. I remember feeling that this was my antennae to the galaxy, that I could cross dimensions through sound and hear back from the outer reaches of the universe. I always believed that there was something faster than the speed of light, and that would be thought. And that the universe could exist as a song light-form, and it could impulse little creatures on Earth to hear it, and we could manifest it through our hands onto a three-dimensional instrument. That was how I thought. The songs were alive to me, as alive as the human beings around me that weren’t making a whole lot of sense. But the songs were making sense.
How did you learn the language of music?
It was my first language. By the time I was 5, I knew it better than I knew English. My brother had been plying me with all his records from the mid- to late-’60s, and my mother was trying to throw in her favorites from the ‘30s and ‘40s — Hoagy Carmichael and all that. I was being trained in the classics — Bartok, Debussy and the like. So it was a full range of different forms of music. I wasn’t just curious about one type of music. I was curious about how different composers were able to work with this abstract form of tone and harmony and rhythm, and how they would bring it to life.
Do you get that same feeling from playing the piano now, or has your relationship with it changed?
I do get that same feeling now, and my relationship with it has changed. There are certain emotions that you can hold as a child that you would have a hard time accessing as an adult, unless you’re really able to not get confined to your chronological age. Then you’re able to be timeless, and therefore you can hear sonic forms that might not reflect your experience as an adult. That’s tricky to do, but it can be done. On the other hand, it’s impossible for a child to hold complex emotions that only a woman knows. Before you’ve had your menses, you’re not a woman. You cannot comprehend, because your body has not opened up to that feeling. As I became a woman, I was able to hold these musical emotions that I couldn’t hold as a child.
Has your daughter shown any interest in playing music?
Yeah, I’m letting it happen organically. She’s still 6, and I want her to like music. I don’t want her to throw her hands up at 10 and say, “I hate these piano lessons!” So we’re watching her just walk around the house and sing songs she creates. This might be something she chooses to do only for her own enjoyment in the shower. There’s another element that you have to have in order to want to take it out into the world. You have to be able to really release it once it’s out in the world, because then it’s not just yours anymore. You have to be able to let people interpret it any way they want.
You’ve now released enough music to justify a box set. How did this project begin?
I hadn’t really thought about doing a box set. I associate them with something you do when you’re not creating new work, at least not in a prolific manner. So when Rhino approached me, I sat down a minute and thought, “Well, it’s gonna take a lot of work to do it right.” And it did take a lot of work. It was quite a search finding all the original tapes, getting them back, transferring them back to Martian [her home studio in Cornwall, England], and then trying to structure a form. If you really want to create something that works, each disc has to work within itself. That’s why we remastered everything and sometimes went back to different mixes that occured within that time frame.
How do you decide between alternate mixes?
Technology has changed, along with tastes. I was making choices about what I felt held up the best. And some of the mixes that were on these original records were just very, very dull. Sometimes that’s the choice we made at the time in the mix room, and sometimes it’s the fact that tapes don’t keep very well. As the record business has been imploding, sometimes how tapes have been cataloged and kept is not how it should be.
You were a lot more hands-on with the box set than most artists would be. Why was that important to you?
I don’t understand people who don’t take care with their box sets. Maybe those people don’t see it as something that’s current. Everything you put out, even if part of the components were created 15 years ago, is still sonic sculpture that you’re putting out for people to look at. I don’t see it like others who tend to detach themselves and say, “Oh, take the old masters and put ‘em together.” because even the order that you choose to put them in, how you present it, if there’s remastering needed… You can’t just walk into refurbishing paintings from the 19th century.
Most of the set is in chronological order, but you chose to sequence the material from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel alongside the songs from 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2005’s The Beekeeper instead.
You can’t transplant trees from a Brazilian rainforest into your backyard and expect them to grow the same way. It will be different. You have to see each disc as its own organism. Sonically, the Choirgirl tracks worked extremely well with Scarlet and The Beekeeper. It’s not always about chronology. It might not make sense to an accountant, but I don’t make records for accountants. I know it’s not tangible talking about sound. Working with it as a material, it can be very slippery. It can slip through your fingers, and you can’t even see it happening. You have to be able to hear it happening.
Do you have a particular favorite piano these days?
I write on the two that I call an extensions of my emotional body. One I toured with for many years, and we’re taking her off the road. She’s been quite a road dog and a warrioress for a long time. As far as recording and touring, it’s time to use other pianos that haven’t been weathered in that way. For the new work, I’ve been recording with a piano that Bösendorfer sent down, and she’s a beauty. But I’m more interested now in taking different Bösendorfers on the road, and once they reach their peak, then you trade them in. They’ll have a good home.
You flirted with the Hammond organ a bit on The Beekeeper, did you not?
I did. I felt that if you’re going to have a work that’s really about the coming together of the male and the female, then you needed an organ to represent the male. Since the honeybees are the ones that go to the organ, the flower, and get the pollen, I thought that was a nice parallel. And I enjoyed hearing them working together, the piano and the Hammond. I thought they had a really balanced relationship, a conversation going back and forth. It was sensual, and it ignited something in the piano essence of me, that part of me that thinks like a piano. The organ reached in and awakened something, stirred something vibrationally. Those people that have played a Hammond organ know how you vibrate when you’re playing them—your whole body vibrates with it.
How is the next album coming?
It’s really, really, really challenging, and it’s pushing everybody, and that’s good. It takes many months to get it where I’m satisfied. And we’ll leave it at that. It’ll be out next year.
Can you give us a hint about how it sounds?
Nope, you’ll just have to wait.
In general, how do you approach beginning work on a new album?
You have to know what your theme is for each project and what it is that you’re whispering into people’s spines. I believe your spine responds to music in a way that it might not respond to visuals. That sound can reach inside you in a very primal way. I like to create these sonic resorts that people can walk into and never leave their chair. Then they can take it back into their own physical structure. Music is a mirror that lets the listener say, “I can be in the stillness in this two-bar phrase, so I can be in the stillness in my life.” And that might not seem like a lot, but this is how you expand the soul.