Marvel Spotlight (July 2006)


Saturday 3 May 2014, by Cécile Desbrun

The friendship between superstar singer/songwriter Tori Amos and writer Neil Gaiman goes back fifteen years, to the days when Tori was one of many hungry musicians in the Los Angeles scene, earnestly trying to assert herself commercially in the artform she loved. In the early 90s, the piano songstress was cautiously navigating her way through on early-career stall after the ill-conceived Y Kant Tori Read album went nowhere on the charts. Meanwhile, Neil was flourishing as a writer, having already seen Sandman emerge as the elite comic of its era while simultaneously launching his career as a novelist with Good Omens. As if put in play by Morpheus himself, fate found a way to put Tori’s talents square into Neil’s sights, and he quickly sized her up for the singular and rare talent that she was. The relationship that followed has a history marked by their mutual fans as one of the great platonic love affairs in modern popular art.

Neil was an early and ardent supporter of Tori’s music, at a time when she was trying to boldly assert herself in a business that can be so casually indisposed to a young woman of her unbridled artistic independence. Shortly after they met and began to forge their utterly loyal lifelong friendship, she released her startlingly fresh album
Little Earthquakes. The record was an awakening, not just for her, but especially for the legions of young women who adopted Tori as their spiritual standard bearer. Little Earthquakes spoke through a diverse range of personalities: the scarlet-tressed wild woman bravely testifying in "Crucify," the gorgeously ineffable « Silent All These Years, » and the impossible-to-ignore eyewitness account to rape, « Me and a Gun ». Taking cues and inspiration from forebears like Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and synthesizing them all into something uniquely her own, Tori had made her bold statement...and people were listening.

Much like it was with Nirvana, who blasted onto the scene at a similar time, most music fans remember when they heard their first Tori song or saw their first Tori video. She not only left an impression on the minds of listeners, but has built a loyal fanbase that guarantees each new album release a Top 10 sales ranking. And part of that fanbase, through it all, has been Neil Gaiman. His support and encouragement
during Tori’s earliest days of non-stardom has not been forgotten. Over time, Neil and his influence has been namedropped in the lyrics to several of Tori’s songs, and she has regularly tapped him to pen liner notes for her album releases and write prose for her tour programs.

In return, Neil found himself incorporating Tori’s personality into his Sandman characters, most especially the lovingly crafted lunacy of Delirium. The mutual inspiration these two find in each other has played out in their own respective works so often, Neil has been quoted as stating flatly that the two « steal shamelessly from each other. »

Rarely have two disciplines like writing and popular music been so purposely intermingled based on a simple love and respect between two creators at the very top of their respective pursuits; these are two very special people who have had a significant impact on each other and their art. Marvel Spotlight caught up with Tori in England as she was having a tea during a break recording songs for a new album, her followup to the 2005 Top 5 album, The Beekeeper. The subject? Why, her buddy Neil, of course!

SPOTLIGHT: You came to know of Neil’s work before your breakthrough
record, Little Earthquakes. You had been reading his work for a while when you met him. How did you come across his comics work?

TORI: There was a friend of mine that was crashing at my place in Hollywood. His name was Rantz Hosely, and he was an art student, an illustrator who was into comics. He collected everything from Sandman, so this was probably in 1990; I think around the time of The Doll House, maybe? I would start to steal his comics, but I would always give them back ... eventually! I began to immerse myself in them. I was really drawn to the mythological aspect of Neil’s work.

Rantz took it upon himself to send Neil some music that I had recorded, demos from Little Earthquakes- not the full record, but portions, very early stuff. So he sent it to Neil without me knowing, and I got a phone call from Neil in london in 1991, and he said, « Hi, I’m Neil! And this person Rantz sent me this music and I just wanted to encourage you, because I think you should maybe think about doing it as a career. »

And I said, « That’ s good because Little Earthquakes is coming out in a few months! »

So around the time of the Me and a Gun EP, he called me just months before it was being released and came to one of the early shows where I was just gigging in London alone at a keyboard.

SPOTLIGHT: Wow! He attended one of those early UK shows you did? Those were some historic performances!

TORI: It was pretty trippy. Neil showed up at this place, some brasserie where I was playing - it happened to be a birthday party, and how I ended up playing a birthday party, talk about strange! And there Neil walks in, in his leather jacket, and looks at me as people are trying to make toasts and cut their cake and here I am singing « Crucify » and it’s just a moment... (Laughter.) He just sat there, where he and the press woman from East/West Records were the only ones listening in this whole room full of people! And they just kind of pulled up their chairs kind of close to me, they were the only two people watching me play!

He took me out afterwards just for a bite to eat. We rode the tube and he said, « Listen, things are gonna get better. I really feel this. I’ve got a good feeling about this! (Laughter. You won’t have to sing ’Crucify’ at birthdays for the rest of your life! »

SPOTLIGHT: He slipped in and out of some of those shows like Morpheus, it sounds like, coming down from on high and passing on his wisdom to you.

TORI: Yes, he did! I think that his relationship with me has been as a spiritual brother. It’s always been based on creativity and, I think, being a port in a storm. I’d like to think I’ve been the same thing for him. You know, where you’re able to not be bought or swayed by the powers that be, and you’re able to be a steady force for your creative buddy. And he’s had to be very brave. He’s had to really stand up to publishers and to be the creative force that he is.

SPOTLIGHT: And likewise, you have as well.

TORI: Yeah, and I think that’s why there’s always been a sort of a mirror image, maybe, I guess that’s why he has always popped in. He visits the crew when we’re on tour, he’ll jump on the tour bus and he’ll get an hotel room and hang out, and I think that I remember in the early years he would borrow things that I would say, and they would end up in Delirium. There would be a time where I wouldn’t know if I was stealing from her, or she was stealing from me!

SPOTLIGHT: His influence on you comes full circle with your influence on him. He began to seed Delirium - one of the Endless in his landmark Sandman series - with inspiration from you. When you were reading these comics as they come out monthly, it must have been a trip for you!

TORI: I think that as it’s happening, because it’s your life, you’re not only outside looking in - if that makes sense - because you have these conversations with this person and then you read something and you’d say, « Oh yeah, I think I remember us having this conversation! » Everything just felt like an extended part of a conversation that we were having at the time. The demands to turn in that material were quite high. He had to be very prolific. So he was always writing one of those issues. Every time I was talking to him he was in the middle of writing something. I think that as a creative force, sure you do flirt with things that your friends say, and all of a sudden they become things that your characters say. I think that’s just kind of normal.

SPOTLIGHT: For the average comic reader, the dialogue is basically words on a page that you read and you have that outside looking in relationship, but for you, you’re almost part of the narrative! Your experience is there on the page; it is recovered memory disguised as fiction. Hanging out with Neil will do that to you, huh?

TORI: The thing about Neil is that you really want to pump him for information if you can. If you ever get to sit down and talk to him, just start - if there’s anything you really want to know about a mythological character, then he will know some anecdote about it. I really believe that his coding - as in the codes within his makeup - he’s like a library for that information, and if you go on the internet and start typing in these mythological people, it’s not the same. He has sifted through thousands and thousands and thousands of pages, it seems, of this stuff, and has thrown out what doesn’t hold up, meaning the stuff that seems to be disproved after you’ve read enough. You say, « Oh no, that’s not really Bolder’s story, » or, « That’s not really true about Freya, » and what I found was because I was really trying to contain more myth in my work, he was a mentor for me in those early years. I began to see his process and I think it gave my little Mini a jumpstart. Or Mustang, really ... he’d be the Mini, and I’d be the Mustang. He has a Mini you know!

SPOTLIGHT: Oh, does he? Neil Gaiman, a Mini Cooper guy? We’ve been looking for a big scoop on the guy …

TORI: Yeah, he has a Mini! And I had a wannabe Mustang in the old days (Laughter. I was brought up in a religious household, so the Four Horses of the Apocalypse and all that, that was part of my upbringing: the Biblical. But I think his archetypal influence was across the board, and mine was more Native American and the Bible. And I think that, at a certain point, you can plunder your own ... what would you call it... what makes you you, and what you’re brought up in ... and sometimes you’re thirsty for other cultures and their stories, and in our chats, he would always remind me how important myth was. That it’s the due to everything.

SPOTLIGHT: Have you heard anything about his new project with Marvel, The Eternals?


SPOTLIGHT: It’s precisely about mythology. It’s based on a 1970s comic by one of the all time legends of comics, Jack Kirby, and he tried to tie together all of mankind’s myths from all the different regions of the world as being put in play by an actual race of people called the Eternals. They lived on a mountaintop and they ran around the world doing all kinds of funky stuff, and they are the ones who inspired all the different myths. What Neil is doing is modernizing Jack Kirby’s idea and putting his own spin on it, contextualizing all the mythology that relates to the Eternals and making it sort of real in the understanding of our world.

TORI: Well how timely is that! You know, Joseph Campbell – Neil and I would talk about this a lot - what a great mind he was, a force. However, the generation now isn’t necessarily exposed to Joseph Campbell, and how do you combat forces - political forces, say - that are making decisions that we are going to have to live with over the next twenty years and longer? How do you find, maybe, the answers to equations - political equations, or emotional equations - unless you know your mythology? Because it’s really hard to think like, well, "I only know what’s happening to me in my time, not how wars have happened in other times." I think that Neil is a clever egg in that he knows that a way to arm a generation is to give them ways to really fight powers that are trying to keep generations in the dark. And that might seem -I’m not giving you on Alias kind of chat, here - the idea that it’s an "us against them" kind of thing - but I do think that because a lot of information has been controlled, not by burning books but by certain things being kept unavailable, and how so much of communication as you know is controlled by those who are "they,"there are ways you have to be able to slip through the net.

We would talk quite a bit that the best thing that one can do is to try and arm an individual with little windows that they con jump through, and then they can piece together their own mosaic. They can find their own myth, and so the fragments of self become whole. And when you’re dealing with a generation who are whole, like the power of the late 60s generation, how they confronted those in power and held their feet to the fire, it was a very powerful time! And as we both know - Bob Dylan and John Lennon, those guys weren’t dumb bunnies. I think when you ask, "Who is the Bob Dylan of this generation?", well, that’s a big, big, big question mark. We certainly need them. And yet, maybe you have to put the information out there that’s not going to look the same, and it can’t be the same, but Neil knows enough to
know that comics books are something that people ore going to pick up. And so he’s going to arm anybody with what they need if they want to, I don’t know ... stretch! To step into bigger shoes!

SPOTLIGHT: Well, that’s part of what Eternals is going to be all about. You sound like you’ve got a good read on it already!

TORI: It’s funny, because when The Da Vinci Code came out, he did say to me - and this is nothing against anybody that’s involved in it - but he said to me, "This information has been out there for quite some time." And yet, because very few people have read Elaine Pagels or even read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, then this was a big shock for them.

And I think that he is trying to bring to the masses, a lot more of not just that kind of information, but information that has just not been out in the mainstream, if you see what I mean. And I really find that very exciting in his work. He loads’s loaded. Stardust, it’s just loaded with research. When he works on a book, sometimes he’ll crash at one of my houses, and the amount of effort that he puts into a work, it’s
enough to make you want to burn the midnight oil yourself. You really understand about discipline, and it doesn’t always come easy. It really doesn’t. I have a library in the beach house and he’ll pull books out from the shelf- they’re everywhere! I’m not saying he’s a messy house guest, but...(Laughter.) I’m saying, you know, he will really push himself, which makes you as a creative force want to push yourself. I’m bragging on his work ethic, his research. I think a lot of times, you and I both know, you’ve got one comic in you, or one good record if you’re half good. But book after book after book ... that’ s a very different thing.

SPOTLIGHT: He’s got a big arsenal to work with. You just mentioned the hard work involved in discriminating research; but also, Neil’s gift of characterization is lethal. He can draw a character out within a few pages of a comic, and with just a key lines of dialogue make you know that character eternally ... endlessly, even! (Puns intended!)

TORI: Yeah, but this goes back to the discipline of observation. All those walks that we’ll take, or times on the tube, or just sitting there having dinner, we can’t not observe. I think that as a writer, you’re the nosiest person that has ever lived (and it’s so embarrassing to admit that), but you hove to be on observer of other people. Otherwise, you can’t develop your characters because if you’re only developing them
around your friends soon you’re not going to have any, number one. And number two, you’re going to repeat yourself over and over. But the best characters are based on truth. Most of what Neil writes from what I know, it’s based on what he really sees; maybe, you know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a pinch of this and a pinch of that, from this creature or that creature, but I think that he is trying to remind me when I’m writing a work about the research and observation, and to push yourself further. You know, to really push yourself. Every line, every sentence, every beat of every bar.

And also, if you’re smart, everybody has a think tank. He has his and I have mine, and he’s obviously a part of mine, and I guess I’m a part of his, but how it works is that when he’s working on something, he’ll send me it, and we hove a joke, which is: "Listen, I’d rather hear it from you than the New York Times," I mean, it’s like, "lay it on me, Neil !"

SPOTLIGHT: Right, it’s all about who you can trust.

TORI: Yeah, because you cannot open your work up to everybody, because you will find enough people to hate it and enough people to love it. You need people who are going to offer something up.

SPOTLIGHT: To be real with it.

TORI: Sometimes he’ll send me something and it’s just not my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t sit there and respond. For some gory bloody scene, like the Corinthian for example (in Sandman), he might ask, "Is this effective in this way?" And I think that’s the kind of think tank you need: not people who, if it’s not rap, they hate it, or they just hate girl singers... if you’re like that, you’re just an absolutely
useless person on a think tonk, because you can only like what you like, you’re completely nonobjective.

SPOTLIGHT: And the other way, too, is someone who unconditionally loves everything you do, they can’t help push you places where you might need to go.

TORI: No, no, no ... that’s a waste of time. But not everybody has the ability to, you know, offer something up, and also not everybody wants to receive it when you do offer it up! But you realize that to be strong creative forces, you need a few people in your life that are going to give you what you need to be great.

SPOTLIGHT: And you guys are there for each other in that respect! Have the two of you ever considered doing something more directly collaborative in the future?

TORI: It’s funny you would say this. I mean ... (Pause.) We do chat about it. He has an idea. So he’s been prodding me, which is good, because just because you might want to work together doesn’t mean you should. So he’s come up with an idea that has rattled my cage. In a good way!

So you kick it around in a structural way. As a musical structure, you think, how could I do this ... ? So, yeah, I think it’s there, and I think that our friendship is strong enough to survive it.

SPOTLIGHT: Whether it might be a success or a failure! Have you ever thought that perhaps you’d like to write a comic book one day? Do any of your artistic inspirations ever formulate around that medium at all?

TORI: Well ... (Long pause.) ... I think you would have to know what you’re good at and what you’re not. I go back to this saying: just because you might have an opportunity to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. I think you have to know what you’re good at, and so I think I’ll leave the comics to Neil. I want to read them!

Thank you, Tori, for sitting with this interview for Marvel Spotlight readers. And to readers of Marvel Spotlight, be sure to checkout Tori’s new version of "Sister Named Desire," her contribution to the new Dave McKean produced tribute CD to Neil Gaiman titled Where’s Neil When You Need Him.