Polari Magazine (May 2009)

From the Fringes of the Milky Way: An interview with Tori Amos

Tuesday 14 June 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

Interview: Christopher Bryant and Bryon Fear
Words: Christopher Bryant
Photography: Karen Collins

“It is a whole,” Tori Amos said in describing her tenth studio album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. “It’s a story with short stories.”

The story of this auditory delight is rooted in what we are taught to understand as sin and how it informs the choices we make. The songs describe specific situations with both perspective and empathy. This is one of Tori Amos’ greatest strengths as a songwriter: to make the personal political, to reach from the specific toward the universal and to arrive not at a judgement but an understanding. In the emotive ‘Flavor’, which is in many ways the thematic signature of Abnormally Attracted to Sin, she asks, “What does it look like, this orbital ball, from the fringes of The Milky Way?” This is the question that drives the record: what do the stories being told feel like from the inside and look like from the outside?

Polari talked to Tori Amos two days after she had to cancel an exclusive one-off performance at the Savoy Theatre in London due to food poisoning. This is the first time in her solo career that she has had to do so. “It was very hard for me cancelling. I couldn’t stand. And I’d lost my voice as well,” Tori explained. “We all recognised that it was an impossibility. There were not enough drugs in the world that could get me to stand. I’m the type of person that I would say will do what’s necessary. If I need a shot, if I need to do something, I’ll do it. I’m from the American side. I’m sort of like a little soldier – give me my shots, let’s go to Africa, I’m going to the swamps. Let’s play the show.”

Since the release of Scarlet’s Walk in 2002, Tori Amos has created epic records that are built around strong themes. The packaging and the additional material on DVD – which contain extra tracks, video footage, and interview material – are an important part of the project. “The phrase sonic installation has become really important to me,” Tori declares when describing the result. “You really need to give people information, things to think about, and an extension of the work.”

Abnormally Attracted to Sin as an entire conceptual project pushes this notion even further. It was built on the idea that the visual material would be integral to the process. The filming of the sixteen visualettes that are on the accompanying DVD was, as Tori describes it, a catalyst.

“What I want people to think about is that the beginnings of this record were being written at the end of our old world, when the credit was still ok, and we could rest easy at night not thinking that everything we have might be gone tomorrow. The beginning of this whole work, the time frame, occurred as things were beginning to shake. I was watching Christian Lamb’s dailies, the montage of our life on the road, and I was seeing something that the music he was putting it to wasn’t telling, that a different story needed to be told.”

The story that needed to be told is stated upfront in the forceful opening track, ‘Give’. The dailies revealed that “instead of taking from people,” Tori discloses, the narrator of the story “needed to understand the need that she, to survive, had to give of herself.” Here she pauses, and adds her caveat, delivered with a knowing nod of the head: “But that can be very ‘Welcoming the vampires’ as well. There’s a double-edged sword to that story.” This realisation was, as Tori tells it, the key.

“Once I saw that it became much more of a technology experiment in order to make the song sound like it does, with the piano being there but in this strange world.” The result was that “this idea of experimenting with sound” would be the foundation.

“The last record was more about experimenting with band. This one was more about arrangements, and micro-arrangements, using different teams to do different arrangements at different times, and working with the team. Each song really got its own arrangement treatment, and once the recording happened that was only the beginning. Things would get re-recorded. Things would get rearranged. Some of the films would then be made after the songs had been recorded, or some would be made because of footage that got shot during another shoot for another song. If it didn’t work I’d say ‘we don’t have it, go back out’. It was collaborative.”

“Some records are all tracked – drums, piano, vocal - and kept. The Beekeeper was very much like that. It’s very much ‘no make-up, no airbrush, no nothing’. And it’s not one of my favourite records because of that.” Tori pauses, and smiles, adding playfully, “Because I really do like a good airbrush. I’ve learned that about myself.” After this revelation, Tori explains what this means to her creatively. The Beekeeper is really more like a whole b-sides experiment, because the arrangements weren’t hammered out. That’s why I think my reaction to that with American Doll Posse became ‘alright, now, let’s do a band record’. And it was a very different kind of approach. It was micromanaged, but it was very much about becoming a band mentally, not a singer–songwriter. It was about leaving all that behind. And now, with the new record, it is about embracing the writer and the singer again along with the musicians and arrangements.”

The message at the core of Abnormally Attracted to Sin is about taking control, and at times it is about wresting that control back from another person’s definition of sin. This is incontrovertible in the fearless rock track ‘Strong Black Vine’, which parallels bondage with the edicts of religion and politics. There is no mistaking the message in the accompanying visualette, in which images of Christian churches, Voodoo, Tarot cards and divination run alongside images of the recent war in Iraq, from soldiers in the street to burning oil.

For Tori herself, this process has been about maintaining control over her own message. “When you’re first making records,” she confides, “you haven’t tasted the tip of the devil’s wand. But on your tenth album you’ve done more than taste it. You’ve enjoyed it, and you’ve gotten ill from it. And I think the song ‘Curtain Call’ covers that. Sometimes you don’t realise that you’re being totally and completely absorbed. So you stop your message, and your questioning of control. Sometimes you think that you’re in a place of power, and yet you don’t realise you’ve signed up to something that is going to make sure your message is either broken or not put out."

This is a fight that so many singers have had with their record companies: from Joni Mitchell and Prince to George Michael and Darren Hayes. It is a subject on which Tori has spoken unequivocally. Yet in this equation there is also the music buying public. “The public blows through their next mistress,” Tori adds. “Those of us that occurred at the time we did … ” she pauses, trailing off, but continues, “In some ways it was just a different time. Now people need something new. ‘I don’t care if it’s a perfectly good pink shirt. I need another one’!” And she sees the current craze for social-networking as illustrative of that. “Why are we so enamoured with excavating the personal journal of someone we don’t know instead of growing with somebody we do?” she asks.