- Photo credit: Danielle Levitt
Time can be a right old cad! One minute you’re casually listening to your Little Earthquakes cassette on the Walkman whilst doing your homework, then the next thing you know: two decades have flown by, as if by the click of a finger. Mind you, Tori Amos doesn’t pause to ponder where the years have gone because she is too busy spending her time being creative. Hot on the heels of last year’s superb return-to-form album, Night of Hunters, she has been fine-tuning her re-scheduled National Theatre musical, The Light Princess, with playwright Sam Adamson, as well as joining forces with the Metropole Orchestra on Gold Dust, a collection of re-recorded songs from her back catalogue. The occasion? Little Earthquakes‘ 20th anniversary.
Although the mile-stone involves her first album, Amos decided to put the spotlight on songs from various stages of her career, with the only albums conspicuously ignored in this regard being To Venus and Back and The Beekeeper (well, there’s nothing from Strange Little Girls, either, but that was a covers record, right?). Here, she tackles Best Fit’s probings about each of the tracks on Gold Dust and, as usual for Amos, she doesn’t shy away from an elaborate answer.
Best Fit: The original ‘Flavor’ on Abnormally Attracted to Sin was very much a sonic sibling for ‘Lust’ from To Venus and Back. Do you feel a connection between the two songs?
Amos: Yes. I do. I think that Abnormally Attracted to Sin had a lot of links with that time period, with the Venus time. So that makes a lot of sense to me.
Best Fit: Was it an obvious choice for Gold Dust from the outset?
Amos: ‘Flavor’ stepped forward for all kinds of reasons. I think that she was overlooked on Abnormally a bit. She took me by the hand and said: “I have a message. The American elections are coming up, there are so many flavors and lifestyles that are being marginalised. And it’s hard to know which way the election is going but what we really need to think about, as an open-minded community, is that people are required to pay taxes but they don’t have the same rights as other people – so, some people can get married but others can’t, yet we’re all expected to contribute to the government? That makes no sense to me. So, word up, ‘Flavor’! I felt that it was important to showcase that and also to talk about the idea of “whose God, then, is God?” , especially with what has happened recently with cultures clashing. Even though America, as a nation, didn’t put out that film, I didn’t put out that film but there are people out there that have an agenda, that want to create terror or anarchy. The idea of “whose God spread fear? / whose God spread love?” – well, many of the Gods, it seems to me, are spreading fear. So, ‘Flavor’ really said to me: “my time is now” and that’s how she was chosen.
Best Fit: Let’s talk about your controversial decision to halve ‘Yes, Anastasia’ [the 1994 Under The Pink version was almost 10 minutes long!] Why oh why?
Amos: Because this is a collaboration! And it’s a little self-indulgent to say “sit there, whilst I do this”. This is a collaboration record, ok? They’re not just backing string-players. It’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Jules is really my dance partner, though, because the orchestra is a creature, you know? They’re a dragon and he’s the brain of the dragon and I’m riding the dragon. It seems as if the other approach would be to come in where the Prokofiev energy starts, the Russians coming over the hill. We liked that idea. That was exciting. But you have to make decisions in context. That song ended an album, that was of its time… it exists! But for the orchestra to wait through all of the first part, I felt that would be a little self-indulgent, for this project. For the live version we have another arrangement again because… well, in the studio, without lights and without the visuals, you have to be on the money and on the mark with your cuts and edits.
The albums have to be done for composition’s sake. And then when you play live, because it is live and there aren’t backing singers covering my bum and there’s not an oxygen tank on stage – although, maybe one should be hooked up to me, but that’s another conversation – then you have to design things. It’s different when I’m with the band and I can look over to Matt and he would just know the look of ‘just give me 30 bars’ and we would improvise on the spot. But you don’t jam with an orchestra. So you have to build the improvisations in. And ‘Yes, Anastasia’ has some little extra moments built into it. For quite a few of the songs there will be new live arrangements. ‘Flavor’ has a really wonderful new introduction. I was humming to Philly over the phone and he was giggling his head off but then came back with exactly what I hummed over the phone as the melody for the introduction of ‘Flavor’. On record, if you have a 2 or 3 minute introduction, that doesn’t really work for a focused, precise presentation but performing live is a totally different medium and I treat them differently.
Best Fit: Despite From The Choirgirl Hotel reaching number six in the UK album chart and the single, ‘Spark’, being a top-20 hit, the scheduled release of ‘Jackie’s Strength’ as the follow-up single ended up being cancelled here. What happened?
Amos: I think there was just an administrative change, there were people changing all the time at the record label and that was a very challenging time. It just was. Because the people who really understood the music and who had been there for Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink – like Max Hole – were gone. He’d moved to Universal by then. So I guess when you have people at the record label changing constantly, sometimes decisions would be made out of America for Europe.
Best Fit: Speaking of America, the US also got a full remix CD release for ‘Jackie’s Strength’. Would you ever go down the dance route again?
Amos: I can tell you that, hopefully, as we speak there is a dance remix being done. It’s in the works but I can’t tell you more than that. It’s for this record and it’ll be out by October. That’s the plan, anyway. Because it’s 20 years and because there have been dance remixes, I thought that would need to be represented.
Best Fit: What are your memories of writing and recording this song back in 1993?
Amos: I had just come back from Down Under. I had spent some time in that part of the world and I guess it had an influence. I was in New Mexico writing the record and the desert played a big part. The light! This is where Edith Hamilton and Georgia O’Keefe went to paint some of their great works so the light there really did have an effect. And the expansiveness, the sky. It seemed like an endless sky. I wanted to include it on Gold Dust because it is an overlooked piece of music that I have really grown with. I didn’t pick out a lot of groove songs, as you can see, because it wasn’t a band set-up. That wasn’t what the collaboration was. But I felt as if certain songs that were possibly really rhythmic, like ‘God’, ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Juarez’, ‘Cruel’… we decided to explore those with the Quartet , instead.
Best Fit: ‘Precious Things’ is one of the finest moments on Gold Dust…
Amos: …well, she stepped forward and really wanted a make-over and was really open to it. It’s been 20 years, she’s secure in who she is and I’ve played her with a band, I’ve played her by myself and then with the Quartet. But it was one of those moments of let’s let her have a big make-over.
Best Fit: It’s one of your biggest and most-loved songs, yet it never ended up as a single. Did you consider releasing it back then?
Amos: The thing is, when people choose singles… I sometimes don’t know why they choose them. I think it’s trying to fit a format, that’s why. The public, however, makes their own decisions, which I think is really exciting and great. Thank god they have their own minds!
Best Fit: The “Guuuuurl” bit in the middle-8 of the song has become a bit iconic in terms of your live performance of it. Fans seem to look forward to your enunciation of it, sort of like the “Handbag” line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest…
Amos: The thing about that with the orchestra… I hope people are going to realise that “Guurl” is going to be different. Because I’m on a count there. And when you’re alone you just come in when you want but when you’re playing it live with other people you have to get it right and you’ve got to be right on the mark. There’s not as much freedom. I’m just focused on hitting that piano line with the orchestra and not falling behind because they don’t stop! . They just keep going!
Best Fit: The lyrics to ‘Gold Dust’ resonate with a sense of hindsight and looking into the future so as to try to avoid regret. Do you have any tried and tested precautions for avoiding regret in life?
Amos: Oh, that’s a very good question. And I don’t know if I have a good answer.
Best Fit: Do you have any regrets that you are prepared to talk about?
Amos: A few. Reacting before thinking things through. You know that saying ‘be smart not right’? I wish that sometimes over the years… even where I have been proven to be right, how I confronted the situation wasn’t right. So yes, you’ve been right but you’ve just left a room in tatters. I think that with confrontation, something that I have learned over the years is to take a step back and try to find out why somebody is in the place that they’re in. I’m sure we have all had that in our lives. The one thing I had to learn that I wish I had known sooner is neutrality. That’s a very powerful place to come from, to be able to be neutral, not to have to respond. Just being able to listen. Not having to have a solution, not having to fix it or defend it, whatever we are talking about – this applies to everything, trust me! Just standing there and not reacting. That’s a powerful place to come from and I’ll tell you, I’m still struggling with it .
Best Fit: Is ‘Star of Wonder’ your favourite song from Midwinter Graces?
Amos: No! It isn’t. But I love playing it with people. Originally, I said to Philly: I want gold, frankincense and myrrh coming over the desert on a camel, come on! Where’s my ’Kashmir’? I said, if I’m gonna have then I’m gonna do it to a Methodist hymn. I remember as a girl in the church… The Methodists said: look what Led Zeppelin is doing to all the girls! They thought I was a bit too young to be affected but – teenage girls? forget it! They were leaving home, going to concerts, their fathers had no control over them. You know that saying from the bible: ‘gird your loins!’? Well, yeah, forget it – those loins are out the door! No Papa was gonna wrangle them back. So, listening to the music, it made sense to me, I thought it was so sensual. They were able to pull in the Blues energy with the Goddess mythology, that’s what Robert was doing. And, therefore, having a Middle-Eastern read for something that was originally a hymn? I couldn’t resist that! That’s why it made it onto this record. Because of what it is doing, what it’s bringing together from the church background, a reference to Zeppelin orchestration and a Middle-Eastern feel as well.
Best Fit: When you play ‘Winter’ live, is it still easy to tap into the feelings and emotions you had when you first wrote the song in the early 1990s?
Amos: Over the years, people have told me their stories of ‘Winter’. So many people. And so, when ‘Winter’ walks into a room, she is carrying stories of girls and their fathers from what seems like different dimensions. When I first met ‘Winter’ that doesn’t mean that’s when ‘Winter’ was born. It means that’s when I met ‘Winter’. It’s been alive for… heaven knows how long her structure has been in place. But that’s how I see the songs, their consciousness. And when I recorded this version with the orchestra, I wasn’t seeing me walking over the hill with my dad in Virginia, or falling off a swing and Papa, my mother’s father, picking me up. I was seeing Tash fall down in Vienna on the ice. We were out there visiting, walking around before a show, and she fell down on the ice. She was very little and Mark picked her up. She had just grazed her knee and was crying and the picture that I had was of Tash and her dad on the ice. I really found that to be a lovely transformation of the song.
Best Fit: You once said that ‘Honey’ was your favourite song from Under the Pink even though it was not actually on Under The Pink. Similarly, for many fans, ‘Flying Dutchman’ is the best song from the Little Earthquakes era even though it didn’t make the final cut. Was it meant to be on it?
Amos: It was. And it was a heart-breaker when it was taken off. And that’s why she is having her time again now, twenty years later. Obviously, because it is a Dutch orchestra, ‘Flying Dutchman’ naturally showed itself and said “look, it is my time”. Also, Comic Book Tattoo happened [this was an illustrated collection of stories curated by Amos and Rantz Hoseley] and the title is a lyric from ’Flying Dutchman’. I wrote that about all the young boys making comics at the time, whose parents said that they were wasting their lives. Rantz was a young guy who would crash at the Hollywood studio apartment behind the Methodist Church when I would go and stay with my boyfriend at the time, Eric Rosse. That song is really coming to her own in the 21st Century with Comic Book Tattoo and now with the Dutch orchestra so she’s having quite a career. She blossoms late but she’s having a ball!
Best Fit: In the battle of the short Tori Amos songs, how did this one beat ‘Mr Zebra’, ‘Way Down’ or even ‘Hungarian Wedding Song’ for a place on the album?
Amos: The thing about ‘Programmable…’ is that I really thought the arrangement could be fun and that we just needed a bit of fun. ‘Mr Zebra’ is a big love for people, I know that. It was considered. I did it with the Black Dykes on Boys for Pele. What I thought was that it would be just big fun to have a big orchestration of ‘Programmable Soda’. We had a good time doing it.
Best Fit: OK, this one has had quite a bit of a journey, hasn’t it?
Amos: Well, you know, I don’t think we got it really right until the orchestral version. I think that I was playing around with an approach in 1997/1998 and by the time Tales of a Librarian came round I thought about holding it for the next record, which became The Beekeeper. But Matt , Jon and I had been playing so much on the Scarlet tour that I think we just wanted to play music that we hadn’t played together before. That’s why it was there, it was just this little whimsical song that we were fond of. So the think tank said “why don’t we put it down”. And over the years it’s been one that people ask me for and it’s been overlooked in some ways, I guess, because it didn’t make a record… you know what I mean . So it stood up and said “I’d really like to come and play with the Dutch orchestra, please”.
Best Fit: Can you, after all these years, shed some light on the lyric: “Tuna / rubber / a little blubber in my igloo”?
Amos: I think I need to leave that to you. I think whatever you think is valid.
Best Fit: Has writing, recording and playing the song live over the years been a cathartic experience for you, in terms of dealing with its subject matter?
Amos: Well… what’s happened over the years is that many people have come up and told me their story about their Marianne. Someone in their lives left the planet early under circumstances that just seemed wrong, that didn’t seem intentional, it was always questionable, you know – those accidents that can seem questionable. I see my niece who is now 20 and Tash is 12 and… Marianne died when she was 15! So, you know, 15 to me is so young to leave the planet – you are just beginning to live. It has been my dedication and tribute to the magical spirit that was Marianne. Her death has informed me and taught me and I feel her presence and she’s walked with me. They say the ancestors walk with you and she is the spirit sister. And so many people around the world have their own Marianne and that’s why she made it onto the album.
Best Fit: In 1997 you re-released ‘Silent All These Years’ to raise the profile of your charity, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). What do you make of the current comments by people like Todd Akin and George Galloway about the definition of rape, in light of the Julian Assange case?
Amos: I don’t know if we even want to dignify it but saying that the sperm would know the difference? And that there couldn’t be a child born out of rape… when you think that somebody can be running for office and that they could make a women’s issue into something that makes no sense! That was a wake-up call for the women of the world that we have to vote! We have to stay present, we have have to be aware of what these people are saying! ‘Silent All These Years’ has been a song that… women have come up to me, even recently, and from all walks of life: women that might seem very powerful and who have jobs where they wield a lot of power, doctors, judges, producers… and yet they might have been involved in a domestic violence situation or a verbally abusive relationship and they weren’t able to draw those lines. And they said that eventually with therapy and making friends with ‘Silent All These Years’ and finding the strength to confront these things, they began to change their situations. It’s a song that is very much there with me.
Best Fit: On American Doll Posse, you took on the roles of five different women. ‘Girl Disappearing’ was sung by the character Clyde. By re-recording this song as well as fellow-Doll, ‘Programmable Soda’, does it feel like you are essentially doing a cover version?
Amos: I guess so! I guess they’re both cover versions, in a away. And also on the road I did a version of ‘Smokey Joe’ with the Quartet but it did feel like that… I have to shift it into a more integrated being. And those women aren’t far away. They’re extensions of the self. But ‘Girl Disappearing’, when I do it as Tori rather than Clyde, isn’t directed at the self, it’s directed at all women. The idea that any woman can be standing in front of another woman and yet we don’t recognise each-other or acknowledge each-other’s spiritual paths. There is a lack of compassion sometimes between women. ‘Girl Disappearing’ made sure that she made it, she commanded to be on. She made it on this album in the last minute, by the way! She said “I’m not going anywhere! I, ‘Girl Disappearing’, am appearing here!” .
Best Fit: This is a bonus track on Gold Dust and, in a way, has some thematic link to ‘Marianne’…
Amos: I felt that it’s not only young women who experience this and it was important that mothers… you know, the idea of being marginalised and that people would be better off without you…
Best Fit: If I understand the song correctly, you are saying to a mother, don’t kill yourself, people need you and there’s more in this world for you.
Amos: That’s right. And this decision might look right to you now but we need to change what you’re looking at. Take my hand and we need to look at your life, ten years, twenty years, thirty years from now and how without you so many people that you love will suffer.