story / Wayan Zoey
It’s a special kind of singer that can be identified simply by their stance—your Freddie Mercurys or Billie Joe Armstrongs—rarer still when that silhouette is set against a piano. When the shape is a billow of red hair whipping around a glittery frame, arms out as if inserting themselves in to the heart of the piano, terminating in an endless succession of the finest footwear, notably with the right foot pointed out towards the audience, it can only be the legendary faerie siren Tori Amos.
Amos is a true veteran of the music industry. She dropped her first single, an ode to her hometown called “Baltimore” in 1980 at the age of 16, and has since released 15 major label albums while touring the globe extensively. In 1992, Amos was recovering from her first taste of the major label business—a record called Y Kant Tori Read which featured Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, The Cult) on drums—and following a long struggle with her record company, eased in part by the intervention of Ahmet Ertegun, she released her solo debut Little Earthquakes. While that album peaked at #54 on the Billboard chart, it has since been recognized as a seminal masterpiece of emotional, piano-driven songcraft, and kicked off a streak of five straight Platinum-selling albums.
Once she gained the confidence of her label, a significant promotional push was designed and executed around Little Earthquakes and all her subsequent Atlantic Records releases, which involved extensive single releases including an assortment of b-sides that didn’t make the cut on their respective albums. Rhino Records recently released deluxe reissues of Amos’s first two solo discs, remastered and packaged with all their b-sides. Amos sat down to talk, ostensibly about the reissues, but as the following text indicates, she was more interested in discussing the original cast recording of her musical adaptation of the Scottish fairy tale The Light Princess, and the path that led her to not only that work, but whatever it is that she might do next.
Wayan: You have a very personal connection with your songs and have had some opportunities in the past to revisit some of the recordings. How does it feel to have them reappear as complete collections, particularly with the inclusion of all the other recordings that were made in the same era?
Tori: Well, I guess in some ways, it’s like a time capsule that is brought together with all these different songs and moments that weren’t originally together, so, that they’ve all happened in that time frame. When we were listening back to them during the remastering, I don’t know, it made sense to me that they’re included in there how they are. All the b-sides that weren’t always b-sides. Some of them, they were a-sides originally. And we make decisions at the time, and now that they’re living as collections, complete collections, it was supposed to be for the anniversary, but I’m late for most things.
I remember in [2003 greatest hits collection] Tales from the Librarian, you reworked some of the mixes. How did it feel to sort of go back to the original mixes with these reissues?
T: Well, it was a choice that we made that that’s what we would do. So that was kind of the rule. And that way, it was, adjustments were made in the mastering to update them. And sometimes you sit back and realize things are not very compressed because that was the time, that was the choice at the time. And then you listen to how people are listening to music today and sometimes things sound a lot quieter now than in 1992, 1991, because
Because everything is being mastered much louder.
Yeah, because it’s different. And therefore, the mastering process, it was to make sure that if somebody is listening as they listen to everything on their headphones, that it still is reading to them now. So it was making those types of adjustments with the original mixes
So you’re making sure that they still connect with people now in the same way that they did at the time?
I noticed that as far as your recording arc, there was a bit of a detour for a while, with more of the classical works, while your most recent album was more in the vein of these first two records through American Doll Posse. Are you feeling an inclination to do more of that pop-form music again?
The next thing that’s coming out is The Light Princess original cast recording, which I’m producing with my team. That will be out in the fall. So, different again because its working with many actors who are playing the roles. And it’s a different hat, because I’m not the performer, but one of the writers, and I’m producing it. So, sometimes it’s important, I find, to do different projects, in order to take you to the next one. With each project, the idea is that you get inspired to create something else. Each one over the years has taken me to the next one in some ways. Sort of like a baton that is handed off during this relay of music creativity. So I can’t tell you what’s going to be next after The Light Princess, because I think that’s all forming. Responding to watching how actors express themselves through story, seeing how they do it, and sitting back and letting that, I don’t know, expand in my mind for a while might push me to tell story in a different way next time.
You have a pretty direct relationship with the notes and the harmonies and the sound that you create with your music and there is a certain ease of understanding your expression when it’s coming from your own instrument and your own voice. Does that change your perspective on how you work with your own music, seeing it expressed through other instruments and other people even?
Well I think what I began to realize was, when you write for female voices and male characters, it was a side of writing that I hadn’t explored in my own work because my vocal instrument and my piano skills are what they are. Therefore, when you’re writing knowing that an orchestra will be involved and knowing that men will be involved, I began to write in a different way. And I wonder if in writing that way, thinking that you’re writing for men, but then doing a cover of that yourself, isn’t something that I might explore.
Do you mean more just exploring that mind space that you’re in as far as creating music that was intended to be expressed by men?
Yeah, and then deciding to do a cover of it, and then it becomes your own release. So you might write a whole story based on things that male characters would say. And maybe you think, “well but now I’m going to do a cover of them as me.” And nobody might hear that other process. Some painters start painting a painting, and then part way through, that painting starts becoming something else, but it wasn’t intended to be that. Sometimes as a writer, I’m going to write something completely different structurally for a guy than I would for myself. But a lot of the covers that I’ve done over the years are male covers. And so, I think there’s a twist that can happen when you do that, but I haven’t ever written things for men and then recorded them myself as the expression. But I might! But I might!
So it’s almost about finding a different form of relationship for yourself with the music than even affecting how you might generate it.
Yeah because there is a style, well, every artist has their style, so when you start writing for a particular character, who, has a small rage say, but is incredibly, when they open their mouth, they’re very gregarious and loud, I would write something very different for them then I’d write for myself. And that, I’ve seen that happen with The Light Princess, I’ve seen that happen. But then, what I think might be something that I want to investigate is writing that and then recording it myself. Bringing it back to my own style. I wouldn’t write the same thing, they would be completely different things if I’m setting up to write that subject for myself to perform. So as a writer, you have to push yourself. You have to. That’s the one thing I discovered about working with Light Princess for so many years, is that there were structures and things that I did that I’ve never done for myself, but I would do because I was writing it for specific instruments that did certain things. But then, no different than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That was written because of what they do and how they perform. But then when somebody like me does it, it comes out very very differently. And those expressions are valid, but it comes out differently. But I would never write a structure like that originally in order to do the cover.
With the musical, you’re not just dealing with voices and what not, but you’re dealing with characters and people taking on entire personas. How did it feel to be working with music and not just these new instruments that do these specific things, but these new humans that do specific things to express it?
[laughs] Well, I’ve begun to really value what actors do. I hadn’t been exposed to that process, the behind the scenes process of how they work it out. To begin to see how certain actors take work and inhabit it, and then yes, make it their own, but then take directions from the director, who was Marianne Elliott, and then come to me and Sam [Adamson] who were the songwriters, and then we talked to them about style, and how to sing it in such a way that might be a little different for them. This whole collaborative process was different for me. And it did inform the writing. I’m excited about the original cast recording coming out, because a lot of these songs were designed for the people that you’re hearing singing them, because it is the original cast. And the original cast can only be that one time, even if it becomes a movie one day, or it goes to commercial theatre, it hasn’t taken that step yet. It’s only been in, you know, state-funded theatre, which is the National Theatre. So it hasn’t taken that leap yet to the commercial world, which is a scary leap and the first leap we will do with Universal Records when it comes out. They’ve given me and Sam a lot of control, so that, you know, they’re not coming in there and making it less dark for example, like you hear some movie studios do. They come in with something musical and say, “well, we can’t have two princes being gay,” or, “we can’t have this,” or, “we can’t have that.” Well Universal has not said that. They said to me, and to Sam, they saw it quite a few times, and they said, “this is the first commercial representation, and we want you all to make it as dark as you want, as light as you want, make the end what you want,” and they kind of just said, “just go make it great!” Now, I don’t expect that everyone in the commercial world is going to say that to us, so I’m quite excited that we get to put it out there with not a lot of meddling, from, you know, producers who think, “well, we want the demographic to be, you know, from 3-300.”
Yeah! But I’m not under any illusions, I’m not delusional that one day when we do enter the commercial market, we won’t have to have some of these battles.
Right. You’ve gone through those battles quite a few times over the course of your career.
Yes I have. It hasn’t always made me very popular, and, I have all kinds, I guess, reputations with people. But I will fight for the work! I will fight you! I will fight you! When you think you’re sleeping… But I don’t believe in violence! It’s about, “No, what’s your intention? . . . No, well how are we achieving that intention? . . . Well, let’s turn it on its side and look at it!” And if somebody’s right, I don’t care who you are! If you’re the tea boy, it doesn’t matter to me. If you’re right, then I’m going with you. And it doesn’t matter in the hierarchy to me. I don’t care who you are. If you have a good idea, then we should try and apply it and see if it works. That just goes to say, even if you’re the guy that’s got the bucks and you’re making some ridiculous idea, I maybe should have been wiser over these years and nodded my head and then found a way to trick you! But sometimes I would just, in the old days, you know, “we’re wasting everybody’s time, that’s not a very good idea. And it’s going to cost you a lot of money for me to, you know, humor you.” Well, that hasn’t always made me very popular, and so as I’ve gotten older, sometimes I realize that unfortunately, you have to nod your head and pick your battles and find a way of fighting for the work. But I’m never not going to fight for it. Never, ever!
Well that’s how we get to the point now where we’re looking back on a career that essentially started in the early 90s and continues until today. Without you fighting for your work, that might not have necessarily been the path.
Yes, I guess you’re right.
When you discussed the battles and everything and how it has possibly made you unpopular over the years and how you’ve sort of adjusted your, for better or worse, there’s always the examination of your role as a women in the music industry. Going back particularly to these first two albums sort of gives you an opportunity to reflect on how that’s evolved between 1992 and now. So I’m just curious how you feel about that sort of, A) the fact that we’re still talking about women in music as opposed to just musicians in music, and B) how your role in that has evolved since Little Earthquakes.
Well, to be in a decision-making position where you don’t have a famous powerful producer, most of them are men, not all as we know, but a lot of them particularly then were, are making the decisions, I realized that at a certain point, I had to be in that position, even though I choose to delegate a lot in my world. I think you have to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at and find people around you that are good at that and delegate certain things. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t micromanage the process, because creatively I do, but I knew at that time that if I was going to achieve this that I was going to have to fight for it. And Doug Morris gave me the opportunity to do that once Little Earthquakes was rejected the first time. Davitt Sigerson had produced it, I had learned a lot from him. I’d learned a lot from Joe Chiccarelli when I had worked with him [on Y Kant Tori Read]. It was an opportunity when Doug rejected it to negotiate with him to do four tracks but that I co-produced with somebody called Eric Rosse that I pulled in. And so, he agreed to that. So that was really then the beginning of proving it. We had done all the demos together, Eric and I, but it was an opportunity to take it to the next level. And then from then on, I mean, I had to battle so that Eric and I were able to do Under The Pink, because after the success of Little Earthquakes, then, I’m not saying this was Doug’s opinion, I’m saying it was just the bleacher-stands-in-the-distance industry opinion was that I should go with a very successful producer. That wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. And I’m not saying you can’t learn things with collaborations, I’m not suggesting that, but there was a time when I wasn’t okay that somebody came in and took control.
And particularly in that era, the producers were really heavily involved in recordings and what not.
And a lot of them are now again! Now again, you have a lot of people who are singers come in on producer’s album, and it’s the producer who’s name is on the thing you’re buying, but they might be one of the many songwriters, but are probably not the singer. So, it’s a little bit of a different role now where they’re the artists, but at the time, they were very very much in the power position. And, of course there was a boys club, and there still is in some ways. And I recognize that I wouldn’t be a part of it, and I recognize that in some ways, I’d be a lone wolf, but I decided that I was going to forge ahead. My parents made sure I owned my own publishing, my own company, and I thought, “all right, I’m going to, this is a path I’m going to take.” And sometimes, you know, you don’t always get support for that. You don’t always get colleagues that cheer you on for that, or encourage you for that. A lot of times people would place doubts to try and get me to doubt what I was doing. That if I just signed with a big publishing company, my songs would go further than they did, and that might be true! That might be very very true. I might agree to you, that might be right. But at the same time, I took that risk, and I don’t regret taking that risk sitting here, because I chose to surround myself with people that I really respect, that I trust.
Special Thanks to Mothers Day Orphan’s Productions.