Songs In The Key Of Sin
By Noah Michelson
The last time we talked to Tori Amos, perhaps the most famous pop banshee to plunk down at a piano bench in the last 20 years (if you count Y Kant Tori Read, her poorly received, though in retrospect undeniably smart, foray into the industry back in 1988), her career had just split wide open -- again. No stranger to being batted around by the big boys at first Atlantic and then Epic Records, in the spring of 2008 Amos finally announced she was going indie. Now with Universal Republic Records as her distributor, Amos will release her 11th album, Abnormally Attracted To Sin, along with a DVD featuring music videos -- or "visualettes" as she calls them -- for each of the tracks, on May 19.
Out chatted with Amos at her hotel suite in New York City a few weeks ago to get the lowdown on spiritual eroticism, her (secretly) dirty lyrics, and why it's never a good idea to suck up to Madonna.
Out: At its center, Abnormally Attracted To Sin is about sexuality and spirituality and how the two intersect. You've often dealt with those issues throughout your career but what was specifically happening in your life -- or in the political realm or in popular culture -- that you spurred you to create this album?
Tori Amos: People are still in a state of paralysis with the changes that have been happening over the last year and a half. There have been huge upheavals for everyone and how that affects everybody -- whether you have a job or not -- is that if we define power as being able to generate money or material things, you have got a whole lot of men out there who are powerless. So how is that going to play itself out behind closed doors? There's a strain that's going to be put on lovers -- gay, straight, bi, whatever it is -- because its power that is the aphrodisiac in the bedroom. So it's how we define power. And what we are attracted to. Because if we're attracted to somebody who has to have power over us and demean us, then we have to start asking ourselves, 'Wait a minute. What is that in me that's turned on by that?' Then it takes me to the idea of a spiritual eroticism.
For so long the idea of dangerous and sexy has been associated with profanity and demeaning behavior and somehow being subjugated because we're not allowed to have the dangerous, erotic relationship with our partner who respects us. My husband is a big preacher of this: why is it that men who really want to value their partners are not thought of as sexy and hot? We will talk about the fact that some guy who has naked women on his Blackberry seems to be real desirable with everybody -- men and women -- instead of a guy who says, 'I'm not going to take your picture and show everybody. I'm going to take your picture because I want you! And why isn't it enough that I want you? Why isn't that hot?' So it's been really exploring and marrying these different ideas of can you be in control while you have gold handcuffs on? And what is demeaning and what isn't? The key is power. The definition of power. And there are some songs where the women are feeling powerless, like in [the Abnormally Attracted to Sin track] 'Maybe California.'
It makes me think about the queer community as well, because of the way we've been programmed to think that what we do in the bedroom, or even outside of it, is fundamentally wrong.
So it's interesting to think about how we then become empowered -- especially when even in 2009 giving someone a blow job is still seen as a potentially evil thing. It's ridiculous.
Exactly. It's how we've been programmed to define sin.
Which is what you're looking at with this album.
It's really what I'm fascinated by. What the patriarchy has judged as sinful and we say, 'OK! All right!' The power that the patriarchy has had on our self-worth is so insidious and to me it's why there are so many affairs. Because once you walk into marriage --some kind of commitment with somebody -- then the illicit, natural side of our nature gets amputated. If you're trying to be a good parent, then there's the idea of, 'What happened to that side of me that used to be a passionate creature?'
It doesn't die. Or it shouldn't.
Yes. And why do you need to have some kind of experience where you destroy your life to realize, 'Wait a minute. I really liked that I liked this person.' But why all of a sudden instead of being able to -- or wanting to -- do this with them I end up doing it with a stranger who doesn't know me, who doesn't care about me. If I'm in trouble or if I'm sick they're out the fucking door. If the champagne is there -- they are there --
But what is that?
What is that? Like you said -- we are programmed for so long that sexy is out there somewhere [motions to the room] and sacred is in here somewhere [motions to chest] and you're never going to have sexy and sacred in a relationship together. And I think it does depend on who you're with, but I think you really have to work hard to break those programs because they're so entrenched. And [the Abnormally Attracted to Sin track] 'Police Me' is very much about being encoded. As you know with the archetypes from the last record I was really trying to find sides to myself that I hadn't allowed myself. I don't need to put on Pip's [one of the five 'dolls,' or personas, Amos created for her last album, American Doll Posse] garb to walk into that. That was a huge place to get to.
So that's something you realized after doing American Doll Posse?
Yeah. All these different sides of [the dolls] -- they're with me now.
And you can access those?
I can access those. And I needed to access those because sometimes we do become how people see us. Instead of, 'Wait a minute -- this not how I think. This is not how I see it and I know I'm going to be unpopular with my friends'' Some friends have been changing for the last many years.
It's interesting you say that. When we talked last time you didn't seem to be in the best place. I don't want to use the term 'beat down' --