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. Youve 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? Theres a strain thats going to be put on lovers -- gay, straight, bi, whatever it is -- because its power that is the aphrodisiac in the bedroom. So its how we define power. And what we are attracted to. Because if were 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 thats 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 were 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, Im not going to take your picture and show everybody. Im going to take your picture because I want you! And why isnt it enough that I want you? Why isnt that hot? So its 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 isnt? 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 weve been programmed to think that what we do in the bedroom, or even outside of it, is fundamentally wrong.
So its 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. Its ridiculous.
Exactly. Its how weve been programmed to define sin.
Which is what youre looking at with this album.
Its really what Im 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 its 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 youre trying to be a good parent, then theres the idea of, What happened to that side of me that used to be a passionate creature?
It doesnt die. Or it shouldnt.
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 doesnt know me, who doesnt care about me. If Im in trouble or if Im sick theyre 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 youre never going to have sexy and sacred in a relationship together. And I think it does depend on who youre with, but I think you really have to work hard to break those programs because theyre 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 hadnt allowed myself. I dont need to put on Pips [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 thats something you realized after doing American Doll Posse?
Yeah. All these different sides of [the dolls] -- theyre 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 Im going to be unpopular with my friends Some friends have been changing for the last many years.
Its interesting you say that. When we talked last time you didnt seem to be in the best place. I dont want to use the term beat down --
-- But you didnt seem like your usual self.
When was this?
Last May. And I heard that recently when you were playing the SXSW festival some fans yelled, Welcome back! and you responded, Thank you. Its been a rough couple of years. What were you referring to? Were you talking about record label woes?
No. Thats just part of being a professional artist. Youre going to have the drama. [Epic Records] wasnt a good place for me to be. Its good for some people but it wasnt supportive for artistry at the time. But now Im with [Monte Lipman and Doug Morris at Universal Records] and theyre really into creators. There are all kinds of people over there. Ive known Doug since the mid-80s. He looked at me and he said, I know what you do. Youre at a home now where I dont want you to be anybody but Tori and I want you to do what you do.
Thats a gift.
Thats a huge gift. And I think in your life you dont always get to be with your mentor. And maybe because we were apart for 14 years -- we didnt even speak. It wasnt a bad thing. He left Warner Bros. -- he will tell you he was kicked out of the system, locked out of his office -- and then built this empire. And while he was building his empire I was meeting other people. And thank God I did because I met some amazing people. But a lot of people -- as soon as I met them, they would be axed. So I would just get to know somebody and then after seven months theyre gone! So it was just me, Johnny [Witherspoon, her manager] and Chelsea [Laird, also her manager] really, and my crew and my team and the musicians but sometimes youre just sitting there thinking, Why am I handing my work over to these people who only see it as product? It wasnt music. You know if people are excited about music or if theyre just there to get the stock shares. And I was not in the right place. But some of those people are gone and they have a new group [over at Epic] and theyve sent us really wonderful well wishes, but at the time they werent there. What I would say to you when you talked to me in May was that I was in a terrible place. And during the last two years a lot has happened. But I wouldnt have written this record if I hadnt been pushed -- for all kinds of reasons. I dont want to go into all of it but Maybe California doesnt come from nowhere. Youre not able to write that by having a drink with somebody whos had the experience and you havent. You have to be pushed to that place. And I figure if I could be pushed to that place, then other women have been pushed to that place.
Weve seen it before with a lot of mothers. There isnt always a lot of support out there for them. And sometimes they just snap.
Maybe were getting somewhere that I havent gotten to before in interviews. Maybe because weve been programmed to be mothers in a certain way. And somehow, its all good and well talking about being a mistress in the bedroom and a mother at play group, but in life and in reality your responsibilities change when youre bringing up another life. Maybe the last record helped me break down certain images I have of myself, but then events can happen to you that you just dont expect. Things happen to all of us that seem like this is a time that people are being pushed. Where Im pushed, you could maybe sail right through. And vice versa. But yeah -- the last year and a half or two years, just circumstances seemed to happen.
But they got you to where you are now --
You have a new album, youre creating, you seem to be thriving doing what you want to do --
Im on my front foot, not on my back foot. There was a place when I think I was being defeated by circumstances but Ive made a lot of changes in my life -- Universal Records is only one of them. So many aspects of my life -- Mark [Hawley, her husband and sound engineer], Tash [her daughter], and I are [clasps hands together] but there were moments when it was us against the world and questions about -- I have strong, strong ties to America. Strong. This is my home. England is not my home. And I really have been pushed to recognize that you can live in places for years and youre not home. Im learning that you can live somewhere but youre really a guest there. And once you come to terms with it -- that youre not accepted there and that youre there because you love somebody -- you realize there are a lot of sacrifices that you made for love. So does that put strain? Of course it does. And especially if there are outside forces -- government forces -- loading their guns at you.
You have to figure -- I travel and play all over the world and governments are broke right now. So dont you think theyre trying to come after people? And Ive been caught between two governments. So this has forced me to learn about the power they have. Police Me, Strong Black Vine [from Abnormally Attracted to Sin] -- you think youre in the West, you think youre a part of a system of justice, but my God, what Ive had to do in order to -- I mean, I have the strength to fight a government. Luckily mine is on my side.
But thats the thing -- its the old clich: if you can come through these tests you end up all the better for it --
You do, but people kill themselves over stuff like this!
When I wrote [Abnormally Attracted to Sin first single] Welcome To England, England can be anywhere. It just so happens to be biographical because Mark is British. These forces were loading their guns and I was touring -- I almost dont want to say where I was because then that fucking tax man is going to say, You wrote it in our country! Anyway, I got a phone call telling me, These guys are coming after you and I thought But Im an American and Ive always done the right thing! Nobody cares. Nobody cares! Thats why in the visualette theres Tori in an American flag jumpsuit because whether you are going to your partners home or are around his friends -- it can be a country or it can just be going out to dinner and you just know I am not accepted! They dont want me here! And you try so hard to fit in and you start chopping off pieces of yourself to get along and you wonder wheres the sage and the tobacco and the sacred smoke? Because the ancestors are not here -- theyre just not here! You begin to say, There are people I like and there are things I like but in order for me to claim myself I just realized Ive got to get on a plane and go back to what is my power spot.
And thats America?
I see myself more as a citizen of earth and Im not an expat -- Im just not. And to be one of those Americans who knows Im a guest [in England] -- Ive probably outstayed my welcome as far as the British government goes. But being forced to make a choice and then waking up one day and realizing youre forced to make that choice or its being made for you and youre saying, Hang on a minute! You cant just choose. So when you talked to me things were black and thats before a whole second part of the record got written and developed when I came back to the states for Comic-Con. And I was on my home ground where I wrote Little Earthquakes and there was a metamorphosis that happened. I passed by that little house where I wrote it and I thought, I took on a lot back then -- I can take this on. I can fight. But I had lost how to fight. I had to change everything to fight -- all kinds of people had to change. The one thing that kept me going was the love that Tash and Mark had for me. I just saw that I was becoming totally devastated and beaten. Look at the system and what the system has done and the way that people are so enslaved. And you look at Obama -- and I know hes one man but can he turn around the subjugation of the masses to the way the system is? You know, the tax system -- you have to be a fucking brain surgeon to figure it out. And I just think people are so burdened in our day-to-day existence -- how can relationships survive when youre thinking, Oh my God! The mortgage and the bills and the loans and the credit cards and the -- Fuck! And so its not just the sexual programming, its everything that has to crumble.
I saw a few of the visualettes and when it comes to the fashion, you turned it out!
[Laughs] Karen Binns, my stylist, does great. Shes really talented so its good to give her a name check. She pulls in stuff from all over the world.
Youve been with her from the beginning.
From the beginning. It was about having this opportunity of having so many little movies -- have you ever met Karen?
Shes originally from Brooklyn. She lives in Europe now, but shes originally from Brooklyn and shes black with white Jean Harlow hair and shes a wild woman. But I love that she lives and breathes fashion. She knows a lot of the up-and-coming designers as well. We have our relationships with people whove been around a long time like Viktor & Rolf, who are always great, but then you get other people who might not be the Top 20 but who are doing great, great work.
And youre certainly not afraid to just go there. Like that outfit you wore for Comic-Con --
Who was that?
Margiela. Clearly I dont think some publications understood that but thats because when you take something out of context then of course it can get confused. But the people who know what theyre doing and know what theyre talking about realized, Oh my God! Thats Margiela! with that neck and that --
Exactly. And where better to wear it than Comic-Con, where you have people walking around wearing gills or dressed like storm troopers?
Right! There were some people there who were afraid to get involved. Karen and I were talking about it and she said, You are your own superhero, sister. You cannot be worried about how itll be interpreted because intelligent people who know fashion will know, and those who dont will just show everybody that they dont. Its one of those things that when youre working with those really maverick European designers who have been there for years doing exciting stuff, when you walk outside and its nothing against them but if youre going to walk out of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and get outside of that circle and move into the dangerous designers, then you have to realize that some people dont understand anything other than High Street.
You worked with Christian Lamb, who filmed Madonnas last tour, on the visualettes.
It took us a year and a half to film this stuff and Id I get a call from him and hed say, Im going to be filming with Madonna here, can you fly in? And Id find myself scheduling my life around Miss Thing -- without her even knowing it, of course. And Im sitting there and the husband is saying, Where are you going? And I said, I dont know! Wheres Madonna? And he said, Youre not serious! And I said, I am serious!
[Laughing] Did you hang out with her?
Of course not! No! No! No! Two lionesses, different parts of the Serengeti. And its fine -- I have great respect for her and her work ethic and what she does -- I do. But I remember this little artist who has sold many records herself coming up to me and she said, I went up to Madonna and I told her how much she meant to me. Shes sitting there confessing this to me a couple of years ago and Im thinking Stupid!
Why would she do that? Why? Why!
Why! And Ive become like Mother Confessor and shes sitting there with me in the British Airways first class lounge and Im thinking how the fuck did I end up with this while shes having a hang-over and she says, I just have to tell youso I say to Madonna, You have meant so much to me and to my career And Im just waiting for it and she says, Madonna just looks at my shoes and says, Those are so last season.
And I said, But why did you go to her with no self-worth? Because shes going to hate that! If you really have been influenced by her, so-and-so, I said, Then look in the mirror and be the gorgeous women you are! You dont need the approval. And come on -- Madonnas going to smell the blood.
Shes ready to lap it up.
And I said, You set yourself up for that one. And this singer said, But I just didnt know why it was necessary for her to respond like that. And I told her, It wasnt necessary but you set yourself up. Take some responsibility! Tongue up the ass its just so boring.
Finally, I have to ask you this because its been killing me for the past five years. On the song A Sorta Fairytale [from the album Scarlets Walk] you sing about pulling back the hood. Are you talking about the hood I think youre talking about?
[Huge smile] Oh, I want you to think whatever you want to think.
[Laughs] That is not an answer!
I want you to take it there! I want you to take it there!
Because then when you sing about tasting heaven perfectly--
And my mom thinks its talking about a convertible! And you know what? Lets just let her think that.
Abnormally Attracted To Sin is in stores on May 19.
Check back next week to see an exclusive video.
To read our interview with Tori Amos from May 2008, click here.