Following is an interview I conducted in February 2008 with musician Tori Amos for Geek Monthly magazine. Sadly, Geek Monthly was one of many publications that eventually fell victim to the Great Recession and the tidal shift in publishing from print to online. While in print, Geek Monthly’s circulation was approximately 230,000. This interview was archived by the Tori Amos fan website Undented.com.
We said…: She said…
Horses: Lakota—Native American
Britney Spears: Fragmented
Geek Love: Tori Amos opens up about her love of geeks, doll parts, and her newest—and geekiest—project
by David Michael Conner
“I like walking both sides. It’s really sexy to me to walk that tightrope.”
Tori Amos is talking about her newest project—a challenge that many have told her is destined to fail.
Amos has been criticized for being too complex in her arrangements, too obtuse in her lyrics, too disparate in her associations. But she’s never been accused of being too simple.
Amos loves words. When asked the geekiest thing about her, she responds easily, “I have quite a library…factual books: historical, mythological, dictionaries. See, I’m ready if all the power goes out. I have all these reference books.” When asked for one word in response to “Britney Spears,” she responds with “fragmented” (see sidebar).
Interesting thought, especially when considered alongside her latest concept album, American Doll Posse. Amos has picked herself apart into a band of five “dolls” (represented in the video for “Big Wheel,” the first single, in stop-motion doll animation): Isabel (the HisTORIcal figure), Clyde (ClitTORIdes), Pip (ExpiraTORIal), Santa (SanaTORIum) and Tori (TerraTORIes). Yes, even “Tori” herself has an abstract correlate. But wait, there’s more: Each of the dolls represents a modern-day take on a goddess from the Ancient Greek pantheon, and represents a part of the fragmented female psyche of the Common Era.
If she sees Britney as fragmented, it’s only fair. Amos has fragmented herself with the newest album, taking the idea as far as to isolate the concept of the “Tori” persona from her whole identity.
Given all this information up front, one might expect the album to be a musical dissertation, but the truth is, removed from its concept, American Doll Posse is Amos’s most rocking endeavor since 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, a rock-techno hybrid lauded by fans and critics alike. ADP is much more organic, more classic-rock, influenced, she says, “by the male rock gods of the 1970s and 80s.”
But she knows geeks have a thing for technology and all things electronic. Will she get techno on us again?
“It’s hard to know what the future holds,” Amos says. “I’ve surrounded myself with people who have educated themselves as far as what’s going on in music on the technical side. It’s such a vast field. I’ve pulled together a team of people to make a record. And everybody brings different expertise, so even though I’m not personally able to do it, I have a pretty good instinct and I pull people together. I hold a space for them to feel that they’re respected enough to challenge the project and to not feel as if they’re going to get shot down because they recommend something.
“I mean, the whole thing about all this is…you might have somebody come in and offer up this idea [for electronic music] but today there are a lot of cheesy keyboards that are trying to be what the classics were.” Amos doesn’t do cheesy—so she finds talented geeks for collaboration. Case in point: Her sound engineer, Mark Hawley.
“He is one of the coolest geeks in the world.” So much so, she says, that “I married him.”
Yes, Tori Amos, one of the coolest musical artists of the ’90s, who once famously dated Nine Inch Nails’s Trent Reznor, married an English techno-geek. The truth is, at the end of almost every one of her far-reaching tendrils can a geek be found: She is close friends with comic book writer, novelist and screenwriter Neil Gaiman—they’re so close that he’s embedded in lyrics on almost every one of her albums, and she inspired a talking tree character as well as the image of Death in his megahit Sandman comic book series. And while trendy gay men may worship Kylie Minogue, Madonna or even, yes, Britney Spears, Amos has a firm hold on gay geeks across the globe. And she’s about to get a lot gayer and a bit geekier with her new project.
Tori Amos is developing a musical with the British National Theatre. “The Light Princess” is based on a fairy tale written by George MacDonald in 1846. (“But I won’t be confined to a time—no way, no how.”) A surefire hit? Amos laughs. She knows it’s the highest tightrope she’s ever walked, career-wise, anyway.
“You have to know that I’m very aware of the statistics of how many contemporary composers tank when they write a musical.” Here, she giggles, “People kiiiiiiiiindly just say, ‘Heads up, Tor, you’ve gotta know, you’re walking into a sonic minefield.’ And sometimes they’ll mention names of everybody that’s made a musical and it doesn’t work.
“I say to them, look, you’re right…I know you can really mess up. What you can’t do is enter and think you’re just making another album. You have to go in and work as a team, and that’s the one thing about working with the British National Theatre: You come in as a team. No man is an island. You can’t just go off and…make this radical one-woman show.”
Amos likes discipline. “It’s a blessing that I have to work within these constraints. I think that’s kind of…good for me,” she says, again laughing. “In no uncertain terms, when you work with the British National Theatre, you know what your gig is. I’m the composer. I write the songs. I’m not involved in the casting. I’m there to make sure that the singers and the actors have the best material they could possibly have.”
The normally bold Amos sounds almost intimidated as she raves about the company involved in the production. “The playwright is one of the most exciting in England right now—and he’s a proper playwright. He’s not a book writer who’s trying his hand at the stage. He’s a playwright. He’s adapted Chekhov for the stage and just adapted [Pedro Almodóvar’s] All About My Mother for the British National Theatre…And he’s really helping me with the form and…you know, the form is on one hand pretty strict, and on the other hand, the world is your oyster. And I know that’s a paradox.”
Amos is fine with that. She’s a paradox, after all. The daughter of a minister, her music has been called by some sacrilegious, by others a religious experience; that same minister father got her career started in gay piano bars in Washington, D.C. after she argued her way out of the Peabody Conservatory at age 12; her name is known by most, but not many are familiar with her musical oeuvre; and while many people can’t get into her complex lyrics, those who do are, with few exceptions, absolutely obsessed with All Things Tori.
Which should help the musical succeed. She says the British National Theatre is not concerned with ticket sales, “and I come from the position that, well, why can’t a lot of people like this and we still keep the artistic integrity? That’s difficult to do. You’re walking on both sides. But I like walking on both sides, on that tightrope. It’s really sexy to me to walk that tightrope.”
Whether Amos goes by her birth name, Myra Ellen, or Tori, or “Pip,” “Clyde,” “Santa,” “Isabel,” or even the doll “Tori,” she is a one-woman high wire show. And it’s not easy work: “We gave everything we had to American Doll Posse. Talk about the energy on the writing, the recording, the visuals and live show…you look at it all together and it’s taken more brain power than I have. I’ve been taking so many DHEA Neuromins, I’m telling you right now,” she laughs. “At least they’re strawberry flavored so I don’t smell like fish oil.”
Amos says a Light Princess soundtrack will be made available, but “that’s down the road. First it’s got to be written. It’s sort of slated for the fall of 2009, and a lot of work is going into it as we speak.”
One more question: Of the dolls, who’s the biggest geek?
“Pip, because she’s into computers. But she’s a geek in rubber,” Amos coos in her playful rasp. “One must remember that at all times.”