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Q&A: Tori Amos: One-Woman Choir

August 12, 1998 12:00 AM ET

Back when she first emerged as a solo artist in 1991, Tori Amos quicklyestablished herself as pop's new reigning Trauma Queen, with the jarringconfessional of "Me and a Gun," an a cappella tune about her own rape. Shestuck to the intimate lone-woman-with-piano format for seven years, duringwhich her songs became increasingly veiled in cryptic free-associations andabstract imagery.

On the new From the Choirgirl Hotel, as well as the tour she's mountedin support of it, Amos is backed for the first time since her days frontingthe L.A. pop metal band Y Kant Tori Read by a full band. But at the center ofthe album and the tour, it's still Tori, her piano, and lyrics like "If thedivine master plan is perfection, maybe next I'll give Judas a try/Trusting mysoul to the ice cream assassin."

On a short break between a just completed four-date swing through Europe andthe beginning of the American leg of her "Plugged '98" tour, she talked abouthow her songwriting has evolved over the years.

It strikes me that over time, your lyrics have become increasingly cryptic,and you've gotten further and further away from the autobiographical nature ofa song like "Me and a Gun." I wonder if you ever regret having revealed toomuch of yourself to the public and the press?

I have a rule that I don't read my press, but then somebody in the crew willbe reading it and of course it's right there, so what do you think I do? Andthere are times when what I've said has been very turned around. A lot oftimes I'll remember having a conversation with a journalist-especially whenyou do the long interviews, the two-day ones for a major story-and thenI'll be reading it going, "this is not what I remember at all, I don'tremember this tone to the interview, I don't remember it feeling like this. Ithought we had a very open minded conversation about stuff."

An interview will seem very sane to me, and I'll find out that the journalist was laughing out of the side of his mouth half of the time. I think the humor tends to get lost. What I thought was a nice couple of days with somebody, even though it might have gotten heated, will turn into something where the journalist missed a lot of the depth and the humor. I get painted quite a bit as a tragic figure because of some of the stuff that's happened in my life.But people don't realize that I'm a really good margarita buddy.

Listening to your songs I get the sense, even when I'm not really sure whatthe song is about, that the tone is usually a little traumatic. Your lyricstend to come across as vaguely disturbing recovered memory fragments.

That's true. I've always been really fascinated about that part of people,including myself, that is hidden. Some people hide more than others, and itdoes intrigue me. I write about the dark night of the soul, because I feel Ihave ticket there-an access ticket like you get to the Underground. I thinkI have a permanent Underground ticket to the subway ... it's much cheaper thantaking taxis.

I think a lot of people listen to your songs and think that they are allautobiographical, and it sounds like a lot of them probably aren't.

Well it's both. I think it has to be both. If you're going to purge otherpeople, you have to purge yourself. It's tricky to sneak in an all-access codeto somebody else's psyche, you have to knock first. With yourself, even thoughI think nobody has complete access to their own psyche, well, you do have theright to plunder yourself. So I'm in a lot of my material. But I might notnecessarily be the character you think I am. I let you think I'm the good guyjust because people like to think of me as the good guy, though sometimes I'mthe villain.

You certainly have fans who are devoted, who are listening really closelyto your songs. Are the cryptic lyrics a way of addressing your real fanswithout revealing too much to outsiders?

I think the last album, Boys for Pele, was very much like that. Thatrecord was very much about trying to understand a serious break-up that I hadwith someone I had been with for a long time. I was trying to find parts andpieces of myself that I had never claimed. I'd been living through otherpeople in my life, particularly the men in my life. So, it was a really toughrecord, very depressing, but in the end it gave me a lot of strength. It was areal tough journey-one of those where you think you're going to bite yourown arm off. And you just hope somebody is there to put a muzzle in yourmouth. But nobody put a muzzle in my mouth and I made Boys for Pele.

After that, I think that this record, as far as lyrics go, is not as abstract.Even though there's a lot of symbolism in it, there are moments when I turnaround and I say something like, "she's convinced she could hold back aglacier/but she couldn't keep baby alive." Really clear. There are momentswhen it gets really clear and it goes back into symbolism again-"ballerinasthat have fins that they'll never find." Which makes a lot of sense to me,because it's obviously a mermaid reference, but it's more than that. Maybeyou'll be a mother and you'll never have that physical experience-likeyou'll never have the experience of being a mermaid. But even though you mightnot be a physical mother, it doesn't mean you can't have that kind of maternallove.

It sounds like you're talking about revealing yourself without revealingyourself to everybody. You are only revealing yourself to the people who areplaying really close attention.

I've already done that. As you grow, in your writing, you don't want to repeatyourself, and you sing about different things in different ways.

One last question. Who is the ice cream assassin?

Who do you think that is?

I have no idea

Well, people have been praying to him for a very long time and more wars havebeen fought in his name. The big guy. Think about it.

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