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Q&A: Tori Amos Talks in Tongues

The mystical, enigmatic singer-songwriter discusses her new album and the anniversary of her debut

March 30, 2006 1:27 PM ET

Tori Amos is never short on metaphors. Conversations with the prodigal piano provocateur are likely to veer in any number of directions: mythology, sex, food and other whathaveyou's. This kind of "Tori-speak" has become notorious, earning Amos a fairy-kook reputation she just can't shake. But her frequent conversational detours somehow always manage to reach a point. And, more importantly, the woman has a sense of humor.

With the insufferably long winter of Cornwall, England, looming, the North Carolina-born minister's daughter has locked herself indoors to write material for her new album, the follow-up to 2005's The Beekeeper. Amos takes a moment to speak to Rolling Stone about her creative process, the fifteenth anniversary of her stellar debut Little Earthquakes and beating out Sarah Jessica Parker for a cornflakes ad.

Just before the release of The Beekeeper, you lost your brother in a car accident. Is that loss finding its way into the new material now that some time has passed?
I think on [the title track] "The Beekeeper" it was addressed, because the song itself speaks about loss. I was drawn to the idea that in the bee colony, the drones are the ones that go first. I thought that it was nature's parallel for the loss of this man before his time. It was originally written about my mother -- she was critical, and she flat-lined and came back. That's the last time I saw my brother. But after his accident, I finished [the album] with an ode to him. "Toast," the final song on the record, I wrote on the plane coming back from the funeral.

I think that this new work -- it's too early to say -- but this is a very different chapter. Certainly, since I've been a mother. You haven't really felt this Tori in a while.

How is the role of mother affecting the work now, versus when your daughter was first born?
I didn't want her looking and hearing me and thinking, "Oh my God, that's a scary lady!" There are enough scary rock & roll mothers in the world. I'm able to explain now that the woman who comes and reads bedtime stories and hangs out with her is different than the woman who walks behind that piano. I think this is the first time she's able to differentiate that. Now that there's that buffer, there are things in the world it's time to confront. There is an energy that you carry when you're nurturing another life where you're protecting first -- and once you know that cub is out of the way of the hunter's gun, you can be a little more daring.

Are some of the same themes appearing -- especially concerning female sexuality and religion?
It was very conscious with [2002's] Scarlet's Walk and The Beekeeper that I wanted to embody the Mother Maiden and core essences within the being -- because I find a lot of women, especially in this time of the right wing, don't know how to be spiritual and sexual. Either they're puritanical, or their tits are hanging out all the time -- that's been a real bee in my bonnet, the program that [tells women] to be sexual. To [counter] that, you have to be nasty. I grenade that idea right out of the water!

One side of yourself might be that vulgar tart, and I'll hang out with her. I don't mind a dirty girl. But what I find tragic is when we, as women, become not the subject of our own story but someone else's object. That, to me, is playing into this role that women have held in Christianity for a long, long time. I refuse to be victimized by Christianity's misrepresentation of our great mothers. I want to be an integrated woman.

At what point did you begin to embrace both the spiritual and sexual sides of your personality?
It was during [1994's] Under the Pink tour. I wrote a verse: "I have fifty different hearts/They're all in fifty different drawers/When you come calling, I always put the purple one on/If I dump all fifty on the living room floor/Would you say clean up the mess before I get home?" Going out there every night, playing that piano in front of all those people, I realized that who I was when I walked offstage -- what I had created and the kind of life I was leading -- wasn't nurturing me in any way.

The hardest is to be able to hold the spiritual in one hand and the sexual in the other. I'm not talking about going to yoga one minute and then shagging your boyfriend like there's no tomorrow. I'm taking about being able to shag in a holy way . . . no pun intended.

Your entire video collection, Fade to Red, was released on DVD last month. As someone who seems to have very little inhibition onstage, how do you feel when shooting a video?
It's hard because, for me, the music is the purest form. That's where the message is unadulterated, clear and knows who it is. To articulate that in the visual realm is incredibly challenging because you don't want to cloud or pervert what the sonic realm is doing. So everything had to be considered from my point of view.

So you feel more at ease onstage than in front of the camera. Doesn't that make it especially ironic that you beat out Sarah Jessica Parker for a Kellogg's "Just Right" commercial back in the Eighties?
What's so shocking is that this woman who revolutionized the single woman and her role sexually and me -- who's straddled more piano benches than John Wayne has horses -- both went for a fucking Kellogg's commercial. That's the shocker. Children of the corn, both of us!

The anniversary of Little Earthquakes is approaching. What's your perspective on that album now?
It's sort of a way to time-travel. I have incredible, fond memories of that time, but I don't want to be there anymore. It's bittersweet in a way -- although I can smile [thinking of] that time, I also remember an emptiness that I didn't want to carry for the rest of my life.

Do you get frustrated with the labels that have attached themselves to you -- like "Queen of the Fairies" or New Age-y? Do you feel they undermine what it is you're trying to say?
I find it amusing, and my very cynical British husband finds it extremely amusing. He's basically said, "If anybody badmouths a fairy, they'll get their dick cut off in Cornwall." You just don't do that. It's like insulting cab drivers in New York.

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