Few female artists have managed a career of such longevity as Tori Amos, and even fewer have done it whilst remaining absolutely true to their artistic vision. Since the release of Little Earthquakes in 1992, Amos has released twelve studio albums and accumulated a fan base of quite extraordinary devotion. She is almost unique in successfully making the leap from pop to classical with 2011’s 'Night of Hunters', a 21st century song cycle based on classical pieces, released on prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammaphon. Not bad for a North Carolina girl and daughter of a Methodist minister. When Clash were invited to the choirgirl’s hotel, we found Amos jetlagged but endlessly warm, witty and immaculately turned out in a black suit and five inch heels. With her thirteenth album, 'Gold Dust' – a re-orchestrated ‘greatest hits’ compilation - out in October, we were keen to discuss the decision to effectively ‘cover’ herself:
“Well you know, it wasn’t thought out. I was invited to play with the Metropole Orchestra for one show and you see, I’d never played with an orchestra before - all the recordings from the past are my performances done alone. It’s very intimate, so when I unzip the skin to get to those emotions no-one else is listening. This put me in a situation with songs that I know as if they’re my twins in a completely different context, and the pictures in my mind of the songs were changing, and I said, ‘I haven’t seen these pictures before!’ So then we decided we do a proper recording, and new songs came and we expanded it.”
With 'Gold Dust' and 'Night of Hunters' being so classically inspired, it might seem that Amos has just been waiting for an opportunity to return to her classical roots. After all, she attended the Peabody Conservatory at the age of 5 (although perhaps more significantly was expelled for refusing to read music). She’s adamant, however, that this was not the case, exclaiming, "No, no! The idea of doing a variation on themes of classical masters? I think I just splintered into a thousand pieces! Because in my mind I did realise that, if you get that wrong you wanna’ crawl under a rock. And so I did know that it could have been music suicide."
Thankfully the resulting work was far from music suicide, although Amos is quick to point out that this is partly due to an excellent team, including producer husband Mark Hawley (‘Husband’, as Amos calls him). She also listened to a vast amount of classical music in preparation, determined not to err on the side of pastiche as with some classical-rock fusions: "I didn’t want to end up in some kind of bad, 70’s merge of Tori in a cape with synthesisers – that’s not a good look!"
Although surrounded by a dedicated team, Amos is firmly in control of what eventually makes it to tape and has produced all but two of her albums. A hard lesson early on highlighted what can happen when you relinquish control of your art - in this instance the orchestrations that have supplemented Amos’s piano and vocal compositions from the beginning:
“On 'Under The Pink' I listened to an A&R person and went with someone who would not let you see the orchestrations. So I heard them on the day of the string recording date, and I was listening and – ‘Well hang on a minute – what is he playing? He can’t be playing ‘Baker Baker’ cos’ this is the most atonal, dissonant thing I’ve heard in my life!’ And when we asked him what he was playing, he said, ‘Well, 'Baker Baker' of course.’ And oh my god, that was the most painful day… And so I erased it. I erased all the strings – I had a margarita first!”
The decision to hit the red button cost thousands of pounds, but probably saved her career: "If I had let it out that could’ve been The End. Do people hang on to something because they’ve spent the money? No! Art first. Mistakes were made, very expensive ones, but now never ever ever do I do something without hearing it first."
Over the years as much attention has been paid to Amos’s style as her music. From the earthy, girl-next door look of 'Little Earthquakes', to the fairy princess of 'Under The Pink', to the ‘suckling pig’ era of Boys For Pele, Amos has constantly reinvented herself, controlling her public image in a way few other artists have managed. The release of 'American Doll Posse' in 2007 saw something of a splintering of identity, as Amos drew on mythical and archetypal figures to create a series of personas:
“You know, I love myth and I think we can inhabit more than just a couple…Think about the way your family sees you, or people at work and your friends - sometimes they project, you fill this slot in their life. And you know, you can get frozen into that way of thinking so you don’t explore facets of your spirit. After I became a mom I got near to the Doll Posse phase and it changed me forever - because I carry Pip with me, I carry Santa, I carry them with me. And they’re there, they’re integrated now. You find others but I do think sometimes we as women, we play a role instead of allowing ourselves to expand.”
As someone who asserts that she was ‘born a feminist’, Amos is sharply aware of the difficulties facing women in the music industry. It’s well-documented how her first commercial music venture, the ill-fated Y Kant Tori Read, was a result of bad industry management. She is concerned that, despite some developments, female artists still have a tough break:
“The industry isn’t growing with its female artists, staying with them as far as new records, investing… Sure, there are those of us who have been able to retain and stay but if you think about the men and the male bands that are able to - I mean, I don’t have enough digits to count the guys who are touring out there!”
Asked what she attributes her own staying power to, Amos replies, "Creating works that were not designed to be trendy and commercial… It became about making a statement and being conceptual and not chasing the chart success. Putting the power in the work."
Despite her strong convictions, Amos is nothing if not pragmatic. In past interviews she has described herself as a good business woman who is not afraid to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. Her advice for women afraid to use the word ‘feminist’ is based on this pragmatism and absolute determination to succeed:
“I say be smart not right. The word ‘feminist’ - there are connotations, so you find other ways to express your beliefs. It’s in the doing, not in the title. If people are shutting doors in your face because of the word, get in the door! Have the conversation. I don’t need to say the word music to make it.”
She is able to compromise, however, particularly in her personal life. The decision to partially relocate to the wilderness of Cornwall may not have been a natural choice for this self-confessed ‘lizard lady’ but, as Amos puts it - "You do things for love, don’t you? And it’s a beautiful place, but that’s his [Hawley’s] home, that’s not my home. I’m a Floridian, I love the heat. And he didn’t want to bring up our daughter in the States, and fair enough. I’m a pretty good traveller, and we have a bi-continental relationship, and I think he likes to sort of lock me away when I’m off the road, which is kind of sexy!"
Some artists would relish the isolation, but for Amos, inspiration comes in the form of other people. She says, "I gotta chase where the stories are, in order for the muses to open those lines of communication up. Touring is a really good way to do that cos' people come to the stage door and tell me their stories. A valve opens, and that’s the beginning of the seed of an idea and you don’t know what it is but you know it’s coming." In addition to her family, Amos’s primary relationship is with her instrument - she was, of course, the first women to publicly play a piano like she might be having sex with it. But Amos has always been clear that it’s more complex, saying, "Well, she plays me! I can’t do much else though, and I play better in a heel." To demonstrate her point, she swings her legs off the couch and assumes the position – legs wide open, knees up, back straight. It’s quite an arresting moment. By way of explanation she adds, "Well you know, it’s the stance and you can play from your core. It’s a delicate balance of letting the instrument take over you, take over your body and then merging with it."
Now 49, Amos continues to break the mould, particularly where ageism in society and the music industry is concerned. She pays homage to Patti Smith for her energy and commitment, and is fierce in her condemnation of how older women are sometimes viewed: “We have to combat it! There is a culture out there that has, so far, looked at men ageing as an aphrodisiac, that wisdom and experience carries an attraction to it. But women carrying that experience doesn’t necessarily invoke the same response, culturally. And we have to be aware of that and therefore we have to get out those machetes in the jungle and carve the paths, and find ways to express our work and it’s in the doing, it really is, cos’ we’re not there.”
For a woman who has plumbed Greek and ancient mythology to forge new identities, who has spanned both pop and classical genres, has co-founded the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network charity and whose current project, a musical called The Light Princess, is due to be staged next year, it’s hard to predict what direction Amos will take next. One thing is certain – she’s far from slowing down:
“I don’t know where I’m going. I’m open, and I stay open because there could be all kinds of choices. I can’t tell you where I’m going, but I know it’s not where I’ve been.”
'Gold Dust' is out now.
Words by Theresa Heath