From the Fringes of the Milky Way
“It is a whole,” Tori Amos said in describing her tenth studio album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. “It’s a story with short stories.”
The story of this auditory delight is rooted in what we are taught to understand as sin and how it informs the choices we make. The songs describe specific situations with both perspective and empathy. This is one of Tori Amos’ greatest strengths as a songwriter: to make the personal political, to reach from the specific toward the universal and to arrive not at a judgement but an understanding. In the emotive ‘Flavor’, which is in many ways the thematic signature of Abnormally Attracted to Sin, she asks, “What does it look like, this orbital ball, from the fringes of The Milky Way?” This is the question that drives the record: what do the stories being told feel like from the inside and look like from the outside?
Polari talked to Tori Amos two days after she had to cancel an exclusive one-off performance at the Savoy Theatre in London due to food poisoning. This is the first time in her solo career that she has had to do so. “It was very hard for me cancelling. I couldn’t stand. And I’d lost my voice as well,” Tori explained. “We all recognised that it was an impossibility. There were not enough drugs in the world that could get me to stand. I’m the type of person that I would say will do what’s necessary. If I need a shot, if I need to do something, I’ll do it. I’m from the American side. I’m sort of like a little soldier – give me my shots, let’s go to Africa, I’m going to the swamps. Let’s play the show.”
Since the release of Scarlet’s Walk in 2002, Tori Amos has created epic records that are built around strong themes. The packaging and the additional material on DVD – which contain extra tracks, video footage, and interview material – are an important part of the project. “The phrase sonic installation has become really important to me,” Tori declares when describing the result. “You really need to give people information, things to think about, and an extension of the work.”
Abnormally Attracted to Sin as an entire conceptual project pushes this notion even further. It was built on the idea that the visual material would be integral to the process. The filming of the sixteen visualettes that are on the accompanying DVD was, as Tori describes it, a catalyst.
“What I want people to think about is that the beginnings of this record were being written at the end of our old world, when the credit was still ok, and we could rest easy at night not thinking that everything we have might be gone tomorrow. The beginning of this whole work, the time frame, occurred as things were beginning to shake. I was watching Christian Lamb’s dailies, the montage of our life on the road, and I was seeing something that the music he was putting it to wasn’t telling, that a different story needed to be told.”
The story that needed to be told is stated upfront in the forceful opening track, ‘Give’. The dailies revealed that “instead of taking from people,” Tori discloses, the narrator of the story “needed to understand the need that she, to survive, had to give of herself.” Here she pauses, and adds her caveat, delivered with a knowing nod of the head: “But that can be very ‘Welcoming the vampires’ as well. There’s a double-edged sword to that story.” This realisation was, as Tori tells it, the key.
“Once I saw that it became much more of a technology experiment in order to make the song sound like it does, with the piano being there but in this strange world.” The result was that “this idea of experimenting with sound” would be the foundation.
“The last record was more about experimenting with band. This one was more about arrangements, and micro-arrangements, using different teams to do different arrangements at different times, and working with the team. Each song really got its own arrangement treatment, and once the recording happened that was only the beginning. Things would get re-recorded. Things would get rearranged. Some of the films would then be made after the songs had been recorded, or some would be made because of footage that got shot during another shoot for another song. If it didn’t work I’d say ‘we don’t have it, go back out’. It was collaborative.”
“Some records are all tracked – drums, piano, vocal – and kept. The Beekeeper was very much like that. It’s very much ‘no make-up, no airbrush, no nothing’. And it’s not one of my favourite records because of that.” Tori pauses, and smiles, adding playfully, “Because I really do like a good airbrush. I’ve learned that about myself.” After this revelation, Tori explains what this means to her creatively. “The Beekeeper is really more like a whole b-sides experiment, because the arrangements weren’t hammered out. That’s why I think my reaction to that with American Doll Posse became ‘alright, now, let’s do a band record’. And it was a very different kind of approach. It was micromanaged, but it was very much about becoming a band mentally, not a singer–songwriter. It was about leaving all that behind. And now, with the new record, it is about embracing the writer and the singer again along with the musicians and arrangements.”
The message at the core of Abnormally Attracted to Sin is about taking control, and at times it is about wresting that control back from another person’s definition of sin. This is incontrovertible in the fearless rock track ‘Strong Black Vine’, which parallels bondage with the edicts of religion and politics. There is no mistaking the message in the accompanying visualette, in which images of Christian churches, Voodoo, Tarot cards and divination run alongside images of the recent war in Iraq, from soldiers in the street to burning oil.
For Tori herself, this process has been about maintaining control over her own message. “When you’re first making records,” she confides, “you haven’t tasted the tip of the devil’s wand. But on your tenth album you’ve done more than taste it. You’ve enjoyed it, and you’ve gotten ill from it. And I think the song ‘Curtain Call’ covers that. Sometimes you don’t realise that you’re being totally and completely absorbed. So you stop your message, and your questioning of control. Sometimes you think that you’re in a place of power, and yet you don’t realise you’ve signed up to something that is going to make sure your message is either broken or not put out.”
This is a fight that so many singers have had with their record companies: from Joni Mitchell and Prince to George Michael and Darren Hayes. It is a subject on which Tori has spoken unequivocally. Yet in this equation there is also the music buying public. “The public blows through their next mistress,” Tori adds. “Those of us that occurred at the time we did … ” she pauses, trailing off, but continues, “In some ways it was just a different time. Now people need something new. ‘I don’t care if it’s a perfectly good pink shirt. I need another one’!” And she sees the current craze for social-networking as illustrative of that. “Why are we so enamoured with excavating the personal journal of someone we don’t know instead of growing with somebody we do?” she asks.
This is very much on point when it comes to the story of Abnormally Attracted to Sin. That story is about how individual needs fit into the big picture, and the songs – the short stories – navigate the personal and the political. Tori is at her most compassionate and emotional throughout the interview in talking about how this plays out in the song ‘Maybe California’, which is a conversation between two mothers, one of whom is contemplating suicide.
“The song is about the mother’s role in our new world, where so many men are losing their jobs and the women are not, because they’re cheaper. What is that doing to a home? If the mothers start breaking down then everything starts breaking down. It’s one thing to have young college girls cutting themselves, and that’s tragic. I talk about that in ‘Ophelia’. The idea that the mothers could really be contemplating jumping off a bridge or a cliff – that’s coming out of a reality where a man is defined by being successful because he’s a provider, and that’s being taken away from so many homes. He’s left there being stripped of this. And she can’t give him that back. Wives and mothers live to make it better, and wives can’t make this better.”
Tori pauses. There is an emotional intensity in her voice as she talks and her eyes well up as she continues, “Some of them would come up to me and say, ‘if I just try harder, or if I just jump off that bridge, then they’ll have to give him his job back as he’ll be a single parent’. The things people would stop me with in a coffee shop, or in the street over my time of travelling,” she adds with disbelief and sadness in her voice. “I would say, ‘Stop, do you know what you’re saying?’. It began to hit me because we’ve all been in that place where you think ‘if I just take myself out of the equation – it may not be suicide – but if I keep on driving and get out of their life then it will be ok’. It is an escape but at the time when you don’t feel like there’s anything you can do, and maybe if you’re out of the way it could get better. Because there’s no solution. This is a political statement. In ‘Maybe California’ it needs to be told from the personal.”
The message is also then about self-worth. “This is what ‘Welcome to England’ is about. It is like ‘Virginia’, but a modern take on it. It’s about somebody leaving their world for their lover’s world; and yet his beliefs, his friends, his country and his family aren’t hers. That doesn’t mean they’re not nice people. It just means that all the things that make up who she is she either didn’t bring with her or got lost along the way. Somehow she didn’t retain that, didn’t go back and keep nurturing those things that she needed to. So ‘Welcome to England’ is about having to reclaim who she is in order to be in his world and to live with him.”
Abnormally Attracted to Sin, like Scarlet’s Walk, The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse, is a work in which the epic themes are explored at epic length. For Tori this in part reflects the change in how records are released. “The b-sides have gone now, and with it a whole side to a project that was so important. With three singles you’d have three extra tracks on each. Some of them would have been recorded in the session. But I knew they were coming and I knew they told the story as well, and that they were important. And because of how people get their music now it would be such a cult audience that the songs might not ever get heard expect by a few people. So I include them on the album.”
This said, Tori then qualifies the point. “I don’t know if they’re b-sides as such. When I say that, it sounds derogatory.” She adds that if this album were released earlier in her career, and the b-sides were a part of the project, “that might have been ‘Starling’ this time. I don’t know. If it had to be knocked down to twelve tracks, then you can only have so many mid-tempos, you can only have so many up-tempos. So you begin to decide who goes where. Since Scarlet’s Walk I’ve been making double albums. I don’t know if I’ll always do that. But I think the times have been changing so fast that you think, ‘how can I not include these songs that I think will be really important to people?’ Then the record company will say to me, ‘Tor, you know, you can’t have 12 songs of ‘Starling’ here’ …”
And there we see a hint of the practical businesswoman. Then Tori adds, “We all have different tastes. I feel like the albums are there for different moods, and so I’ve tried to cover that.” On this note she returns to The Beekeeper and her sense that it was like a b-sides experiment, and says, “who knows, in twenty years I might see it differently, but you know, it was just jamming. No fixes. Just full takes: done. It’s the most organic record we ever did. Tash was a baby, and I was in that organic mamma place, the idea of chocolate off the shelf or just e numbers, just No.” With the subject of Natashya introduced, the conversation lightens, and the playful, funny side of Tori comes to the fore.
“Now she’ll look at me, she’s watching House, and I’m taking antibiotics then she’ll say ‘What, are you popping Vicodin mom?’ I mean, she’s eating god knows what with her dad when they go the movies. They’re candy freaks. And she’s tasting champagne saying, ‘I like that one’, and I’m saying ‘It’s Cristal you should like it’. She says, ‘It’s better than the plane crap,’ and I say ’Yeah, that’s why mummy doesn’t drink on the aeroplane’. And then she says ‘I’m gonna find a man that can afford to buy that,’ and I say ‘no, no no no no no no. You’re going to build a career in order to pay for it yourself.’ She asks, ‘Why am I going to do that when I can find a man to do it for me?’ And I say, ‘Because he could be a jerk. Find a cute guy who you like and you buy the goddamn champagne. And then he’s cute. Then you’re gonna have a nice night. Otherwise, the guy buys you the champagne and you’re gonna run out and be with stable boy.’ And she says ‘why would I choose the stable boy?’. Here she throws up her arms in disbelief.
“I don’t want to soundlike one of the old fuddy duddies from the ‘50s,” Tori laughs. “She’s very visual very theatrical. And she’s writing her own songs and she wants to go to a school that’s about story and music. And the thing I’m thinking is, ‘why discourage something like that?’. You can’t make a kid want to be into science. But a side of me says, no, you don’t want to go into music. It’s just painful. Be great at it and love it but don’t depend on it for your livelihood.” And there speaks the protective mother.
In closing I asked Tori what she thought about the new America, one that has cast off Bush, embraced Obama, but has accepted Proposition 8 in California, and moved to ban same-sex unions in other states. “It’s because of the religion,” she begins. “And America has a huge religious element, just as Britain has a huge class element. It’s just kind of at the core. So a lot of people might be in some ways open minded, but when it comes to sexuality they have segregation even though some of them, women included, have had to deal with segregational issues.”
“We go back to this word that I have been pounding, which is tolerance. Tolerance for other people who might be in different situations, but have gone through what you have gone through. Why can’t you have the compassion to ask ‘was I treated like this? Why am I judging them? These are consenting adults. Why do I have to force my beliefs onto these people?’. Who made me god – or the goddess – or all of these things?’ And so what’s difficult is the power of religion, which is not the compassionate path of Christ. And that’s where the question from the minister’s daughter is: where is Jesus? Where are the open arms to all of his children in this? Where is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’? How can you force segregation when it was forced on you? And I think it’s because people have a deep fear of sexuality. Including their own. I’m not saying that people are all internally gay, what I’m saying that people have not necessarily comes to terms with it and accepted it.” And here we are back to the overall story arc of Abnormally Attracted to Sin: what do other peoples stories look like from the outside and, essentially, how do they feel. “That’s why this record, and the artwork, is very much about erotic spirituality,” she concludes warmly with a smile that shines from the lip gloss she has just returned to her hand bag.