On the release of Midwinter Graces, iconoclast Tori Amos spoke about the origins of her unlikeliest album, of re-imagined holiday tunes. Here she explains the title of Abnormally Attracted to Sin, her most recent album, and why she’s loathe to ever cancel a show.
Advocate.com: Your most recent album is called Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Where did your first notion of sin come from after growing up in a religious household?
Tori Amos: My understanding was very much about my grandmother who influenced my family. That was my father’s mother. She was a missionary teacher, and she was a very well read woman, a very intelligent woman. But she had certain notions about what a woman’s body was for. Her philosophy was that you give your soul to God and your body to your husband in marriage. That was her belief. My father, as a Methodist minister, has a doctorate in theology from Boston University -- not a stupid guy. So you had these well-educated people who were very committed to the teachings of the Bible in a Puritanical way, holding up the early church followers’ beliefs.
I remember a letter coming [to my parents] from my grandmother saying that she was worried about the littlest one -- referring to me -- saying that I needed to learn how to love Jesus. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t love Jesus. I did, in all kind of ways! But… she had been segregated -- her sexuality from her spirituality had been completely separated. I was a big believer in Mary Magdalene at five years old. I wanted to know her story, and I always thought the mother Mary had another story as well. So when I got older, I started researching ancient female archetypes and the goddesses, and at 12, I started to build my arsenal on all of these women in history.
Were you told music was sinful?
I guess when I was growing up, I remember Jim Morrisson and Robert Plant being [called] messengers of the devil, and Prince, and people like that later on. And when you look at how these specific men were able to channel that kundalini -- that sex magic -- the reason that their work is what is it is, is because there is a spirituality to them. Everything they do isn’t just about being vulgar. The church fathers weren’t really intimidated by people just being overtly demonic -- that’s kind of funny -- I mean it’s not a threat. What’s a threat? It’s when someone really knows how to… well the whole record is about erotic spirituality and taking those two and melding them together.
You’ve given over 1,000 concerts. How do you maintain the energy to tour?
It does take energy, but it gives you energy too. When you’re playing and you’re having one of those magical moments where the music is coming to you, almost from another dimension, and you feel like you’re traveling through time though you’re not leaving your chair -- there is a love affair that you have. It’s monogamous with 5,000 people all at the same time. We go back to this term, but there is this spiritual side. You have a soulful relationship with them too. It’s all these things. It’s spiritual, emotional, physical, because when you’re making music, you do have a marriage with the musicians you play with. It’s not necessarily sexual, but it’s something I can’t describe. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it is a marriage. So when you’re playing with these [musicians] up there, and the crew -- there’s a marriage with them too. They’re all part of it. I feel that when I’m doing that, there’s nothing else that does that in my life like that.
As a woman, there is nothing greater I can do that gives me more pleasure than to allow the songs to come, be a canvass, get out of my own way, just zip it, shut up and let the songs sort of take over my body and have these relationships with these people. There’s not one thing I want to do [more]. Travel to the middle of the galaxy? No. I’m okay with that. I can give that up. You can have that one.
To play music, there is nothing greater for me, so why would I want to miss a show? It’s a privilege to play, and I also don’t want to mess people around. I hate that idea. It would really piss me off. I put a night aside, got childcare, you know? You go out to dinner, you go see a show, and that artist just bails on me? I just don’t know if I’d be able to trust that artist again. That would really upset me, because I have a life too. I know people have lives. I realize that, so I take it very seriously. I want them to know that if [they] make plans [to see my show, unless I] cannot get myself off of the floor because I’m so ill, I’m going to be there. I’ve only cancelled once because of my health, and that was in London, and I had food poisoning.
How do you mentally prepare before you go on stage?
I shut off all contact with the outside world for an hour and a half or two hours before the show. So if somebody dies, they have to wait for the show to be over for me to know about it. I just can’t. The personality part of myself needs to get exorcised -- sort of like Linda Blair but without the pea soup. So I have to get Tori -- the gal -- into the backseat. The day-to-day stuff, what’s going on in her mind, the personality quirks, she has to move aside, and then the discipline of the artist for 45 years needs to step in and become a canvass. The songs are the palette that I work with, and there are hundreds of them. There are hundreds more if you allow yourself to take requests and do covers. Each show can be a unique painting, a sonic painting that will never be the same again if I can just focus and let the artist do what she does. But that means that I have to shut everything out and just can’t be distracted.
I don’t write the set list until maybe the last 30 minutes, which can drive everybody mad. But I need to get a sense of the city I’m in, what’s happening up until the last minute. In a city, things can change, including everybody’s mood. I’m pulling from the events of the day that week in that city, in that town. There are people who are always telling me, “This has happened in Chicago this week. You need to know this. This is the tragedy. This is the fun thing that’s going on.” You need to know the collective. I ask that, so I know what I’m walking into.
Have you changed your relationship with the piano over the years?
I don’t need to prove I’m a piano player. I know that. If you make enough records [the] composer’s side needed to stretch. I think the player in me recognized that if I didn’t let the composer stretch, then I wasn’t going to write stuff that the piano player would want to play anyway because it would start getting derivative. Maybe the piano player [in me] said, “Okay, well if the composer starts writing with all of these other instruments in mind, then when she comes back and writes, maybe something strictly for the piano, then it will have opened up in some way.” Architects, I think -- having met quite a few in my day, and I really love talking to them -- when they do build different kinds of buildings, they take all of that experience to something else. So when they build a house again, everything they did when building cathedrals that size, when they take it back to building a home, they still use everything they’ve learned. I needed to stop building houses and build some big works before I go back and do that... because I will. I’ll come back and make more of a piano record.
Are you currently an independent artist?
Sort of. The genesis of it, Doug Morris, who broke Little Earthquakes worldwide and has been my mentor all these years, he left [Atlantic Records] in 1994. He would say, “I didn’t leave. They kicked me out of Rockefeller Center!” And so he’s 70 now, and he’s chairman of Universal [Music Group]. He heard that I was thinking about signing with his independent side. I was looking at independence. I was looking at Fontana [Distribution], and he’s chairman of that as well. He just happened to be on the phone with somebody as I was walking by, and we ended up talking and he said, “I have to talk to you.” He said to me, “Look, we work well together, and I want you to meet Monty Lipman [co-president of Universal Music Group]. So, I met Monty, and it just seemed to work out. But it’s a joint venture relationship. We’re equal partners, so that means we’re investors as well. It’s a different kind of relationship than I’ve ever had.
Artistically, how has being an independent artist worked out for you?
There are always people involved who I call on to be a part of a think tank. I don’t just do things without a think tank. Sometimes there are people you bounce ideas off within a label structure, and sometimes there are not. Why this is liberating is because I’m not -- don’t like to talk about the business side too much -- I know what’s going on. It gets very frustrating when you don’t know what’s going on. I’d rather pay my way and know what’s happening then not pay my way and be in a subjugation role. I don’t like the idea of “artist,” “record company,” “ownership.” That authority bothers me. I’d rather have to put up a bit and yet know what’s going on.
What do you think an artist’s responsibility is in a time of change?
I think we’re driven to do things. Some people’s gift is more about entertaining. Some artists are just great entertainers, and that’s how they bring joy to people. I don’t believe that any artist should do something that doesn’t come from their heart because I think when you start acting from a place that isn’t a driving voice inside of you that says, “I believe this, I feel this,” then that’s not right. You can’t say that entertainment isn’t important. It’s really important, we need it. Some artists are just great, making us laugh and singing those songs that we all just kind of dance to and feel better. So I think we do it in different ways.
Do you consider yourself to be an activist?
I don’t really think about it like that. I guess in my way, if you’re going to analyze it, I am -- in a quiet way. It’s about sovereignty, isn’t it? So if you’re encouraging through the music for the people to break those chains of having to answer to an authority outside of themselves -- that’s what keeps us in chains -- so if you’re doing that, then your contributing to people being emancipated from the system but in a quiet way.
What are your thoughts on the current same-sex marriage situation in America?
I’ve spoken out. I’ve been pretty vocal about how I don’t understand how a nation can ask people to pay taxes but they don’t get certain rights that everyone else does. It’s not “All men are created equal, except homos.” If gays can’t get marriage, why should they have to pay into the system? Why should they have to pay any tax if the government isn’t going to acknowledge them as human beings? This isn’t because I have a gay following, it’s [wrong] against any group of people. I just feel very strongly about it as an American. I can’t accept that we’re subjugating another people and demanding that they pay into the service, but it’s no different from segregation. We’re segregating the gays now. I feel strongly about the issue. It’s just wrong.
Amos’s new holiday album, Midwinter Graces is available now.