By Gary Graff
With the release
of the album Little Earthquakes seven years ago, Tori Amos staked
her claim as an arresting new presence in pop music. Her cascading melodies,
skewed rhythmic sense, and keening piano arrangements had all the hallmarks
of an original—tuneful but unfamiliar, daring but compelling. Nobody made
music that sounded like this. And despite a legion of Lilith Fair-minded
wannabes, nobody does now, either.
Of course, Amos has the kind of sensibility that leads to change, and her new album from the choirgirl hotel is a marked shift from Little Earthquakes and the albums that followed. Long a solo voice-and-piano performer who only occasionally deployed other instruments for dramatic effect, Amos recorded with a full band this time out, crafting denser textures and fuller soundscapes for songs that were drawn from difficult personal terrain, including a breakup with longtime boyfriend and producer Eric Rosse and a 1996 miscarriage.
Amos may enlist a band on choirgirl hotel, but, true to form, she uses it like nobody else. With the album due in stores May 5, she and her group have hit the road for a "sneak preview" round of club dates that all sold out within minutes. She'll bring the band back to play larger venues later this summer, after swinging through Europe for a stretch. Amos—who married choirgirl hotel co-producer Mark Hawley in March—is documenting each tour stop on her official Web site (www.tori.com), where she's also responding to e-mail notes from fans. All told, the choirgirl hotel looks like a busy place to be.
"If you can't
create physical life, you find a life force. If that's in music, that's
in music. I started to find this deep, primitive rhythm, and I started
to move to it. And I held hands with sorrow, and I danced with her, and
we giggled a bit." —Amos on the songwriting process that followed her miscarriage
So, what is a "choirgirl hotel"?
It's a world
I wanted to have on this record. To me, these girls, this set of
What made you decide to make an album with a full band at this juncture?
usually dictate what I'm going to do. When they started coming, I was trying
to get through a bad patch. I was pregnant at the end of the Pele
tour, and was
How did songs come from that emotion?
You begin to create where you can. If you can't create physical life, you find a life force. If that's in music, that's in music. I started to find this deep, primitive rhythm, and I started to move to it. And I held hands with sorrow, and I danced with her, and we giggled a bit. And this record really became about being alive enough to feel things, no matter what that is.
What was it like, then, working with all that instrumentation on this record?
It became about a conversation. The drums would pull one way, and the piano would pull another. A relationship was happening on tape. The voice was working off a high hat, possibly, or was pushing something, pulling back. Then the kick [drum] pattern would change, and therefore my left hand would move differently, which would make the bass player do something different. So that's the way we did it—based around live performance and waiting around until the muse showed up. Sometimes you'd sit there for a few days, everybody just sitting, waiting. And then I started to feel her come. And I changed my shoes, and I knew she was coming. The songs completely take over when they come. And it might not be the first take—sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it wasn't the song we thought it was going to be. You just hold a space for the songs to come.
When you wrote songs in the past, did you hear other instruments in your head?
In my head there's always an orchestra playing—sometimes out of tune, but it's playing. I had to understand that that isn't necessarily what I would put on tape. I would say, "Okay, just because I'm hearing this in my head doesn't mean that I've expressed it to the people [who] are listening to this music. They aren't necessarily hearing what I'm hearing." So, if I want them to hear this, I need to call in these players to put this down.
Did you direct the musicians in what to play, or did you give them free rein to create their parts?
The songs were written before anybody showed up, so I had an idea of the story. Obviously, the songs were finished when they walked in. The engineers heard it first, so they were thinking sonically how to shape this. I was very open to trying different effects on all the instruments, including the vocals, to help develop the characters. I would say, "Okay, imagine this girl as completely made of a frozen lake. I want you to imagine a drill—one of those long motherfuckers—coming right into her. The thing, though, is that she doesn't bleed blood. She's transparent, and yet she is in physical form. And I want to hear that in these eight bars." And they would make me go away for a few hours so I wouldn't bug them. It was about getting the musicians to really hear the soul of the song, and then giving them freedom.
That entails a certain amount of letting go, after you've had nearly full control over every sound on your albums in the past.
It became very much about what instrument is the guiding, anchored force that's taking us through the rabbit hole right now. Sometimes it would be: "No, this is all about the guitar, so forget about everybody else. Mute this and keep that." You can't be overly precious about, "Well, I played this and I worked really hard." Well, so what? It's not about this—it's about the bass line for two bars. Mute the piano.
Mute the piano?!
You won't believe this, but once I started doing this, it was so liberating. The piano, she's very happy. She's all over this record. But sometimes she only plays for sixteen bars. And that is what excited me. It was about when she plays—she's not playing because she has to be the whole band. She can really be whoever she wants. And that was exciting. I played very differently because of that.
I can get to shower, I'm in the shower, 'cause that's where I sing. If
you have a good
Is there a particular process you use to write your songs?
I spend a lot of time in the water writing music. Any time I can get to shower, I'm in the shower, 'cause that's where I sing. If you have a good shower—a glass-enclosed shower and maybe some good tile, and just the sound that's reverberating back—it's really fantastic. You're in this water womb, and you're singing this music, and nobody can make a comment on it. It takes me away from my instrument and becomes this pure thing connected to the water world and the water creatures and the water rhythms and the sea foam fairies. And all of a sudden you feel—oh wow—you almost feel like you can breathe in that world. You don't need oxygen any more. Once it takes you down and underneath in the water, you start to feel in a completely different way. "Cruel" was really birthed out of that. I played the percussion of "Cruel" in the shower on my excess fat. It sounded really good—it made me feel good when I'd have that next bag of potato chips. I'd say "Look, 'Cruel' sounds great in the shower. You eat those chips, girl!"
Choirgirl hotel was recorded in an old barn in England, right?
In Cornwall. The barn is three hundred years old. One of the engineers bought the property, and felt like the barn could be turned into something. So we all joined forces and felt like we wanted to make a state-of-the-art studio. So Mark bought the property, and then Marcel [Van Limbeek], his partner, pulled in some other engineers that they all knew, and all put their heads together and figured out the shape of the barn and brought in the architect. When you look at the outside of the building, you have no idea that inside there's a proper studio.
Did you get anything different out of recording in such an old building?
The great thing about being away from a music-industry city is that people can't just pop by—that's the first thing. It's really important for me to have freedom, and when you're in London or in L.A. or in New York recording, the access is just so easy. It's too easy for comfort, really. Being outside of a major city, for me, has always been desirable.
You and Mark also got married recently. How did the two of you get together?
He worked on my last album. He was the engineer on the tour, and we didn't get together until after the tour. We'd done a whole world tour together, and we were in completely different relationships, and I kinda had to do a couple of other things, as girls do sometimes. Once the tour was over, we had become friends. So it sort of took off from there. We had a working relationship, and he and Marcel were slated to record the next album. Things started taking off from there, I think.
And how's married life?
I've only been
married four, five weeks. It's very new and it's very, um, well,
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