Interview by Adam McKibbin
On her tenth record, Tori Amos takes a long, hard look at sin – and it leads to some of her most sensual songs since From the Choirgirl Hotel (more on that in a moment). Not as overt of a concept album as her several previous works, Abnormally Attracted to Sin returns to some familiar ground for Toriphiles – spirituality, sensuality, the intersection therein – as well as some timely reflections on how the challenges of the modern world can shake up our sense of self.
A day before taking the Tonight Show stage, Amos pulled up a seat poolside at Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis to talk about sin and sex – and to delve into detail about her split from Sony and finding her way in the choppy waters of the music biz in ’09.
Are you tired of talking about sin yet?
Just when you think “God, I’m doing the work for this person.” I’ve done a lot – I’ve been out on the promo side of things for weeks and weeks now, traveling around. When somebody says to me – and they have, quite recently – “So tell me about the album.” No, I wrote it. Do your job. Or “What is this about? Can you sum up in a few words what the record is about?” No, you genius, or I wouldn’t have written a double album. Some of them haven’t even thought about this being a double album format. Maybe they’re too young. I don’t mean to be ageist, but if you haven’t been doing it a long time, you don’t think about the different forms.
When I was working on the review on the album, I agonized over and wound up cutting a line claiming that “Give” and the title track were two of the sexiest songs you’d written. I did a dance in my head about it and cut the line because I thought it was a cheap sentiment, and I’m very cognizant of male critic clichés. But then in hindsight I wondered why sexy had to be equated with cheap or unsavory.
Well, say it now! That’s right!
Those are two sexy songs. I’m putting that in the interview.
Mark and I have talked about this a lot. I’m trying to find my way and he’ll say to me “I can respect the fuck out of you and want to shag you.”
And that ties into the larger themes of the album – just because something provokes a sexual or sensual response doesn’t mean it can’t provoke other things, just as being a sexual being doesn’t mean that you can’t be a spiritual being.
That’s right. But even you – and this kind of proves my point – even you are wrestling with this. Because there is a segregation that can happen when you walk into sexual territory. You’re out of godliness, but you’re not out of godessness. To me, you’re not out of sacred territory.
You’ve talked about songs arriving and dictating terms to you: “Maybe California” came in a moment of need and wanted to be shared. “Cooling” famously didn’t want to be on an album but liked to be played live. Has a song ever said “This is just between us – you don’t get to share this”?
Yes. Yeah. I have one of those right now. It didn’t make the record; maybe one day it will make something. I thought it was for something else, but it seemed to be not part of this work. It is something that is kind of a little lullaby right now. Once I’ve moved out of the situation and it’s not so close to the bone…
Leaving a major label can be creatively liberating, but it seems like you were winning most of those battles over the years. So what was the upside?
Yeah, I was winning those battles. I’ve always had a think tank. There are all kinds of people that you have on a project, just like good directors have teams of people who are in there being vicious and brutal. Just because my name says “Producer” doesn’t mean that there aren’t all kinds of people involved. Where things went wrong in the live DVD process, I’ll never forget it – I was in Chicago, and it was the day before I did that Pip show in Chicago. You know, it’s making sense to me as I talk to you about it. We did the “Me and a Gun” cover [a rock version, with Amos performing as Pip] – it was a decision to do it that day. I’m sitting in that Chicago hotel room and [Amos’ manager] John sat me down and said “T, you need to know that Sony, as you know, said they couldn’t put up all the money. As we discussed, I said you were fine to invest whatever was needed.” And obviously on the back end – if it ever recouped, which it might not – all for one and one for all, but that would be reflected in my back end, because then I’m putting in a percentage. Like any normal business deal would be. And their response was, in not so many words, “She can put as much money in as she wants and she won’t get an ounce more.” The idea of Sony shoving their fist up my business chute was just… shoot, OK, not only will I not allow them to put one penny into it, I will pay for everything. And I will never give them any future children ever again.
There’s a takeaway there for people in a lot of situations. You can get stuck in the idea that if your current situation changes, your lifelines are cut and you might not be able to create art or pay bills or whatever it may be.
Yes. Mark and I sat down and I said, you know, “This is Tash’s future. This is the retirement. We’re blowing it. We’re going.” And he said, “What retirement? You’re playing till you’re 80 in high heels. What are you talking about? You’re not retired.”
And I swear to God, Tash said, word for word, “Mummy, I may not want to go to university. Use the money, Mummy. Use it.” With tears in my eyes… at the time, I had no idea where it was going. There’s no money in independent. And Doug Morris wouldn’t let me go independent with his label. Doug said “No, I won’t let you go with that, because you’re making a mistake. You need to work with me. We’re good together.” And I said “We are.” And so, you know, he came up with this idea for me. He wants me to do it and I’m going to do it. I can’t say – but you’ll see.
Is this a music industry story with a happy ending?
Yeah – but it’s a different deal. It’s a joint venture, which means that I have to invest as well. But I’d rather do that. It wasn’t the creative control – I’ve kind of fought those battles and won, as you say, since Little Earthquakes. But it’s the other side of it that nobody talks about – where artists are completely treated… most workers in this country have unions to protect them, but when you sign these contracts, you have no business rights sometimes.
And these 360 deals now are really problematic.
Which – if you can explain what they are – I’m vehemently against them [to compensate for declining CD sales, 360 deals allow labels to get their hands in concert revenue, merch sales, and various marketing opportunities]. They’re wrong, they’re evil. I can’t get into “Does Doug do these deals?” I don’t discuss it. I know they all do it, and they will tell you why they have to do it. They can’t invest without getting it back because they’re not selling records. Many were presented when I left Sony, and that’s why I was going the indie route, because there was no way I could sign away the life, the song girls that hadn’t even come yet. So I own my own publishing, I own my own merch company with Johnny and Chelsea. It wasn’t given to me – I had to fight for it. That’s the fight in the music business. It’s one thing to be a singer-songwriter, it’s another thing to be a producer and to own your own publishing outright. Without my father and my mother, I wouldn’t own my publishing. They’re retiring now sometime this year. I talk a lot about my father, but at the same time, my father – my father, the minister – didn’t want me to answer to any man. Except him! [Laughs]