Tori Amos on Christian phonies, being OK with a lesbian daughter and why "It Gets Better" isn't enough
Tori Amos doesn’t do anything straight. Regarded as one of the premier singer-songwriters of our time, the gay icon’s veered off every which way – into babe-pounding-piano rock and baroque-influenced orchestrations; not to mention seasonal songs, straight-up pop, adult contemporary and gender-bending covers.
Night of Hunters, her 12th album over several decades, taps into 400 years of classical music for the backdrop to the musician’s conceptual damsel-in-distress narrative. It’s some of Amos’ finest work in years.
On album release day, Amos called in to chat about the if-you-were-lesbian talk she had with her daughter, her message to anti-gay Christians and how “It Gets Better” might not be the best way to prevent suicide among gay youth.
How do you celebrate a new release?
That’s a really good question. We’ll probably have a glass of champagne tonight. Some of the team that put so much energy into it is with me, so we’ll gather and show gratitude.
With alcohol, naturally.
Well, champagne. You know, a toast is a toast. It’s more about the camaraderie.
Do you still travel with a wine cellar when you tour?
You know it.
You’ve said, “I knew more about shoes than classical music.” What was your crash course in 400 years of classical music like?
I don’t know if it was a crash course. I was at the conservatory for five, six years studying only classical music. I wanted to be a composer. I knew that I was not going to be a concert pianist for all kinds of reasons, but you have to really be dedicated and devote your whole life to playing, for the most part, someone else’s ideas and thoughts and feelings. I felt much more that I had the soul of a composer than the soul of an interpreter. I felt closer to the sonic architects than I did to the Horowitzs of the world.
It sounds a lot like an extension of your last album, Midwinter Graces. Did working on that project inspire this one?
I think it did inspire me, because working with carols and doing variations on them was kind of me cutting my teeth on how to approach the idea of variations on a theme and to expand upon an original theme from another time. I did gain some experience by doing that, but I must tell you – hand on my heart – I did not think about going up to (classical record label) Deutsche Grammophon and saying, “Uh, excuse me, I’m gonna mess with the masters. Will you all pay for this?” It’s not something you do. It’s like calling up black op and saying, “Hi, can I blow some shit up? I’m available!” It doesn’t really work like that.
But they approached me with the idea and I thought it was pretty bold, and I found them to not be reticent about it but saying, “We’ve studied your work and we think you’re ready to do this. We know you’ve been working on the musical (_The Light Princess_) so you should understand narrative to a degree.” And then they said, “You know what, how about a 21st century song cycle based on classical themes?” And I said, “How about a drink?”
Do you think this is a project you would’ve even considered 20 years ago?
Oh, are you kidding? I think having worked on the musical now for 5,000 years I’ve learned a lot. (Laughs) I’m working with these incredible creative minds and that has really pushed me as a creative force to expand my ability as a composer. In the pop field, the composition form is quite regimented. I can see it right now: If I had turned in almost 10 minutes to one of my favorite people in the whole world, (record label exec) Doug Morris, he would’ve looked at me and said, “Tori, what ar’ you doin’?”
How do you feel about the disappearance of the singer-songwriter from mainstream, because you were born out of that?
I was born out of that, and I’m still that, but I needed to take the singer-songwriter by the hand and say, “Honey, we gotta expand.” This French journalist said, “Are you willing to be honest and admit that what you really are a conceptualist and you’ve been disguising yourself as a pop star?” (Laughs) And I said, “Well, geez, I love contemporary music, I love pop music and I love the idea of the singer-songwriter. That’s part of my soul. But maybe there is another part that needed to expand – a composer in me.”
Does having your 11-year-old daughter, Natashya Hawley, on four tracks mean you’re trying to turn her into a gay icon, too?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know if I’m trying to turn her into anything! She’s turning herself. She helped me develop “Annabelle” (a character on Night of Hunters). I designed it, but she helped develop the character. She’s been pushing me about the musical and she realized she was too young to play any of the girls and she said, “Look, I could stuff my bra!” And I said, “Stop stuffing your bra!” So Tash is very proactive.
She’s grown up with gay people in our life. We have people from all walks of life on our crew – gay women and gay men that we work with. She’s been brought up in it.
She had no choice – look at her mother.
Yeah, I know! (Laughs) But she knows very well what I think. I had a chat with her once that if she ever came home and said she was a lesbian then that’s her choice. And she said to me: “Mom, I’m not a lesbian. Black guys are hot.”
You’re from North Carolina, which has previously banned gay marriage and is now seeking to amend that to the state constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. How do you feel about this legislation, as it affects such a huge part of your fan base?
What I think is so strange. It is. (Laughs) If anybody calls themselves a Christian, I don’t see how you can ban consenting adults. I just don’t understand how you can see yourself as Christian and have no compassion for another person’s path. It goes against the Christ-like energy and light that I was brought up with.
My mother and father, they’re both Southern, have opened up, especially my dad. He had to really stretch as a Methodist minister, but he’s embraced the idea that gay people deserve rights. I’m really proud of him that, as a Methodist minister, he was able to make that shift and see that he did need to see it differently.
He took me to a gay bar when I was 13. He’s come a long way, let’s put it that way. So I think there’s hope for people who are judgmental, but what they have to say themselves is, how can they call themselves a Christian and then insist that gay people don’t have the right to be married? Then gay people shouldn’t have to pay taxes in the state of Carolina!
Is there hope for Michele Bachmann or people like her?
I don’t understand people. Again, I’m a minister’s daughter, I was brought up in the church; I do know the political side and how it works. If I could sit down with these people you’re mentioning, I’d say, “I thought Jesus was about love and not about judgment and damnation. I thought Christ came to question the judgment of a very harsh God.” I just find it completely against Christ’s message. I don’t know what they’re representing, but they’re as far away from Christ as my Bible teaching taught me and, you know what, I was brought up in the church! I’ve gone to church enough for almost every woman in America! (Laughs)
With all the bullying and suicides among LGBT teens in the news, have you considered writing a song about that?
Could you send me some information about that? I’m not aware of all that you speak about.
There’s been a series of suicides among gay youth in the last year due to bullying, with 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer reported most recently. The “It Gets Better” project was launched to give kids hope and remind them that it’s not the end of the world.
But it is the end of the world to them. When you are being bullied because of who you are, the shame of that is so great that it does seem like the end of the world and like they’re not accepted in this world – and they’re not being accepted by part of this world. And yet, the people that are not accepting them and bullying them call themselves Christian, and that is a lie. You are not a Christian if you treat people like that. I don’t care what office you’re running for. You just are not. That is not the definition of walking the Christ-like path.
When artists say it’s not the end of the world, I don’t know if that’s the approach. I think the approach is acknowledging what they’re feeling and hopefully creating a space where people feeling bullied can go to.
This next election, it’s so important the gay community become very aware of what’s going on and be very proactive about your rights as human beings. The fact that gay people are not treated as if they’re human beings by some of these people who are running for office, it’s barbaric. Whatever you think I am, I would like to be in a society where we’re enlightened, and I just find it all very primitive and that we’re regressing mentally.