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Tori Amos On Taylor Swift, Fame And Embracing Menopause

05/05/2014 09:06 am ET | Updated May 05, 2014
Amarpaul Kalirai

Tori Amos has never been one to run from controversy. If anything, over the past 25 years, she's happily courted it in the name of good old fashioned truth telling.

The acclaimed singer-songwriter has used her songs to tackle everything from rape and miscarriage to religion and cunnilingus and the honesty and ferocity with which she's done it has amassed her the kind of following most cult leaders would pay -- or kill -- to have.

Now Amos, a former child prodigy who first began playing piano at the age of two and a half, is back with a new album, "Unrepentant Geraldines," which finds her courting a new muse: aging.

The Huffington Post caught up with Amos while she was in New York City last week to promote her new album and chatted with her about Taylor Swift, the trappings of fame and her mission to make menopause not such a dirty word.

The Huffington Post: Do you read your own press?
No.

So I can write whatever I want and you'll never see it?
Yeah.

I ask because there was a piece that came out a few months ago entitled "Where Would Music Be Without Tori Amos?" and in it, the author argues that many of the musicians who are working today "owe their careers" to you, including this little lady. [Pulls up video of Taylor Swift performing at the 2014 Grammys and watches it with Amos]

So now that you've seen that, let me tell you what the author had to say about it: "The Taylor Swift performance everyone is talking about is Taylor Swift imitating Tori Amos." When you see that video of Taylor, do you see Tori Amos somewhere in there?
I don't need to. I don't need to see that. I can see her being beautiful and lovely.

Right. But what about your legacy?
It'll be what it is, won't it? Meaning, as an artist, there's a force and when you work with that force and you bring it into the deepest part of your bones, the intention is very clear. I'm not the first person who's ever thrown her hair around [laughs]. But what you're getting is intention. I'm not just throwing hair around -- there's an energy that's being taken in to the core. It's not malevolent or benevolent -- it's force -- and you can put your hands on that 220 [voltage]. My mentors were Jim Morrison, Prince, [Jimi] Hendrix and I was very aware of the energy that they were possessing. That was what I was calling into my being -- that type of voltage. How other artists [today are performing] -- I could be their mom! I'm very respectful [of what they do] and hold a space for other artists to expand their expression. Wherever they get it or however they get it, that's exciting. Does that make sense?

It does. But when we talk about you having a legacy, is that something you're not interested in considering right now? When someone writes a 2,000 word article about the incredible effect you've had on popular music, does that not matter to you?
It's not that it doesn't matter -- people have talked to me about it. I can't really escape it -- from Berlin to Paris to London -- there's a journalist walking in and talking to me about it, but what I'd say to you is that I'm completely focused on the work and on the intention. That to me is where the focus has to be. And if it is, the rest will be what it is. In the past, you and I have talked a lot about how there are all kinds of moves that one can do -- you can shock the world, you can do things, but nursing a pig [as Amos did in the artwork for her 1996 album "Boys For Pele"], there was a very clear message there. It was the Madonna and Child, it was -- it wasn't just "How can I shock [my father] Rev. Ed?" He actually understood that picture -- he and my mother understand what I was going after.

You have fans who have taken the money they were going to use to go to college and instead spent it on following you around the world. You have fans who put off going to graduate school because you announced a tour. You have people who -- myself included -- have said, "I probably wouldn't be on this planet if I hadn't had your music when I was in high school. You saved my life."
No, you saved your life. You know how I feel about that.

OK, sure, but how does it make you feel to have that kind of adoration? Is it terrifying?
It's a responsibility. A huge one. There's no misunderstanding on my part but we go back to the original part of our conversation: intention. Once "Y Kant Tori Read" [Amos' critically maligned 1988 album made with a band of the same name] happened and then I [went solo and] made the commitment to serve the muses and be true to that no matter what, then that's my guiding light. That's what my commitment is. So everything else then, has to be secondary to that. Being a mom is different -- that's a different conversation. I'm talking to you about being an artist.

So when your attention is to that, to making the score for [Tori's first musical, 2013's] "The Light Princess," we're making the original cast recording while we're on [tour]. Because it's not OK to make the original cast recording in 24 hours or 48 hours. I don't care how much energy it's going to cost. It's costing so much effort from my team because it'll take weeks and weeks and weeks to do it but it has to fit in between the tour, we'll find the actors and it will take weeks to mix. But my bar is higher -- "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the impact of that record is my bar. So yes, you can tell me about the state of the music industry and the reason that no one makes records like that is because no one can afford to do it. Or they can but they don't choose to spend the money that way. But the commitment to me is to the work and the art and the responsibility to that. Because I have an opportunity to do this and to give it back to the world in a vision, does it take effort? My crew -- they love me but I work them hard. But I don't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do. And as the captain of this ship, I say, "C'mon boys. Let's go!" And they say, "If she can do it, we can do it." So, I'm focused on the work. I can't focus on the comments about the work and everything else.

There's such an emotional component of what you do, too. And much of that comes from your relationship with your fans. Is it like being a doctor in some ways? Do you have to just do your job and not let the emotional side seep in? Night after night you're hearing from people who are telling you about being raped, about wanting to kill themselves, about their eating disorders. That's heavy stuff to constantly be ingesting. Do you have to put up a wall to protect yourself?
You have to be very grounded when you're listening to these stories because they are real. They're real! This is one of the gifts of aging -- working with Native American people, working with people that have dealt with cancer -- nurses and doctors that I know and how they're able to ground themselves and hold a space while people are going through something traumatic. And I've learned from them. Therefore, I ground myself and take a moment to do that and then hold a place of neutrality. You cannot allow yourself to be confused about what that moment is. You're sharing something very intimate -- you're the listener -- and they are choosing to impart this to you. So it's not about a wall, it's the opposite. You bring the wall down. But in bringing the wall down, I'm grounded, almost in my mind I'm right there with Earth Mother. I ask for her support, her energy and I study nature sometimes and this energy that she contains. Sometimes I think, I can be calm, I can hold this for a few hours and then what you do is take these stories and this energy and you put your hands on the 220 -- that voltage we talked about -- and then whether that means, the head comes up or the leg goes back [while I'm performing], the moves aren't practiced -- not that any other artists' are -- but it's being so connected to the message that you become a container. It can't be the ego. So reading the press, thinking about my legacy -- that's Tori's ego. And that's very seductive and I've had to discipline myself because fame will win this game. Fame is the master seducer of any essence there is.

Was there a time in your career when fame seduced you? When you were in danger of falling for that seduction?
Yes.

When?
1993, 1994, 1995, 1996. You have to dance with it -- until you experience it, it's very hard to describe it. You either work with it or you don't. A certain point, that's when I started opening up to the Native American community and they were very much helpful teachers to me in the humbling, in understanding that you serve the Great Mother. The healers, the medicine women and men are really in alignment and understand what their role is. And it doesn't come from ego. We all have egos, there's a place for that, but it's understanding that it's human but it can't be driving the car. This takes conversations. It takes discipline. But if we talk about some of the master painters, they were devoted to their art. It doesn't mean they weren't competitive. Am I competitive? You bet your sweet ass I am! But competitive against what? Not necessarily against another female artist -- not now. Not at my age. I want to be in a place of compassion. No one can take anything from anyone else. I'll give it away! [mimics giving away her jacket]. Here! Take it!

Last night, before you played "Ribbons Undone," you did a short improv about menopause [see video below].
A taboo subject.

But one that you're not afraid of?
No. Not anymore. That changed in the last year.

What happened?
Women have been talking to me about aging and being different ages -- and all ages have been talking to me about the stresses of their particular age. I was working with Paule Constable -- one of the great lighting designers -- and Rae Smith -- they worked on "War Horse" -- and they were talking about the fact that [menopause] isn't discussed. I had long conversations with Rae, in stairwells, and with Paule, in the theater, and they would say to me, "You have to talk about it. You have to find a way to talk about it but in a way that makes it not about victimization." Ageism is a real thing. I had to get my head around how am I going to -- in the music industry, being in front of the camera at 50, it's not as if we -- women -- are seen as Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt where we're just coming into our hotness. They're leading men! There are leading women that are around my age but it's just starting to happen. You're just starting to see that happen in the movie industry. But coming to a rock concert -- [women] can't be doing granny rock. We're singing about emotions, we're singing about sexuality, we're singing about all these things. Whereas roles for Helen Mirren, who is the hottest thing I've ever seen -- try and find her equivalent in rock and roll. We are having to carve that out for ourselves because you don't go see some of my contemporaries, you don't go see the Chilies [Red Hot Chili Peppers] and think They need to be doing grandpa rock. No! They're virile men who are sensual and they can sing about anything. Our culture doesn't see it that way [for women]. There are certain things, if you start singing about them -- if you listen to the young girls, I hear them talk, "Oh! She looks desperate! That's so desperate!" Whether you're in your 20's looking desperate or you're in your 50's looking desperate -- desperate is desperate. But you don't hear them say that about the guys! So, I needed to get my head around how I wanted to carve out the next 50 years. In order to grab it with both hands -- to grab it! -- I had to first go all the way into the projection from the culture.

It felt like a part of the trajectory of what you've been involved in your entire life. It felt natural. The way you did it didn't seem like you were doing it to shock. I was surprised by it, but it made sense to me.
There's going to be more of that.

There should be.
[laughs]

But, because as you said, no one else is talking about this, do you feel an added pressure to take that on? Is this organic Tori Amos doing what she's going to do or is this you saying "I'm going to lead the menopausal charge!"?
No. You have to be organic. [That improv] wasn't rehearsed. Not that something that's rehearsed can't be organic, I'm not saying that, but I think with the tour looming, I really don't know what it's going to be from night to night. There has to be a place where songs will come, conversations will happen.

The thing that I loved about it was that you were making up this little song on the spot about needing your glasses and you didn't just sing about getting older, you used that specific word -- menopause. And I think that's such a scary word for so many people and it conjures up very specific things: no longer being sexually virile, no longer being a woman -- or at least being seen as useless in some ways in our culture. The fact that you went there --
In green leather pants... [laughs]

In green leather pants, no less! We don't ever see something like that. I'm impressed by that.
It's not an easy road. Menopause is a tough road and a tough teacher. Finding your own self-acceptance and sensuality within it is, well, sometimes it's a real hunt. You have to dive in there because of the feelings that you're having. All of the songs on this new record were written to deal with this stuff. There is a quiet, silent grieving that happens through menopause. It might happen in a way where you're not aware of it but you can begin to lose memory for a minute -- you can forget things -- and you're very aware that you're going through a different process, a different phase of life. Until you feel it and you're in it, you can't imagine what it is. Trust me -- until those chemicals are happening in you, you don't know what that is. It's easy to sit and feel quite confident about yourself, thinking about how you're going to be in menopause, but that's not how it hits you.

I believe it. As a 35-year-old gay man, there are 20-something-year-old gay guys who are ready to help me pick out my casket.
Yes. So, it becomes about how do you find empowerment through [aging]? That's been the reason I'm going out as a one-woman show. It's not because I don't love [my drummer and bass player] Matt [Chamberlin] and Jon [Evans] and it's not because I don't love the Polish quartet [that I toured with on my last tour], it's because my [13-year-old daughter] Tash looked at me and said, "OK, I get it. I get the 50 thing. I get that the frontline record deals at 50 and up are given more to men than to female singer-songwriters. What are you going to do mom? Because if you don't get your head around this, you're telling me that I've got nothing to look forward to when I'm 50. What are you telling me? That that's it? Because the message is avoid this at all costs and that's what you're telling me." And she said, "That's how you're going to deal with it?" And I said, "No." She said, "Go. Rock." And the earth moved! And I looked in her eyes and it was real! There were tears in her eyes -- "You've got to get this one, mom, like you've never gotten anything else!" Because this is a demon. This is a fucking demon.

That's not just empowering for your daughter, it's empowering for all of the people who have followed your work and who look to you as someone who is creating art that they find fulfilling and in some cases life changing. And I'm guessing the thought of you giving up that work is nothing short of devastating to a lot of people.
Menopause is a struggle. And it's a pejorative. I'm not here to try and make menopause sexy -- that's not my message. My message is to feel empowered -- and feel all these feelings while you happen to be going through menopause. It isn't sexy but you can be sexy. So look it in the eye.

And don't let it defeat you.
That's right. So, OK, if I'm playing a show, whatever I'm wearing that night, I might breakout in a hot flash during the show and it's not because of the lights. And what are we going to do? We're going to have towels on the side of the stage and we're going to fucking go with it. Because that's all we're going to do -- there's no other answer. If it's going to be embarrassing, it's going to be embarrassing. But to get to that point, you can't think you're going to defeat it -- I will forget the lyrics. I will have the wrong glasses because I'm not losing my mind -- it's not early Alzheimer's -- but other people going through it will say, these are the symptoms. You find ways to get through it. I have to take 50 by the hand -- hold hands and welcome it with every cell and say, "Show me 50 like I didn't imagine." Not that other people aren't going through it, but show it to me in a way that I didn't understand. It's about asking 50 itself to open up my understanding and then it's about just being alive -- being truly alive!

Tori Amos' new album, "Unrepentant Geraldines," hits iTunes on May 13. Pre-order the album here. For more information on Amos, including upcoming tour dates, visit her official website and follow her on Twitter.

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