Over the past two decades, singer-songwriter Tori Amos has sold millions of records and racked up eight top 10 albums including her latest, "Unrepentant Geraldines," which she released in May.
But if you've ever seen the piano prodigy live, you understand her true dominion is the stage. Known for setlists that change wildly from night to night (and inspire fans to see multiple shows each tour -- some have seen her perform hundreds of times), Amos recently took "unexpected" to the next level on the European/South African leg of her "Unrepentant Geraldines" tour, which wrapped up late last month.
Not only did she stud the sets with deep cuts and rarities from her own catalog, she also performed what she calls "The Lizard Lounge," a section of her show where she played covers of songs by everyone from Miley Cyrus to Madonna to Metallica.
A week before Amos brings her tour to North America, The Huffington Post sat down with her in New York City to chat about how she chooses the covers, why guys in metal bands really get her, that one time she called Morrissey a "small-dick motherfucker" and more.
The Huffington Post: The mash up of Sinead O'Connor's "Three Babies" and Miley Cyrus' "Rooting For My Baby" you did was ingenious. Putting those two together after their highly publicized feud —
Tori Amos: And I was in Ireland at the time.
But why did you pick those two songs and why did you decide to insert yourself in the middle of them?
It seemed like “Three Babies” wanted to come [and be played] in Ireland and yet there’s usually a Tash [Amos’ 13-year-old daughter] influence happening somewhere. She had been playing for me [sings] “Waiting for my baby…” — she had been playing that for me as one of her favorite songs. I’m not allowed to look at certain Miley Cyrus videos. Tash makes me leave the room. It’s my bedtime. She says, “This is porno, Mom! Get out!” And I say “What do you mean?” And she says, “No! I’m not letting you watch this.” And I say “OK.” Because that’s kind of sweet — if you think mom doesn’t need to see that [and she’s not taking into account my own songs with controversial sexual content like “Icicle” and all that was going on there], that’s fine. And she thinks I need to be a mom now and she doesn’t want me to see that. She wouldn’t go to see “American Hustle” with me — not that I knew what was going on — but she said, “That’s inappropriate, mom. Go with dad. I’m going with my friends.” So my point is that this is one song and moment that she was sharing with me. She wasn’t with me [at the concert in Ireland] — I left her in London — and I was missing her. And I was hearing “Three Babies” and [Tash is] my baby, but a song that had “baby” in it was the Miley song. Of course I understood what had happened [between Miley and Sinead] in the past and I thought This can still work. There can be a place where two great artists can be woven together if you treat them both with respect and without needing to defend either position. I just wanted to hold them together in a place of mutual respect.
And not have it be a joke.
It wasn’t to me. It wasn’t a joke. One song was so important to Tash and one song I’ve known since it came out. And it was me doing it without taking a side. Tash didn’t take sides — she wasn’t interested in the feud — but I found it fascinating when it happened.
What about Madonna’s “Frozen”? You’ve done “Live To Tell” before and you’ve done “Like A Prayer,” but why “Frozen”?
This girl had been asking me for it and asking me for it and asking me for it and I’d been thinking, OK. Yeah. Let me get my head around it. And then she told me in a different city that she had a muscle issue she was dealing with and all of a sudden the poetry lined up. She is so beautiful — so beautiful — and I’m not talking about on the inside, she’s stunning. She’s a looker. And you wouldn’t realize that she’s going through this and all of a sudden the muses said to me “the muscles are frozen.” From that moment, the song was for her. She was bringing her parents that night in Amsterdam and it all came together at soundcheck and I told the crew, “Let’s work this out.” She had been to a few shows and sometimes when the young ones come out, I don’t know if they’re leaving school to come or what but I don’t want their parents to think I’m [cult leader] Jim Jones because that isn’t my thing [laughs]! I’m not handing out space cakes to people at the stage door… you see what I’m saying. So I wanted the parents to also feel like their daughter’s request was being met. But I had no idea people would respond to it. I didn’t have a way in to “Frozen” until it all came together with why she was asking me for that but she told me afterward that she hadn't been asking me for it for that reason.
When people have screamed requests at you in the past while you're on stage, you've infamously responded, “I’m not a jukebox.” But you obviously are taking requests for these cover songs. How does it work? A song has to speak to you in some specific way in order for you to cover it?
Yes. It has to speak to me or I have to feel like I can bring something to it. There has to be some kind of spark. I see a portal or an entry point — if I haven’t done somebody’s song it’s because I haven’t found that entry point. It’s not that I don’t love loads of songs by loads of artists — it isn’t that. It’s because I’m trying to find my way in.
In 2005 I spent months asking you to cover The Smiths. You never said no, but each time I asked you, you just kind of sidestepped it and I couldn’t figure out why. Then later that year, when you were on stage in Manchester, England, you basically said you weren’t going to play a song by them because Morrissey once snubbed you when you met him backstage in 1992. You had some very choice words for him, including calling him a “small-dick motherfucker.” You said you liked the band and you listened to their songs but—
Well, hold on and let me write down the song you wanted so I can think about it for this tour. But that was at the time — I was in Manchester and I was honoring bands from there and I think just to pull it out of the hat wasn’t something that I would have done. But I loved [The Smiths song] “Panic” — you know, “hang the dj” — and I have such respect for the music. I think there can come a point where you can transcend a moment because Morrissey didn’t know me from Adam [when we met in 1992]. He might not have even have known at all what I did! I don’t really want to dredge it up — we can talk about it for The Huffington Post — but I’m not that person that I was in 1992 and I was new on the block as far as he was concerned. We had no history. It wasn’t a great meeting but sometimes you can meet somebody and they have a reaction to you but they don’t know who you are. I can see that happening — now — I can look back and see that could have happened. Or, of course, there’s also that thing that you don’t like to admit to yourself and that’s that somebody actually doesn’t like what you do and that can be true, too. So, [when something like that meeting happens] some people paint rainbows and butterflies in their world and move on [laughs] but I wasn’t ready to do that. That’s me as the lioness! We do bite back. However, at a place where I’m not in Manchester and there’s some air around it, the idea of doing a Smiths song, it would have to be the right one and can I deliver it now? It’s not about…
The beef. Or the supposed beef.
Tell me about covering Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.”
Another girl asked me to do it for a few shows and she really wanted it and that song really meant something to her and I could tell it when I saw her at the stage door. Sometimes you just see that there’s a song that just really means something to someone. And I thought about it for a minute and I kind of remember some of my crew playing it when it came out. There is a side of me, as you know, the metal-ers and I do get along very well. I think it’s because they — different from the punks — the metal-ers, some of those guys would spend six or seven hours a day in their bedrooms shredding. I remember in the old days Eddie Van Halen would come and sit at the monitor board and watch one of my shows in ’94 — because he’s a player. Sometimes the metal guys are looking at content and structure — that’s what’s volume is to them. It’s not just “can you scream?” They’re looking at volume with structure and chops. I find metal guys measure things in different ways than pop rock bands measure things.
That's the common language where you can meet — that content.
Yes. Because the metal guys — a lot of them, I’m not saying the pop guys aren’t accomplished — but a lot of the metal guys will have spent hours practicing and have studied classical guitar and the drummers, they spend a lot of time in their practice room and listening to all kinds of music. Robert Plant told me that all those guys knew Joni Mitchell’s full catalog. They knew it — and they weren’t afraid to say it because of the structures.
It’s undeniably genius songwriting.
Right. So a lot of those guys aren’t listening to pop radio, they’re looking at the structures — when you’re doing bars of five, bars of seven, bars of nine, they’re looking at that. That was kind of cool over the years to learn [that they were into my music] when the guys would send me a message.
So you could enter a song like “Nothing Else Matters” because of that relationship -- that shared approach.
Yes — because of the musicianship and their commitment to music. But I will say, when there’s a misogynist attitude, it can be difficult. But I don’t feel that with some of the metal guys — it’s a veneer. Like with Marilyn Manson. I have a lot of time for Brian [Warner aka Marilyn Manson]. I have a lot of time for his artistry.
Me too. I think he’s brilliant.
Me too. There are so many people that I think are brilliant but I don’t have a way in [to their songs].
Would you ever do a Marilyn Manson cover?
I’m thinking about it. But I’m trying to find my entry point.
Are there songs you’ve tried to do and just said “I can’t do this. There’s no entry point.” You said when you did [2001's cover album] “Strange Little Girls,” you tried — and failed — to do Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” But what about with this tour?
There are things that I’ve been asked to do that I haven’t quite worked up yet. Somebody’s asked me to do a Bananarama cover. Somebody’s asked me to do Donna Summer. I’ve been asked to do almost everything under the sun from Rihanna to Polly [PJ] Harvey to Bjork. And because I have a connection that goes way back with Polly and Bjork, I have a way in with them, there could be a way in there, because of a personal connection and we shared something 20 years ago.
What about the Russian are-they-or-aren't-they-lesbian duo t.A.T.u’s “Not Gonna Get Us”? Was that meant as a big fuck you to the anti-queer Vladimir Putin?
It was the Russians who asked me to do that. The Russians explained to me that it was important to do, they felt, because those who understood the statement, would understand the statement — and those who didn’t, wouldn’t — and that really right now in Russia that’s what needed to happen. When I was listening to it, people around me started showing me videos and representations of it. Whatever t.A.T.u. is personally [whether or not they’re lesbians], it became an anthem that sanctioned intimacy between women. Whatever they’re doing in their personal life, the message has been hijacked — whatever they are or they aren’t — the message has become something that transcends their personal life because the message is girl love is good.
Watching you play that in Russia, after everything that has happened and that continues to happen to the queer community there, was really powerful.
I certainly felt it. They got me to sing it in Russian —
Which I loved. Did you have to do it phonetically?
[Laughing] Yes! I did! And my body guard was teaching me how to say it. I was really working on it backstage. I hadn’t heard the song before that day so I had to learn it really quickly but the extension of this story, which is so weird, is that at the end of the night these security men were coming in and I didn’t know what was happening. We received the most ridiculous amount of flowers from the Russians that night so I was delayed a bit gathering the flowers and there were all these security men backstage and I said to my security guard “what’s happening?” and she said “they’re clearing the whole stage because Putin is coming here to speak tomorrow.” The next person who was on that stage was Putin!
That was the universe working its magic.
Right? Who knew! I didn’t know when I covered “Not Gonna Get Us” that he was coming. And I said to myself, “My God, he has no idea what the person who sat on the stage before him just did!” That right there is good Eastern Cherokee smudging.
What about Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”? That’s a song that I’ve always personally loved -- it's so sad to me -- and when I heard you do it, it totally made sense to me. Was that a request, too?
It was a request but I started to get very nostalgic with it. It became quite emotional.
Where did it take you?
When the song came out [in 1984], for me then, the idea of being 50 was so far away and I thought that’s old. And then here I was singing that song [now at 50] and I’m a very different person from that person who was listening to that then. Things are so different. The idea that time has passed that quickly — that fast! I can’t believe that the last time I saw you was 39 shows ago.
So much has happened even in the last six weeks. There’s something very bittersweet about that song and there's something very bittersweet about nostalgia in general.
“The Boys of Summer” was an ode from me — a woman — to all the men here and now, who they were, and to where they’re going. You realize that time is passing on, people are leaving the planet, people are coming on to the planet, and the boys of the summer change — who those boys are changes — but for a time you are that thing and you’re still that thing that you were. Some people who aren’t with us anymore can still be that in memory, but not physically. It was quite sad.
It sounded sad. So did your mash up of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want Hurt Me” and Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round.”
Boy George sent me a message before I did it. We’ve sent messages to each other on and off to each other over the years through people. But we’ve never met. So I’d done something for Pride because a lesbian from South Africa had made me this bracelet. She deals with people who have come out [as queer] and then in very small communities, the community tries to attack them.
Do you mean the “corrective” rape of lesbians that takes place?
Yes. Girl or boys, this woman helps people across the board. She made me this bracelet and I did a selfie with it to celebrate Pride. And he sent me a message and then I sent him one which said “Feeling Boy George in the Lizard [Lounge] very soon.” And it was London Pride at the same time, so it just seemed right for me to do that. And Dead or Alive, I thought the idea of “dead or alive,” the words themselves — the poetry of it — were important. The “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” was not just to a lover — it was through the woman who gave me the bracelet and the stories that came with her and the Dead or Alive track had mixed emotions. It wasn’t just a fun club song — it could be that — but it was trying to reclaim it.
The North American leg of the Unrepentant Geraldines tour kicks off in Vancouver on July 16. For tickets and more info, head here. For more from Amos, visit her official website and follow her on Twitter.