Still orbiting

A friend of mine believes Tori Amos is some sort of cross between the Pied Piper and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. That is, she plants secret buzzwords in her songs that have been helping her recruit an enormous army of young women in their late teens and early 20s since she released Little Earthquakes in 1992; the result will be a lethal Lilith Fair that will take over the world when Amos eventually gives the command.

While this theory would help explain Amos' frequent allusions to fairies and choirgirls and Vikings and whatever else lives inside of her, Amos' hold on young females is far less sinister. (At least, I hope it is.) Her lyrics hit them where it hurts, even as indecipherable as they sometimes may be, and she often delivers them in a just-between-us style accompanied only by the art-rock chords she pounds out on her piano. (And if you don't believe she writes rock songs, track down Jawbox's take on her "Cornflake Girl" -- or, vice versa, listen to her take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit.") And every song has at least one line that makes perfect, heartbreaking sense -- a moment of clarity among her seemingly insane, but never inane, ramblings.

Over the course of her past few albums, Amos has widened her musical scope, beginning with 1996's Boys for Pele, which found her trading in her piano for a harpsichord with mixed results. Last year's from the choirgirl hotel was her first album backed by a full band (including former New Bohemians drummer Matt Chamberlain, dubbed "The Human Loop" by Amos) since her early failed hair-metal debacle, Y Kant Tori Read. She took the band out on the road with her (another first), recording more than 100 shows to arrive at the baker's dozen that graces the second disc of her new double album, to venus and back, which hit stores on September 21, just as her five-week co-headlining tour with Alanis Morissette winds to a close. The other disc in the set was originally supposed to consist of B-sides and rarities, until Amos and her producers decided the new material she was writing was too good to waste any of them on an odds-and-sods project.

And the songs that show up on to venus and back more than support that decision. It's a creepy record, laced with bone-rattling sound effects and bone-chilling subject matter. To wit: "Juarez," the album's second song, tells the story of women who have been murdered in the Mexican town that borders El Paso, and Amos breathes life into every one of them as only she can, narrating the story from the perspective of the desert where the crimes occurred. The live band setting makes to venus and back seem as though it picks up where choirgirl left off, but it doesn't rock so much as roll, traveling along a dark stretch of highway to God knows where. Only Tori knows, and she ain't talking.

Well, she is talking. But damned if we know what she's saying.

Dallas Observer: Why tour with Alanis Morissette? Do you think there's much crossover between your audiences?

Tori Amos: I don't know, to be honest. It's about the differences. I'm finding it kind of fascinating that it's sort of like...I see this [tour] as two pirate ships that went into a cove, and if you came to go on one of the pirate ships, you might go, Oh, well let's go see what they've got on theirs, since we're here. And that's kind of how it is. The thing about Alanis' side is that they have a lot of goodies on their ship, and you know I've got good wine on mine. So there's always a trade-off.

DO: You're already back on the road promoting another record. It seems like you turned around to venus and back pretty quickly, since from the choirgirl hotel was released just over a year ago.

TA: It is very fast. In actuality, we were sitting there putting the live record together, thinking we were going to record maybe three songs with the band. They were all booked to fly in. Matt [Chamberlain] was coming in April 1. In February, we were [sorting through the songs] like an NBA playoff: 120 shows, a ranking system of one through four -- one being the worst -- finding what are our strongest performances, and playing them off against against each other. At the time, I was writing stuff, thinking I was gonna pick three songs [to put on the album], and having the B-sides sent in from all reaches of the land. And we were going to remix everything, because it needed a bit of a tart-up, especially the B-sides. Some of them were done very quickly, and not with the best care.

As I played these new songs to my producers, what they said to me was, theoretically speaking, this will sound like a random hodgepodge of bits and pieces, because sonically, the new work lives in a world by itself. I just looked at them and said, "N-n-n-no. What are you guys saying?" And they said, "This is a record unto itself, and you really can't break it up. It doesn't work geometrically." I called up Matt and said, "You're not recording three. See ya tomorrow." And he goes, "Let's go!" [laughs] So all the guys came in, and we made a new record. I didn't have lyrics to a second verse, and we were cutting it, and they were all there, tuned up and ready to go. I'm tearing my hair out, and books on the floor. I don't know how it all happened, but it came together, and it wanted to be what it was. So there it is.

DO: Is the full-band arrangement a permanent situation?

TA: It is for now. I mean, we all get along great, but they have their own projects going. This is just a period in time where you know you want to play with these people, and this is what you're doing. I've done the girl-and-her-piano thing. Did it all around the world. Hundreds and hundreds of shows. Did it. Forward. Next. So, now it's about the piano with other instruments, and how does it live, what can it do? Can it find a place with all these pounding booty boys? And yes, it can.

DO: Does playing with a band make music fresher for you, after so many years of going at it alone?

TA: Well, yes, and this format is very different from choirgirl, because on this record, sound effects are very much an instrument. Just the way's not the same as choirgirl, although some of the people played on choirgirl that played on this record.

DO: Did playing with more musicians affect the way you wrote the songs on to venus and back?

TA: It was a different structure as a songwriter. I approached it really differently. Kind of right now, the way that I see the new album is like there's this satellite orbiting around Venus' heart, and that these songs, for me, were just different fragments that were being filmed. Little short films. "Juarez" is probably the place where you're severed from your heart. It's based on the murders that have happened in Juarez, the 200-300 women that have been killed. When I was going through Texas on the last tour, one night I was sort of jolted out of my bunk. It was dark outside, and I opened the blinds. It became very clear to me that...I hadn't written it yet. I was just starting to hear it in my head. I knew I had to take the point of view of the desert. It was made very clear by the voice that I needed to hear the last breath of the girl. I needed to hear the violator, the music that they were listening to. I crawled into this space and did a lot of research about that whole thing.

That's a place on the record where...I started the record with "Bliss" because, instead of "Father, who art in heaven," it's "Father, I killed my monkey." It's very much about the control, whether or not it's God the father. That kind of control -- especially having done a lot of biblical study of women and their bodies -- of the shame, of the division of the physical and the spiritual. You know what I mean? That kind of concept of, even when your father -- your human father -- says to you, "You can't go out with that guy. I can't imagine you with that guy." It's like, "These are not your bits!" Then you go into "Juarez," which is when you're really severed from your heart, and you can do that to another person. And then the record moves into different places. But I knew as I was approaching this whole realm of Venus, it got a writer, I got the shit kicked out of me in a sense, because I couldn't just address the passionate side of things and the seduction side of things. It's hard to go against your instincts.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain

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