In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
To some people, Tori Amos is a legend—nay, a god. The pianist and singer-songwriter has spent almost the last 30 years making raw, soul-baring work, including 1992’s Little Earthquakes and 1994’s Under The Pink, both of which are getting deluxe CD reissues this April 14. The singer’s most recent album was last year’s Unrepentant Geraldines, and she’s currently working on releasing the cast recording for her adaptation of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, which debuted onstage in London in 2013.
Tori Amos: As a Girl Scout, I guess, cleaning the latrines. I got kicked out of Girl Scouts.
AVC: It seems like you’d have to try pretty hard to get kicked out of Girl Scouts.
TA: Yeah, I know. I didn’t get along with the leader, and she had the impression that I didn’t do the jobs I was supposed to do. And I felt like I did. So what I had to do then was wash all the pots and pans from the weekend, and I came back and I had this conversation with my mom and she said, “Do you feel like you pulled your weight?” And I said, “Well, I did, and I don’t have any respect for this leader anymore and I’m done.” I said, “Mom, I’ll be fair about it. I’ll do my part, but I don’t want to be a part of that anymore.” And she said, “Are you saying you want to quit?” I said, “I’m not quitting; I’m done.” And so she and I washed the pans together. She helped me out, and we delivered the clean pans, and I never went back. And I was 9 and a half. My mom was my superhero.
AVC: That was a rough Girl Scout troop.
TA: Yeah, I’ll tell you.
TA: When kids my age would ask me to play songs I’d written, so maybe I guess when I was 11.
AVC: Right after Girl Scouts.
TA: Yeah, a couple years later. A couple years can do a lot for you. Friends of mine at the time, I don’t know if I’d be over at one of my friends houses or what, but they’d say, “Will you play something you’ve written?” And then kind of realizing that they were responding to it made me feel encouraged to keep writing and to keep observing, because a lot of songs I’d write would be about things that I would just observe happening around me.
AVC: What were you writing about at 11?
TA: All kinds of things, anything that I could observe. People falling for other people. All kinds of things. One of my friends had a divorced mother, and she was pretty hot. She had a younger man and Playgirl magazines all over the house, and so she was a real talking point. You have to remember this was like 1973, 1974, so Gloria Steinem had happened and women were responding to that, and there were some really fascinating women.
TA: What would you do?
AVC: I don’t know. I think this is the hardest question. Maybe I would try to overthrow the government, but that seems problematic.
We can come back to this if you want.
TA: Yeah, let’s come back.
AVC: From what you told me so far, you seemed outgoing and artistic.
TA: Sometimes. I guess I was outgoing. But I was really curious about and fascinated by other people’s stories and the way they saw things because I was brought up in a very religious sort of environment and I had to go to church quite a few times a week. It was just part of what you did. So it intrigued me how other people saw life, and how there would be families that would go out in nature on a weekend and felt that was their way of experiencing a spiritual moment. So listening to how other people related to nature and how they related to other people, how they felt, what their definition of being a good citizen was, what did that mean. What does it mean to have humanity? All these things. A lot of what I was brought up with was very biblical and I couldn’t always apply that into day-to-day situations, and so just being around other people was fascinating for me. I guess you could say I was a sponge as a kid.
AVC: You were a deep thinker.
TA: Well, I don’t know about that. I was an eavesdropper. My God, you could just learn a lot from being in somebody else’s house, being with somebody else’s family for a little while. You began to see well how did they work this stuff out, how do they see the world, how do they think of this problem.
Being brought up in a very religious family helped me to understand. On one hand, when I hear about people who are brought up in a religious family, I’m more compassionate because I understand it, and I also know that there are people that have a very deep faith that can be genuine—meaning they really do believe it and they don’t necessarily want to convert you. There are some people in my family who have an arrogance that think they know best and should convert you, but then there are some who don’t, who respect your path and just hold a space to try and have a conversation and not try and make you agree with them. I’m thankful in a way that I’ve been exposed to people that are religious from both extremes because when you run into Brits usually, who aren’t usually very religious, they have an idea of Americans who are religious and they’re usually running the other way because it gets very generalized, thinking that its somebody who’s going to try and convert you. I’m happy that I was exposed to religious people, but in all forms and types.
AVC: Maybe that could tie into your supervillain plot. Usually those answers cut both ways. What if, for instance, you said that you want people to talk more? Or you wanted to ban the Westboro Baptist Church?
TA: Well, it makes you wonder. What if extremists, whoever they are, weren’t allowed to have weapons, but were forced to have discourse, for, I don’t know, a year, but they had to listen as well? It would be quite something if you had people from all sorts of different views having to communicate with each other but not being allowed to cut each other off. And listening. Because sometimes in listening to people, even though you disagree with them, you begin to see why have they chosen to become part of this extreme group. Is there somewhere where they became disenfranchised so that they felt they didn’t fit in anywhere and they embraced this because they wanted to belong? I don’t know. But I think that getting just extremists together wouldn’t be a good supervillain thing to do. You’d have to get people from all different perspectives, where they had to listen to each other and couldn’t beat each other up though.
AVC: Hopefully they’d recognize the humanity in each other.
TA: It’s a group. Some of the actresses from the ’40s. I love some of those women. Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall. Those black-and-white-film actors. I just thought they were stunning, strong. As a kid, I would look at them and I found them to be fascinating. And they weren’t taking their clothes off. They seemed to be expressing themselves and yet not in an overly sexualized way. I was born in the ’60s and free love was going on, and so to see some of these women fully clothed and yet sometimes telling a man what was what—particularly Barbara Stanwyck—women who seemed to be fighting the patriarchy and trying to be their own women in certain circumstances, I just thought, “Okay, they’re keeping their clothes on and they seem independent to me, in this setting, coming from the ’40s and ’50s, for heaven’s sake, and yet they’re very sensual.”
TA: I had that as entrance music on a tour once. It always motivates me.
TA: We’ve been working on The Light Princess original cast recording. We’ve just begun mixing, and there are 33 tracks. So we have far to go, but it’s going well. I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying working with actors’ performances.The whole story is there, the actors have finished recording and now we’re in the mix stage. I’m seeing it all come together and hearing it all come together and working with my team. My husband is on the team. I’ve been working with him since ’94, and so to work with people that challenge you and get you to hear things you might not have heard before and to make different choices, it’s a good day. I’m very lucky to be able to work with so many creative people.
TA: It happens sometimes. Sometimes if I have a tan I’ll come over at the checkout somewhere and they’ll say, “Oh my God. You look like a much younger Tori Amos.” Especially if you get a good queen there. “You know what? You look like a much younger Tori Amos. She’s really looking tired these days.” And you think, okay, I’m not going to show my credit card. I need some cash. And you say, “Thank you very much.” And you move on.
AVC: That’s horrible.
TA: You laugh and you move on. And sometimes if you feel cheeky you give them your credit card and then that’s fun too. But then you kiss and hug and then they say, “I was just trying to make you feel better honey.” And you say, “Thank you.”
TA: I would say I’m unemployable. Run for the hills.
AVC: You’re too sensitive and artistic to work in a corporate environment?
TA: No, I’d say I’m too controlling and obsessive and a micromanager and I would drive people insane. If you’re stuck in your ways, I’m not good because as an artist, you always have to turn things on their head and sometimes think differently. You have to question the rules. Why do we do things this way? Well, because we do it this way. But why? Why do we do it this way? And then if it’s a good reason, you go along with it. But if it’s not a good reason, you start asking questions and you realize that a lot of institutions don’t want to question themselves, so if you don’t want that, then you shouldn’t hire certain people, and I’m probably one of those people.
TA: I collect art books. I have hundreds and hundreds of them and they get me to start hearing things. Sometimes people look at them, but I find that visual art gets me listening, gets me hearing things. When you go to different mediums as an artist, it can sometimes push you in your own.
AVC: It lights up the same part of the brain but works differently for you personally.
TA: That’s right. Sometimes listening to music can motivate you. It can. But if you’re a musician, that isn’t always the way to get new ideas because you don’t want to take somebody else’s ideas. You need to find your own. So if you go to different artistic mediums, whether it’s dance or it’s visual arts or films or books, stories, sometimes it gets you hearing things, hearing progressions that you wouldn’t come up with if you were just listening to other music because you don’t want to copy progressions you’ve just heard.
TA: Indian food from England. It depends on which restaurant I get. If it were Tamarind, this restaurant in Central London, you have to get the black dal. There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s not like regular dal. It’s this black dal, and it’s gorgeous. It’s delicious. It’s amazing. It’s delicious food, Tamarind. It’s not cheap, but if it’s your last meal, I reckon why not?
Bonus question from Clark Duke: If you had a time machine, where would you go and why?
TA: I’m not sure what year: 1912-1913, maybe, around then. I’d see The Rite Of Spring in Paris, and I’d go and try and find Stravinsky, and I would say to him, “You are right. This ballet and this music will be in the canon and spoken of in a hundred years like almost nothing else. Don’t give up. Don’t listen to these foolish critics that are so small minded they don’t get it tonight.”
AVC: What would you like to ask the next person?
TA: If you could only express yourself as an instrument, trusting that you had somebody who could play you and play you well, what instrument would you be for a year?
AVC: What’s your answer?
TA: I’d be an electric guitar because I just would. I’ve always wanted to be. I think you usually want to be something that you don’t do.
AVC: No piano for you?
TA: No, I live that. That’s my life.
I would really love to be an electric guitar but played by people who really play it, not people who just smash it up and try and look cool.
AVC: Do you have anyone in mind?
TA: All kinds of people. We’ll leave it at that.