Q&A: Tori Amos Reflects On Boys For Pele 20 Years On And Premieres B-Side “Amazing Grace/Til The Chicken”

Cindy Palmano

Q&A: Tori Amos Reflects On Boys For Pele 20 Years On And Premieres B-Side “Amazing Grace/Til The Chicken”

Cindy Palmano

I have already taken to this website to expound, at great length and indulgence, about my undying love for Tori Amos and her third album, Boys For Pele. So, when Stereogum asked if I wanted to interview Ms. Amos about the upcoming re-release of Pele, I all but screamed: “Stop talking! Yes, let’s do this now! Yes!” (Well, I actually said, “Sure, thanks for thinking of me,” but it certainly was tough to keep my emotions in check.) On 11/18, Amos will release a deluxe remaster of Pele, which will include a second disc of era-appropriate B-sides, which is good news indeed because, as any fan from back then will tell you, her B-sides were often some of her best songs.

Amos’ first two albums of confessional alt-classical pop, Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, earned her a devoted fanbase and a few radio hits, but it was the expansive, raw and wildly experimental Boys For Pele that solidified her reputation as one of the most important songwriters of her generation, equally adept at shredding religious hypocrisy as investigating the remains of her shattered heart. Written in the wake of her breakup with Eric Rosse, with whom she co-produced her first two albums, Amos recorded part of Pele in an old Irish church, acting as sole producer for the first time. Though the album received a mixed critical reception at the time and had a rocky release (the executives who signed and championed her at Atlantic Records were on the way out), it launched several of Amos’ best-known singles (including “Caught A Lite Sneeze,” “Hey Jupiter,” and “Professional Widow”), was nominated for a Best Alternative Album Grammy, and still inspires overly-earnest types (me) to embarrass themselves in praise. I spoke with Amos on the phone about how the album baffled her label and everyone when it came out, but ensured that people would remember her 20 years later. Read our Q&A and check out “Amazing Grace/Til The Chicken,” which will be included as a B-side on the remastered album, below.

STEREOGUM: Boys For Pele ended up being a turning point in your career. What was going on in your life leading up to the making of this album?

TORI AMOS: I’d been on tour for a long time in 1994 for Under The Pink. We had gone to so many different places and I met so many different people. We had a full crew out there then and that was different for me, because before that it was just an engineer and my tour manager, just the three of us. Then I had a proper crew and they sort of became, I don’t know, my band [Laughs] and I became friends with them all. It was a mixed bunch. There were some Brits. There were some Americans. My tour manager was British and the reason this matters is because of Mark (Hawley) and Marcel (van Limbeek), Mark was sound and Marcel was my monitor engineer, and they had worked together in the past. It was just working out really well with them on tour. By October, Mark and I began dating but we had hardly ever really spoken before the tour… It’s funny that you and I are talking right now. What’s today’s date?

STEREOGUM: October 5, I believe.

AMOS: This is so weird. So, I think it was October around then. I was in Madison, Wisconsin and I was staying at this place in Madison. I can’t remember where I was staying, but I had been on the phone with two of my friends Beenie and Karen Binns. Beenie works in LA and Karen Binns was in London. I talked to them both about having this crush on this guy Mark, the sound guy, and they both said, “Well, you have to confront it, because we have been hearing about this for way too long now and it is getting boring.” I went to the venue that day, we had a show, and I said, “Hey Mark, I have to tell you that I have this crush on you,” and he said, “Well, where I come from, the next thing that would happen would be a date.” I get out of the sound booth really fast and got backstage and eventually had something to eat, because I had been so nervous and then I took the stage and somehow I ended up in the hospital that night because I couldn’t breathe. I ended up in the hospital and this nurse gave me a shot and I started hearing the beginning of [B-side] “To The Fair Motormaids Of Japan” in my head and that’s how the songs were coming on the road. They began to come there, and then started to evolve over the next year, but I couldn’t take the Brits to America to make the record. There wasn’t enough time to get their visas, because we needed to start recording so I backtracked the story of the song in the bloodline and the old world was Ireland, so I could of course begin there.

STEREOGUM: And that’s the person you’re married to now?

AMOS: Yeah!

STEREOGUM: So these songs were coming to you in late 1994, you said?

AMOS: That one did. They were always coming earlier on that tour, yeah. It was such a life-changing time. I mean, I had been out with Little Earthquakes two years before and it all started to happen and my life was changing. My world kind of exploded and I think — if I’m honest with you — people in the industry, they want you to make similar records and work with producers that will give you a commercial record. Because Under The Pink was a successful album, I was feeling like I had done that and I needed to explore different kinds of music. So the idea of producing Pele on my own and going off with my crew to do it, not a lot of people could do that at that time. There wasn’t necessarily support.

STEREOGUM: Under The Pink was a pretty big hit. I’m sure the record label was like “just do some more of that,” or wanted to put you in the studio with Rick Rubin or someone like that who can make something palatable to the mainstream, but instead you came out with this record that was more dense and difficult, but great in its own way. What did the record label first think when it first heard it? Were they happy, or like “hmmm…”?

AMOS: Oh my God, it was played in New York and I don’t sit in during the listening sessions, so I was just out to dinner, but not partying or anything, and I walk in and say hi to everybody and it was being played in the recording studio in New York and Mark and Marcel were there in the control room. My God, I’ve never met such frosty reception in my life! [Laughs] I guess I had a frosty reception once with (former band) Y Kant Tori Read. I have had rough receptions, but I just was not expecting the look on people’s faces. I can’t even tell you what it was like. It was really just vicious, the most shocking, awful things you could hear from people. Only the classical music department got it.

STEREOGUM: Did you have to fight to release it the way that you wanted it or did they want you to go back in the studio and cut a few more hit singles or something?

AMOS: By that time, the discussions had already happened. That album was already coming out. I had been warned. I had been warned. But the champion of this record was the legendary Bob Ludwig who mastered it, and he did the remaster. He looked at me and said: “This is the record of your career.” He said that other artists have done this in their career, sometimes later and not on their third record or this early, but it’s respected. It’s raw. He came to understand that about it.

STEREOGUM: I know you’re a big fan of music history, both classical and classic rock, and the double album that takes risks and sprawls and really gets personal and experimental is such a staple of rock history. The Clash, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and so many other people have done it. Was this your version of that?

AMOS: Yes. But I didn’t set out to do it when I was doing it. At that point, I was just falling out with people; particularly, my dad and I were having a rough patch. Eric and I had broken up mid-1994 and all kinds of things were happening, and I felt like in some ways… I guess I wanted to carve out my own place. The idea of just making the same record for the next few records and then being cast aside by the industry, which normally happens when they’re done with you and they’re bored, I just thought, “Yeah, fuck that. No. That isn’t my role.” I felt other artists did it a lot better than I did. Frankly, Michael, I felt that there were other artists that really pandered to the radio. I felt that even with Little Earthquakes, that was setting down a career of somebody who talked about stuff, and sometimes it was uncomfortable. I do agree with you that there was an anger on this record and a bloodletting that hadn’t happened on the others, so it kind of made it difficult listening, but it’s true and it’s real. It’s not disingenuous.

STEREOGUM: You’ve had angry songs on your albums before like “The Waitress,” but for this one we have “Professional Widow” and “Caught A Lite Sneeze,” which is you at your most visceral, in a way. Where did that anger come from?

AMOS: I don’t know, thirty years of processing. I don’t know. Maybe it was about control. Maybe it was about a trigger that I sensed or was happening when people wanted more of the same and I don’t mean… I’m not talking about just hits. I had a great relationship with (former Atlantic Records executives) Doug Morris and Max Hole. They were like my fathers. No that’s not right, they were like mentors. They broke Little Earthquakes, and Doug had been locked out of Atlantic Records, and I say when he left, he’ll correct me and say: “Tori, they threw me out of the building, who are you kidding?” He had to start again, and boy did he start again. He is probably one of the most legendary record men that has ever lived. And listen, I understand with the new people at Atlantic, I understand how this record would just be “what?” after Under The Pink. And the promo people… I get it Michael, I get it. But if you look at it in the way you said before, there’s a tradition where any artist that will be around for 20 years will have to make this kind of record at some time.

STEREOGUM: Is this one of the albums that, 20 years later, people will still come up and talk to you about it? And do you think you had to make this type of album in order to still be around 20 years later?

AMOS: Well, Neil Gaiman, who is my spiritual adviser, told me at the time, “Tori, this record isn’t for everybody. It’s divisive. But that’s a good thing and people will have to pick sides.” He said, “I am making a bet that the public will rally and this will spread by word-of-mouth and you go from town to town and you sing from your heart every night.” And he was right. The first couple months were tough. I would get hits from critics from all sides and had to go up there every night and people were giving some advice. “Why don’t you just cancel the tour and go back to the studio?” But the crew was behind me. You’re only as great as your road crew, and they were bold and brave and fearless. And the people were coming. The tour was sold out. The tour was selling out. It turned around.

STEREOGUM: Some of the early reviews were kind of harsh. Wasn’t the Rolling Stone review a pretty bad pan?

AMOS: Fuck you, critic at Rolling Stone. Next.

STEREOGUM: It’s interesting, because eventually the album caught on and you started getting a lot of rotation at rock stations. You heard “Caught A Lite Sneeze” and “Hey Jupiter” all the time if you were paying attention back then. Did you notice you were reaching different people and getting into a different strata after that album?

AMOS: Yeah, the audience got a lot younger. A lot of teenage girls started showing up. A lot. Before, I had a lot of heterosexual men in their thirties, and some women of course. But something with this record really kicked in. And the gays were always there. They have always been there. Without the gays, I am nothing. Men and women, I am talking about. But really they were the best, they were just there from day one.

STEREOGUM: What was it about this album that got the teen girls, finally?

AMOS: Well, you know, I didn’t set out to do it, but I think that “Me And A Gun” and “Silent All These Years” did speak to people of all ages, but I think there was a kind of… This is how it has been described to me by people over the years; that some of them were 13 years old, 15 years old in their room, listening and experiencing similar emotions of not being able to express that feeling of being controlled by their parents, or their life feeling out of control. They didn’t have control of their life. So hearing Tori quote-unquote rationalize that at the time after having a successful couple of records and carving a path that people maybe didn’t think she should carve because they knew best about what she should do, and standing up against that was something that they really identified with. It’s kind of like when your parents are telling you: “No, you want to do this, you want to go to college and you want to be that and we’re doing this because we love you.” And you feel like saying: “No, you’re doing this for you. You’re not doing this for me.”

STEREOGUM: Back then I was listening to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.  You weren’t quite on my radar until this album came out, and then I was like, “This Tori person really rocks.” Did you notice you were getting more teenage dudes also who finally got what you were going for?

AMOS: Yeah, teenage dudes did get it and guys in bands and stuff. Some of them had gotten Little Earthquakes. Really, I think, they understood the angst. The live version of “Professional Widow” on the B-side album kind of encapsulates the energy in one song. When we were listening back to it, I kind of looked at Mark and said, “Wow, Jesus, the pain is so raw.” He looked at me and said: “Fuck the pain, it’s terror. It’s so on, no edits, no fixes, no nothing, just power.” And I kind of… yup, I hear what you’re saying from a sound engineer’s point of view, but all I can do is feel the pain in that. He looked at me and said, “Feel the empowerment, the freedom, the complication.”

STEREOGUM: Another thing that is kind of notable about this record, is that it had the Tornado remix of “Talula,” which was sort of your first foray into dance music. It became a big dance hit for you and you did that a few more times in your career. What made you decide to release that new version of it?

AMOS: In the re-release of “Talula,” we made a decision to have Pele as it came out the day it came out. We just remastered it. And then on the B-side album, we made choices about what to include and the most popular dance mix at that whole time was by Armand Van Helden, which was for “Professional Widow.” So we had that on the B-side and there was a guy called Johnny D at Atlantic. He had a vision, and he looked at me and said, “This record is so extreme that I think we should bring in a different extreme. Let’s give it to the dance guys,” and I was like, “All right.” I mean, it’s not as if I pushed back on everything; if something made sense, I would be like, “Okay, let’s do it.”

STEREOGUM: You can give and take on certain things.

AMOS: If it makes sense to me, yeah, but you have to really drill it down. You gotta drill down an idea and say, “Is this just me throwing stuff at the wall to see if something sticks?,” because I find that careless. I want a sharp idea. I’m committed. Be committed.

STEREOGUM: You were mentioning earlier that you broke up with Eric, who produced your first two albums, right? And this one, you basically self-produced it.

AMOS: Yes, Michael, we produced them together. It was a co-production.

STEREOGUM: Right, yes, of course. But this is the first time that you were the head producer all by yourself?

AMOS: Yeah, yes, but there were other producers on Little Earthquakes.

STEREOGUM: Was it freeing or intimidating to be the only producer for the first time on one of your albums?

AMOS: Well, yeah it was, and I had to fight to do it. Because the label usually wants to a pull in a producer that they know. They wanted to do that with Under The Pink, but I was in a position where I fought for me and Eric to do it, and we delivered. We had broken up. It was mutual. I didn’t dump him and he didn’t dump me. It was just one of those things where you have been together for seven and half years, and I was on tour and was halfway across the world and we were friends and creators. I digress, it was daunting, but I looked to the crew I was working with as a team and I work with teams. I am a team player.

STEREOGUM: I was reading some of the reviews for this and it seems that it wasn’t even about the album, they just didn’t like this idea they had about who they thought you were.

AMOS: It felt like that yeah, but that’s part, of it. You know Michael, in some ways they just gave me strength. I’m gonna take that energy and I am just gonna keep moving.

STEREOGUM: Do you thrive on proving people that they’re wrong?

AMOS: I thought, “Well, let’s see what happens. Let’s see how this holds up.” There have been works over the years that when it comes out, it hasn’t been embraced. Some of that work holds up over time. This is what knew: I knew that it came from an honest place. I knew that the fight was real. I knew that I wasn’t being lazy and I knew what the energy was. I also knew it wasn’t for everybody. I did know that.

STEREOGUM: You’ve had B-sides that are almost as popular with your fans as anything on the albums proper. I remember “Take To The Sky” was a really huge one for you. Was there any B-sides that you came back to that made you think “dammit, why wasn’t it on the album?”

AMOS: All the time, oh yeah, all the time, constantly. “Hey Jupiter (The Dakota Version)” is one and that’s why it starts off the B-side record. It is one of my personal faves of that time. And with the B-sides, we had an amazing time ordering them and discovering songs that we hadn’t mixed but recorded at the time. It was just really enjoyable to order it as if it was another record at that time.

STEREOGUM: Were you there any B-sides that you hadn’t heard in a decade or two and you’re like “oh where did that come from?”

AMOS: Yeah, well, I haven’t thought about all kinds of things that ended up on the B-side record. So as we were going through it, “Fire-Eater’s Wife” and stuff like that, I just hadn’t thought about it for years and years and years.

STEREOGUM: I assume that when you were getting ready to do this reissue, you had to go back and listen to the album. But other than that, do you ever listen to your own work or do you do it and move onto the next thing?

AMOS: You listen to it a lot while you’re doing it and you really put it under the microscope and you test drive it and you’re ruthless. But then I let it go and may never listen again for years and years. You move on. Me listening to this again… I hadn’t listened to it in years. Some of it was a tough listen. I’m not gonna lie to you. The confrontation, the pain, that stuff.

STEREOGUM: This is first album of yours that I ever heard and I just want to thank you for making it because it did truly change my life. I feel like I became a better kind of person because of hearing it.

AMOS: Oh thank you, Michael! That means a lot to me! That means a lot.

STEREOGUM: Obviously you’re at such different place in your life with your marriage and your daughter and you seem very happy. Do you recognize the woman singing these songs anymore, or does it seem like a completely different person?

AMOS: I recognize her, because I wouldn’t be here without her. I recognize her. But I don’t know if Tash would want her to be her mother. To be where I am right now and to be chill and to be laid-back, but still present and clear and a decent listener, I had to make some changes in my life and I had to confront some stuff. I had to confront the idea of mending, and control of my life, whether it was corporate or the industry, whether it was my dad, whether it was whomever. I thought, “No, I have to be an equal in my life” as far as not just performing and writing and being the type of artist people want me to be. That, to me, is not honest. That, to me, is you aren’t responding as a songwriter to what is happening in front of you today and writing about that. See, what you’re doing is not fabricating, but you’re creating in a way that everybody has agreed is acceptable, and, to me, that is not a liberated woman. A liberated woman who happens to be a songwriter says, “No, I need to write some truthful space,” whatever that truth is at the time.

more from Interviews