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Tori Amos Talks ‘Bloodletting’ With Boys for Pele, the State of Female Artists, and How Fans Influence Her Performances

Primavera Sound Festival 2015 - Day 4
Tori Amos, 2015. Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns via Getty Images

Given the heavily metaphorical nature of Tori Amos’s seminal third album Boys for Pele, it’s surprising how emphatic of a statement that 1996 record remains to her today. At the time, Amos, riding the swell of female singer-songwriters edging their way toward the mainstream, was coming to terms with herself and with femininity in the wake of a split from Eric Rosse, who had produced her 1992 debut Little Earthquakes and its follow-up Under the Pink two years later. “[Boys for Pele] was about me claiming my womanhood, finding my worth as a woman and not as a woman through the eyes of the men I was with,” she told MTV Europe in January 1996. That process would involve rage — raw emotion tapped and channeled into one of the most impassioned artistic products of the ‘90s.

“I was bloodletting about a lot of things at the time, trying to find my own sovereignty in my life as a person as well as an artist,” says Amos, now 53, who celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the 18-track set on January 22. It was a repudiation of the Establishment from which she’d sprung (she was a minister’s daughter who attended church four times a week until she was 21), built on values that still hold true for many: that men dictate a woman’s worth, that Christianity hypocritically preaches love but encourages hate, that being a female musician subjects you to creative control from what she calls a “boy’s club.” Pele was a gunshot, an explosion of harpsichord and seething anger and a flourishing display of musical genius, that helped Amos find that sovereignty, both as a woman navigating the uncertain future at the closing of the 20th century and as an artist standing alone for the first time in her career.

For Amos, it also marked the closing of a chapter, one that freed her to become the celebrated, and liberated, figure she is today. To celebrate Pele’s milestone, she revisited the 35 total tracks recorded for the album and assembled a deluxe reissue (out today through Rhino) with a second disc that includes 21 bonus tracks of demos, live renditions, and four previously unheard songs. In anticipation of the release, Amos spoke with Vulture about what Pele meant for her when it landed in stores, and how her perspective on it has evolved over time.

One of the things you said around the time the album was released was, “You would not have wanted to have a drink with me during that record.” You later said, “I was in a really bad way.” What sort of emotions were you experiencing at the time that drove you to write this record?
I said that? Okay. Well, you might have wanted to take an ayahuasca journey with me, I don’t know. That’s a group thing, and the group I was in was a pretty groovy group. I just happened to be in a fun group. I can’t say I was the most fun, because that wouldn’t be true. But I guess that’s right in that it wasn’t a really humor-filled time, a time to carve a path out as an artist after you’ve had a couple of commercial successes. It’s more difficult to do than I’m good at expressing. I had to fight for my life as an artist, and as a woman at that time. The record world was very much a boy’s club, and I’m not saying that I didn’t have good buddies, dear friends in the boy’s club, because I did, and I do, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to be told what to do by them. It doesn’t mean I didn’t want to sit and look at them equally and say, “No, I don’t want to do that, I want to explore this,” and to have a dialogue where we were on the same footing.

You spoke about how you looked at your first three albums as a trilogy — it was about claiming your womanhood. Do you think that with Boys for Pele, you did that?
I think I claimed the shadow side of my womanhood that I hadn’t looked at, yes, and the damaged self, yes. And maybe the sovereignty of it, yes. But some of that was about confrontation and needing to be confronted, because you can’t have sovereignty and walk on eggshells. Sometimes, it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the answer is no, and that isn’t always very popular and it doesn’t always seem feminine. I’m talking about the ancient feminine, and sometimes, in researching Pele and researching Inanna and researching Lilith and some of the ancient goddesses and mythologies … When you really look at Demeter and what was going on with her and the rest of the gods and goddesses, when Persephone was being held by Hades, she was like, “right, all you get is no. No!” So I was exploring these energies and that’s really much what Boys for Pele is exploring — that side of the feminine that we judge and say, well that’s a bit harsh, that’s a bit bitch-on-wheels, but in reality, yes, it’s mythological poetry so you have to see it for that.

There was a pivotal moment for you during this record when you were on the Under the Pink tour, and went to Hawaii for five days and described how you felt lost. What do you remember about being in Hawaii that centered you, if it did at all?
I was with a very close friend of mine, Diana, and I spent a lot of time talking about the mythologies of our ancient archetypes, and men as well. We discussed how in life, we’d like to see that in the men we knew and how to project that onto the men we knew instead of fixing ourselves. You know how we project on people like Jim Morrison from the Doors and how they seem to be able to channel that Dionysian energy? And/or Robert Plant, how he was able to channel that energy during those Led Zeppelin days? This sensual mysticism … They were able to do that, and she and I were talking about, well, we as women need to be able to awaken that in ourselves, but in ways that we want to awaken. If I’m honest with you, I began finding the Dionysian energy within myself. I said at the time, stop chasing some guy for his fire. Find it in yourself. That eventually led to, as you know, Strange Little Girls down the line. But first, I needed to find the female archetypes that I wasn’t embracing and that led me later down the line to embracing a male archetype that I needed to look at that was dormant in myself. Because you have female archetypes in you. You don’t need to just find them in the women in your life.

This record was the first that you produced by yourself. You worked with Eric for the first two. How do you think working on Boys for Pele as captain of the ship really influenced your later work? Did it make you more self-assured as a technician? What was the effect that came afterwards?
Loads of questions. Humility. Chop wood, carry water. That was what I needed to go do. I realized how tough it was, and that, yes, you’re always with a team, but [sound engineer] Mark [Hawley] and I hadn’t developed our language yet. We’d been working together on the Under the Pink tour for that whole year but we didn’t really know each other very well. Mark and I didn’t start dating until early October of ‘94 and we started rehearsals in January-ish. We were thrown in the deep end as a team together, just because it seemed like the right thing. I didn’t want to go make the same record, I didn’t want to go work with a commercial producer. Eric and I had separated amicably and as dear friends, but we both needed to go do other projects because we’d been together and it was just too raw after separation to go and work together, because some of the songs are going to be about the breakup of a relationship. That was just not going to happen for either of us, it just wasn’t right for either of us. So I decided not to go and find a producer. I decided, no, I’m going to pull the engineers together. It was Peter Gabriel who encouraged me to do it. For good or ill, he said, “Look, you’re working with these engineers. Build your own team. Be smart.”

On your fan message boards, there was a question that arose where there’s the track “Sucker,” and there’s “Walk to Dublin (Sucker Reprise).” They’re related musically, quite obviously, but lyrically, they’re very different. What was the progression from “Sucker” to “Sucker Reprise?”
“Sucker” came first, but I held it back, because it’s my punk harpsichord statement. And then I didn’t think about it really at the time. I just held back and didn’t release it. I don’t think I released it. I don’t think “Sucker” was released.

It wasn’t.
And so then, I guess on “A Piano,” we decided to put this out there, which came after. But it was at the same time. It was being done in Ireland. But it was first. That’s why it was called “Sucker Reprise.”

Why did you decide to adapt the initial song to be another one? Do you recall the thought process?
We were just exploring. I didn’t think both of those should be out. I thought there were plenty of harpsichord songs on the record I guess, so through a different lens, things seem different. And I just thought it was time to put “Sucker” out now.

I’ve heard that you recorded 35 songs for the album, and there aren’t too many new songs on the second disc of the reissue. Are there more songs left over from the Boys for Pele sessions that you’re holding on to?
Not a lot, no, no. Because “Cooling” was involved in that, “Never Seen Blue” was involved with that, but they were all held for the Choir Girl release. And they just weren’t put out or mixed or whatever, so they’re part of the Choir Girl world as far as they were held back and put out then.

One of the important things, in addition to numerous things about you as an artist, is that you were the first major-label artist to offer a single download with “Caught a Lite Sneeze.” Music streaming and downloads have become such a present form of consumption in society today. What do you make of streaming and how digital everything has become?
Well, I’m thinking about the future. I’m not thinking about what’s going on right now. It is what it is, it happened, it’s happening. So I’m thinking about the next way of expression. And I don’t mean just digital, I’m thinking about the next live show, I’m thinking about the next record, because that’s what you do as an artist. That’s how you wake up in the morning. That’s your language. That’s where my focus is, on the creative side of things.

A theme that is common throughout Pele were your feelings on Christianity. You were very vocal about it at the time, and anyone who’s familiar with your work is familiar with your perspective. How has that evolved over time since then? Are you still as anti-Christianity as you were back then?
I’m not anti-Christianity with people who love their neighbor as themselves and don’t want to meddle in someone else’s choice in life, their choice to live life with who they want to be with, what their sexuality is. I don’t want to change you. If you want to call yourself “cloud,” I’ll call you “cloud.” Why would I need [you] to be who I want [you] to be? But this is the amazing thing in life, and it’s not just Christianity, but as a minister’s daughter I saw this hypocrisy around me all the time, where people would go back to being bullies in the office, and this includes women too, people treating other people a certain way and they go on Sunday, even though they’re Protestant, similar to the Catholic mantra, which ism I’m going to go sit here and everything will be okay and I’m absolved. And one of the things I would hear all the time was, “I don’t know why my kid’s so upset. We’re just doing it because we love him!” You’re not doing that because you love him! You are not telling him “gay is wrong” because you love him. This is about you. Snap out of it.

At the time of Boys for Pele and a bit of time after that, there was a boom of singer-songwriters, particularly women. You could look at Lilith Fair and these congregations of female singer-songwriters, and you take a look around today, and the landscape is quite different in the mainstream. Why do you think attitudes in the mainstream have shifted away from focusing on female singer-songwriters?
Well, that’s a really good question, and I think that’s something that you and your journalists need to explore. You need to play this out. Walk me through it.

If you think about it, as music went into the new millennium, the advent of technology changed the way that people make music, and songwriting shifted toward people who were more behind the scenes. You take a look at what contemporary music is like today and turn on the radio, it’s a bunch of singers singing other people’s songs, who are doing it in this very sleek, produced, upbeat kind of mode. Plus, people during times of cultural or political strife tend to gravitate toward upbeat music, and the singer-songwriter doesn’t necessarily fit into that mold, so that could be an explanation for it.
They’re not being nurtured. Singer-songwriters are not being nurtured right now, by the record labels, by the streaming services. I mean, if I were starting out now, good luck with that. But I’m in a really fortunate position, and that’s because of the audience. They’re the reasons I’m here. They really are, they’re the reason that I’m working on … I’m not sure what record I’m on. I don’t know if it’s my 16th album.

[2014’s] Unrepentant Geraldines was your 14th.
That’s funny. Okay, so the thing is, if you really look at it, those talents aren’t being developed, because it’s more about producers bringing in a singer and maybe they collaborate but producers are in the driver’s seat right now, and they have their songwriting stable that they call in and that’s kind of configuration you’re looking at right now. The Tracy Chapmans didn’t need all that. They just picked up the guitar, wrote a song, and sang the song. So you’re getting rid of a lot of other people that have been very clever. Maybe some of the people you and I are talking about can write or maybe they can’t, but then they bring in the writers, so they made themselves — very intelligently, by the way, I take my hat off to them. I would have a drink with them and say “very well done,” but write me a structure where I’m not falling asleep. Do it, let’s go, let’s go! Right here, right now, baby! Let’s go! Come on, not all of them can, unless they’re collaborating.

You’ve talked about how metaphorical Boys for Pele was, and there are specific interpretations that people had of songs. For example, I’ve seen people wondering if “Muhammad My Friend” was about a cat. What do you think it is about the record that opens it up to so much interpretation?
You guys know better than I do about that. But that’s okay. The interpretation is good. Since there’s a lot of archetypal work going on there, being put into songs, that it does allow a difference in viewpoint. But the thing is, the people that have interpretations, they sometimes affect how I play a song. They’ll say, “Hey, this is what I think it’s about,” and I’ll say, I never thought that! That doesn’t mean it’s not valid. It just means that I’ve never seen the song that way myself, as Tori. That’s why it is really an eye-opener when people say, “Did you know this is what I got from it?” I’ll say, I never thought of that before. Now, I’ll go think about it. I’m going to play it from that perspective tonight, and that’s why the collaboration has been going on for so many years with people. I do listen to them.

What happens sometimes is someone will say something, especially if there’s been a little bit of time so it’s not so raw, and when you can hear it with a sense of humor, you’re sitting there and you realize you’re laughing with this person thinking, Oh my God, you’re right! I would have never admitted that 15, 20 years ago, but you’re absolutely right.

Tori Amos on Boys for Pele As ‘Bloodletting’