'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Tori Amos ('Audrie & Daisy')

THR Tori Amos_160711_THR_SWRT_ToriAmos_0588 - THR - H 2016
Miller Mobley

"Some women have been marginalized by the music business," says the veteran singer-songwriter Tori Amos as we sit down at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Hollywood to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and begin discussing ageism in her industry. The 53-year-old continues, "There seems to be an acceptance by our culture of men, even if they have potbellies and beards. There's an aphrodesiac that people feel when a man has experience and wisdom, there's a sensuality, there's a power to that, a seductive power. But women having wisdom? It hasn't yet had the same effect in our culture. So I'm thinking, 'You know what? I don't care. There are stories to be told. There are songs to be sung. There are high-heels to be worn. And there are piano stools to be ridden.' "

It has been 25 years since Amos — who, in her own words, sings "like a fairy on crack" — burst onto the scene with her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, which went platinum, selling more than 2 million copies worldwide. Over the years since, she steadily has put out new music; become a wife and mother; and influenced generations of other singer-songwriters with songs that The New York Times has said "fuse the brashness of rock, the poetry of mysticism and the politics of gender and survival." Her latest is "Flicker," which she wrote and performs over the end credits of Audrie & Daisy, a Netflix documentary about teens driven to the brink of suicide by sexual assault and subsequent social media harassment. The piano ballad, which currently is the subject of considerable best original song Oscar buzz, is deeply personal for Amos, who herself was sexually assaulted during her teens, and who has worked for decades to help other "victims to become survivors."

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Born in North Carolina to a conservative Methodist minister and his stay-at-home wife, Amos started playing piano at the age of 2 1/2. While her father forbid many types of music in the household — "Jim Morrison was 'the devil' and [Led] Zeppelin was 'devil music,' which of course made it so attractive," she recalls with a laugh — her mother and older brother exposed her to a broad array of it when he was away. At just 5, the child prodigy landed a scholarship to attend a top music conservatory, the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, on the weekends, but she was kicked out at age 11 for acting out when her teachers refused to treat seriously music other than the classics, specifically The Beatles.

In the years thereafter, Amos began writing her own music, and her father took her, at age 13, to find a job performing at a piano bar. (The only place that would hire her was a gay bar, and he allowed it, figuring it was a safe place for a young girl.) By her mid-teens, she was working most weeknights and raking in good money, on top of the gigs that he assigned her on weekends: weddings and funerals. All the while, she was recording — and he was sending out — demo tapes, which were met with indifference for some time. Then, one record industry exec flew her to San Francisco to test her, but asked her to perform R&B, which was not her style. "Trying to chase something that wasn't me, I was getting it wrong," she says.

When she was 21, she moved to L.A. Soon thereafter, in 1986, she and several others formed a band, Y Kant Tori Read. One of their demo tapes resulted in her signing with Atlantic Records; another became a synthpop album released in 1988. "It didn't go over so well," she says. "Billboard referred to it as bimbo music." Acknowledging that the album was "disingenuous," she resolved to henceforth be herself as a musician: just a girl at a piano, singing about what was on her mind. "I took off my too-tight corset and all the hairspray that was in my hair, where my hair almost touched the ceiling ... and that was the beginning, I guess, of Little Earthquakes."

Little Earthquakes, which included the hit singles "Me and a Gun," "Winter," "Silent All These Years" and "Crucify," put Amos on the map, and it has stood the test of time: It was chosen in 2002 by Q Magazine as the fourth-greatest album of all time by a female artist, and it also appears in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. But it almost didn't happen. Her own label tried to replace its pianos with guitars, and when that happened, she says, she asked Doug Morris, who ran Atlantic Records, to sell her to Gary Gersh, who ran Geffen Records, rather than release something that wasn't truly her own. "I'd rather be able to wake up in the morning and have some self-respect as a songwriter than betray myself again." Morris said he wouldn't sell her and eventually embraced her vision.

It was clear from her earliest live performances that Amos had a special "collaborative relationship" with her fanbase, which predominately was comprised of young women and gay men who could relate to the things she was singing about that they weren't hearing elsewhere. (Critics labeled her songs "confessional," but she dislikes that adjective, as she feels it has a religious connotation.) This bond only grew stronger with the release of her second album, Under the Pink, two years later, and her third, Boys for Pele, two years after that, which sold a million each.

But her star faded somewhat after that, as she bucked heads with record industry suits. "I was frustrated with how the game was played," she volunteers, "and, if I'm just completely honest with you, I didn't have enough experience to know how to play that chess game." In short, she felt that she was being "hustled" and "taken advantage of" and "used," but, she acknowledges in hindsight, "I don't think that going into the record company and really calling some of the people on their shenanigans was clever." Fortunately, the rise of the internet around that time enabled her, to a large extent, to cut out the middle-man and deal directly with her fans.

Through the years, Amos has been a tireless advocate for survivors of sexual assault through her work with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. In 1994, she answered its toll-free helpline’s ceremonial first call, and she later became its first national spokesperson. Netflix, aware of this, sent her Audrie & Daisy with the hope that she would contribute a song to it. "I watched it, and I couldn't speak," she remembers. "It shocked me because I was aware of sexual assault on our college campuses, yet the film shows it's not only our high school students sexually assaulting their peers, but it's now in our middle schools." The cyber-bullying component troubled her most because, she says in an apparent reference to President-elect Donald Trump, "Now we're at a time where it seems as if bullying can be rewarded and validated." She adds of the title and lyrics she chose, "Audrie isn't with us anymore — her light has flickered out, it isn't with us anymore — but Daisy and Delaney, they have become survivors, and are talking to high school students about assault and about empowerment, and they have really become lights. So the song needed to hold these different stories."

Amos, who has been married for 18 years and is the proud mother of a vocally gifted 15-year-old, continues to make music because, she insists, her "nine muses" continue to inspire her. Asked to elaborate, she says somewhat cryptically, "I'm very blessed that they knock on my door once in a blue moon. We collaborate together, and they let me have the copyright and the publishing. I'm very thankful to them for that. But they are absolutely real." Have they made her a better artist today than she was 25 years ago, when she was first hitting most people's radar? "I can't say I'm a better artist," she says firmly. "I can say to you, though, I have a better sense of humor than I did."