Tori Amos Fought the System to Make 'Boys for Pele'—and Tori Amos Won
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Tori tells us how taking control resulted in an LP deemed commercial suicide, now lauded as her most successful.
When Tori Amos ended the tour for her second solo album, Under the Pink, in November 1994, she was becoming one of the world's most celebrated and successful singer-songwriters. Under the Pink had attained remarkable success and Amos, who'd already undergone the pains of failure in the late 1980s with her band, Y Kant Tori Read, was primed to keep the momentum going. It made all of the sense in the world to continue working with the team that made her a star, but that's not what happened.
Instead, Amos assumed complete and total responsibility for her next record, 1996's Boys for Pele, an album so uncompromising, cathartic and at times, bizarre, it was expected by many to become a commercial disaster. What it turned out to be was an artistic triumph for the then 33-year-old artist, who from that moment on would become sole producer for her subsequent records. But it wasn't easy for to get to this point.
For nearly 10 years, Amos had been in a professional and personal relationship with producer Eric Rosse. He was critical to helping the North Carolina-born singer develop her career in the wake of Y Kant Tori Read, but the couple called time just as Amos was about to begin mapping her third album.
"Eric and I had produced Under the Pink, and that was a rewarding experience," Amos says over the phone from her home in Cornwall, England. "And I had complete and immense respect for him, but we were going our separate ways as a couple, which was a mutual decision. There are no bad vibes there. It was goodwill from the beginning. For this album I was either going to try someone else or strike out on my own."
Although she brought in a new team to work with—Marcel van Limbeek, Rob van Tuin, and Mark Hawley, whom she eventually married—Amos was determined to assume the producer role on her own, after receiving some advice from a famous friend of hers.
"It was Peter Gabriel that spoke to me and said, 'When you have a team of engineers, I encourage you to go take this adventure,'" she explains. "So I felt that was very empowering because I had so much respect for Peter and his work."
But Gabriel didn't have to convince the label to let her do it. As one might expect from the very male-dominated industry at the time, her choice was met with resistance. After delivering two very successful albums, her label Atlantic had its concerns over handing Amos the reins to self-produce the next one.
"You have to think back to 1995: There were very few women producing at the time," she explains. "When the record heads are hearing that you're striking out on your own as a female singer-songwriter-producer with a budget and your own team, they can't call the guys they're normally working with. You're handling the money, more money than there is now. After Little Earthquakes was turned in I had to go back and work at the Sheraton. There hadn't been enough money put aside for me by the producer. So I thought, 'The producer has a lot of power. Am I willing to turn the power over yet again?' And I said, 'No! No I'm not!' I'm not good with math, but that's OK. There are other people who are. You find them and ask questions, like, 'Do we want a bell ringing choir?' You just start asking yourself these questions. By the way, I said no to a bell-ringing choir, but yes to the Black Dyke Band."
The label agreed, but Amos had a steep learning curve ahead of her. "There were a lot of things that I didn't know, and a lot of things that I had to learn on the fly," she adds. "I think it was really pushing the boat out and being completely responsible, even though I work in teams and have always done best working with teams. Whether it's visual or the live show—even if it's just me up there alone—but it's always a team with the engineers. Always."
With her team in place, Amos and her crew headed for Ireland to begin principal recording sessions at a church in County Wicklow, and in a rented house in County Cork. "We realized that the best place to record the album was in Ireland, for all kinds of reasons," she explains. "There was an essence about it. I love being in Ireland and I couldn't get the crew into the States in the time frame I needed to make the record. We eventually sorted everything out, but we needed to start pre-production."
Once everything was underway, Amos discovered that one of the most important jobs as a producer was to learn how to communicate with the engineers and figure out who was responsible for what.
"I was just getting to learn how to work with them and get to know them, so we hadn't developed our shorthand language yet," she explains. "Mark wasn't ready to say, 'Are you out of your fucking mind, cute ginger ninja?' But now we can say that, and it's fine. 'No hard feelings and yes, I am out of my mind. Thank you for pointing that out to me!' And it wasn't an ego thing. It's fine for me to realize that my attention was on something else completely about the recording that maybe the others hadn't thought about, or maybe they had, but my attention wasn't on what they were thinking about, and that's when you delegate to your team. I didn't understand yet how to delegate. You learn that on the job. To be a producer you learn on the job. You really, really do."
As the one in charge, Amos saw this as an opportunity to take total control of the creative process. Though she was known as a piano prodigy, after being admitted to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music at just five years old to study the instrument, Amos decided to experiment and add more unfamiliar instruments to her repertoire. In addition to her Bösendorfer piano, she also brought in a harmonium organ, a clavichord, and the harpsichord, which more than anything helped distinguish this album from the others.
"Things opened up because I had been traveling," she says. "We went through Belgium, and I'd heard about the harpsichord convention that happens in Bruges. And I met this person who was obsessed with harpsichords and spoke to me in-depth about them. So I studied them. Each record has its own ingredients that you start pulling together, and the harpsichord just happened to be the centerpiece for me. And then everything started to fall in line."
For the first time in her career, Amos was allowed to think outside of the box. Ironically, however, it was from inside a box that she did some of her most radical thinking. "The box is something that the guys built me," she says. "It's the smallest little condo that you'll ever find. There is a hole to the keys for the Bösendorfer on my left, and a hole for the harpsichord on my right. And the width of it was only large enough for the piano stool and the keys and the microphone hanging down. It was padded inside with foam, and I could pin up my lyrics. My microphone would be louder than the harpsichord, so it was to isolate the keyboards, but we wanted the sound of the room. The sound of the room in this church was so beautiful on the microphones with the keyboards that we wanted that effect. So we had to keep the voice isolated. We rebuilt the box and we have it here at the studio and we still use it. Surprisingly, it wasn't claustrophobic."
Lyrically, Amos was more inspired than ever. Once again she applied her fascination with religion and personal relationships as motifs, including her newly dissolved partnership with Rosse. But Amos dug even deeper for a concept revolved around her self-discovery in a world dominated by men. The title, Boys for Pele, is a direct nod to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, whom she learned about during a trip to the island. Amos was captivated by the deity's feminine power, but also liked the idea of boys being devoured by Pele, a theme she ran with.
"My friend lived in Oahu, so we didn't get to the big island that time, but I spent about a week with her, and that's how I started hearing about the mythology of Pele," she admits. "I started to resonate with her energy and researched some of the more ancient goddess mythologies that I hadn't been exposed to. And so it started to open me up to seeing that I had a side of myself that I had been hiding from. A shadow self, possibly. And so I began getting to know that side through the songs that were coming to me."
Amos sought to delve even deeper into the album's themes through some rather controversial artwork. The cover features her dirtied, sitting in a rocking chair with a rifle across her lap, a snake at her feet and a dead cock strung up beside her. Inside the sleeve, she appears liberated, after setting her piano on fire, and maternal, as she nurses a suckling piglet. Call it an assertive reminder that she was large and in charge. But what did the suits at her record label think?
At this point Amos takes a moment's pause and starts to laugh before answering. "I think the label was so surprised with the record, because they thought it was the most uncommercial thing they'd ever heard. Like, where else can you go from there? Well, you go to your Christmas card with your Mother Mary and child, trying to bring the non-kosher back into Christian consciousness. If it's too loud turn it up, as I've always said."
With its startlingly sublime cover, Boys for Pele was released on January 22, 1996. Clocking in at 18 songs and 70 minutes in length, initial reactions were that Amos had committed commercial suicide in a few different of ways. The reviews were mixed: Rolling Stone gave it two stars , Entertainment Weekly gave it a C, and Robert Christgau labeled it a "dud," whereas Spin appreciated the album's audaciousness, giving it 9/10 and that month's cover story. Commercially, it was a different story. Boys for Pele became her most successful album to date, charting at number two in both the US and UK, and earning Amos a second consecutive Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. It also spawned a number one UK hit single: Armand Van Helden's "It's Got To Be Big" remix of "Professional Widow." The album's divisiveness is not lost on her.
"I think there are people that look at it from all different kinds of angles, from a different lens," Amos says. "What I do believe is that a few things came together at that time, and some of it didn't seem to be auspicious. It was a crazy in my life. There were a lot of upheavals and changes happening. At that time in the music world, when you've had a successful album or albums, particularly back to back like I did with Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, they didn't want me to do anything different. And when I say they, it's not a specific they, it's a collective they. That can be the label, the media, and sometimes your fan base, but I was very fortunate to have a group of people that were open to change at that time. So by making a 'overly commercial record' I didn't try not to make one, but I also didn't try to make one. I just needed to write music in order to deal with what was going on in my life at the time."
Boys For Pele is now available through Rhino as a deluxe anniversary edition 2-CD featuring remastered audio, and 21 rare and previously unreleased bonus tracks, as well as a 2-LP set of the original album.
In 2017, it will also be the subject of a 33 1/3 book by writer Amy Gentry.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living up in Canada. Wish we could join him up there. Follow him on Twitter.