1What two illustrations appear on the cover of your pre-solo synthpop band Y Kant Tori Read’s 1988 self-titled album?
“Um – a dragon, and a person with a sword?”
“Nice! I have to raise my hand and say I’m guilty of the album art. A stylist later said to me: ‘What were you thinking at the time?!’ Well, exactly! I didn’t call a professional stylist, and clearly I should have! [Laughs] There was no money for another photoshoot, although honestly, I should have just gotten a Polaroid done. But, to liven things up, I got my boyfriend at the time’s artist mother to do some illustrations.”
Two ‘Y Kant Tori Read’ tracks appeared as B-sides to a Phil Collins ‘A Groovy Kind of Love’ sampler, which apparently helped you escape jail when you were detained in Germany in the early ‘90s because the border guards were fans of the Genesis drummer…
“They were threatening to pump my stomach! [Laughs] My friend and I had come from Amsterdam and I didn’t have any marijuana on me, but my friend had some hidden in the heel of her boot. They asked me what I did, and I told them I was a singer and had been on a record with Phil Collins. I dropped the Phil Collins name so they wouldn’t pump my stomach!”
2Which disco song did you cover for NME‘s famous 1992 ‘Ruby Trax’ compilation?
“Did I cover ‘Ring My Bell’?”
CORRECT. You contributed a rendition of the 1979 Anita Ward chart-topper.
“I remember when I heard the song come out originally, and there’s certain songs where I feel the piano grabs me and says: ‘Let’s try this one’. We had a hoot recording it.”
3When you covered Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ live in Manchester in 2005, what did you alter the lyrics to?
“Hmmm… I don’t know this one.”
WRONG. You sang: ‘You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out, Morrissey’ after telling a story about how you once met Moz backstage at a TV show and praised him with: ‘Hey man, really great songs’, only for him to sneer: ‘What the fuck do you know?’
“[Raucous laughter] Oh dear! Luckily, Mancunians usually have a good sense of humour. Live performance can really bring out the devil horns! It’s a true story, but it goes back a long way to 1992, and it was a passing comment. [Morrissey] doesn’t know me or my life, or what I’ve been through. I think he assumed I had a privileged life. As they say in The Odd Couple: ‘You should never assume – because you make an ass out of u and me’. Some things that happened in the ‘90s should stay in the ‘90s! [Laughs]”
Presumably playing Washington, D.C. gay bars from the age of 13 would have been good training for rendering you immune to any shade – or heckling – that’s thrown your way?
“You have a point. This is where I think going from your room as an influencer onto the big stage means there are some tools you don’t gain. Once you’ve had to deal with hecklers in bars on a nightly basis, you see what works for different audiences and have more than one approach in your toolbox. Although it got to a point where I felt: ‘What do I need to do to not have beer spilled over me and the piano?’ It was a great training ground, and the gays taught me a lot about being present with an audience.”
What did those early audiences make of the 13-year-old you singing show tunes?
“They were more curious about my father who would chaperone me. He’d be in his dog collar and they wanted to know if he was dressing up in a costume. I’d explain, no, he’s really the Reverend of the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. When people at his church gave him a hard time for taking me to a gay bar, he infamously retorted: ‘There is no safer place for a 13-year-old girl than an all-gay bar!’. Amen!”
4Which Bill Murray film were you reportedly considered for a role in?
“Oh my goodness!”
Clue: Which Bill Murray film were you reportedly considered for a role in?
“I can’t remember! [Laughs]”
Clue: Which Bill Murray film were you reportedly considered for a role in?
“I can’t believe this!”
“Oh! Really? I’ve never known that! Well, it’s nice to be considered and never even know you were considered! [Laughs] ‘Cause then you’re not bummed if you don’t get it. Nobody ever told me that – I would have remembered because I think Bill Murray’s great. I’m not an actor – I’m not confused about that! – but I’d really like to write more music and songs for film.”
5When you were Punk’d by MTV in 2003, which star did the child interviewing you pretend to confuse you with?
“He tried to confuse me with Tori Spelling.”
“Bless him, I didn’t understand there was a show called Punk’d because I live in a bubble under a rock. Honestly, I had no idea what was happening. I thought it was a guy who was really a fan of hers and I just wanted to help the kid out!”
Ever been mistaken for anybody else?
“Many years ago, I was in a shoe department in Florida and a woman approached me and I began to realise she was mistaking me for someone else. I had to say: ‘Sorry madam, I am not Cate Blanchett!’, as my daughter Tash was just giggling her head off.”
“Oh my God! I have no idea.”
WRONG. It’s Olly Alexander.
“From Years & Years? That’s so funny! I’m going to completely check all his stuff out.”
“I really enjoyed having sushi and sake with Annie [Clark] – aka St. Vincent – right before the pandemic hit. We met up in New York, grabbed a bite and chatted like gals do. I enjoy meeting people – particularly songwriters of a different generation – although I’m kind of reclusive, so it’s a bit of a paradox.”
Do you see your influence in pop music now? Perhaps in that there’s more emotional disclosure from artists, and they’re increasingly more candid about tackling previously-taboo subjects, like grief and trauma, that you were addressing in the ‘90s?
“I remember when I turned in my  debut solo album ‘Little Earthquakes’, there were a few people who didn’t want ‘Me And A Gun’ [which recounts her rape aged 21] because they said it’s disturbing. I said: ‘Yes, it is disturbing, and if you weren’t disturbed, I’d be really concerned about you’.
“So yes, I think there was a time when talking about certain subjects and really going after them without them being fluff pieces – to get to the grisly parts of the effects of trauma and the damage it does, where you’re not even into scar tissue, where it’s still an open wound – there was a period when the music industry wasn’t open to that kind of thing. I remember thinking: how is this ever going to relate to people? But I strongly believed people have these stories out there – and I began to see that when they’d come and talk to me backstage during the ‘Little Earthquakes’ tour.”
7In Bob’s Burgers, which former Will & Grace actor plays a character that’s a parody of you?
“What?! There’s someone based on me in Bob’s Burgers?! Is it a guy who plays me?”
WRONG. Actor Megan Mullally (who starred as socialite Karen Walker in Will & Grace) plays Tabitha Johansson, a singer-songwriter inspired by you, who sings the song ‘Oil Spill’.
“I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard people talk about it. But I live in books. I’m now going to check it out. Maybe I should cover ‘Oil Spill’ on tour! [Laughs]”
8Which hardcore wrestler used to prepare for his matches by listening to your song ‘Winter’?
“I know this! Mick Foley.”
CORRECT. Sometimes known as WWE’s barbed wire bat-wielding Mankind.
“I met him and he’s charming. He got tickets for my nephew and niece to go to a big wrestling match and he was really kind to them.”
Who’s the most unexpected person that’s turned out to be fan?
“In the ‘90s, I was at an airport and a woman in a hijab came up to me in the ladies’ room and said: ‘Don’t stop making music, and just know that there’s some of us behind closed doors that play your music to each other for strength in order to survive our situations where we have no rights’. There were tears in her eyes and I was completely humbled, and began to then start opening up to what women’s lives were like in different parts of the world.”
9Which Neil Gaiman character is inspired by you?
CORRECT. From the Sandman series – who you nod to in the 1996 B-side ‘Sister Named Desire’. You’ve made multiple references to your friend Gaiman in your work over the decades.
“Over the years, he and I have stolen shamelessly from each other [Laughs]. He’d show me the Sandman series and I’d be like: ‘We were having this exact conversation when we were having pizza, don’t you remember?’ There’s always people I bounce ideas off before each record, and Neil has definitely been part of those thinktanks.”
10Name all five dolls from your 2007 ‘American Doll Posse’ album.
“OK! There’s Clyde, Santa, Isabel, Pip and Tori. YES!!”
“A lot of research went into that album. There was a philosophical book that I had read about archetypes and dealing with the Greek pantheon. In this study, women identified with one more than another. That was a jumping-off point to thinking: if people in my life know me in a certain way, what if I start exploring different sides of my personality that I haven’t really developed? Everyone in your family and friends fills a role – whether it’s the funny one or the bookworm – and we’re not encouraged to develop the personality that maybe somebody else in the group takes. So the album was a liberating exploration of different sides through Greek archetypes.”
You’ve just released your 16th album ‘Ocean to Ocean’, where you attempted to “write myself out of the hell” of mental health issues brought on by the pandemic. How will it feel to perform those songs of isolation live?
“It’s going to be a joy to perform them live because these songs got me out of a very dark place. I had to write myself out of it. The third UK lockdown was where I really hit the wall because it was a never-ending nightmare; the idea of no live music. Also, watching an attempted coup in my home country [when rampaging Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol in January], things went a bit mad. So writing these songs finally got me to a different, better frequency, and I’m looking forward to bringing them to the live stage.”
Bonus question! For a half-point: in 2014, which musician surprisingly got you (instead of herself) when she took a Buzzfeed ‘Which ’90s Alt-Rock Grrrl Are You?’ quiz?
“A guess, but Kim Gordon?”
CORRECT. The Sonic Youth legend tweeted the result.
“[Laughs] Well, I only wish I could get Kim Gordon instead of myself if I took that quiz. Wouldn’t that be the coolest thing ever?!”
— Kim Gordon (@KimletGordon) February 1, 2014
The verdict: 6.5/10
“Before this conversation, I feel like I only knew half of what you’re talking about. [Laughs] I feel like I’ve been living in some strange land!”’
Tori Amos’ ‘Ocean to Ocean’ is out now via Decca Records. She’ll tour the UK in early 2022.