When Tori Amos is ready to create something new, she stops singing and starts listening.
“As a musician, my output is sonic and verbal—it’s all about sound—so that is a paradox that took me a long time to understand,” says the eight-time Grammy Award nominee. “I become quiet. I have to go through an observational mode.”
By being still and listening to her muses, she says she’s able to absorb influences that might be drowned out by the sound of her own voice. The classically trained pianist-singer-songwriter has followed those muses for as long as she can remember; she began playing piano by ear at age 2, and became the youngest person to win a full scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music’s preparatory school at 5. “Listening has always been my greatest inspiration,” she says. “It allows you to observe the world and expands your palette.”
Nurturing her creativity relies on tapping into influences that reach far beyond music. Her latest album, Unrepentant Geraldines, was inspired by becoming still and “listening” to visual art. “When I’m able to hear a painting, rhythms come to me as a melodic phrase, and I know the visual medium is pushing me to communicate with me,” she says.
Often, the message or inspiration she receives is far different from what the artist was expressing, but Tori views it as a creative extension of that visual art. “What’s happening is that I’m being opened up to something that I wasn’t open to until I saw that painting. I’m hearing rhythms that I had not heard before that moment.” It sparks a whole new realm of inspiration and ideas.
Crossing sonic boundaries
“I don’t know that I’m always comfortable with the direction my art goes, but you have to explore it and see what happens,” she says. “What I do next might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s important to keep crossing the sonic mountains and not feel like I have to play it safe.”
Inspiration, she says, can be found in museums, travel, poetry and stories, and even walking through the market. Tori says there is no substitute for staying in the moment, observing life as it happens and then letting those experiences shape your creative expression. “Whatever I’m doing, I just observe it and let it happen. I let my bones drink it in and hear the rhythm of what it is saying.”
Try a different medium
One of the best ways to expand your creativity, she suggests, is stepping away from the familiar and experiencing life outside of your normal scope.
“Writers feel they need to read books, and musicians feel they need to listen to music, but when you go to a different medium than your own, it really cleanses your palette and expands your tastes,” she says. “Then you can return to whatever it is you’re doing and re-approach it from a completely different context. It lets you become neutral and open to hearing something that you haven’t heard before.”