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By Isabel Appio
Photos by Honey Salvadori
"Almost every journalist in this town has used my bathroom" reveals Tori Amos through a forkful of sag bhaji and dall, as we sit in a Kensington curry house. It's a statement not too far from the truth. In Tori Amos's life, as in her songwriting, intimate details are always on show for anyone who cares to take a closer look. And, thanks to a huge and effective marketing push from her record company, there's still a queue of journalists waiting to lift the lid on Tori's personal privy.
Thus far, it seems that all the money pumped into the singer by her record company, Eastwest, will turn out to be a sound investment. In the great hierarchy of female singer-songwriters, it's not impossible to envisage this precocious newcomer (when she's paid a few more dues) swanning it with Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush. Tori has more gristle and guts than Julia Fordham or Beverly Craven, and is leaps ahead of them both in terms of talent and creativity. She's less morose and better company all round than Tracy Chapman, and she simply leaves Ashley Maher and Tanita Tikaram grounded. Indeed, Tori Amos does merit [the] hot-property handling she's receiving from her record company.
In the early days, potentially sympathetic journalists were invited round to Tori's flat to drink her camomile tea and see her perform. She has to be every rock journalist's wet dream. Without exception all comers have been charmed by her rambling, self-analytical conversation, enthralled by her songs and hooked on her sensuality. Her Rosanna Arquette 'one can short of a six pack' kookiness is just the icing on the cake.
Tori's familiar potted history follows her wherever she goes - Cherokee (or was it Sioux?) blood, daughter of a South Carolina preacher, a rape victim (as detailed on her recent EP 'Me And A Gun'). An erotic triple-A nutter who'll let the press roam freely in her flat - without tidying up first. Tortured, angst-ridden, burnt orange-haired, porcelain skinned beauty. But beneath all that Tori Amos's steps to success have been surprisingly cool-headed and utterly logical.
It was her Methodist preacher father who brought everything to life. "I said to him: 'You like writing letters, why don't you write to these people?' He sent my tape to all the major record companies, and this guy at Atlantic picked it up and came to see me play. The weirdest coincidence was that somebody who knows my parents was playing golf with these two record company guys in Florida. He asked them what was the strangest way they'd ever found an artist. One of them says: 'We got a tape of this girl sent by her father, saying: 'My daughter's really talented, I'm a minister so I wouldn't tell a story'. He says: 'That's my local minister's daughter!'. Isn't that funny?"
That was eight years ago. After signing to Atlantic five years ago, Tori recorded just one album, as a kind of sub-Pat Benatar pop-metal chick. The LP was cringefully entitled Y Kant Tori Read.
"Some of it's awwwful," she squirms, slowly making inroads into her pre-show energy-building curry. "It wasn't really representative of what I do or how I was. I should show you a picture but it's so aaawwful."
In what way?
"Because... (and at this point things go slightly awry) You guys show me, this is for coffee (digging into the brown sugar granules) and this is for tea (the white sugar). Who made that rule?" Characteristically, she diverts and loses track of the subject.
Atlantic Records eventually began to despair when Tori Amos records failed to get all-important US radio airplay. Early last year, they packed her off to England, where it was felt the less conventional British might have more time for her 'eccentric' style. We did. And she likes us too - with one reservation. "Hey, I like your country - but excuse me: 'Hello sun, hello beach, gimme a lounge chair by the pool in Miami with a pina colada'!"
After eight years under contract it must have been a relief to have a record company not only in tune with her music but also giving of their full moral and financial support.
"Hey, they're not giving me money to make a record so that I can just play it for my friends, hang out and feed my habit. In America if you're going to be heard, press isn't as effective... Oh God! I'm getting the rumblings already!" she moans, grasping her stomach. Again she's off on a tangent. "A few hours before the show the rumblings begin..."
From the Indian restaurant it's off up the road to 'hang out' in her famous flat and check out her bathroom. She's happy to sit and chat away until it's time to leave for the soundcheck. There's a string of messages on the Ansaphone, wishing her luck for that night's show at the Shaw Theatre. After some 'phone calls to her personal assistant and a large swig of Evian, she straddles a chair ready to talk.
Apart from 'Kate' and 'Bush', the words which are most usually used in connection with Tori Amos are 'troubled', 'tortured', 'angst-ridden' and 'crazy'. More than one journalist has implied that she's not exactly playing life with a full deck of cards.
"'Crazy' is one of those words like 'love'. When I hear that word love I just can't stop sniggering. It's like: 'I had to stab him because he made me love him'. Oh please, anything but that word, honey! Crazy is those ladies who roam the streets shouting 'AND I TOLD THE JUDGE THAT I DIDN'T KILL HIM!' - and you use the same word.
"Maybe I'm out of my tree. But who wants to be in their tree anyway? I find that kind of amusing because you must know that I think I am very, very sane. It's not like I have an axe hidden up my skirt. Well I don't have a skirt on. But..." - here she darts across the room to dig deep in a crate full of tapes, searching for her two current favourites, Led Zeppelin and Jungle Book - "however close to the edge we all really are, we're not that close to really losing it. That's why I love that movie Trading Places. Everybody could so easily be put in different circumstances. And as for traumatised - well, I get that way when the pasta isn't al dente."
Into the bedroom for the photo shoot - and there's the pile of used knickers spotted by one magazine, the herbal concoction mentioned by another. "YOU magazine did this shot already, only I was in a swimsuit top thing," she warns us. The eagle-eyed photographer points out the heap of empty Manolo Blahnik shoe boxes in the corner, her eyes obviously clocking up the pounds. "You gotta spend it on something," laughs Tori.
And so the talk goes on, from racism at airports, through to her early years - "I think I had a pretty average childhood: I wasn't stolen and raised by gypsies, I wasn't sexually abused. I had loving parents. You can't really say my parents put me in a cage with a parakeet. We feel that because nothing dramatic happened that we have no right to look back at our past. But things come up that push my buttons. My grandmother was a believer in virgins. She was a Church of God minister. Hey, I was considering sex when I was ten. I was picking them out from my record collection - should it be Robert Plant? I had it all lined up." The conversation shifts to men and the divide between sexuality and spirituality. Passionate maybe, but not all of it is comprehensible and little of it is conclusive.
VOX is now just another name to add to the list of guests invited in to peruse her private spaces. "You want people to respect that it is your own space," she says. "I have this smudge stick. Red Indians use it. You light it at the end and blow it out. The Native Americans take the stick to get the energies of other people out of their rooms. It's always burning."
As we leave her to get ready for the soundcheck, she gives us a bear hug and squeals with delight when we say we'll be in the audience that night. But somehow, I couldn't be sure she didn't light her smudge stick the minute the door was closed.
Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos's debut UK album, went straight in at Number 15 in the charts. Some of the success is no doubt thanks to the full-throttle marketing impetus of her record company. However, as a marketing executive of a retail chain points out: "Nobody's really going to put a lot of money behind someone who they don't have faith in, who isn't any good. Tori Amos is talented; she has a lot to say for herself; it's a good album; she can talk at length about her work; she's not some Techno House singer with a limited market. It makes solid financial sense that the record company are going to back her more than someone else without such wide appeal."
Nor are her two sell out dates at the Shaw Theatre, Euston an overnight fluke. She's no stranger to playing live: since the age of 13 she's been performing in gay clubs, motels and Hiltons across the US. In London now for almost a year, she's slogged away playing ill-attended residencies at the Mean Fiddler. These Shaw Theatre nights are all important dates for her: the first headline shows and a showcase for a handful of America's most influential journalists, flown over to whet their appetites and pave the way for a US launch.
Tori considers her real strength is playing live, preferably in small dark places: "I'm very hard on myself as a performer: I give myself no slack. I feel very comfortable in suffocation tanks." She has her own particular way of riding the piano stool: legs akimbo, right Manolo Blahnik-clad foot stretched out behind her. Groin thrust forward to the audience. A piece of string dangles around her neck (not a Cherokee - or was it Navaho? - talisman but, Tori revealed in a backstage whisper "the great nothing"); her legs are clad in denim flares from Kensington market; a shabby vest reveals a black bra strap.
"You didn't bother to dress up then, like you did for Wogan," booms a persistent heckler from the audience, breaking the silence. Tori gives him the middle finger: "I've been playing bars for 15 years, honey. I know you." He persists. She shocks him into silence by launching into the opening lyrics of 'Leather': "Look I'm standing naked before you/Don't you want more than my sex..." The audience applaud loudly in approval.
Later, unruffled, she says: "It's better to take notice of them than to ignore them. They may be trying to tell you something important, like your car's getting towed away."
Her show, like her album, is solid, self-involved, confessional and cathartic. In recent years few have exorcised demons more intensely than Tori Amos: sexual violation, family neurosis, pubescent awakening, it's all there. Lyrics like "So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts/What's so amazing about really deep thoughts?/Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon/How's that thought for you?" In interview and in performance it's non-stop self exploration. She says "I feel if you talk about the self it's like a microcosm of wider issues. I know I go into areas which are threatening because it's all about the human psyche, and I crawl in. I'm demon hunting, but not to hunt them down. I'm going in to play with them. That's how I find out what I'm made up of."
Little Earthquakes was mostly co-produced by 'sweetheart' Eric Rosse. "I try and keep names and faces out of it," she says. "But a lot of it was recorded in Eric's house in LA. Wherever Eric goes I'll go." Although she reverberates with undeniable echoes of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell - and Robert Plant, some say - she maintains that her greatest influences are poets, especially male ones like Pablo Neruda: "a bit of Baudelaire, E E Cummings - big influence. When you read their works and then you read mine you'll understand how the thought process works. I sometimes write out of anger, sometimes out of being hurt."
Both the press and her record company have tried to steer clear of too many 'lazy' Kate Bush comparisons, but the similarity between the two artists seems to be a strong attraction for her burgeoning fanbase. There's also an apparently unconscious similarity between her album sleeve by Cindy Palmano and an American sleeve by Gered Mankowitz for Kate Bush's The Kick Inside. Both women are squashed inside a wooden crate. "We were really into the Alice In Wonderland idea," explains Tori of the album sleeve. "We wanted to work with differences in scale, the shrunken piano, the big mushrooms (on the back of the cover), male, massive. Girl in her box. We thought it was quite good fun."
As the audience files out of the theatre Tori is backstage with her personal assistant Julia. She inspects her face closely in the mirror and retouches her make-up before she meets the small gathering of (impressed) US journalists backstage. "On a desert island," she whispers, "it would be a close call between Evian and lipstick. But lipstick always wins." What, not a smudge stick?
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