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Interview by Jon Savage
Photograph by Donald Christie
In the early '70s, the music industry proffered a new breed of women singer songwriters. In their different ways, Carole King, Dory Previn, and Joni Mitchell charted a frankly emotional map that reflected the first liberating consequences of feminism. They were followed by hostile visionaries like Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull, and Kate Bush.
Tori Amos is at the forefront of a fresh generation of female singer-writers unafraid to be heroins or madwomen, or to expose abuse. The back cover of her second Atlantic album, Little Earthquakes, depicts some very phallic toadstools, the front shows Amos crouching in a three-foot-high square box, a toy piano her only companion. She's at the point of busting out.
And once opened, Pandora's Box cannot be closed. Little Earthquakes' twelve songs reveal a woman discovering her own power. Many of them deal with fundamental traumas transcended through the act of simply getting them down. As Amos sings, almost with wonder, on "Girl": "She's been everybody else's girl maybe one day she'll be her own." "Leather" pivots on that painful moment when sec is revealed as nothing about love. Most harrowing of all, the a capella "Me and a Gun" recounts a real life rape.
Amos's biographical details are chewy enough, the daughter of a Scottish-American preacher father and a part-Cherokee mother, she was a child prodigy at the piano and entered Baltimore's Peabody Institute at five -- only to be expelled at eleven. She spent her adolescence playing Gershwin in gay bars, had an abortive career as an L.A. "rock chick," wrote a pop album, Y Kant Tori Read, in 1988; and moved to England in 1990, where she has been able to flourish. Having proved itself in the UK, Little Earthquakes is not the subject of worldwide promotion.
It's winter, and Amos is spending all day in the open air, posing for photographs at Avebury, a four-thousand-year-old stone circle one hundred miles outside London, and one of England's prime spiritual sites. Wearing a pale green turtleneck, and flared jeans, Amos is at once flirtation and confessional, speculative and candid.
Jon Savage: What happened to you at the Baltimore conservatory?
Tori Amos: I came in playing by ear. I could play almost anything I heard. The whole idea was that to be a classical pianist you had to learn to read music. I knew that, but the way they did it -- this was 1968 -- was to try to break the ear, so that it would force me to read. The first piece of music I got to read was "Hot Cross Buns," and I was playing Bernstein at home by ear. I thought, wait a minute, this isn't fun anymore.
When we go to school, we're not taught about listening to ourselves and our instincts. I've tried many things just to find something to hold on to. I was playing a gay bar -- Mr. Henry's in D.C. -- when I was thirteen. It was my most receptive audience. My father used to come. He thought it was great that I wasn't getting hit on! It was good for him because it opened his eyes. Then I worked at another club, a piano bar called Mr. Smith's, down the block. It was alive. I've played clubs for fifteen years now, and all this time I've been writing my own songs. But I'd heard so often that it wasn't happening for me that I didn't trust working at the piano anymore. People said, Try a band. Have you thought of dance music? So I tried everything. I moved to L.A., I wrote with many different people.
JS: Did you like it?
TA: At the time it was great fun. I'd just turned twenty-one. I was into being a rock chick, and I'd gone from virgin to teaching choir in red leather pants to five-year-olds. We got along very well: they understood me and I understood them. It was their mothers I didn't get along with. To me, if you haven't been a rock chick, you haven't lived. I had some wonderful hair sprays. I teased by hair, I put on the lacy stockings, and I went out with gorgeous guys and talked about Shelley, poets. They liked my hair spray, and I made a record. What I had to deal with was being called a bimbo, after being a child prodigy. You wanna talk about a hard one to face?
JS: You've had both extremes then?
TA: Yes. Which is why, actually, I like being in my body now, because you feel the climate. I wouldn't have my perspective if I didn't.
JS: Did it take you until twenty-eight to break out of the box?
TA: No, I was twenty-four when my first record crashed, four years ago. I sat on my kitchen floor, day after day for six months. My partner, Eric [Rosse], came by and we would talk, but I had to go through a grieving process: "What did I have when I was four? What did I know then, that I don't know now?"
JS: Why did you move to England?
TA: The true reason is, I'd been plotting it for two years. I didn't tell the record company -- I was just really lucky that the head of Atlantic picked up on my brain waves; I'd been hexing him. He thinks I'm out of my tree anyway. I'd be flying to his ear every night while he slept and whispering, "England! England!" We finally talked about it on the telephone after we thought the new record was done. It had gone through so many stages of [the label] not liking it and then liking it, and I added another four songs, which were "Little Earthquakes" and "Precious Things" and "Tear in Your Hand" and "Girl," and those are major tracks on the record. They have a different mood from me at the piano, and I produced them with Eric, who is my love man, sweet-heart, dragon friend.
JS: When did you find Avebury?
TA: When I first came to England to meet the record company. I've been reading about the ancient history of this island since I was twelve. I believe, not to mince words, in having lived before. I believe in being drawn to places; it's a very strong pull. I first went to Avebury with a friend on the bus, and we spent seven hours quiet, alone; we went out different ways. I sang to the rocks, laid on them, cried with them. I was loved by them, I was comforted. I just wept and wept and wept, because we're all trying to find out who we are, to remember what we're made out of, and the stones carry the secrets; they have the memory. I think you can tap into that memory.
JS: Sites like Avebury and Stonehenge have been either desecrated or very heavily guarded over the centuries, as they are now.
TA: It's almost as if the authorities think people have a fear of that which they can't see and touch. You can't explain the energy of the stones, like you can a hammer hitting a nail. Most people are incredibly afraid of mysticism -- they call it the occult, or whatever. I've spend this last year tracking where the witches were burned, though not consciously. I ended up at Idstein, in Germany, where they have the witch tower, and the energy there was incredible.
JS: Do you think you'd have been burned in a previous age?
TA: Oh, yeah! -- but I was dancing, singing "A Spoonful of Sugar" all down the ages, time-traveling. So many women were burned; I've heard beween 200,000 and nine million! It's genocide. In Scotland, four days ago, I ran into where they burned the women, and I'm writing something about that now -- I feel like all these things have to be released now, but the only way they can be released is to be acknowledged.
JS: Do you think people are afraid of magic because of Christianity?
TA: They see it as the Dark Art, and that's Christian propaganda. We're going to have to talk about the fundamentalists. What is evil? To me, evil is the burning of those women. Evil is incredibly distorted love, and when you don't look at yourself and accept that you can be violent, that you can be victimized, that you can be the abuser, all you are is self-righteous, pointing the finger at someone else.
I'm a big believer in magic, but cutting up cats is just a big yawn to me. Magic is dealing with thought forms and images, and that's what I try to do in my shows. A lot of the time I call on the north wind for my concerts because it means wisdom -- the hardest teacher. Thought forms are real things, and so much of the way people think is functional -- it's not about talking to the spirits. We should get on with this. Growing up, we're not encouraged to use our imaginations, and that is the greatest loss. What happened to me was that, with my natural instincts of talking to the fairies, of believing impossibilities, of freedom of expression for the sake of it -- not for validation, not for self-worth, not for success -- it was just . . . I loved to play. So I play.
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