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London Observer Service (UK)
(a syndication service)
February 11, 1996
Photograph by Richard Mildenhall
Too many kooks?
New Age witch or shrewd pop star?
Neil Spencer meets elusive Tori Amos
Kooky is an adjective Tori Amos has come to dislike. It attaches itself stubbornly to her name and subtly demeans her work as the outpourings of a crazy woman. "Women have been the muse for the last 2,000 years," she says. "Now that we are able to become the creative force ourselves, to be da Vinci rather than just Mona Lisa, we're cast as weirdos."
The diminutive singer-songwriter is careful not to protest too much, however. For one thing she's comfortable enough with her eccentricity to enjoy playing the kook card when it suits her. For another, her fabled craziness has proved quite handy in building a career that saner souls might envy. Her first album, 1991's Little Earthquakes, has now rached up world-wide sales of 1.5 million. Her second, 1994's Under the Pink, which entered the British charts at No 1, has topped two million, and a trail of hit singles has followed in the wake of both. Her new album, Boys for Pele, a starker, more ambitious work than its predecessors, is poised to repeat the success.
Behind the sales figures is a fan-base whose devotion borders on the unhealthy, its adulation stoked by the power and intimacy of Amos's live shows. Clearly, there's more kookiness out there than anyone expected.
The extent of Amos's success is all the more startling given the intensity of her music. "Me and a Gun," for example, her first single, is a harrowing first-person account of being raped. Or there's "Icicle," a song about masturbation. In fact, there's scarcely a number in the Amos songbook that doesn't shatter a sexual or religious taboo along the way. The origin of Amos's obsessions -- religion, sex, gender -- is easily located. Both her parents are Calvinist ministers [*] in North Carolina, the buckle in America's Bible belt, and the young Tori (real name Mary Ellen [**]) was raised strictly in the fold. A classically trained pianist and child prodigy, she switched allegiance as a teenager to Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and boyfriends.
She fled the family home to play Gershwin standards in Washington gay clubs, before an abortive career as a rock chick. A clumsy mid-Eighties album, the hideously titled Y Kant Tori Read, came out before Amos dumped the snakeskin pants and big hair in favour of white dresses, unsettling songs and an effortlessly inventive piano style. Her record company was baffled, but the suits in the boardroom were bright enough to figure that Britain might prove more amenable than America to her peculiar brand of nuttiness. So it proved. Feted here as a Kate Bush for the Nineties, she was promptly re-exported.
Given her background, it is tempting to see Amos's work as an extended act of rebellion against her upbringing, and she admits to "peeling away the layers of ideals my family tried to ingrain in me." She's at it again on her new album: "We both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem," she flutes heretically on "Muhammad My Friend." Small wonder that back home they have taken to praying for her soul.
In fact, her metaphysical interests have evolved rather than been jettisoned, and with declared interest in past lives and Native Americana (her mother is part Cherokee) she is often dubbed a New Age witch. It's no surprise, then, to find her broaching a discussion on female pop stars with a ramble about Mary Magdalene's place as female role model and matrix. "She's not a virgin; she's a woman who's had experience. She's compassion and passion and wisdom, the figure of the High Priestess that came down from the Goddess cults."
Otherworldly, though, she isn't. Sober and hard-working by habit, Amos is a fearsome business negotiator who runs her own publishing company. She can, she says, "cut deals with the patriarchy." She also lends her support to America's network of rape crisis telephone lines, whose funding was cut by George Bush. Tori Amos may fly with the angels in song, but daily life is lived with a puritan sense of purpose. In person she is all charm and allusive, at times elusive, imagery. Now 32, she says she has taken "a leap into womanhood" over the past 18 months. Indeed, quote a lot of leaping goes on during our conversation. Writing her material is like "jumping off cliffs"; the first half of her album is "a descent into the shadows"; and she expresses a desire to "deep-sea dive with my male muses to explore new coral reefs."
Amos is clear enough about the reason for all this emotional plunging; the end of her eight-year relationship with her lover and collaborator Eric Rosse, producer of Under the Pink, a break-up painfully described on "Hey Jupiter," the new album's stand-out track. "I still consider Eric my soul mate," says Amos, "though I don't think there's only one soul mate out there for you. There are certain spirits you've known for aeons, there's a wealth of experience there that exceeds how long you've been together."
At the time the relationship finally foundered, Amos was nearing the end of a gruelling 100-date US tour, and she talks graphically of a wretched, cathartic night spent crawling around on the floor of an Oklahoma City hotel room; perhaps the reason why the new album's cover shows her slumped on all fours.
"After I crawled there was a sense of hitting bottom," she says. Boys for Pele is intended to reflect the process of disintegration and self-discovery that accompanied this crisis. The Pele of its title turns out to refer not to the Brazilian football star but to a Hawaiian volcano goddess. Amos had fled to the island for solace, and to meet a local medicine woman who "showed me how to hold my own shadow. She created a place to look at the lies, the games and the tricks."
Amos talks cheerfully about the notion of casting male sacrifices into the volcanic inferno as "my own little marshmallow roast," but the record's mood is not anti-male, rather a statement of independence. "As a musician I'd excelled; there were more shows, more applause, but no fulfilment. I realised I was still looking to men for acknowledgement, to make it OK. I was a vampire, trying to steal their fire. Fortunately the men in my life wouldn't allow me to do that anymore. Their rejection forced me to find my own fire."
Amos claims: "A lot of different women showed up on this album, different aspects of my womanhood." In particular she singles out the "Lady Macbeth" of "Professional Widow" as an example of exploring "the side of myself that was not victim but manipulator, the one who wants to make them cry."
The record is certainly darker than its predecessors, and lyrically more obtuse, but then, as Amos points out, "it's not meant to be an airport read." Predominantly solo, its accompaniments include the Black Dyke Mills Band, to whose sombre tones Amos was introduced by her British sound crew. "I'd never heard brass played like that. It's so sad." Several tracks also feature harpsichord, which Amos sees as "a return to the bloodline of the piano, like the bloodline of the Magdalene. Pianos, for me, are always female."
Boys for Pele is released 22 Jan on EastWest records. Tori Amos tours from 23 Feb to 13 Mar
[*] Tori's mother is not a minister; her father is a Methodist minister.
[**] Tori's real name is Myra Ellen, not Mary Ellen.
[article provided by Richard Handal]
[transcribed by jason / yessaid]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos