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Hot Press (Ireland)
WITH BOYS FOR PELE TORI AMOS
IS SHAKING UP THE MUSIC WORLD AGAIN. CATHY DILLON FINDS OUT WHY SHE CAME
TO A CHURCH IN IRELAND TO FORGE A NEW DIRECTION.
Let's get one thing straight. Tori Amos' new album has nothing to do with the sexual
proclivities of a popular former Brazilian soccer star. Rather, Boys For
Pele is a reference to a little-known but significant Hawaiian deity.
"It's one of those coincidences that you have to
chuckle at," says Amos. "But it's actually a reference to the Volcano Goddess. In
Hawaii they have been making sacrifices to Pele for a long, long time."
Boys For Pele marks a significant point in the American singer/songwriter's career.
Her 1994 album, Under The Pink showed that her remarkable debut Little
Earthquakes was no fluke but the latest album seems to prove beyond doubt
that Amos is a musical force to be reckoned with. It may still reflect the
oft-cited influences of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, but it is also a
startlingly original work. One ecstatic critic described it as her Blue,
and indeed it shares quite a few characteristics with Mitchell's first
masterpiece -- sparse production, gleeful breaking of musical style boundaries
and emotionally-charged lyrics.
"The thing I wanted from this album was freedom," says Amos when we meet in a city centre hotel. "I wanted to do things musically that I hadn't done before.
It seemed like I was always restricted. When I walked into the jazz world there
would be boundaries, or the classical world and even in rock -- although the
boundaries are fewer because the musicians don't have the same knowledge as
jazz or classical musicians, they would push things in a different way --
sonically or whatever. Whenever I would go into a certain area in order to soak
things up or to expand, I would -- but only in that arena.
"So, as a musician I felt that there were all these
Checkpoint Charlies that are in the different styles of music. and there's
something in me, because I had such a restrictive Christian upbringing, I can
smell when the wings are being clipped. And I don't curl up in a ball and die
anymore. I used to do that for a long time and then I would explode. That's how
I dealt with confinement. But now how I deal with it is by finding ways to
break out of something confining and that applies musically too."
Boys For Pele contains the best use of harpsichord in rock since The Stranglers' 'Golden
Brown' (come to think of it possibly the only use of harpsichord in rock since
Cornwell and Burnel's classic) as well as Bosendorfer piano, mandolin and
bagpipes. Another significant sound was the acoustics of the old church in
Delgany, Co. Wicklow, where much of it was recorded.
Amos produced it herself and with the help of her
live sound engineers managed to capture a spacious, sparse sound that provides
a perfect environment for the musical and lyrical leaps of the imagination.
Amos is the latest in the ever-lengthening list of
celebs to pitch camp here. She spent much of the last year between Delgany and
Cork, where other sections of the album were laid down.
She has never shied away from dealing in her songs
with emotional turmoil. Her childhood in the highly repressed atmosphere of
Christian Fundamentalism in the Southern States left her seriously scarred and
she suffered an additional trauma when, in her early twenties, she was raped en
event she wrote about in Me And A Gun on her first album. Indeed,
despite her obvious talent, both her albums and her performances -- for which
she sat splay-legged at the piano -- were disturbing. She often seemed less like
someone confidently breaking taboos and championing emotional honesty than
someone desperately acting out her psychic injuries and manipulating the
audience into the role of voyeur. (On the other hand maybe she just sat like
At any rate, she seems less troubled now and is
a friendly and charming interviewee. She
has also had, of course, a reputation for being "kooky", a term which in
general is bandied about far too much but which in Amos' case appeared to have
at least some justification.
When you meet her though you suspect that she is
simply more candid than most. When you've got an imagination the size of Alaska
and don't bother to hide it, you're inevitably going to catch some flak.
She looks enviably healthy. Skin clear and hennaed
hair shining, she lounges on the plush chair in comfortable, casual clothes.
Boys For Pele was written in the aftermath of the break up of a relationship that had
lasted over seven years. While the album's lyrics reflect the emotional
hardship of that split, Amos' determination to extend her musical parameters
was partly also a result of her coming to terms with the experience.
"A big part of my learning how to break out of
confinement musically was to do with the break-up," she says. "Just because it
shocked me so. It shocked him too, I'm sure, because we had been together for
so long and were very much soulmates. Now I believe we have more than one
soulmate, but it was a very deep bond and so when we separated I felt part of
me walk out the door. Because we really had become one person. And so there was
this whole empty space and when I would look -- metaphorically -- at my being
there was half of it gone. And I had to hit rock bottom before I could get out.
And I realised that I had not explored so many parts of my womanhood. Apart
from the musician part of me, my worth as a woman was intrinsically tied into
my relationships with men. Not my worth as a businesswoman or a musician, but
just the woman. And so claiming that worth as a woman affected the musician as
It has also, she says, begun to free her from what
she terms the "patriarchy of relationships".
"It's not just about men," she explains. "Women are
involved in the patriarchy too. It's the idea that things are done from a
perspective of control. Actions are done from the perspective of control -- it's
hierarchical. The matriarchy could be hierarchical too." She grins wryly. "But there
isn't a matriarchy out there right now so we can't discuss that. The patriarchy
is the pejorative right now because of history."
The album, she says, is about the phoenix rising from
the ashes. And her choosing to record most of it in a church in Ireland was no
accident. As well as being suitable acoustically, it was symbolically an
appropriate place to wrestle with her demons.
"I knew I had to record in a church because if I was
going to claim my worth as a woman I was going to go to the right place," she reflects. "I wanted to
claim the woman -- when I say the woman I mean someone who is not the virgin or
the whore, but just somebody's wife or somebody's mother but a being in her own
right. A being with passion and soul and wisdom and honour. That blueprint just
hasn't been handed down to women.
"It's also why I went to the old world. I couldn't
have gone to a church in the States because it didn't originate in the States,
it was brought over. And because I have both sides in my bloodline -- the
Scottish (i.e. heavy duty Christian) and the Cherokee -- I understood very well the shift from the
Native American belief, which did have a sense of equality, of there being
masculine and feminine in all things, including God or the Great Spirit.
"I chose Ireland rather than Scotland because of the
Tuatha de Danann, because although there is a lot of religious control here
there is also the memory of something else and a desire for the freedom of the
"Also, here there is an understanding of sorrow that
you just don't get on British soil. I was in deep sorrow about the break-up of
the relationship and it was about going to a place that could hold the sorrow
and then transmute it."
As regards the sound, Amos says she deliberately
wanted a feeling of space.
"On some tracks, like 'Talula' and 'in The
Springtime Of His Voodoo' there is actually a lot going on but it's not like a
smorgasbord where you make a glutton of yourself. It's more like spice: a taste
of something. Or if you think of architecture, I wanted nothing to take up
space, I didn't want you to feel you were walking into a room and feeling
suffocated with sound.
"The ambience of the church was like another
instrument. We used mostly the ambience, very little electronic reverb. On 'Widow'
for example, there is no electronic ambience, it's just the harpsichord in the
'Widow' is 'Professional Widow', a track whose
lyric -- "Don't blow those brains yet/We gotta be big boy/We gotta be
big/Starfucker/Just like my daddy" has, not surprisingly, been widely
interpreted as being about Courtney Love. Amos, however, denies this.
"It was written from my experience," she says. "For a while
after my separation, after I had picked myself up off the floor, I became Lady
Macbeth. I was completely out of balance. So it's all about me. I've never met
her. And I don't find that situation -- whatever it is -- that interesting. If
the behaviour is similar, people who have done that will see themselves in it,
in that Black Widow behaviour, but I don't know if she feels that way or if
that isn't her experience at all. The song is about my experience. I also think
if this was 10 years ago they would think it was about Yoko Ono."
Tori Amos has herself seen the downside of fame, and again, not surprisingly, she has
had her share of obsessive fans. It is partly because of this that she chooses not to live in the US.
"My music is best known in the States," she explains. "Even though
I had to leave there to get work, that is where it is most played and so to be
a person I can't live there. More than anything because of some of the things I
talk about. I don't mind but it's like everybody feels the need not just to
have a conversation but to sit down and grill me, you know? And sometimes I'm
just trying to have something to eat or whatever.
"American is a great place for me to visit -- it's a
rush to be where your music is being played. But there is also that Christian
thing there -- in a way like in no other country in the world -- so I steer
She will be back in Ireland in the summer and will
be playing some gigs here. In the meantime, though, there is the matter of a
lengthy tour. Waiting for a tour to start can be trying, not least because Amos
likes to mountain bike and she can't now because her hands are heavily insured.
But she is a self-confessed "road dog". She has, after all, been playing professionally since the
age of 14.
"When it comes to touring, there is a kind of
stamina that only experience can give you,"
she says. "And you either love it or you hate
it. You either salivate to be out there with those people and that energy or it's
a job. And if it's a job you're going to have a very hard time doing a 100-date
tour much less a 300-date tour. But if you love to go and dive among strangers,
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