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July 24, 1996
Portrait: Tori Amos
"I sound like the little mermaid on Drugs."
She coos, she whispers, she moans and feels like a mediatrix between heaven and earth. Thereby Tori Amos has become a million-record-seller in a short period. BRIGITTE correspondent Silke Lambeck has met the singer at a concert in England.
Silence. Tori Amos has pulled her chair to the front edge of the stage, between piano and harpsichord. Her hands clasp the microphone. Her legs are crossed, her body bent in the middle. She is looking like a flower just prior to withering. Everybody in the audience knows what is to come now. But when she harrowingly and slowly starts to sing, without instrumental company, her voice nearly failing, about the night when she is lying on her stomach in a cadillac, a man on her back, "... me and a gun and a man on my back, but I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this...", nobody remains untouched. Tori Amos is narrating, singing about her own rape and is putting her soul on the stage. As she has finished, absolute silence, then jubilation. Tori Amos gives three more encores this evening. She coos, whispers and groans her songs, straddles her legs to the audience, her body turned away from the piano such far that her feet barely reach the pedal. In the end, she tosses her had back in ecstasy, exhaustedly taking the applause.
32 year old Tori Amos is a high performance musician. "This is about total devotion." The American who - because of the vibrations - likes to give her concerts in churches had started playing piano at two and a half. At that time her name was Myra Ellen Amos still, and the piano was located in North Carolina. Aged 4, she reportedly replied to a six year-old girl annoying her about her age: "Piss off. *I* can play Mozart." This is the stuff perfectly fit for writing geniuses' biographies. And it went on right this way, at least in the beginning. Being 5 the childhood prodigy was sent to one of America's most distinguished conservatories, kicked off when she was 11 because she preferred playing Jimi Hendrix and Beatles instead of classical music. The parents - a methodist minister and a half blooded Indian - tolerated the bored girl at home for two years, then her father decided to allow her to play in bars and hotels at least. This is how 13 year-old Tori Amos started earning money as a musician.
An afternoon in Portsmouth, a medium sized town south of London. Tori Amos is on tour, and in her case this means: She gives from two- to three hundred shows a year. In the town's rancid local dressing-room Tori Amos is preparing for the evening show. She is wearing sports shoes and has dimples in her cheeks and is looking like the wood ghost Puck who is contriving little tricks between his shows. "Hi", says Tori The Puck.
Tori Amos is convinced that she has been reincarnated several times and that she has been visited by a powerful force during her latest show at Royal Albert Hall. "It was as if Pele had come." she says with her low and somewhat drawling voice. Her turquoise eyes get a tick even more transparent. Pele is the Hawaiian volcano goddess after which Tori Amos has named her latest album, "Boys for Pele". A tribute to the Indian and Hawaiian medicine women she consulted for months in order to cope with the separation from her friend.
"The songs came to me and lifted me up from the ground. They took my hand and drew me with them." She says that when she suffers from lovesickness she prefers playing piano instead of hanging on the telephone and telling the same story over and over again. Meanwhile she has fallen in love again. Since the way she works on her albums has nearly metaphysical qualities, it is nothing but consequent that on stage she feels like a mediatrix between heaven and earth. For her it is evident that there is a link between the unconscious and the people. And while she lolls on her chair like a teenager, wearing a short sweater and smiling her girl's smile, she tells about the powerful forces she is just about to discover, "the forces that have created this planet, the same forces which make volcanoes erupt".
In Tori Amos' dressing room nothing points to mysteries. The big white teddy bear is a fan's present. In the corner there are a few bottles - mineral water, maple syrup, honey, olive-oil. Prior to the shows, she mixes the honey with hot water, lemon and ginger in order to grease her voice. Because most of the food she uses to eat with olive-oil, she takes it with her all around the world. In addition, she always keeps powder for her hands with her. "I use it like an athlete at the bars uses chalk, because the keys always get slippy." Her co-workers are not allowed to use after shave, she is sensitive to strong perfume, even perfumed lotions affect her voice. "I know that this sounds like I'm difficult," she nearly apologizes, "but I am not. I haven't cancelled a single concert yet."
It took Tori Amos a long time to find her own style. After graduating college, she was hanging around with rock musicians in Los Angeles for several years, played in lobbies and bars and changed her name. "Tori is the name of a Californian pine tree. I liked it". Sometime she founded her own rock band "Y Kant Tori Read" and published her first album 1988. It flopped, and Tori Amos, dressed in skin tight leather, with big hair and pounds of make up on the face, had to put up with being called "a dumb chick" by critics. That was enough. She wanted to leave America, moved to England - and finally succeeded in 1991. "Little Earthquakes", her first album as a soloist, sold more than a million times, the successor "Under the Pink" instantaneously made it to number One in Great Britain's charts.
By her voice some are reminded of Kate Bush, others of Joni Mitchell. But Tori Amos' heavy breathing and light whispering are unique, no matter if she sings about a past lovesickness, her life as a happy phantom or a one-night-stands frigidity. She handles her fame in a self-confident way. "I don't judge myself by my position in the charts" she says. She herself is the producer of this third album and she has recorded it in an old church. "Boys for Pele" is a trip to her heart, Tori says. Her lyrics are about herself and soul's abyss. They are emotional, dark and full of metaphors. When she lines passages with groovy music, it has the effect of just another viciousness.
It has been a long time that somebody has called her dumb. And she would not put up with this anyway. And though critics like to compare her with a faerie, this will stop soon. "If you are going to write that I'm a faerie-like hippy child, I'll cut off your penis." she once threatened a journalist. In part it is due to those threats that She is considered to be neurotic. "I sound like the little mermaid on drugs," she says about herself, and she urges me not to use exclamation marks because "exclamation marks are simply stupid". Tori Amos likes provocation. Probably she feels great satisfaction when a critic writes about her excessive shows: "She fucks the piano." On tour it is most important to her that her Boesendorfer-piano has enough room. "No matter where I am, I first ask: Where's Boesy going to sleep?" And she states that her harpsichord has to be encouraged prior to every tour because it is so terribly sensitive.
One of the photographs from her new album shows her breast feeding a piglet. A protest against the minister's daughter in her maybe? No, no, with her parents she get along well, though her father is somewhat irritated by songs like "Father Lucifer". "But the older they get, the more open they get as well." In addition to a house in Ireland Tori Amos meanwhile has got a resort in America once again, where the sun warms even in winter. Her records have made Tori Amos become a public woman. "I fall on my face and get on my feet again - all publicly."
She often has regret having told so frankly about her rape ten years ago. "But then I realize what has happened to other women, and that is really moving me." Every week hundreds write her, many of them have been subject to violence or abuse. By her music she wants to show that life can be worth living even after such an experience, Tori Amos says. "I want to tell them: You can change something." In order to help in a practical way, she has set up an emergency call line for rape victims in America and raises money by beneficial shows. In no way she wants to be famous as The-Girl-That-Has-Been-Raped though. She has done that "big change in mind" from "being a victim to being a survivor". Critics reproaching her that she is interested in nothing but pain she replies: "It's about freedom. And freedom means not to be afraid of any feeling, be it sorrow or happiness."
[translated by Winfried Schmack]
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