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The Review (UK)
supplement to The Observer, UK newspaper
Sunday, May 24, 1998
Interviewed by Barbara Ellen
Photographed by John Reardon
If Joni Mitchell and Beethoven had a baby, then given it to Sissy Spacek's mum in Carrie to bring up in Deliverance country, the result would have been Tori Amos. After one false start (her Heavy-Metal debut, Y Kant Tori Read, was widely slated), Amos, the Methodist Minister's daughter from North Carolina, released Little Earthquakes, which established her as Kate Bush with knobs on.
Subsequent releases (Under The Pink, Boys For Pele, and the currant album, From the Choirgirl Hotel) further cemented Amos's reputation, most notably in America, where she has a huge, obsessive fan base (current on tour in Britain, Amos is to play Madison Square Gardens later this year).
Her success is both hard-earned (Amos, a 14-year veteran of piano bars, is a touring diehard) and richly deserved. She has single-handedly reinvented the piano as a relevant, sexy, pop instrument (her hip-grinding, legs-apart performances are legendary). Moreover, her lyrics have consistently provided the definitive left-field take on such diverse themes as rape (her own), religion, rejection and masturbation, without resorting to clumsy histrionics or feminist air-kissing. Indeed, such is the subtlety and strength of Amos's oeuvre, she makes Alanis Morissette resemble a cheer-leader sulking because she can't find her pom-poms.
We hook up for a chat in the grounds of Kensington Palace, then go on to Jools Holland's BBC2 show, Later, where Amos performs three tracks from Choirgirl. This is our third meeting. I first interviewed her around the time of Little Earthquakes, when I was heavily pregnant ('You have LIFE within you!' she squealed, eyeing my stomach excitedly).
Later, I accompanied her on part of a British tour for Under The Pink. On that occasion, in between shovelling what appeared to be macrobiotic soil into her mouth and giving characteristically great copy ('Men are like bull elks in a field. They'd sleep with a bicycle if it had the right lip-gloss on'), Amos revealed the she was getting broody. 'Sometime on this tour I'm gonna throw away my pills,' she declared, eyes twinkling madly.
All of which seem rather poignant in light of the fact that around Christmas 1996, Amos (now happily married) suffered a devastating miscarriage(which is documented on Choirgirl).When we meet this time, there are only flashes of the irrepressible free-spirited kook of legend. She still resembles a small Victorian child who has lost her way in the forest of a Grimm fairy tale. And it goes without saying that she still says the weirdest things.
'I still run into God sometimes', she grins, as we settle down on the lawn. 'Usually round my second margarita. But it has to be very good tequila.' (Later, she will casually reveal that she spends entire days talking to the carpet. 'The scary thing is, it talks back!').
But there is no doubt that Amos (now 34) has been irrevocably altered, and subdued, by her experience. Occasionally when talking about how she dealt with the miscarriage and the accompanying sense of loss, failure and powerlessness ('I kept think that if I could just stick a cork up there it would be OK'), she will bow her head and look close to tears. It is heart-breaking, as if the stuffing is just spilling out of her.
'I realise now that I did as much as I could', she says flatly. 'I tried, I really tried, but sometimes your number's up, you're helpless, and all you can do is forgive yourself. Where I sit now, I have a respect for life. I wouldn't wish a miscarriage on anybody, but I've chosen to grow from it.'
Musically, Choirgirl is as beautiful as anything Amos has ever done. However, aside from the references to the miscarriage, her lyrics frequently veer form the personal (always her major strength), to embrace the mystical. Nature (water, wind, more water) is everywhere - on first hearing you could do worse than bring along an umbrella. There is also the fact that, as I see for myself at the Jools Holland rehearsal, Amos, long 'the girl - alone with her piano', now has a proper band.
Amos believes that, 'If you don't change, you'll die'. Fair enough. But that might not stop some of her fans viewing it as a betrayal on par with Dylan 'going-electric' in the Sixties.
For me, the stand-out track on Choirgirl is 'Northern Lad', which is old-school Tori (insightful, rueful, but mercilessly plain-talking). 'It's time to turn the page, when you're only wet because of the rain,' she croons, going on to swear like a trucker, and finally, weepily, grovel her way out of the song.
At her best, Amos is emotional agony's most eloquent survivor. Nor does she pander to the guys. She has only ever got her tits out on two occasions: a recent cover of Q magazine, when she stared out the reader above the inimitable quote, 'How can I be a sacred being and a hot pussy?' with her breasts painted gold; and on the cover of Boys For Pele, when she suckled a pig (yes, you did read right). As one man I showed it to agreed: 'Too damn weird to be a turn-on.'
'The more comfortable I get with my sexuality, the less it starts leaking all over the place,' says Amos, as we get up off the grass. 'I think it's only when you feel that you don't have anything else to say when you fall back on that age-old “give a little shoulder, give a little wink, give a little sex” stuff. Because a lot of guys are up for a willy charge. A little willy charge every day is fine by them, even if it never actually gets to come out of their Levis.' Quite.
As we make our way across the park, a young girl shyly calls over: 'Hello Tori, I love your music.' 'Why thank you', beams Amos, eyes brightening. It would appear that the fans, like the carpets, are still talking back.
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