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The Sunday Times Magazine (UK)
May 24, 1998
Tori Amos, singer/songwriter, and her part-Cherokee mother, Mary Ellen Amos.
By Nigel Williamson
Tori Amos, 33, born Myra Ellen Amos, was brought up in America but found
fame as a singer and songwriter after moving to Britain in 1991. She first
attracted attention with the song Me and a Gun, after she was raped at gunpoint
in Los Angeles. The chart-topping albums Under the Pink and Boys for Pele
followed, and her latest offering From the Choirgirl Hotel, is released this
month. In 1994 she helped found the American telephone help-line RAINN (Rape,
Abuse and Incest National Network). She is married to Mark Hawley, a sound
engineer and lives in Cornwall. Her mother Mary Ellen, comes from Cherokee
stock. She married a Methodist minister and served the church in Baltimore,
Maryland, for more than 40 years until her husband's retirement.
Tori: My mother's family and my father's
are worlds apart. She is part Cherokee, and there's a very spiritual aspect to
her. My father came from a very rigid household. Both his parents were ordained
ministers... I'm afraid I get Tourette's syndrome when I talk about
Christianity although my mother rolls her eyes when I say this.
She is a very loyal Christian woman, but she has a spirituality that goes
beyond that. She has premonitions and dreams, but she keeps her esoteric side
to herself. She made me very familiar with the Cherokee blood in us. I remember
she used to read me stories. I had a brother and a sister, but they were 7 and
10 years older, so my mother and I formed a special bond. She says I played
music before I could talk, and I would play the piano for her. I was very close
to her father, too. He had a real temper, which she says I inherited. He had
been raised by his grandmother, a full-blood Cherokee called Margaret Little,
and he would tell stories about her. When soldiers burnt the South to the
ground in the civil war, there was nothing to eat, so she harnessed the plough
to her body and planted the seeds. Margaret Little gave me a sense of
integrity. I like her tenacity. She was a survivor, and I share that
inspiration with my mother.
They say I was a child prodigy but at four years old I was fighting all the
dogma of the church and I put my passion into the piano. I went to the Peabody
Conservatory to study music when I was five. I was kicked out when I was 11,
and I think my father was very disappointed. But my mother knew I was
When I was 13 I started playing in clubs and bars. My parents had to chaperone
me. My father's congregation freaked out. My mother understood the journey I
was on, but there were huge screaming matches between me and my father over religious
differences, which pained her a lot.
When I was 21 I went to Los Angeles. I was just in heaven, and I loved not
having to go to church because I'd been in the choir until I was 15, and then I
was the choir director until I was 21.
Unfortunately I didn't realise how my leaving home affected my mother. After I
moved to LA I was raped. I wrote the song Me and a Gun about that, but I
haven't talked to my mother or anyone about it. She's aware of what happened,
but I've never discussed the details. I don't think she could bear it. I have a
shrink and I deal with it through that.
When the first album came out and failed, she was hurt, but only for me. She
isn't interested in success in that commercial way. She asks what your
intention was and whether you have achieved what you set out to do.
The 1980s were not my mother's favourite fashion decade. She's very Jackie
Kennedy, in a pillbox hat and a suit, whereas I was shopping at Retail Slut. I
suppose I looked like something out of a freak show. But these days she's very
comfortable in the rock'n'roll world. When I'm on tour she'll come to the show
and she loves it.
She adores young people. I can turn to her when I'm troubled. We have good
talks, and she's very stabilising. You can't buy my mother. And she's never
been seduced by the fame side of it - she doesn't want to go to the Grammy
awards, although she'll go if I invite her.
Since I've been living in Britain she's been coming to stay, and it's very
comforting to have her around. She's a very Christian Southern lady and she
knows just how to behave.
Mary Ellen: Before Tori could even talk,
she hummed. By the time she was two-and-a-half she would walk over to the piano
and copy exactly what her brother or sister had just been practicing. She used to
get up in the morning before anyone else and play. The piano was her playmate,
and she could reproduce anything she heard by ear, songs on the radio or even
Her father and I were serving a church in the suburbs of Baltimore with about
1300 members, and she was singing in the choir before she was three. When she
was four the choir director encouraged us to take her to the Peabody
Conservatory of Music. They thought we were just pushy parents, but we had
several piano teachers who said they couldn't teach her anything, and
eventually the conservatory agreed to audition her. She played a selection from
Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Then she played a classical piece and they
started listening. They'd never taken anyone under nine, but they made an
exception, and when they realised that on a clergyman's salary we couldn't
afford it, they gave her a scholarship. The principal put her hand on my arm
and said, “God has given you the responsibility of raising this very rare
child, and she has to be given every opportunity!'
Learning to read music was the first difficult thing Tori encountered. She used
to offer to do her brother's and sister's chores if they would play her music
for her, because once she'd heard it she could play it by ear. She was in a
group of students who were teenagers, and there she was, this little thing
whose feet couldn't reach the pedals. Tori says the conservatory kicked her
out. But what happened was that they cloned you to play in their classical way,
and we could see her interest dwindling.
I felt it was important that Tori knew about her Cherokee heritage. We would
sit on the porch on summer evenings, and my father would speak of the culture
and tell stories about his full-blood Cherokee grandmother. We come from a line
of strong women, and she too has been blessed with that strength.
I don't think Tori had a strict upbringing, but she probably thought so. My
husband was a wonderful preacher, and we would discuss what he was preaching
with the children. Tori questioned it all from the start, and we didn't really
know how to answer her. She felt women were cheated in the church. I think
she's wrong but I accept that God speaks to us all differently. Tori had an
inquiring mind and was very outspoken, which got her into trouble. She spent a
lot of time at school standing in the corner.
Most of the time the congregation loved her, although she did some outlandish
things. She was a wonderful choir director, but she used to come into church in
red leather pants. She loved to shock and she still does. The young people in
the choir would do anything for her, but some of the mothers didn't think too
much of her. They made sarcastic remarks, which she hid from me. She'd come
home and be wiping away the tears, and I didn't understand how cruel people
By the time she was a teenager, the drugs were coming into the schools. Her
friends were getting into them, and she was losing interest in the piano. Her
father asked whether, if he got her a job playing the piano, she'd continue
practicing. She said yes; and just before she was 13 she auditioned at a bar
called Mr Smith's. She got the job and played there every Friday night for a
year. Because she was underage she had to be chaperoned. I'd never been in a
bar, but we took it in turns. We got letters accusing us of being bad parents.
There was a vote in the church about whether they could support the minister
and his wife. We said we had to back our daughter or lose her, and they voted
to support us.
When Tori left home, it was the worst thing that happened in my life. We'd
shared so much. She was always the child-woman. At times it was as if she was
the teacher and we were the children. She had this drive within her, and on her
21st birthday she said she had to go. We put her on a plane to LA -- she didn't know anybody there. Then she changed her name. She was the fifth
generation of Ellens in the family, but she'd always hated her name.
She's had devastating experiences. When she called me on the phone that morning
after she was raped I got on the next plane. I still can't speak of it, but I
know the fact that she has been able to help other people through RAINN has
We came over to England to see her get married in February, and I love to see
her play. She gives everything on stage when she comes off she's totally limp.
We're usually the only white-haired people at her concerts but we've met some
of the real rockers and they've been so nice to us. I find young people very
stimulating, because they aren't yet cast in society's mold. I can't be
grateful enough to her for letting me share that world.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos