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Ready, Steady... Kook!
It's been a harrowing, then hallowed, typically switchback 18 months for Tori Amos. Miscarriage, marriage, a perspective-alterting retreat into deepest Cornwall, and finally an album of towering and volatile new music. Tom Doyle gingerly places his head in her old joanna and waits for the fairies to turn up.
Just after four o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon and the concourse of Paddington station is already infested. Ranks of commuters stare up at the flickering announcement boards and then scurry away the very second their platform number is called. None of them casts a second glance at the slight, flame-haired woman in the brown jacked and faded blue jeans, gripping the handrail of a trolley, her neck craned, eyes scanning for any information on the 16.35 to Exeter. In this setting, at least, there is no glittering star-like aura or huddle of attention-attracting minders surrounding Tori Amos. Nothing to suggest, to the casual passer-by, that she's not just some mature student or year-out world traveler waiting to catch her connection.
It's an enviable and unusual anonymity for an artist who - at last tally - has sold upwards of eight million albums globally. Although in England (her on-off home for the past six years) she can drift unnoticed through a crowd, in her native America, where her fan base borders on the near-religiously fanatical, she is far more likely to be accosted in public places. In the US, Web pages document every aspect of her life history, discuss her tangential, often brutally candid lyrics. Freakily, there are lists of every foodstuff she has ever mentioned in her songs and interviews.
"I don't have a computer," insists Amos, keen not to add cyber-stalkers to her menagerie of over-obsessive fans. Coaxed further, while she and Q each take a handle of her hefty bag and struggle down the platform, she adds. "Well, I'm aware of them. This might sound strange but I really live independently of all that."
Although she is often forced to gravitate towards the accepted music business capitals of London, New York, and Los Angeles, Amos is a rustic girl at heart. Today our destination is the 300-year-old North Cornish cottage that houses Martian Engineering, the studio purpose-built in a renovated barn where work has just been completed on her fourth album, From The Choirgirl Hotel ("My fifth album actually," she points out, mindful to include the debut effort of her failed Los Angeleno rock band, Y Kant Tori Read).
Reluctant to parade the trophies of a successful career, she is coy when questioned about how many properties she owns - dot-joining detective work revealing two, a Georgian house in County Cork and another retreat in a "geriatric community" north of Miami. The farmhouse studio in Cornwall is owned by Mark Hawley, Lincolnshire born recording veteran of the last two Amos albums, and since February 22nd of the year, Tori's husband. Strangely, she refers to him, along with partner Marcel Van Limbeek as "the engineers."
"I talk about so much in my songs that I really need something for myself," she offers, sliding into a seat. Amos is full of such dichotomies - appearing guarded at times when the topic seems slight and inoffensive; yet, as the questions probe more conventionally sensitive zones, she will prove unsettlingly frank. The kooky affectations often attributed to her appear, close-up, to be natural eccentricities, and although she often lapses into therapy-speak, even her most earnest divulgences can be punctuated with little, gaspy laughs. Still, you have to wonder about the two torn-off Teletubby heads peeking out of her handbag.
Amos is razor-sharp, fond of unflinching eye contact, not shy of peppering her sentences with what video censors refer to as "sexual swear words." She insists for paying for Q's gin and tonic when the buffet trolley rolls our way. Any polite protestation on Q's part is met with a comedy rolling of the pupils, the millionairess flatly stating, "Look, you're a cheap date, OK?"
On March 31, 1977 in an edition of The Montgomery Journal, the first published photograph of the 13-year-old Myra Ellen Amos in mid-song, seated at a small piano, appeared above the headline "Top Teens In Talent Test". She scooped first prize in this local competition, winning $100 ("I played my own song that night, something called More Than Just A Friend"). But by the dawning of her teenage years, Amos was already a prodigious talent, having first clambered up onto a piano stool at the milk-toothed age of 30 months. By five years, she'd won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, their youngest ever admittance. By 11, having forcefully revealed her disdain for classical studies and her passion for Led Zeppelin, she had been expelled. This, she admits, was a crushing blow to her Methodist minister father, who had firm designs on his daughter becoming a concert pianist.
"You see, I'm not music theory smart," she reasons. "To me, it's an internal, instinctive thing. It's like, I don't care if this is making mathematical sense, I am not creaming. If I'm really honest, looking back, I wanted my father to be proud of me. But I couldn't do it in that way, because it has to be in your soul to be a great concert pianist."
Even is she was often at odds with her reverend father, it was Amos's Protestant grandmother who became the target of her youthful hatred.
"I'm sure I would've been the youngest child in jail for murdering my grandmother," she says, her temper flaring even now. "At five, I just wanted to take the butter knife and slit the bitch's throat. At the same time, if I ran into her in between the worlds, y'know, I'd have a margarita with her. I'd fucking make her inject it before I talked to her. The problem with my grandmother - and a lot of Christian women form the Calvinist side - was that there was so much shame for a woman, with all of the self-righteousness and the finger-pointing. It was very hard for them to claim the dark side of their femininity. They couldn't say Jesus, how can I be a sacred pure being and a hot pussy?"
As such, in puberty, Amos claims to have harboured sexual fantasies about both Robert Plant and Jesus Christ (iconic, long hair etc). When eventually she recorded a duet with the Led Zeppelin singer, "Percy" fancied his chances ("He asked me to marry him, and I said, you are late"). Later, at 13, Amos's desire to shag Plant was supplanted by the desire to be Jimmy Page.
Chaperoned by her father, she began fulfilling hotel bar engagements in and around Washington, performing easy listening standards. At home, she composed and recorded her own songs. Reverend Edison Amos then dutifully mailed them to record companies and dealt with the stream of rejection letters. For nigh on a decade, it seemed as if the minister's daughter was destined to burn eternally in the fires of piano lounge hell.
"It got to the stage," she sighs, "where I was sick of playing Feelings seven times a night at The Marriot. I thought I was going to kill the next person that asked me to play 'Memory' from Cats."
In the midst of all this, at 17, she changed her given name to Tori, a matter she rarely discusses.
"I just hated my name," she bluntly reveals. "If a guy even started to look at me and they heard my name was Myra Ellen, it just created... a limp dick immediately. I couldn't bear it. You wouldn't have believed some of the names I was going through at the time."
Come on then. Give us three.
"I'll give you one. Sammy Jaye. Obviously that was my Dallas period. That was my late-70's prime-time soap opera name. Or it could've been my porn name. I'll remember that when I date Tommy Lee."
How did you stumble on Tori?
"A friend of mine at the time was dating some guy and she brought him to one of the clubs I was playing and he just looked at me and said, 'You're a Tori.' I just went, 'you know what? I am.' So from then on, I made out my cheques aka Tori. Then of course I found that it meant 'little chicken' in Japanese."
By the start of the '80s despite Tori Amos's dogged efforts, the consensus among disinterested A&R personnel was that the appeal of the girl-and-a-piano concept had died in the '70s along with the dwindling commercial fortunes of Carole King. Narada Michael Walden - celebrated funkateer and future producer of Whitney Houston - disagreed, having spotted Amos playing in a hotel lobby and likened her to a young Joni Mitchell. Following a year in which the singer-songwriter posted off a succession of cassettes to Walden, at 19, Amos flew to San Francisco to work with him on her first serious demos. The resulting tracks featured her voice tweaked up a vari-speeded notch to make her sound more girly - which she hated - and no record contract was forthcoming.
In desperation, in 1984, at the age of 21, Tori Amos moved to Los Angeles, heralding the beginning of her ill-fated rock-chick makeover. In teased hair and thigh-length boots, she became a Sunset Strip metal fashion atrocity, although this transformation was to fleetingly pay dividends with the singing of her band Y Kant Tori Read to Atlantic Records. Following a fraught recording period in which the outfit disintegrated and the record company seized the creative reigns, the band's eponymous album was released to mass critical derision and negligible sales. Amos woke up to the reality that she had become "a musical joke."
In licking her wounds, she turned once again to the piano and began to pen the confessional songs that would make up her 1992 solo debut album, Little Earthquakes. Although, lyrically, these were dominated by Amos's incisive, angular ruminations on sex and religion, the most shocking inclusion was the a capella Me And A Gun. Its true story begins at a Y Kant Tori Read show in Los Angeles, after which she offered an audience member a lift. Some miles down the road she was raped by her passenger in the back of the car with a pistol held to her head. In the past, Amos has been understandably less than keen to relive this horrific experience (once chillingly pointing out that "he's still out there"), although she is now open to talking about the lasting aftershocks.
"I have horrible nightmares," she admits. "My nightmares are just like a horror movie. I mean, Mr Blond lives in my head. It's that repressed anger, it doesn't just go away, it breathes in another form in your psyche. You begin to know who your demons are and I think that's where you grow as a being."
Amos has also hinted that part of her psychological unburdening involved Carlos Castaneda-like experiences with Native Americans both in Los Angeles and New Mexico, where she supped the ritualistic brew.
"Yeah, there was a period in the late '80s where I was working with different shaman," she says. "Myself and a friend Beene would take ayahuasca - but it wouldn't be in the liquid form, it would be a freeze-dried pill - and mushrooms. Some of those trips were eighteen hours long and I'll never forget, once I ended up sitting by the bush trying to ask the flowers why they didn't like me. It's like, Why can't I be your friend? I was crawling out of my skin at that time. In my twenties I was really... I was just losing my mind."
If the songs on Little Earthquakes served to heal the emotional scars of their creator, then the reviews for the album threw up one recurrent comparison: Kate Bush. The debt's there in the songs' skewed perspectives on the world outside, and the singer's contortion of certain vowels.
"I'll never forget the first time I hear about Kate," Amos recalls. "I was playing in a club, I was 18 or 19 and somebody came up to me, pointed their finger and said, 'Kate Bush.' I went, 'Who's that?' I wasn't really familiar because Kate didn't really happen in the States until Hounds Of Love. I was shocked because the last thing you want to hear is that you sound like someone else. Then people kept mentioning her name when they heard me sing, to the point where I finally went and got her records. When I first heard her, I went Wow, she does things that I've never heard anybody do, much less me. But I could hear a resonance in the voice where you'd think we were distantly related or something."
So you were never influenced by her directly?
"Well... I must tell you that when I heard her I was blown away by her. There's no question."
Did you sing along to the records?
"Absolutely. But I knew that I had to be careful, so I didn't voraciously learn her catalogue. I left the records with my boyfriend at the time, because I didn't want to copy her."
The kook rock torch passed from Bush to Amos, but it didn't stop there. Little Earthquakes had a massive influence on the formative Alanis Morissette (quoted in Q as saying that the first time she head the album, she played it, "in its entirety, lying on my living room floor... I just bawled my eyes out"). For her part, however, Amos is careful when offering her opinions on the glove-seducing phenomenon that is Jagged Little Pill.
"I really like her. She's such a good person. I like her as a person a lot."
So you don't like the record?
"I like the songwriting and I think I like her singing but I've got to tell you, I have a hard time listening to that record, just on a sonic level. It would make a dog's ears hurt. I hate records that have so much high end and no bottom."
This is mild criticism, however. In the version of Professional Widow that appeared on Amos's third solo album - as opposed to Armand Van Helden's remix - Amos appeared to be attacking another of her key contemporaries, Courtney Love. Since then, the singer had fiercely denied that Love was her target in the song. Lines like "Don't blow your brains yet / We gotta be big boy" are fairly unequivocal, though.
"Let's put it this way," she hedges daintily, "Courtney and I have never spoken. We've never spoken about it and we've never spoken and I think it's best kept that way. We have mutual friends. I don't want to put them in a bad position."
The songs on each of Amos's albums have always borne a central thematic link - Little Earthquakes (catharsis), Under the Pink (the female condition), Boys for Pele (the emotional fallout of her split with long-term boyfriend/co-producer Eric Rosse) - and in that sense, From The Choirgirl Hotel is no different. Amos explains that many of her new compositions are underpinned by a more recent wretch, a tragedy in the wake of the Boys For Pele tour as she recuperated in Florida.
"I was pregnant," she softly states. "I got pregnant on tour, it was a surprise, but I was deeply thrilled about it. I was almost three months pregnant... Christmas '96... and I miscarried. And it was very difficult. The sorrow was just really deep. I know some people who've gone through it and they move on quickly. Everybody responds differently to a loss. I got quite attached to the spirit of this being."
Do you know if it was a boy or a girl?
"It was a girl. That's why on Playboy Mommy, I sing, 'Don't judge me so harsh, little girl.' I had so many responses to it before I could get to the place where I am now. You see people hit their kids in stores and you just go, What force of judgment gives these people these little lives? I have a lot of questions right now. I know it's a free-will planet. Things happen. But you know that saying, Bad things don't happen to good people? That's a painful lie, and it hits you on such a core-level. I know now that I have an appreciation for the miracle of life that I didn't have, but I don't believe in the saying that it all happens for the best... it's just not appropriate."
Did it overshadow everything?
"Yeah, it did. It took over, I think, the way I.... y'know, once you've felt life in your body, you can't go back to having been a woman that's never carried life. The other thing is feeling something dying inside you and you're still alive. Obviously when it was happening, it was already over but in your mind, you don't know that yet. You're doing anything, thinking, Oh God maybe if I put a cork up myself, maybe it'll keep this little life in. That's why in Spark, I say, 'She's convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn't keep a baby alive.' You just start going insane. There's nothing you can do, so you surrender and then... start again."
There have since been happier times, enjoyed in calmer waters. Let's talk about your wedding.
"Oh let's not talk about that."
A photograph appeared in Hello! magazine.
"Oh can you believe that? I thought I'd really pulled it off and there it was - Hello! Magazine - right there."
It seemed to have a medieval, Arthurian theme. "It wasn't medieval in as much as... it's not like I ransacked the set of Camelot doing dinner theatre up in Sheffield. We got married in West Wycombe and I just wanted something that... we wanted it really private. But there is a side to me that believes in magic."
It was the definitive fairy-tail wedding, then?
"Yeah, I really believe in that force, I believe in the elementals. I believe that when you call on certain forces and if you respect them, sometimes, they are there for you. I figured if I had it where there were trees and water then maybe the faeries would show up."
Bright and early the following morning, the air in the kitchen of the Amos cottage is suffused with the twin aromas of coffee and toast, as the housemistress emerges comfortably attired in T-shirt and combat trousers, toweling her damp hair. Grabbing the studio keys to conduct a guided tour, she leads Q across the courtyard. Outside hangs the overpowering smell of dung. "Yep," Amos smiles, nostrils aloft for a cartoon sniff, "it gets to you sometimes."
Inside the studio she introduces on of the two Bosendorfer pianos she owns as "my baby." Always referring to her instruments in the female third person, a year ago, Amos had told Q that this piano "had no character, she was boring." Now she admits, "She's making me pay for that statement daily," before beckoning Q under the piano's lid saying, "Here, put your head in," for the full cochlea-rattling experience. Following a torrent of expert arpeggios played by a swaying, trance-like Amos, she holds the sustain of the last note, and then emits a breathy, "Isn't she pretty?"
In the control room, the window of which frames a suitably calming natural spring, she flops into a tall-backed, black leather studio chair. The talk turns to the freedom of lyrical speech, something that - as a provocative writer - is a key issue for Amos. Specifically she experienced a strong reaction to The Prodigy's shoulder-shrugging defence of "Smack My Bitch Up."
"I don't find anything cutting-edge about Smack My Bitch Up," she begins, her voice raised in passion. "The thing that bugged me is that if you're going to say something, you stand by what you say. Or you just be honest and say, Look, I hit my girlfriend and that's my statement, love me or hate me. I think it's honest that all sorts of feelings come up, but you have to stand by your work as a writer. You can't say stuff that's gonna stir people up and then not be willing to stand by it.
"But then it's not fair for me to say that it's wrong for them to have that thought either. look at the thoughts I've had - killing people, mangling people, hurting myself, having sex with God. But these were my thoughts. Whether I acted on them or not, that's between me and my maker."
But then you must be aware of the shock value of some of your songs. Do you ever think, "This'll get them going?"
"Well what I know is how I think and how I feel and what I believe are not things that people really want to talk about. So yes, I know that in my unconscious there are things that are kinda pukey. Even if I'm saying it to get you going, it's like, Hey, this thought came from me, so on some level, I'm OK with talking about it. If I talk about anything in my songs, and I tell you I never have these feelings, that I'm just lying about it, then I'm lying through my teeth. That's like, y'know showing up at a porno movie to eat the popcorn."
In mid-April the wheels of the Tori Amos touring freight-train grind into gear for the first of 200 dates, offloading emotional baggage at every destination. A self-confessed "road dog," in 1996 Amos was named as the most tour-hardy act in the US (followed by Garth Brooks and Kiss) notching up 600 shows since Little Earthquakes. For everyone one of her devotees, each night will mark an epiphany of sorts.
But she's smart enough to realise that the pungent brew of characteristics that make up her music divides public opinion. Even after all this time, there are still those who can't stand Tori Amos.
"You know what?" she feistily announces. "I could have a drink with those people."
A Woman's Work
A Brief Tori Amos Discography
Y Kant Tori Read
Atlantic Import, 1988
Rare one-off outing with Amos fronting glam-pop-metal collective. Flopped immediately. Big hair, mammary-revealing bustier, Samurai sword and scary Pat Benatar impression quickly disowned. Tori nuts now pay top dollar for any unburned copies.
East West 1992
Effortless melody, dynamic piano-bashing, a whiff of health food, and for most, the first exposure to that challenging whoop and purr of a voice. "So you can make me come/That doesn't make you Jesus," she sneered. Menace and seduction in one hit.
Under The Pink
East West 1994
Sirens struggle to capitolise on their breakthroughs, but Amos survived a second album that retrod the first, mostly on the strength of her piercing dissection of woman-to-woman attitudes (the towering Cornflake Girl) and the richer arrangements. Still fine.
Boys For Pele
East West 1996
The "pure being/hot pussy" dilemma resolved against a sparse, self-produced sonic landscape comparable to Joni Mitchell's Blue. Harmonium, bagpipes, church bells, poetic babble and the suggestion that Jesus was a woman. Weird and wonderful.
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
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