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Sunday Herald (UK)
Scottish newspaper
September 2, 2001

Strange Little Girl

Tori Amos used to dream of slitting her Grandma's throat. Now the knives are out for Eminem. why hasn't becoming a mother mellowed America's most haunted star?

by Peter Ross

The Sanderson is a very Tori Amos sort of hotel. Like her, it's always asking questions. Here's one: why don't we hire all our staff from the same preternaturally beautiful gene pool? Here's another: why have a couch when you could have a huge pair of upholstered lips?

Look at it, sitting pursed in the lobby. Maybe the brain-boiling London heat is playing tricks but the couch seems to moisten and part whenever someone approaches, perhaps excited at the thought of being reclined upon by The Star, who is known to be somewhere in the building. But no, it's just another big butt journalist, here to ask about rock and rape, guns and poses, and what it's like for the little girl who dreamed of slitting her grandmother's throat with a butter knife to finally become a mom. Such nosiness! The couch curls disdainfully at the very thought.

And then the man from East West records is on hand, apologising for the delay and whisking the journalist heavenwards in the lift -- decorated with an outer space theme, naturally -- to the room where The Star is scheduled to materialise. It's choked with the intriguing debris of a recently concluded photo-shoot: a still warm bed, the fleshy remains of a bowl of strawberries, a giant egg.

When Tori appears (please, let's not call her Amos, it makes her sound like a character from Emmerdale) I hear her before I see her. 'Hi!' she pipes, invisible behind a fog of muslin hanging over the doorway.

How will she look? Tori, who is 38, has been famous for 10 years, so we've had to time to develop a clear mental image of her molten hair and thousand yard stare, her tiny body and cushioned pout. But all that has changed recently. It's two years since the release of her fifth album, To Venus And Back, a little less than that since she last performed in Britain. Not long for some artists, but for Tori, who has been known to play over 300 shows in a year, it's, like, forever.

What's more, her new album has prompted not one image change but 13. Strange Little Girls is a collection of cover versions, radical interpretations of songs written by men about women, performed by Tori from the perspective of women. For example, she covers I Don't Like Mondays, famously penned by Bob Geldof about Californian schoolgirl Brenda Spencer who shot and killed several classmates, from the point of view of a policewoman who shoots Spencer. Tori has had herself photographed as the cop and in character as the 12 other women on the album. In some portraits she has short dark hair, in one she's an elegant blonde. You wouldn't know it was her.

As she appears from under the muslin, like a bride being unveiled, it's both a relief and a bit disappointing to discover that Tori looks like Tori. She's still five foot three, still ginger enough to give Irn-Bru an inferiority complex, still the sort of dream interviewee who delicately dispenses bon mots such as, 'Once you've given God a blow job, there are other things that interest you,' as if they were communion wafers.

Tori takes a pew, I take the initiative. When did the initial idea for Strange Little Girls come to her? 'Oh ... I think nursing my daughter,' she says. 'Mommy hormones, maybe. Ideas sort of ... come to you when you are nursing for 12 hours a day.'

It must be said that Tori sounds awful like the American comedian Emo Philips. With almost every sentence, her Maryland drawl slumps listlessly into long pauses then sprints to the point, usually managing to cram in some revelation or sex-drenched soundbite before the full stop.

She's difficult to interview. Her replies, though intended to be frank, are vague, often metaphoric, and don't seem to make as much sense written down as they did coming out of her mouth.

It's as if she assumes you have read the same books (weighty tomes about ethnology, mythology, gunshot wounds), been through the same things (a religious upbringing, rape, international stardom) and understand what is going on in her head (God only knows). It's as if she's talking to herself.

The best thing to do would be to keep on interrupting and asking for specifics, but time's a-wastin', schedules are schedules, and Tori can't be unravelling every little metaphor for some doofus with a tape recorder. She's gonna give it to you straight or not at all, so ask your questions, say your prayers and click your heels together three times. Next stop, ToriLand, which is sometimes an upsetting place to be.

She hasn't toured for a while. Is that because of having a daughter?

'Yeah, yeah. It was a difficult thing for me,' she says. 'I had three miscarriages. The second one wasn't really ... it kind of took me by surprise. I was not feeling well anyway, so I didn't really know. So the second one wasn't the gut-wrenching thing that the first and third were. The third one was quite quiet. I was on tour with Alanis [Morissette], doing those double shows. I was pregnant and I lost the baby. It was right after I did the London show. I did a London show at the Royal Festival Hall in November [1999] and then I lost the baby.'

She brightens, laughs even. 'And little did I know that I'd have a stomach flu in January and that would be Natashya.'

Natashya Lorien Hawley was born on September 5, 2000. Tori and her husband, Lincolnshire-born Mark Hawley, who she met while he was working as a sound engineer on one of her tours ('I looked up to see who was responsible for this amazing sound and saw the beautiful calves that went with it') live in Cornwall, but on doctor's orders, the baby was born in Washington DC.

It was a nervous nine months. Tori completely changed her life to give the baby every chance of survival. She is obsessive about her music, determined to weed out each tiny glitch -- a process she refers to as 'ant fucking' -- but bowed out during the pregnancy.

'I played a lot of piano, moved to a beach house in Florida and helped to plan a garden, an exotic garden.' She pauses and her astonishing eyes gleam as she makes what seems to be a delicious confession. 'Datura is in my garden.' Datura is an hallucinogenic plant, sometimes known as Mad Apple. 'We'll have to watch that with the baby.'

Now she has Natashya, Tori takes less risks. Private jets are out -- 'Small planes and musicians, not a great history' -- but becoming a mother has also caused a more profound change: 'Watching her go to the ocean to give it a hug, it has opened my heart a lot.'

Whenever Tori mentions water or wetness, it's worth paying attention. When she suffered her first miscarriage, in 1996, she tried to lift herself out of despair by listening to bodies of water, straining her ears for 'ancient women's rhythms' in the waves. Her 1998 album From The Choirgirl Hotel, a response to that miscarriage, is flooded with water imagery: 'she's convinced she could hold back a glacier, but she couldn't keep Baby alive.'

Now, talking about Natashya with a love that seems to generate heat, she says. 'She's melted something in me. Oh God, she's ... I really needed her in my life more than I knew.'

Natashya has also brought out the activist in Amos. Where her previous work had a confessional quality (she has sung of masturbating while her family prays downstairs), Strange Little Girls tackles some big issues, notably gun control and domestic violence.

The latter is tackled to chilling effect on her cover of Eminem's 97 Bonnie and Clyde. The track takes the form of a man addressing his infant daughter as he drives to the lake and disposes of the body of his murdered wife. Big of beat and jauntily melodic, it sounds like a lot of fun. In Tori's chilling arrangement, she whispers the lyrics while in character as the dead woman.

'When I first heard it, the scariest thing to me was the realisation that people are getting into the music and grooving to a song about a man who is butchering his wife,' she says. 'So half the world is dancing to this, oblivious, with blood on their sneakers. But when you talk about killing your wife, you don't get to control whom she becomes friends with after she's dead. She had to have a voice.'

Her version takes on added resonance and power when you remember that Tori is herself a victim of male violence. In 1985, while living in Los Angeles, she was raped at gunpoint by a man she had given a lift to after one of her concerts. She went on to write about this in Me And A Gun, the acapella track that forms the emotional heart of her 1991 solo debut, Little Earthquakes: 'it was me and a gun and a man on my back and I sang 'holy holy' as he buttoned down his pants.'

Now she says, 'I'm alive and I'm really fortunate to be alive. If you really were to talk with women who have survived something harrowing like that, whether it's kidnapping or rape, the fantasies go.'

Hence taking on Eminem. Tori wants her daughter to grow up in a world where sexual violence is not served up as entertainment. 'You know, I'm not on the fence about rape and the glamourisation of rape. People try to simulate it in some of these adult, really dark, brutality-driven films. Pornography has been kidnapped by violence. In the free-est country in the world, quote unquote, people are choosing what they get off on is this kind of ... meanness and degradation.

'And we can't just roll our eyes ... I don't think awareness happens unless you put your hand on that 220, unless you pick up the gauntlet, unless there is an exchange of dialogue.'

Her own response has been quite concrete. She has the reputation of being more of a child than a woman, a whimsical dreamer with faeries on the brain. And while that might be half right, she undeniably Gets Things Done. In 1994, she co-founded the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an American organisation which operates as a telephone helpline offering advice, medical assistance and a willing ear.

Tori even votes, which is more than can be said for our own Ginger Spice, and this year punched a chad for Ralph Nader in Florida, inadvertantly helping George Bush crowbar his way into the White House. She admires the way Nader is willing to take a long hard look at the exploitation and pollution which creates America's wealth. She also believes that the anti-globalisation riots in Seattle and Genoa were positive because they raised awareness of the issues.

It's all a long way from her upbringing in Maryland. Her father Edison was a Methodist preacher of Scottish stock who looked like James Dean, her mother Mary Ellen part Cherokee but fully committed to her husband's Christianity. Tori was born Myra Ellen, changing her name when she moved to LA. 'If a guy even started to look at me and they heard my name was Myra Ellen, it just created a limp dick immediately,' she has explained.

She grew up in the shadow of two strong women. The first was her paternal grandmother, Addie Allen, in whom Calvinism ran deep. As a teenager she had come down from the Appalachian mountains to the university of Virginia, where she became an expert in the Romantic poets. She went on to use her literary talents to warn her granddaughter that pre-marital sex was the quickest route to hell. Tori fantasised about murdering Addie Allen.

The other woman looming over Tori's life was her maternal great grandmother, a full-blood Cherokee called Margaret Little. Although Little died before Tori was born, she learned about her through her grandfather. He told her that she used to carry a tomahawk in her apron and how, during the Civil War, when soldiers had burned the fields of the South, his mother harnessed the plough to her body and set about planting new seeds.

Sex, sin and stubborn furrows, it's easy to see both these things have been cultivated in Tori. The sermonising of Addie Allen had the opposite effect from what was intended. In puberty, Tori had sexual fantasies about Jesus Christ and Robert Plant. As a songwriter, only Nick Cave rivals her for mixing up the sacred and profane.

Sex and religion are a constant theme in her lyrics, while her highly charged live performances straddle the divide between divine possession and lustful abandonment. She used to say that she felt safer performing live than she did when she had sex, although that has changed since she met Mark.

Talking about her cover of 10CC's I'm Not In Love, she says it was an easy song for her to inhabit 'because I have traversed those areas of, oh, power as an aphrodisiac in those kinds of relationships. Role-playing and all that madness, which is part of life I guess.' She laughs. 'Part of growing up. But erotica to me is very different now. What is erotic to me?'

I don't know. What?

'Well ... feeling safe. Feeling respected. Feeling like a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny miniature earth.'

Ri-ight, okay. So has her sexual relationship with Mark changed since they became parents?

'The sexiest thing, to me, is a man who is safe with children,' she replies. We can take that as a yes. In a good way.

Before Mark, Tori had been in a seven year relationship with Eric Rosse, producer of her first two albums. Her third, 1996's Boys For Pele, dealt with the break-up but obviously not too well, because she went seriously on the rebound, hooking up with guys she really shouldn't have. 'I'd find myself doing things like crawling to the telephone ... Degrading myself,' she told Dazed And Confused. 'I'd cut a million dollar deal and then be willing to go and be defecated on by some boy. I'd find myself becoming a piece of meat. Being the object of someone's disgust.'

Around this time, her future husband had a word. They weren't yet seeing each other, but she was standing by the sound desk and he said to her 'Tell me why women don't choose the good men and they go after the guys who can't see them, who are going to excavate and leave them there. Tell me why.' She couldn't answer him.

They married in February 1998, unexpectedly opting for a Church of England service. Having come through one miscarriage together, he told her that he wanted to know what she was like at 80.

Marriage has surprised her. The passion is unexpected. She agrees that she's in a really good place right now, but casts a glance upwards saying, 'I'm waiting for the ball to drop.'

Really?

'Well, I'm like that, aren't you? I mean maybe that's that Scottish thing? That John Knox kind of thing?'

Possibly. The difference is that Tori, unlike Knox, has no room for guilt in her life. When she suffered her first miscarriage she spoke about feeling guilty and wrote about it on From The Choirgirl Hotel. 'I don't feel that inside myself now,' she says. 'I can't really find that. I did feel the loss. I missed them. Because when you miscarry, you carry them with you. And now ... I wave to them sometimes.'

She waves? There's still communication?

'Yeah. We wave, but you know their souls have moved on. Wherever they've gone, they might be somebody else's little person now. On Earth somewhere. It's hard to know where souls go when they leave the planet. And if anybody knew that then everything would change, wouldn't it? But your guess is as good as mine.'

Strange Little Girls is released on East West records on September 18


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