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The Independent (UK)
Friday, September 14, 2001

Tori Amos: In the company of men

Tori Amos has the reputation of being a little... eccentric. So it's no surprise that all the songs on her new album were written by and about men. But Eminem? She explains all to Glyn Brown

All day, Tori Amos has been talking to journalists, who've overrun their slots, and having impromptu business meetings; on top of which, the malformed bone in her jaw that has caused lifelong problems is playing up, and, further, she has a cracked tooth that there's been no time to fix. Once her final meeting is over, she asks if there's space for a five-minute neck massage to try to subdue the headache. But when at last, two hours late, we start our talk, she seems happy, relaxed and firing on all cylinders, though she occasionally rubs her chin hard. She's a trouper, is Amos; and, as she says, people have worse pain to contend with.

Tori Amos is a woman who has always seemed a touch possessed, by demons that came from her experiences and her own troubled soul. Sometimes she sings in voices, very Joan of Arc; her Carrie-esque howls can sweep almost off the register (people would pay good money for primal therapy like that). Born 37 years ago in North Carolina, she was playing piano at 30 months and, at five, won a scholarship to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Academy, though she got kicked out at 11 because of a passion for Led Zeppelin.

That upset her father, a Methodist minister, who wanted her to be a concert pianist; her Calvinist background was strict and repressive, but she fought against it in her music and by having teenage sexual fantasies about Jesus Christ and Robert Plant. (Much later, she recorded a duet with Plant. He proposed to her. She said, "You are late.") Initially, she made a living by playing hotel bars; then, after a disastrous year in a grisly rock band, Y Kant Tori Read, she invested everything in her solo debut, Little Earthquakes. It was intricate and heartbreaking and included "Me and a Gun", an account of her rape by an audience member. That was in 1992; since then she's made an album about every two years.

I first met her in 1998, around the time of the release of the hugely successful From the Choirgirl Hotel. The songs were vivid, lush, lusty and regretful, several of them dealing with her recent miscarriage. She'd just married her sound engineer, Mark Hawley, who seemed, when you saw her live show, very much in evidence as a protective force. Amos has always been seen as sexy and eccentric (she believes in pagan forces and, not necessarily connected, was once interviewed with two Teletubbies' heads sticking out of her bag); that and her intellect make a fine combination.

We're here now to talk about her forthcoming album, Strange Little Girls, a clutch of covers that's very dark indeed and addresses throwaways such as violence, identity and the gap between men and women, but we get on to the subject obliquely. We begin with the last year or so, when Amos disappeared from the scene to have a baby, Natashya. There had been a number of miscarriages, and "eventually, I found myself trying to think, 'OK, I don't know about being a mom; maybe it's just not my fate.' You have to move on but, as a woman, you still have to feel creative and as if you have a role." In the middle of that, "the baby arrived as this wonderful surprise." However, Amos had had time to notice something interesting: that certain groups of American men, miffed at losing their traditional roles, appeared to be starting a nasty little sexist backlash. She cites the ringleader, the controversial Southern senator Jesse Helms. "The scary thing was the malice I observed: men ranting on TV, with such brutal ideas. When they were questioned, they'd say, 'What's everyone so upset about?' They genuinely couldn't see how their words might sound."

Fascinated as to what men say and how women hear it, she corralled some male friends and asked them to pick songs by men that meant something to them. Whether this shows what men currently think of women, her reinterpretations result in an intriguing look at male and female viewpoints.

The album is a tour de force, from a completely revamped take on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" to Slayer's "Raining Blood", transmogrified from blind speed metal to a haunting classical lament. With each song, says Amos, a female narrator appeared and said in effect, "Here's my view on this", and those narrators are embodied in photographs for the CD sleeve, Amos got up quite startlingly in character. In a further twist, she asked her chum Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comic novels, to write a few words on each paired character and song. The results of that are intriguing, too. For instance, Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes" is Amos's favourite, the story of a complicated woman on a quest, with a "heart like crazy paving", needing a gun to cope with all those sidewinders; Gaiman's pen portrait reveals a superficial teen who parties a lot. I don't agree; nor does Amos.

"But you know what?" she says, leaning forward, incredulous yet resigned. "He likes her. No, it's true; ask him. That dope's the one he likes..."

As for 10cc's "I'm Not in Love", Amos has no patience. The track was nominated by numbers of men; I tell her that those I've asked think it's a love song, right enough; it's just that the guy can't admit it.

She rolls her eyes. "Yeah, but the damage is done! He says, 'So don't forget it.' He says, 'It's just a silly phase I'm going through.' It's manipulation. It's BDSM."

What's that? "Well, bondage, domination, sado-masochism." She blinks and grins. "My husband keeps on asking, 'But, Taz, can't that just mean something like the British Drivers' School of Motoring?'" You can't help thinking that Amos's husband occasionally has his work cut out, but it's clear that he's an understanding sort, and the song speaks volumes to his wife. In her view, the female character also resolves to feel nothing, and a Nine and a Half Weeks scenario ensues.

"I've traversed those areas in my own life," she offers, "and, God, it was devouring, on both sides. Power meant something different to me then. And I don't think it was safe. Because, say, I would take myself into places that could've been... offensive to my soul, taking a fantasy too far, where you think, 'This is dangerous, and I'm taking a hit here', meaning 'What have I opened up?', or, 'What am I playing out? What's in me that needs to be treated like this?'" She thinks for a minute. "Well, one thing about the relationship I have now is that there will be places where he will say to me, 'Y'know what, Taz? Let's go and get you an ice cream. If you want to explore this, it's fine, but not in this way.'"

You're very lucky.

"Very lucky. And I realise that's what power is, not using a situation where you could exploit."

Speaking of exploitation, one other thing worth a mention is a rendition of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde", which is, as you'll recall, a swaggering tale of a loser killing his wife and involving his toddler daughter in the murder. You wonder why Amos has dignified it with attention, but the fact is that people are "grooving, dancing along to this, oblivious, with blood on their sneakers". The new version's deeply chilling, but it may just make people think.

Phew. Aside from all those, you also get songs such as Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence", which works as a bare love ballad; Tom Waits's melancholic "Time" (portrayed as a transcendent angel of death); the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"; and Joe Jackson's eloquent "Real Men". Whether you agree with the takes on all of these or you don't, the whole job-lot is provocative, beautiful and occasionally (you'll never believe "Heart of Gold") rocking. And that's a particularly fitting outpouring from the lass.

'Strange Little Girls' is released on Monday on Eastwest


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