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Big Issue (UK)
September 17-29, 2001, #455
The Hitmen and Her
by Imogen Wall
Imagine if Eminen was a woman. Tori Amos did, and twisted his bad-boy lyrics around, giving women the upper hand instead of the upper cut. Imogen Wall talks to the star about her new album of feminist cover versions.
It's a fair bet than even in Led Zeppelin's heyday, not many of the guitarist's fans 11-year old girls. It's an even safer bet that fewer still were child prodigies training to be classical pianists. But back in the early 1970's, a certain flame-haired schoolgirl from Baltimore's renowned Peabody institute was in love. She'd already abandoned Beethoven for Hendrix - a liaison that got her expelled. But she was unfazed. "I didn't care if Beethoven made mathematical sense", she said later. "I wasn't creaming."
The girl of course, was Tori Amos, who's since made a career pursuing her own unique worldview with a praiseworthy disregard for the opinions of others, be they teachers, parents or, latterly, her record company. When she presented East West with the first of her astonishingly confessional albums, Little Earthquakes, in 1991, the label was so nonplussed they sent her to Britain, figuring that us crazy Brits might somehow "get" the Amos vibe.
Over here, the music media were equally gobsmacked by this diminutive red-head who was equally at ease singing a capella about rape and winsomely declaring her belief in fairies. Their reaction was to dub Amos as "kooky". But thanks to a string of imitators - stand up Alanis, et al - her confessional style has now moved into the mainstream. So she's switched tack, producing a collection entirely of other people's songs.
Strange Little Girls is a cover album unlike any other. Amos has taken compositions written by men, mostly about acts of violence involving females, and inverted them, so "giving the women a voice". She hasn't changed a thing lyrically, but some of the tracks - there are songs from 10cc's I'm not in love to Eminem's 97 Bonnie & Clyde - are recognisable. These are covers as covers should be: old familiars twisted into something startlingly new. The result is truly unfashionable: an unashamed feminist project.
So where did all this come from, Tori? The subject of all this controversy is holed up in a ludicrously fashionable hotel - its lean, pale lines make her scrunchy red hair and bright blue thousand-yard-stare even more intense than usual. Given her media image, I'd half expected her to be about to slit her wrists. But she's curled up on the sofa patting the space beside her. "I don't bite," she smiles.
For Amos becoming a mother has "changed everything". Today she's cracking jokes about her latest hobby: nappy-changing. Like most new mums, she can't stop talking about her baby: Natashya is her first child and the inspiration for Strange Little Girls.
Natashya's arrival is especially poignant because Amos had previously suffered three miscarriages. While most celebs would yell for the PR minder if you dared raise the subject, Amos launches into an account of her failed pregnancies, unprompted. And listening to her is harrowing. In person as in her music, she has a way of making you fell exactly what she's experienced.
"It's the hardest thing, cos it's not like you can make it go back inside. You say, what can I do? I was cutting deals with every deity there is, you know, trying to do anything to negotiate that." She pauses, holding my hand and close to tears. The room is very quiet. At last, very softly, she says: "It wasn't meant to be."
For an Amos observation, this unusually grammatical. Most of the time, she doesn't really do sentences. She talks like most of us play hopscotch, leapfrogging from Native American rights to Greek mythology, and at times it's hard to keep up. But Amos isn't just chattering - there's unorthodox insight and unmistakable flashes of steel in everything she says. it's the same combination of ferocity and disorienting intelligence that characterises the new album.
Her astonishing cover of 97 Bonnie & Clyde, in which she turns Eminem's murderous fantasy into a terrifying expose of domestic violence (she sings as the dying mum) may grab the headlines. But there are plenty more re-workings that are just as audacious. Some are outstanding, some fall flat, but all are worlds apart from the originals.
It was while nursing Natashya, listening to artists like Eminen on the radio, that she started to notice "some people's malice towards women and gay men. There just seemed this need to demean." Like most new parents, Amos started worrying about the kind of world awaiting her daughter. Using a 'laboratory' of male friends, she asked them for songs that resonated with them. Eminem's misogynistic ode aside, the answers she got ranged from Slayer (Raining Blood) to Depeche Mode (Enjoy the Silence).
But merely covering the songs was never going to be enough for Amos. In her mind, every woman on every track became almost real; each approached her and said "I have a point of view on this song". Hence the photoshoot in which Amos impersonated each of them.
Poring over images from the shoot, her red hair cascading forward, her expression intense, she talks about these women like they were personal friends. "She's a call girl," she says of the defiant-looking woman who represents Happiness is a Warm Gun, a song Amos turns into a meditation on American gun culture.
The original was written, of course, by John Lennon, himself assassinated with a gun. "We did some research and found that Lennon's killer hired a call girl and asked her to provide silent service". there's an added poignancy here: back in her early performing days, Amos was herself raped at gunpoint, after she'd given a fan a lift home. This incident was immortalised in the terrifying Me and A Gun on the LIttle Earthquakes album.
"I like her," Amos says of the woman she's invented for her version of Slayer's Raining Blood. "She's the French Resistance girl. Her sister was killed and this pushed her to do things she never thought she would. I don't believe she made it. I think the Gestapo shot her, in a field."
Needless to say, Slayer must be bewildered by Amos' version. And judging by some (unprintable) internet discussions, Eminen's fans aren't over-impressed by her take on the rapper's work. But Amos neither knows nor cares about such views. "We had some messages," she says without concern, steel flickering in her eyes. "They had their say on their versions."
For all Tori Amos' petite frame and seeming fragility, something about her says, "Don't mess." Eminem can come and have a go if he thinks he's hard enough. But if he does, my money's on the 'kooky' one.
Strange Little Girls is out on East West Records on September 17.
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