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There's Something about Tori
by Sarah Stone
I have to admit that I felt a tad daunted at the prospect of interviewing Tori Amos. The titian-haired diva sings with such ferocious passion about everything from religion to rape, with a good dose of anti-gun tirades thrown in, that I imagined an opinionated Amazon, ranting away dictatorially while I scribbled feverishly and attempted to crowbar the occasional question into her stream of consciousness. Instead, I met a person who is serene to the point of drifting off into comfortable silences, more polite than I could ever hope to be and, above all, radiating gentleness. Scary? No. Kooky? Occasionally. Contemplative, considered and absolutely committed to her music and beliefs? Definitely.
I meet her the day after a one-off gig at a London church. The concert, a sell-out at the Union Church, Islington, was to promote her new album, Strange Little Girls. In it she recasts from a female perspective a dozen songs made famous by men. Tracks by artists such as Eminem, Neil Young, The Boomtown Rats, Slayer, Joe Jackson and Lennon/McCartney are taken apart and put back together darkly, gently and uncompromisingly.
Some songs, like Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy The Silence' are faithful to their sources. Others, like Eminem's '97 Bonnie & Clyde' are completely reworked, with Tori spine-tinglingly whispering: "Baby, your dada loves you... nobody in this world is ever gonna keep you from me... come on, we're going to the beach... where's mamma? She's taking a little nap in the trunk. Oh, that smell? Dada must have run over a skunk..."
For each song, there is a corresponding depiction of the singer costumed as the "song character" - photos that conjure their own mini-narratives. Amos has also collaborated with graphic novelist Neil "Sandman" Gaiman on a series of short stories about each woman.
I ask her whether she was concerned about the male artists' reactions to her interpretations. "I kept my interpretations under my hat until the eleventh hour because I was not seeking approval," she responds. "I'm not having a relationship with the song mothers - the male writers - I'm having a relationship with their song children. My loyalty was to the integrity of the work, not to the composers.
"Politically, we're on very different sides of the issue, but there's something about the power of words and there's no question that all these songs are very powerful. In certain songs of mine, like Professional Widow, other characters are insinuated and I think it would be very intriguing if somebody did that song from, say, the perspective of the waitress."
Tori is a definite presence. Idiosyncratically beautiful with slanting, sea-green eyes, she radiates charisma even when sitting softly on a functional sofa in a West End hotel. In performance, she is mesmerising. I ask her is she conscious of the crackling stage presence she has.
"It's not just about the music or delivery," she replies. "I become a container for the force of the songs. You're holding a thought and the protons and the neutrons inside the thought come with it. I sang 'Raining Blood' (a Slayer track) in a church last night where women have been shamed for their blood by the church and religious orders.
"You just have to let the force take you. Sometimes I don't know where the force will take me, but in the church, last night, singing 'Raining Blood', I became almost a conduit for something that isn't a part of me. I think some performers serve the thought itself and the force itself. You're not the flame, you're carrying it and you have to trust what it's going to do and that it will light. The alchemy works."
When I was carrying out research for the interview, I was astonished by the amount of websites devoted to her. I tell her that there are actually Tori Amos websites, created by fans, which exist for the sole purpose of listing other Tori Amos websites. How does it feel to be so out of control about what other people are saying about you?
"I must tell you, I try and stay away from them," she says. "There are people on the crew who are very aware of what's going on, and they tell me things on a need to know basis. I think that I kind of decided it wasn't my business. That I'd be intruding. People have to feel they have the freedom to discuss things. And by eavesdropping, their discussion might stop me doing something and following my own creative beliefs because I got caught in a web that I shouldn't have been in."
The devotion of Tori's fans is unquestionable. There are myriad messages posted on her websites that describe meeting her as a 'life-changing' experience. How hard is it to carry that load?
"The words that people use, 'followers', 'fans' - they're people, and a lot of them have an intriguing story. But many of them don't feel it's as worthy of being told. Why is that? The ideas people have, observations they have, and because they might just not be extroverted or command attention, they don't get to share their gifts.
"Over the last few years I've become a better listener and my woman friends have had a lot to do with that." I tell her that somebody once said none of us really listen, we're all just waiting for our opportunity to speak. "Yee-ouch!" she replies, with a disarming smile.
Following three miscarriages, Tori finally became a mother when Natashya Lorien arrived on 5 September 2000. Did she know from the start that this pregnancy would be different? "I was fortunate this time, I had a really joyous pregnancy. I wasn't confined but I did change my life because that's something the doctors thought I had to do. I learned to sit on my egg like Horton (a Dr. Seuss character).
"It didn't come naturally - I had to take time to breathe and not be a workaholic."
Motherhood, she says, confounds her. "Sometimes no answer is working. I read all the books, what to expect and when, but each kid has its own unique essence."
Tori relates a tale about her husband Mark (a British recording engineer) taking Natashya to Hamleys toy store. Told she could choose anything she wanted, the little girl dumbfounded her mother. "I had to sit down, and started to giggle when I saw what it was," says Tori, before challenging me, her beautiful face gleeful, to guess what Natashya chose. "Something disgusting and rubbery that makes horrible farty noises?" I hazarded. "Nearly!" she cried, clapping her hands together like a child. "It's a tape recorder, so that was OK, but it was a Barbie one. Barbie! It's something that I would never ever, ever let a kid have, or think to buy for her. I've never had anything of that nature in my life. My sister had Barbies and I used to pull the heads off."
The week after our interview was Natashya's first birthday. As I left, I said that I hoped she enjoyed it. "Oh, I'm just so excited!" cried the woman I had felt apprehensive about interviewing.
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