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Alternative Press (US)
Is Tori Amos bullshit?
by Randee Dawn
photos by Phil Mucci
To be fair: Of course not. Tori Amos is a charming, copper-haired young woman on a collision course with 40 who'll give you the shirt off her back, or the final mixed copy of Strange Little Girls, her eighth album, out of her cd player, as the case may be. She's an American who's adopted England, a combo that colors her phrases ("get me a coffee") and keeps her tucked away in the furthest southwest corner of England-Cornwall. She is a relatively new wife (Mark Hawley, 1998) and an even newer mother (Natashya, 2000) with an enviable professional existence. She sells enough records to keep the suits happy without being a chart-topper, and she's self-assured enough to call the shots , when the shots are important. Tori Amos, the former homecoming queen of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland; Tori Amos the person -- not bullshit.
Tori Amos, public figure -- now, there's the question. And here is how the question comes to be raised: Strange Little Girls, says Tori, was inspired on one level by a March 2001 article about the porn industry, Martin Amis in the Manchester Guardian, which opened with a statement from one of the industry's stars, "Pussies are bullshit" (and as it turned out, assholes are not). Amis added that the opinion was clearly sticking to the dictionary definition of bullshit which is "nonsense intended to deceive."
Tori was -- and is -- taken by the store. "The Martin Amis article had just come out [during the planning stages of SLG], and it said that more demeaning, violent sex is sold than any other kind. You've got to pull back and say, 'Can't anyone make love anymore? Is anyone interested in that?' We're making so much progress on so many levels and you've got to go, 'Oh jeez' I'm getting old. I'm a mom now. There are certain things you start asking."
The article says nothing of the kind, actually. (There are some made up statistics which Amis is quick to point out are, well, bullshit.) But by this point it no longer matter: Words have become deeds have become songs have become words again. All of it is part of the context of Strange Little Girls -- 12 songs, all penned by men, that Tori has remade by finding a female voice in them (and in one of them, twins), and vocalizing it, as in method singing. And the world in which Tori is projecting her female voices is a world that, bullshit or not, is dominated by demeaning, violent sex. No wonder the guns show up later on, no wonder people end up dead.
It is no coincidence that Strange Little Girls comes along at this time in Tori's career. After three miscarriages (the last one occurring right after the London show of her 1999 tour with Alanis Morissette), the forth one took and just about a year ago, Natashya ("Tash") made it into the world. "Miscarriages are rough," says Tori. "I was so sick. And then the last thing I expected to happen -- I got pregnant with Tash over Christmas. I changed my life, slowed it down and just really tried to learn how to be pregnant."
Artists have forever likened their projects -- songs, albums, paintings, books -- to being like children, particularly when asked which one they're the proudest of. Having had a literal child at long last, Tori decided to act on that figurative notion and make "friends" with the some of the children of Neil Young, Depeche Mode, Lloyd Cole, Joe Jackson and the Beatles. "I was crawling around and hanging out in the heads of these guys, hanging out with their song children," she explains. "It was sort of like going on spring break with someone's kid. There's some stuff they don't tell their mothers and that's how I felt the songs and I were getting on."
Having "met" the kids, Tori dug around for the female half (overt or implied, or even absent) in each song. In Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde," she's decided to be the dead wife in the trunk who gets dumped in the river, and succeeded -- the vocals on that track come across as creepily cold , dead even. On Slayer's "Raining Blood" she explained the experience with hooking into the female character like this: "You wait around until you get tapped on the shoulder and you know that she's shown up, this character, this person who can carry the song and knows it, and truly your body feels different. For the Slayer track I walked back from the house to the barn -- the studio's in a barn -- and I felt that. It was like immediately, this French Resistance movement [person]; when I heard 'Slayer', I saw her, I knew who she was. I had a sense of her. And in a few days she arrived."
Not every possible song worked so well. "There were some things I just could not find my way in," she explains. "Sometimes I would look at a song, want to do it, love it sonically and then I'd be doing Karaoke on a Friday night down at the local." For example, a song Tori had longed to do was Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet." Really. "I thought it was time in 2001, someone who's considered a white woman would do this, would talk about it and what it was about to me, because that album was so influential. Just the conviction that Public Enemy has to their beliefs. And that's another cornerstone to this record. What are our beliefs? What do you believe in? I don't give many answers on this record but I bring up a lot of questions."
So at this stage, the question -- bullshit or not? -- is beginning to glow neon. Whythefuck can't Tori just call Strange Little Girls what it is: a remake concept record? The French Resistance movement, for Christ's sake? Statements and concepts like those don't do much for the non-Tori fan's opinion of her and her music. They're already thinking she's out there in the English countryside with the faeries and a salaried chef who's mixing some funky mushrooms into the sauce. The skeptics always want to know: Why can't she just use the music-industry buzzwords? Why can't she be like a normal insane rock musician. Y Kant Tori read between the lines and make it easier for all of us?
Many questions, few answers.
Adrian Belew, resident of Nashville, Tennesee, tenured members of King Crimson, author of 14 solo records and session player for the likes of David Bowie, Trent Reznor and now Tori Amos (his unusual guitar stylings appear throughout SLG), doesn't sound like the kind of guy given to flights of fancy. He's got his guitar and he goes and he plays and he's really pretty fucking good and he goes home. Soon he'll be on tour with Crimson, a band who's been around since Nixon was president. But spending a little time over a week stashed out in Cornwall watching Tori Amos dance around while he laid down tracks seems to have bitten Belew hard.
"She said, 'Bring anything that's currently intriguing you," he recalls, "and I had just recently aquired a fretless guitar synthesizer. There may be only one in the world. It's a fretless guitar, and it also operates as a synthesizer. So I played it on the Neil Young song [Heart of Gold].
Pretty Guitar World so far. And his trip to Cornwall was pretty routine -- he'd worked on a common project with Tori's longtime drummer Matt Chamberlin, who put in a good word. But then Belew veers: "The ending of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" turned into a blues version and it was inspiring enough to me that I discovered a different way of playing guitar. I turned my tremolo device in a different way -- I'd never seen anyone do that -- and it caused me to play in a unique way.
Thirty plus years in the business, no new guitar style. Ten days in Cornwall; he's Edison wit the tremolo! What's going on here? "The people around here give off a certain energy," suggest Belew. "It all works together. There was even a point when Tori was in the room dancing next to me while I was playing. That makes the whole thing have an electricity."
Here's how it works when you're invited to come down and play with Tori Amos. "She told me to come with whatever you want to paint with," says Belew, who quickly developed a routine. Have breakfast at the hotel where he stayed, overlooking the garden, head over there to do some work, and at the end of the day have a home cooked meal, sit around, talk politics, music, etc. It resembles an old-fashioned artistic saloon, a practice that has all but died out in the past hundred years. "It was a real camaraderie there," he remembers.
By the time Belew arrived most of the album was already done. "All of the tracks were completed, in fact, most of them had vocals and everything. That's unusual, most people call me at a stage where they hadn't put the vocals on. So when I played, I was trying to answer her voice, which is not something I usually do. But as I understand it, Tori makes it a performance all at once."
Which you have to do when the French Resistance gal from "Raining Blood" shows up and taps you on the shoulder, as Amos notes. "Most of the songs are one take," she says. "That's how I do it as a performance. And when she shows up, you've got to take action."
She's also left in her vocal mistakes, preferring to let the "voice" speak in each song, rather than do a second take and possibly lose the feel for her subject. "In the Depeche Mode song, I forgot to say forgettable so the line 'Words are meaningless and forgettable' turned into 'unforgettable', because this is where I've been for the last six months. They're not forgettable."
Belew might well agree. "It was really quite an experience. I'd go back."
For a particular Tori Amos fan, the only thing better than sitting on her hotel room bed and talking is sitting on her hotel room bed and talking porn. She keeps one foot on the floor at all times.
"I think porno, having enjoyed it myself -- this is my thing," she meanders, having wandered back to the Amis article subject matter. "Peope are buying women getting violently raped to get off. That's not pornography. Pornography used to be erotic sex. Violence has now become equated with pleasure. Neil [Gaiman, author and friend who contributed blurbs about Tori's characters to the CD and upcoming tour program] and I have talked about this for hours and hours. I do believe consenting adults should do what they want, but you find at times it's not just with consenting adults. I have hundreds and hundreds, into thousands of letters that say it doesn't stay with consenting adults. Part of my life is trying to create a safe place so that rape is not something that happens because you're a woman. It's not a thing that's ok."
Themes of male violence and power have always flowed through Tori Amos' work, even people who don't know more than "Me and a Gun"[from her 1991 album Little Earthquakes' know that she had her own particularly nasty experience at age 22 that's been called rape -- so any discussion of such things automatically gives hera moral leg up [even if the foot is on the floor]. But even among her most loyal fans, Tori's rape has been put under a microscope. Although she approaches the topic from several directions going into specifics is at the same time salient and useless. Tori is heavily into myths ("For you to be able to really make a modern myth come to life, you have to be able to play that character, be that character. You can't have Lady Macbeth coming into the Jesus myth."), and it is the myth of her rape that has been making important, life-altering connections with rape and incest survivors, with rapists themselves ("I get letters from rapists going, 'I never though about it from your point of view before'") and, of course, with her establishment of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
So does it matter that (by her own admission in a 1994 interview) she wasn't sexually penetrated? Does it matter that it was her and knife, not Me and a Gune? Not a bit. Is it important that she was held at knifepoint for hours with the threat of being cut up and saved herself by singing to her captor and ultimately ended up pissing herself? Yes. And if the only definition people have these days of "rape" is the legal one, they need to spend a little more downtime with their dictionary. "I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night, and that now I'm trying to put the pieces back together again," she said in that 1994 interview. "Through love, not hatred. And through my music."
Is Tori Amos handing out nonsense sent to deceive?
Nonsense -- so far from it. Intended -- questionable. Deceive -- too strong a word, but yes. If it makes the myth that much stronger to say so, if it opens up the song so that others, not just Tori, can listen to the voices inside of it, then so much the better. That is what makes her one of the more difficult to interpret, yet powerfully resonant songwriters America has ever produced. With Tori Amos the myth is the message.
The character Tori is best playing these days is her most authentic -- that of mother. Two years ago she doubted whether she had the capacity (psychological no physical) to even have children: "I'm at this stage where, as I think about it, I'm becoming fulfilled just as a woman. So much of the time is you're the daughter of somebody, or the wife of somebody, or the friend of somebody, or the mother of somebody, you're always trying to find your girlhood to partnerhood to adulthood, and its nice to just have womanhoodI'm enjoying finally not having to be the seal throwing the ball on my nose. What's the next trick out of my hat?" The trick turned out to be little caesarean-born, Tash, and when speaking about her Tori is far more straight forward an down-to-earth than when discussing her "song children." "She's one of those people who will mimic you," explains Tori when asked what kid of kid it is she's raising. "She observes people and starts mirroring them back to them. She's got her giggle when you tickle her, but when I laugh, sometimes she'll go 'heh, heh, heh." And you look at her and go "Tash" The delight she takes in discussing her daughter is evident. "She'd into Pan-Asian cuisine. She's got a taste for salmon and broccoli," but she acknowledges that "While I was ready a long time ago [to have a child], I wouldn't have made a good mommy."
Whatever it was that changed her mind, Tori now says, "I realized you cannot put her needs and your needs first at the same time. There is no negotiating on that one. I didn't have the patience before to get baby behavior. You have to watch them every second. And it takes a lot to play blocks for five hours. Parenthood isn't for everyone. For some people, it's animals or traveling or being out on the ocean. Whatever it is, there's that thing that opens up these windows for you where everything lines up."
Tash will be touring this time out with her mommy, and for Tori, leaving Tash at home was never in question, "although we'll have to adjust the schedule a little to fit her," she notes. "You've heard about letting sleeping babies lie? If you're sure that tornado is not going to hit your house, do not wake them." Three months, she says, should be a good test period to see if Tash tours well. "Then we'll need to get her back to something she knows." And get her mother back, too - once that tour winds down, Tori will again be deep into her next record. "I've been working now for two and a half years, doing all these strong songs, crawling in and out of structures and seeing how they resolve things." Want more specifics? Nothing doing, yet. "I'm in the thick of it as a writer. Rewrites," she says, and closes the subject.
As is, most likely, the subject of further children. Though nothing is ever set in stone, her encroaching fifth decade has helped solidify at least one thing for Tori -- that at heart and soul she is a storyteller and a musician, sometimes working with the myths of other song-parents, most often inventing her own. Some will see it as genius, others as a load of, wellAnd either way, she's going to keep making it, down in Cornwall in her homemade salon, dancing while the session players lay down tracks. "It's not my intention to have more children," she says, "Look, some women are great homemakers. I'm no good at that. I'm a crap cleaner; I'd get fired. But I can fucking bring home the bacon. I'm a musician. This is what I do. I'll be a better mom if I can continue to be a musician. That's my passion."
And that's no bullshit.
The Characters for Strange Little Girls
New Age - "She's a writer," says Tori, "an observer. She'd doing research; she's documenting like an Encyclopedia Britanica of life and experience. Her big line is, 'Well I'm doing research.'"
97 Bonnie and Clyde - This song is told from the point of view of the mother who is about to be dumped off a bridge by her husband and baby daughter. "The big thing is, she's hearing that her daughter has been pulled into the crime and it's very very difficuly when you're helpless and can't intercede. She knows that her daughter will carry this forever."
Strange Little Girl - "This is the little girl whose father killed her mother in Eminem's song, all grown up, having to deal with the fact that she was an accomplice to the murder. She's a dichotomy of things because shes divided -- even when parents divorce, if they turn one child against one parent, you're dividing that child at the core"
Enjoy the Silence - "She's a showgirl, and I call her Isis. She might moonlight over in Vegas. She's the oldest of the showgirls there and has been around awhile. There's a mothering quality in her, she sees the other women who come through the door and get extorted. She sees who the puppeteers are, and she sees when they're lying there bleeding."
Rattlesnakes - "She's one of my favorites, shes an enigma to me in so many ways. I have cups of coffee with her sometimes, and we have really good chats. But shes very hard to penetrate. She has these dreamy eyes; she loves to drive into the desert."
I'm Not in Love - "She's a little fetish girl - she's into BDSM. It's all about power with her. And shes not really in love; she really isn't. She was at one time and shes having a different adventure in life. She will walk down many roads."
Time - "She's death. I think everybody gets to pick how they see death. So to me, she is the Grim Reaper, and I saw her. Because time is ticking, Tori."
Heart of Gold - "Here are our twins. They're economic espionage gals - their saying is, 'It's not glamorous, it's just business.' They infiltrate corporations and access information and send it somewhere else. Good or bad, it depends what side you're on. They're not out protesting with a sign, they're playing chess with these corporate big boys. Its not about peaceful protest, its about being very effective, getting the job done."
I Don't Like Mondays - "This is told from the point of view of the Texas Ranger [who] goes to the school, finds the first body in the stairwell [after the shootings described in the song], then finds the girl who's killed everybody and kills her. [The Ranger] is licensed to do this; you would think that she's justified in her act, but she's having a difficult time with it because she doesn't think this particular girl is a bad seed."
Happiness Is a Warm Gun - "One of the last people Mark David Chapman called before he killed John Lennon was an escort service. And we don't know if they had sex or if they just talked, but he told her to 'be silent.' So this is sung through the eyes of that call girl."
Raining Blood - "She's a French Resistance woman whose sister was killed. She went to the underground after the death of everyone she knew. Shes calling on certain powers, no different than the ones Himmler and the Nazis were calling on, only they used the dark forces. Our French Resistance woman knows myths and is calling on power and working on alchemy"
Real Men - "Shes an androgynous being, like a seahorse. Her essence is anima/animus combined, of the joining of two in one. It's a woman who has really integrated her animus. And this is what she projects to the world. Neil Gaiman is convinced she's a he, but I don't agree. I think she's androgynous."
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