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Don't Mess with Mother Nature
Taking shots at male violence, the gun lobby, and Eminem, Tori Amos has made an unlikely covers record -- a cross between Sybil and Quadrophenia. She's also made a beautiful child. A house call with rock's avengin babymamma.
by Will Hermes
Tori Amos reclines on a deserted beachfront in West Cornwall, England, her orange mane -- showing brown roots and a touch of gray at the temples -- swirling in the breeze. We're in Magick Country, somewhere between the famously haunted Bodmin Morr and a town called (no joke) Fairy Cross; it's a region known for wicked sprites, weeping ghosts, and vengeful mermaids. The singer, who turned 38 this summer, is clearly in her element. She proclaims love for "Earth, mother of us all." She admires the feminine beauty of the morning moon. She invokes the power of the Egyptian warrior goddess Sakhmet. And she praises the poesy of mythic North American thrash lords Slayer.
"Beck's bass player (Justin Meldal-Johnsen) suggested I do a cover of Slayer's 'Raining Blood," she says applying strawberry lib balm with her pinkie. "I was reading about what was going on in Afghanistan - the way women were being oppressed, the destruction of religious statues. And when I heard that song, I just imagined a huge juicy vagina coming out of the sky, raining blood over all those racist, misogynist fuckers."
Consider that a gentle beckoning into the world of Strange Little Girls, perhaps the most elaborately conceived covers album in rock history. Amos recasts a dozen songs made famous by male artists - including the Beatles, Depeche Mode, Joe Jackson, and (ahem) Eminem -- from a woman's point of view (the original lyrics remain, edited slightly, chanted repeatedly, etc). Some songs, like Tom Waits' "Time," are faithful to their sources. Others, like "Heart of Gold," are inhabited by howling furies that may offend old-school Neil Young heads. But PJ Harvey fans should feel right at home.
Musically, it's pretty goth, with vintage Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer keyboards adding dark nostalgia and guitar whiz Adrian Belew channeling netherworldly noise. Conceptually, it verges on performance art: in voicing each song, Amos has imagined a different woman. Sometimes she's a character straight from the lyrics, such as Slim Shady's babymamma -- locked in a car trunk and dying, while Daddy conspires with their daughter ("97 Bonnie and Clyde"). Or she may be a purely Tori invention, like the Texas Ranger whom she envisions walking into the Columbine -- like carnage of the Boomotown Rat's "I Don't Like Mondays." For each song, there is a corresponding depiction of the singer costumed as the "song character" -- photos, like those of self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, 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.
Perhaps this is what happens when you spend too much time indoors. Or maybe it's just what happens when you look into your newborn kid's face and wonder who she might be and what her future might hold. Natashya Lorien was a surprise, announcing herself September 5, 2000, after Amos' third miscarriage. At ten months, she's willful, curious, and an accomplished flirt, with piercing blue-gray eyes and a remarkable vocabulary of gutteral diphthongs. The bloodline is strong.
Natashya Lorien could be considered an uncredited collaborator on Strange Little Girls, a record with the maternal instinct as savage as the culture of violence it critiques. "It's a cliche that having a child changes everything," Amos says as we pull into Martian Engineering studios, a converted 19th century stone farmhouse where she and husband Mark Hawley, a recording engineer, worked on the album. "But it really does change everything."
Spin: You got deep into these songs. Which did you feel closest too?
Tori Amos: "Actually, it was one that didn't make the record - Public Enemy's 'Fear of the Black Planet.' The album Fear of the Black Planet was the driving force for [Amos' first album] Little Earthquakes - its sheer commitment to belief. It made me ask, "What do I believe in?" It was a huge thing for me, and I thought it was time for a woman classified as 'white' to sing the song. But I just couldn't find a way into it."
[Looking at the photos] Tell me about some of these women. Who's this? I like the Kiss jacket.
"She's from the Lloyd Cole [and the Commotions] song 'Rattlesnakes.' She's a showgirl, much older than the other women. She wants to be a stage actress, but things haven't been going well for her. She hangs around with a lot of girls who do porn, and she doesn't judge them; she just wants to love them. Her mentors are some of the old screen legends -- like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. She lives in a fantasy world, in stories."
Hmm. So how much of this album is autobiographical?
"I don't want to talk about that."
Over lunch with Amos and her husband, the conversation turns to Andrew Kernan, a mental patient recently shot dead by Liverpool police. Hawley -- a laconic Englishman with shaggy brown hair and a three-day beard -- suggests that a team of trained cops should have been able to subdue Kernan, who was waving a samurai sword on a city street, without killing him.
"It's getting a bit like America here," He says smirking grimly.
"I do think some people have become desensitized to violence," adds Amos. "And it troubles me deeply. I've read about kids who get brought into hospitals, and they can't believe their [gunshot] wounds actually hurt."
"It's sad that after 20 years, 'I Don't Like Mondays' [a song about a kid shooting up a school for "no reasons"] is more relevant than ever. We decided to do that one around the time of the 2001 San Diego school shootings. That line about being 'switched to overload'; I've seen that happen in my own family. My niece chased her mother with a knife the other evening - seriously. She calls me afterward and says, 'Auntie, sometimes I just get really mad.' And I'm like, 'Whew.' But that's the thing. You can't say that only the bad seeds do this. And some strange little girl has access to a certain type of weapon on that day the chip slips...I know we have a gun culture in America. But it shouldn't be easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver's license."
Now tell me about this photo...
"It's the mother from '97 Bonnie and Clyde.' This is her right before she was killed. She's deeply sad. She absolutely loves her daughter."
Was it difficult knowing that, on a certain level, the song is Eminem fantasizing about his actual wife and daughter?
"No. This is not about the person called Eminem. I'm seeing a woman in a victim situation for whom the last thing she's hearing is the person she had a child with [Amos' eyes well up] weaving in that child as an accomplice to her murder. I'm seeing it as a mother."
So you've entered this purely as storytelling?
"Absolutely. This transcends Eminem and his wife, just like 'Me and a Gun' transcends Tori."
That seems like a valid defense of Eminem's work as powerful storytelling.
"This is not about storytelling - this is about getting nailed if you are a fucking pig. On this album, I say words are like guns. And if you don't believe that, well, check-fucking-mate, cocksucker."
So you're basically calling Eminem out?
"This isn't about just one artist. All of the songs support the theory that the view changes depending on where you are standing. Let's understand the power of our pens. I'm all for people writing what they believe in. But this is about then saying that you don't believe in it - that 'it's only words.' You cannot separate yourself from your creation. You can't. You have to be responsible for the shit you put out there."
It's easy to reject the notion that artists should be role models. But in a pop world lousy with soulless scumbags happy to say any damn thing for an icy Rolex, Amos, a self-proclaimed "alpha-female," commands respect. If she's prepared to argue about artistic responsibility until the cows come home (which, as the sun sets, they literally do - to the dairy farm over the garden wall), she's also willing to shut up and defer to her work. "You can just listen to the music," she says. "It makes you feel things. It makes you question things."
So what about those who don't like the liberties you've taken with one of their favorite songs? "Screw them. [She laughs and throws back her mane.] They've probably got some memory of hearing it that has nothing to do with the song, of making out with some girl at a dorm party who probably doesn't even remember them. I took these songs on spring break and had my way with them. They aren't going to take me home to meet their mother. I'm not the kind of girl you bring home to meet your mother."
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