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Orange County Register (US)
November 13, 2001

She seeks the woman within

Tori Amos crawls inside the mind of the male songwriter for the feminist response of 'Strange Little Girls.'

By Ben Wener
The Orange County Register

If you know anything about Tori Amos, you're probably aware that the ardently adored singer-songwriter operates via a logic that is entirely her own.

Forget about the pixies and fairies she claims have guided her since her 1991 breakthrough, "Little Earthquakes," or other flights of fancy that make her seem, to put it mildly, eccentric.

Personification of one's art is nothing new, and a fascination with such talk barely scratches the surface of her way of thinking - which, if you're patient, can make a great deal of sense.

Beside, these days she's moved on to "host organisms." That's what she considered herself during the making of her latest album, "Strange Little Girls," a thought- provoking assortment of songs written by men but filtered through Amos' unique perspective.

It's a challenging piece, precisely what you expect of the piano- pounding woman who has examined her darkest hours - her rape, her miscarriage - in disquieting song. Not to mention a performer who previously has worked wonders with someone else's standard: A decade ago she proved capable of reinterpretation with haunting renditions of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" and the Rolling Stones' "Angie."

Most artists who try cover collections simply pick favorites, then attempt replications. Only Tori would methodically select songs that, in her world, tie together, then use that thread as a means to seek out their Jungian anima.

Graduate students looking for a thesis topic, "Strange Little Girls" is calling you. Start with the album's opener, an atmospheric recasting of the Velvet Underground's "New Age." If you know the song and think it's now presented from its aging actress's point- of-view, well, you're wrong.

"It's just about passion," Amos says, inexplicably. "I love the idea that when this song came out (in 1970) it was part of a new freedom movement. Freedom from this yoke that had been around mankind, womankind - the Martin Luther Kings and Gloria Steinems of the world having cut holes in walls built up in suppression.

"Yet now we're in a place 30 years later ... (and) you're seeing hostility take hold again, this malice against women - women agreeing to be demeaned. Part of the call to do this project for me was that I couldn't understand that - is it a backlash against the alpha female? I'm still stalking that.

"But it's clear we've returned to an age in which men require power over someone - women, gays, whoever it is - to feel secure. So I said, 'OK, I'll walk into that new age with you, see what you see - and respond.' "

Thus begins her twisted treatise, in which she gives voice to women who have been silent all these years: the teen shooter from the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," or the object of desire from Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," whom she brings to rageful life with tempered Stooges fury. (More are turning up as B-sides, by the way, including versions of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" and David Bowie's "After All.")

Some songs we suspected had a second story to tell, and her chilling take on Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" - speaking as the murdered mother in the rapper's trunk trying to comfort her daughter before being dumped in a lake - is a brilliant turnabout that demands to be heard.

Others reveal perspectives no one imagined. Consider her translation of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," one of John Lennon's most lysergic set of lyrics. Turns out that just before he headed to the Dakota to shoot Lennon, Mark David Chapman had hired a call girl. Her sole function that night: to sit in silence.

Meet the song's new observing reporter.

"Because I had done 'Silent All These Years,' I had an entry point into that state of mind," Amos explains. " ... And there's this guy (Lennon) who was tapping into this gun essence and manipulating it into the sexual and drug and religion realms, weaving them together, all the while having no idea that he would be killed by one. And that's where I walked in, saying, 'OK, let's take it to reality now.' But I had to know about this woman, to understand what she was doing there. I had to find the entry point."

What exactly does she mean by entry point?

"These songs, I'm not the mother of them. I'm the host organism. ... I love the idea that the men are the nurturing force and I'm the house on heels. I was just someone who had a relationship with the children from these songs of male mothers."

Her tactic was to "crawl into the space structure, approach each sonic being, say, 'Hi, my name is Tori. I would like to know your secrets, hear your subtext, hear some things you want me to hear.'

"The goal was to penetrate a male party where there weren't invitations given to women. And I found my way in. But instead of writing a work in response - that's not the move to make. You've got to get into the tapestry itself and weave with their threads. I built this pantheon of dream girls that men had created and the rage that was buried beneath them. And they welcomed me, the ones that were on the record."

Yet she adds that, to ensure a female identity could be forged out of male songs without trampling on the originals' "essence," she put together a male research team for guidance.

"That's not how I work, but I knew I was in over my head. My husband looked at me at one point and said: 'I don't think you really know how men think. Do you really know what I listen to after we make love?'

"I said, 'I thought you listened to boom and boom,' whatever I thought at the time. And he said, 'No, it's the Clash.' The Clash?! I walked away saying, 'Ugh, OK.' But, you see, touchstones for men and women are different. So I needed to sit with these male songs, like a spider in the corner. ... You sit like a spider with a tea dress, like the girl in 'New Age,' her look, this librarian who knows ... ."

She's rambling. She does this, and often. It's her way.

What she's referring to are the portraits that accompany "Strange Little Girls," designed by photographer Thomas Schenk and cartoonist Neil Gaiman, known for his sinister "Sandman" series.

What's missing from that array, apart from the gloom of the Eminem remake, is something that seems natural: a mother figure who isn't tragic. Amos, 38, had her first daughter, Tash, last year, but she says she's only beginning to understand what place being a mother has in her music.

"When I'm a mom, I'm a mom. I cut the rest of that energy off. It's not like I have to walk into a room and let the sun toss off me like a lioness. I don't have to spray the room like that anymore. You have to be able to contain that."

That was one Tori, and there are many, though she points out, "I'm not these women, and they're not me. Some of them scare me, actually. But there are pieces of them in all of us."


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