home / interviews
New love songs
Tori Amos is back with a new album of love songs with a twist: they were all originally sung by men. Lucy O'brien hears the whole story
Tori Amos is glad to see Diva. "I was hoping the lesbians would show up. I haven't seen them in a while," she smiles, sipping a cup of Earl Grey in a hotel suite off the Strand. She's in the UK to promote her latest album, Strange Little Girls, a daring set of cover versions of classic songs written by men, but sung from the female perspective. Not suprisingly, Tori is keen to make connections, particularly between women. "It seems sometimes that gay and heterosexual women don't think there's a bonding. There must be a mutual respect and love, a deep love. We've made different choices, but it's not beyond thought! I've chosen souls to be with, and if some happened to be women, it might've been different. I think a lot of classified heterosexual women feel that way," she opines.
Warming to her theme, she continues: "Heterosexual women shouldn't discount that gay women have views on men that might be very enlightening and help their relationships. I've had deep talks with my lesbian friend, video director Nancy Bennett. She said, 'God, straight women really have to claim their animus.' I said, 'well put.' It's about finding the male within you, instead of pulling on people -- finding your own inner power and strength."
Tori excudes a vibrant honesty, fixing you with a calm gaze while she lets the conversation wander where it will. She's looking good these days -- she still has that flaming red hair and a dancer's grace, and there's a new sense of contentment. After several years of emotional upheaval, during which she endured three miscarriages, she gave birth last year to a daughter, Natashya.
"After the third miscarriage, I went through the grieving process again and said, 'I've had enough, I can't do it anymore.' You go to the edges of the living world to speak to any god or goddess to have a discussion and make a deal. Within eight weeks of the loss, I had a stomach flu. And Natashya became the stomach flu."
Adversity seems to have given her renewed openness and strength.
Ever since she was catapulted to fame in 1992 by her debut album Little Earthquakes (which featured the song Me and a Gun, a devastating, pared-down account of her experience of rape at gunpoint), she has been tackling difficult subjects.
She wraps them up in complex piano rhythms, abstract lyrics and powerful pop melodies. Interweaving myth and fantasy into salty songs about womanhood, love and lust, she has been dubbed kooky and eccentric, the US answer to Kate Bush. Albums like Under the Pink (1994) and Boys for Pele (1996) may have had their winsome moments, but this daughter of a Methodist minister from Maryland has more substance than that.
In response to all the female fans who came up to her after shows talking about their experiences of rape or abuse, Tori set up RAINN, in the mid 90s, a US national helpline and counceling service for victims. "I'd like to think that RAINN is a sort of emergency room. Sometimes you're looking for lawyers because you've got an underage gal who, if she leaves, will be arrested, yet her stepfather's raping her. You walk into the realms of law in certain states. The men and women who're involved in RAINN are gentle, nurturing force. There are so many artists who've been touched by it who're nothing to do with me. It's taken on a life of its own." She says it's difficult to keep a non-government funded organisation going, but there is no shortage of sparky fundraising ideas. Somebody came up with a birthday concept, for instance. On my birthday there were drag queen shows in New York, and Latin nights across the country -- people bought tickets and raised funds for RAINN. It's a big round table of people and ideas now, it's really grown.
Two days before this interview she performed a sold-out gig at London's Union Chapel, a place of worship that has become an important venue because of its shimmering acoustics. Tori played a set with just piano and voice, letting her songs restonate to the Gothic rafters. She said afterwards that it was very healing baring her soul in such a patriarchal, having grown up in Church, and it being a place where a lot of intimidation of the freedom of her soul had occured. One of the high points of the show was a song dedicated to Matthew Shephard, the young gay man murdered in 1998 by rednecks in Wyoming. This struck a particular chord with her gay fans -- what does Tori think they respond to her music?
"I hope liberation. We have to find our spirital path no matter what our sexuality is, we all have the right to claim our own holiness. There's been such a shaming, and sexuality is the place where we've been broken," she says frankly. She refers to her album and the version of Raining Blood by heavy metal band Slayer. "I don't see Satan in this. I don't see blood as gross, demonic and wounding. Blood is healing and cleansing, it's our sacredness as women. A lot of religions shamed menstruating women. We shouldn't take on board that negativity anymore." She also turns the camera round on Eminem's song 97 Bonnie & Clyde, singing it from the point of view of the murdered wife in the back of the car. "It stared me right in the face: bloody irresistable. How could I not pick up that gauntled? She had no voice. Women are so sick of the bitch in the truck and yo bitch this and bitch that. She took me by the hand, the ghost of this woman shawed me, as she lay dying in the songworld."
Though she has been exploring serious themes, Tori hasn't let go of that sense of lighthearted irony. Her theatrical side has come out in the packaging for Strange Little Girls, which is issued with four covers -Vegas pary girl, tough city cop, goth rocker and berlin caberet artist -just some of the women suggested by the songs on the album. She has always had an eye for provocative image --such as the early 90s record cover that depicted her suckling a piglet.
"That was my Madonna and child. Father asked me if I'd do a Christmas picture for the letter he sends every year as a minister. He called me up, asking 'Tori Ellen, what is this?' I said, 'That's my Madonna and child. Don't you think it's important, Dad, that that which isn't kosher needs nursing too?"
Tori has another dainty sip of her tea. "He's taken a lot over the years," she continues. "One song that upset him the most was Father Lucifer. He was very hurt about that. I said, 'Dad, this is not about you. I took drugs, took a journey, a shamanic experience, and I had an affair with Lucifer'. I said this at the Sunday dinner table with the chicken. Everyone put their forks down and went, 'Oh no'. But my Dad just went, 'Oh. OK then'."
Tori's eyes sparkle at the memory, then she looks at you, as if daring you to disapprove. She'll win a few more converts yet.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos