home / interviews
The Times (UK)
November 4, 2003
Tori the librarian and other odd tales
The Andrew Billen Interview
After 11 years of turning personal suffering into a musical art form, Tori Amos is happily ensconced in Cornwall with husband, child and recording studio. Or perhaps "happily" isn't quite the word
ZOOM. TORI AMOS MAKES that fighter-jet gesture people do to indicate that something has gone over someone else's head. We are eating lunch, prepared by Duncan, Amos's personal chef, in the dining room of the singer's farmhouse in Cornwall. The Hallowe'en decorations are up and one of the Amos team has wittily suggested that we call the toy skeleton Napoleon. Natashya, Amos's precocious three-year-old daughter, wants to know why. Well, I explain, there was once a French soldier called Napoleon Bonaparte -- Bone Apart. She stares at me. I apologise for talking nonsense. "You are talking nonsense," says Tash.
It is some time, I would guess, since anyone has said that to her mother, although the temptation must surely arise. Lyrically, her songs are obscure to the point of opacity, a goulash of metaphor, ethno-mythology, Christianity, feminism, sentimentality and the occasional, quite startling, violence (as when, in Precious Things, she decries the "little fascist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl").
One of the services rendered by her forthcoming album, Tales of a Librarian, a remastering of her best work, is to help to clarify its meanings. Slightly madly, she uses the library conceit to catalogue her songs by the Dewey decimal system. Thus Angels, an apparently metaphysical number, is shelved on the sleeve notes under "320.324 Political Science, The Political Process." The angels, it transpires, are the Gore votes that evaporated in Florida in 2000.
Yet despite the elusiveness of the lyrics, there is a quality to Amos's voice, a bit like a sincere version of Kate Bush's, that makes them affecting. At British concerts women sob, and her potency is apparently even more noticeable in America, where its native "high priestess of suffering" has a bigger and younger fan base. And you don't have to be a woman, beleaguered by men and biology, to be moved. Silent All These Years, another song from her first album, Little Earthquakes, leaves even me a little weepy -- in a manly, protective sort of way, of course.
"I don't think you can get drawn into people's idea of who Tori Amos is," says Tori Amos, who alarmingly often refers to herself in the third (or second) person. "If you're going to buy it one way you're going to have to buy into it from all sides. There might be a journalist I've never talked to who thinks I'm sitting somewhere in a flat bawling my eyes out, while I'm actually setting up companies and building empires. So I think that it's none of my business, on one level, how people see me, if people want to project all this stuff." But is it projection or is it simply the rather tragic story she has herself publicised? "Listen, that's one reason I put the best-of Tales of a Librarian out now, because I think it is a kind of sonic autobiography of this woman's life."
"This woman" may look slight, short and vulnerable -- her copper-coloured hair falls down one side of her pale, 40-year-old face in a schoolgirl's pony tail -- but Amos is a veritable Prospero here in Cornwall, living among what she calls the shadows. The barn next to her modest house, across a yard wafted by the dungy smells of the working farm next door, contains a full-size recording studio with a 10ft mixing desk presided over by her chief technician, a shaggy-haired, short-trousered Ariel named Mark Hawley, who happens to be her husband.
The bucolic music factory is her comfort zone away from a recording industry at war with its own customers, who have developed the inconvenient habit of "file-sharing" music for free. In response, the record companies fire staff daily, and the more who leave, the greater the paranoia among those who remain.
"Because I'm not exposed to the machinations of it all, it doesn't wear me down," Amos says. "I hear it on the phone from LA and New York and I can then take a walk on the dirt lane and say, 'You know, that doesn't make sense what they're telling me. It just doesn't add up'."
The latest baffling miscalculation is the sudden departure from Sony Music of Polly Anthony, head of the group's Epic Records division, who personally signed Amos from Atlantic Warner last year. Anthony's going has jolted Amos into making a few changes herself. Having "shifted out" of her previous management arrangement, she has formed the Bridge Entertainment Group to nurse and develop talent. Its press release announces that its first "client" is Ms Amos. "I created the Bridge because Tori Amos had a need and so I pulled back and said, 'Well what is that need?' and the need was: she needs a think tank."
But this is all very now, whereas her new album, her last fling with Atlantic Warner, is mostly then, dating back to 1992, the year her talent erupted with her three-million selling album Little Earthquakes. The record was accompanied by the revelation that her song Me and a Gun was about how at 22 she had been raped at gunpoint by an audience member to whom she had given a lift after a concert. The accompanying Silent All These Years raged at the years she had kept quiet about the trauma. I ask what it was like hearing that younger voice again.
"Well, I began to understand that me singing Silent now -- because I've just done a long tour -- is different than her singing it then, because I'm not silent any more about most things, although there are some weeks when I hear that song again and I think the characters have changed. I'm dealing with a different bully, a different face." Had she never talked about her rape before she sang about it? "Maybe to one very close person but not in the way I did in Me and a Gun. See, I couldn't run from it any more. The problem was I was not ready for sitting down having spaghetti with somebody who started asking me questions that I found very invasive. Because I wrote a song about it everybody thought it was fair game."
Her next two albums nevertheless continued to make personal statements. Under the Pink in 1994 complained variously about the female condition, other women ("cornflake girls", whatever they were) and God, who, in the unambiguously entitled God, was portrayed as the worst kind of MCP. She admits this last theme caused some rocky moments in her relationship with her father, a Methodist preacher named Edison Amos who had brought her up in Washington under the censorious eye of his own preacher mother. Happily Edison has since rethought his religious beliefs and become a great supporter of his pagan daughter's career.
Boys for Pele (named not after the Brazilian footballer but a Hawaiian volcano goddess) was released in 1996 after she had broken up with her boyfriend of seven years, her producer Eric Rosse. With her usual flair for hyperbole, the record suggested she had become "a professional widow", an emotional vampire preying on unsuitable men. It was during this unstable period -- she collapsed from exhaustion halfway through a world tour -- that a quiet young sound engineer asked her why nice girls always fell for bastards. This insight was Mark Hawley's. They married in 1998 and moved to Cornwall, where Mark had passed happy childhood holidays.
It was, she says, her best friend, a sophisticated LA woman who used to "to run with the Gettys", who had the wit to notice that Mark was a "man of substance". Unlike the Pele boys? "Yeah, all of that shenanigans. It's not that they didn't have wonderful qualities, because they did, but he's different. This is different. You know, you spend so long searching for your tribe and the crazy thing is I have found my tribe and it 's not who you think it is."
Sadly, however, the Tori Amos story did not attain its happy-ever-after ending at this point. She suffered three miscarriages, a misery explored with worrying animus against herself on her next album, The Choirgirl Hotel, and, in particular, in the song Playboy Mommy, in which she asked her unborn child to forgive her party-animal mother. The third time she miscarried she was in France but, dreading the press's inevitable interest, she continued with the tour.
Mark and she gave up on the hope of children, a decision she suspects was an even greater disappointment for him since she had at least created her songs.
"At 35 maybe you say, 'OK, this was the trade-off'. I didn't get on with it. I toured a lot. I don't have to worry about the bank balance. Maybe that's the trade-off. I remember one woman who was a mother of three just said, 'Well, you know, you've gallivanted all over the world and you've created all this and you don't have to worry about things that torture me every day. We don't know sometimes where the next pay cheque's coming from to feed these kids. I'm sorry, Tori, I love you, but that's what it is'."
I like the sound of this woman, but I also like it that Amos tolerated her judgment. Critics say, backed by some evidence, that she is away with the fairies half the time, but when she returns from dingly-dell you'd be hard put to meet a more practical, harder-nosed woman. In any case, before her insides had even repaired themselves, she contracted what she thought was stomach flu but turned out to be morning sickness. Tasha was born by Caesarean section in 2000.
That things were by now working out for Amos was evidenced by her 1999 album To Venus and Back, which even risked a song called Bliss. Close textual analysis suggested that her spiritual and sexual sides had finally fallen into harmony. "You have to marry the two Marys in your being, do you see?" she asks. For once, I do: she means the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. "One doesn't have access to her sexuality and one doesn't have her spirituality."
She confesses that after her first miscarriage she lost touch with her own sexual side, a deprivation aggravated by her fundamentalist upbringing and her rape. "When you're invaded physically a seed can be planted of hatred and after that you associate the act with defecation in some way. It's not an act of love. It is an act of hate. It's hard to kind of turn that around. That takes a lot of work. For me it did."
The work being the writing and the singing? "Well, I'm not going to lie to you. Eventually I had therapy which was good. It was with a British woman, Rita Lynn. She really made a difference. I think she was able to help me kind of begin working through that and begin tackling some of the things I've been talking about for a long time."
So Amos found her sexuality once more. She has also found her tribe (sound engineers with Cornish connections), had a baby, become reconciled with her father and confronted her former self in her old songs. So what's there left to sing about? The answer seems to be politics, for her new album includes unflattering songs about both George Bushes. But, I protest, don't the fans expect more personal stuff? "Yes. I think that's my lot. Even though the personal becomes about how you feel about things, what you believe in. You know, that whole thing 'you are what you eat'? I think it's now you are what you believe."
It's not the same, I say. "Look," she says a little crossly, "if you as a listener need people to be tortured to write, in your mind, 'good' stuff then I think you're part of the problem."
Ah, the Problem. Does she not sometimes think that the Problem is all just one big thing: the right-wing politicians, the patriarchal church, the profit-orientated record companies, the authoritarian fathers? "In one word," she begins promisingly, "you're either on the side of subjugation or you're not. I remember once saying to a record company person, 'Just imagine, if the mass consciousness rose like a generation, if it woke up and rose, then everything as we know it would shift and they wouldn't need the church like they do.' And he looked at me and he said, 'They wouldn't need record companies either. We don' t want that'."
And we are back to the cynical record companies, who want artists only for their profits and who, as she probably astutely claims, don't care if, those artists, having dragged their daughters from one end of the globe to the other on tour, they end up getting sick.
In the recording studio Mark plays me, at a phenomenal volume, some tracks from Tales of a Librarian. There is a particularly beautiful, previously unreleased, song called Snow Cherries from France, which may be her next British single. Dewey-decimally speaking it is filed under Custom, Etiquette and Folklore. I still can't tell you what it is about. I can say that listening to it made me forgive her solipsism and like her quite a lot. The snow cherries, as it were, go straight over my head and straight into my heart. Zoom.
Tales of a Librarian: a Tori Amos Collection is released on November 17 on Eastwest Records
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos