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Spectrum Magazine (UK)
supplement to Scotland On Sunday
November 16, 2003
"I was desperately looking for the dark prince and got distracted by a few baby demons"
"I hope you're going to make me out to be funny"
by Adrian Turpin
It is almost too easy to make fun of Tori Amos. By music-industry standards, a druidic wedding at West Wycombe and belief in fairies may not be so unusual. But suckling a pig in imitation of the Virgin Mary, as she did for one album's inside sleeve, is eccentric in anyone's book. Her explanation didn't make it any less odd either: "I wanted it to be a Christmas card for my dad," she declared. "See, he'd been bugging me for years to make a Christmas album with church songs. He's a Methodist minister in Florida." So it was a little unexpected when Amos got up at the end of being interviewed and said to me: "I hope you're going make me out to be funny, not a total mad person."
This seemed an uncharacteristically self-conscious thing to say (and a decade too late to start worrying). Since her dazzling debut album, 1992's Little Earthquakes, Amos has cannibalised her life for songs. She has detailed being raped by a fan, her problems conceiving and her troubled relationships with her father and with God. In 2001, she braved the wrath of Eminem fans by covering the rapper's '97 Bonnie and Clyde', and turning its misogyny on its head. She has never run with the crowd. Defiant individualism has become a trademark, and her new album - part greatest hits package, part musical autobiography - is full of it. In the circumstances, worrying about being thought mad or humourless seems a peculiar Achilles' heel.
Of course, humour and oddity are not mutually exclusive. Being Tori Amos, she has - and this must be some kind of a musical first - employed a librarian to help create (or should that be curate) the new album. "She has a doctorate in library studies," Amos says. "I'm following the Dewey decimal system. That's how librarians categorise books. So I thought it was right..."
How exactly does that work? "It's called Tales of a Librarian, so therefore you open up your package and each song is under a certain heading. We've attributed each song to a category." So, for example, the song 'Sweet Dreams' is filed under "Administration of George Bush, 1989-1993" (in case anyone is wondering, it's 973.928). 'Cornflake Girl', Amos's catchy yet bitter take on the limits of sisterhood, gets number 177, "Ethics of Social Relations (Betrayal)". 'Playboy Mommy' can be found at 610, "Medicine and Health", sub-section 618, "Miscarriage", while 'God' ("God sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you") is assigned 230, "Christianity and Christian Theory", 231 "God". And so on.
"You can see the whole system from 100-900, and you'll see what we've chosen so the layout follows in numerical order. That's how you find the lyric page. You have a letter..." It sounds awfully complicated, I say. "Well, it isn't if you have a lot of material - 24 songs. The order I chose was the order I chose. But there needed to be a factual order, not just an opinionated order. The factual order is the Dewey decimal system."
In some eyes, this explanation may fail to support the claims Amos makes about librarians in the album's publicity material: "Knowledge is the sexiest. In my mind every librarian wears a stiletto heel." (What, even the men?) But it does tally with the singer's habit of explaining her life using intricate, often bewildering systems of symbols, archetypes and allusions. "If we could bring 20 people into this room," she tells me at one point, "it might take us two months, but if we had a group of mythologists in the room, we could work out the archetypes they were and the percentages in their body. You're going to have women with much more Aphrodite than Athena but they might have, I don't know - what would you say? - Queen Maeve in Ireland, you know, responsibility. And I think once you look at them there might be something that's very subservient..."
She has the unnerving habit of ending sentences with the words, "Do you see what I'm saying?", which may be the result of years talking to bemused interviewers or perhaps reflects the self-awareness that her thought processes are truly baroque. "In the native American culture you would need a medicine man or a medicine woman," she says, "because sometimes desire did take you to the point where you were willing to sacrifice the whole tribe for your desire. You know how they dealt with those people? They had to bring them in. And give them to the medicine woman and the medicine man, and sometimes they were left shut out of the whole tribe because they were going to bring the whole tribe down... Do you know what I'm saying?"
And, rather cravenly, or because the record company's very un-shamanic PR man has just popped his head round the door to call 15 minutes, you nod wisely and move on. Only later do you wonder whether this is how Tori Amos talks on the tour-bus, or in Sainsbury's, or at home in Cornwall, where she lives with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, and their three-year-old daughter Natashya.
On the day we meet at a central London hotel, Amos looks as though she could do with a medicine man herself. She is croaking like a frog - or a frog-prince perhaps. With her ginger bunches, thigh-length boots and jerkin, she looks like pantomime best boy. "I haven't been singing in weeks," she says. "I was doing six shows a week and never got this."
She caught the sore throat from Natashya, who caught it weeks ago from drinking water after the electricity failed in New York while they were on tour and they had to sleep on the bus. Tomorrow Amos has to fly to Boston to do a gig for a radio show. She sounds understandably unenthused by the prospect. "But I have steroids and everything. I'm ready. If I start growing hair, I'll just start shaving. [The organisers] own 18 or 19 stations in the US. You know what I'm saying? You can't say no, really. They helped break 'Fairytale', my biggest single in America so far. It's called power."
Power is a concept Amos has spent a lot of time considering in both her professional and personal life. When Little Earthquakes was initially rejected by Atlantic Records she used the situation to assert control over her own recordings. By the time she recorded Under the Pink, in 1994, Amos was sharing producer credit with her partner of seven years, Eric Rosse. But while making that album their relationship collapsed and Amos propelled herself into a series of self-destructive, short-term liaisons which she describes in terms verging on the sado-masochistic.
"I hadn't quite made the commitment to make the changes in my personal life, to get rid of people in my life, and that's when things started to get a bit naughty. I just got in all sorts of situations where I was desperately looking for the dark prince and got distracted by a few baby demons. It's very easy to denigrate another person who isn't the prince of darkness at all. It took me a while to understand that. It's just bad manners."
Would she call these relationships extreme? "Yes. Maybe not sort of bondage but emotional bondage. Mind games with people that needed to control and withhold. It was very much about psychological annihilation."
And you were the one who wanted to be annihilated? "I don't know what I was looking for. I was looking for... the plug... to be plugged into... the passion." You'd never found that before? "Only at the piano." Honesty, Amos says, is one of the advantages of committing her autobiography to CD rather than to paper. In re-mastering her back catalogue for Tales of a Librarian, she has not added a note. "The material stands from time. The songs at the time reflect the pain in her [sic] voice and the lust in her voice. I mean, there were things she was up to that make me smile but, my God, I'm glad I'm a monogamous wench now."
She does not have to look far to find the source of her sexual unease. "I think it comes from being in a religious household where there was a lot of shame attached to a woman's passion. You gave your soul to Jesus, you gave your authority to God and you gave your body to your husband. That's what my Scottish grandmother told me I needed to do when I was five years old. That woman would have had Mary Magdalene stoned to death."
This paternal grandmother, Addie Allen, was a schoolteacher and a minister of the evangelical Church of God in Virginia's Appalachian mountains, where there was a large community identifying themselves as Scottish. "She went to university in the 1920s - a very smart woman but very religious. She was controlled by the patriarchy. She was a woman within it."
Amos's father, Edison, was also a minister, in the Methodist Church, and her mother, Mary Ellen, though part-Cherokee, shared his beliefs. Born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina in 1963, Tori recalls a childhood tainted by hypocrisy. "I would create songs as a frame to chronicle what was going on because, you must understand, nothing ever occurred that wasn't" - she pauses for a long time - "let's see - how a loving Christian should act."
In the 2,500-strong church community, there was an official line and anything else happened behind closed doors. "It was utopia. If you thought differently you were out of your mind." A gay son rejected by his parents, would, for example, be expunged from history. "'I don't remember that. He went away,' they'd say." She compares this kind of wilful amnesia to that displayed by certain sections of American society after the attacks on New York in September 2001. "The media were threatened. If they asked certain questions of the administration, they were being unpatriotic."
The paradox is that, for all the repression he presided over, Amos's father encouraged her career. Having won a scholarship to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute at the age of five, she was kicked out at 11 for preferring Led Zeppelin to classical music. "I didn't care if Beethoven made mathematical sense. I wasn't creaming," she once said. Despite this, Edison shepherded her round the cocktail circuit of Washington DC. "Yes, he was a paradox. I started playing Georgetown clubs at 13," she says. "I was playing two blocks from the White House at 15, which really began to shape me as a writer. The congressmen and their lobbyists would come in - yes, with their wives, but also with their rent boys and their call girls."
During the Reagan years she played six nights a week, for four years. "So, you see, I went from church, which was very patriarchal and authoritarian, to that world, which was very patriarchal and authoritarian. But I got to wear a cute outfit, which was nice, and I got to listen. They sat at my piano and told me stuff all the time. I was 15, I was 16. They didn't think I was going to write about them."
Politics remains an interest. After 9/11, for instance, she embarked on a soul-searching tour of America, a project that became last year's album Scarlet's Walk. But it is still religion, its imagery and value systems, which seems to have first call on Amos's fertile and original, if tangled, imagination.
The language of Christianity pervades her work. "If I hadn't been a musician, I would have studied religious studies and mythology." But a lot of people from her background would have just run and not looked back. "Eye of the needle, eye of the needle," she responds. "How do you get rid of the snakebite? Gotta have the venom, right?" Does she still believe? "I believe that the Christian god exists. I believe that the Muslim god exists. Are they my god? No, neither one."
So who is her deity? "It does not come from... It transcends that for me... Do you know what I'm saying?" I sort of know, I say rather feebly. "Well, Mary Magdalene," says Amos, getting into her flow, "if you look back, was really, wouldn't you say, undercut by Peter and Paul, if you really look at her role. There was a book she wrote that was not included in the Bible. She was the first one Jesus appeared to.
"She's referred to, you know, as a prostitute. Christian mythology is that she was the high priestess of Ishtar... They might have had sex as part of their ritual. But instead of it being inclusive, they excluded her, and I think that we, as women, those who have been brought up in Christianity, have been trying to work through that for 2,000 years.
"And the only way was to marry the two Marys together: Mary the mother and Mary who was aligned with her sexuality and her sensuality. One was completely devoid of it: she couldn't have sex to have children. And the other one had sex but no spirituality. You see? So you chose one, you don't get the other in the Christian myth, the paradigm, until we as women started to reform the paradigm, the archetype..."
This marrying of the two Marys, Amos adds, is something she has tried to do through her music since the beginning. As she puts it in her song 'Mary', one of four previously unreleased tracks on the album: "Everybody wants something from you/Everybody wants a piece of Mary." That was written more than a decade ago, and like the rest of Amos's songs from that period, with their Kate Bush trills and dense, angry lyrics, it seems brutally, almost pathologically introspective.
'Mary' was also written before she met her husband-to-be, Hawley, who comes from Lincolnshire. He'd turned up in 1994 as her sound engineer, not long after her relationship with Rosse had ended. Although instantly attracted to Hawley, she was too busy doing what she has called "playing the professional widow" to do anything about it. Finally, at a sound check, he asked her to answer a question: "Why is it that women chase after, and run off with, men who never see who they are or value what that is?" It was a turning point. In 1998, they married (she had a job telling her father he was not going to preside at the wedding) and eventually moved to near Bude, where Hawley had gone on happy holidays as a child and she felt happy with the Celtic pagan vibe.
"A lot of people might not believe this," she says. "But sometimes one of the greatest things a woman can have in her life is a good man. When you've been drawn to men that defecate on women emotionally, sometimes you don't need a drug. You just need a good man to value and make love to you." That sounds suspiciously close to what her grandmother would have said, I suggest. "No. She didn't believe in an orgasm - are you kidding me? She would say, 'Gird your loins. Lucifer has your body if you have an orgasm.' I said, 'Fine, I'll have one every night on my piano stool.'"
Love appears to have driven out some of the old demons. Amos was in her 20s when she was raped at gunpoint after offering a fan a lift home from a gig, an experience she wrote about in the starkly brilliant 'Me and a Gun'. "Having a man that can make you feel safe, a man you can trust in that way" - by which she means sexually - "has healed me from the rape, and in the end, getting pregnant," she says.
Natashya was born after Amos had suffered three miscarriages, the first of which she wrote about on the 1998 album Songs from the Choirgirl Hotel. "Having a child where I've been invaded before - I'll tell you, talk about knocking anything that has been left dormant. When you become a beached whale and she's just kicking it all around. Man, she pushed it out. That was an agreed invasion."
But might not this late-flowering contentment be a double-edged sword for someone whose work has been so characterised by angst? "Well, I've realised one thing," Amos says. "That Lucifer is a woman. She wears a white suit and drives an ice-cream van." Meaning? "Meaning I was looking for Lucifer in all the wrong places, and I've found Lucifer in my own being." And does that make her happy? "If you look at her as a character, Happy is someone that I don't count on. I'm not as afraid of Happy as I used to be. If she walks in the room, I won't have her escorted out. But I've held hands with Sorrow and she has a really good giggle, and once I learned to listen to her giggle, I think that's how I wake up every morning. Really, Sorrow has the sweetest little laugh."
For once she doesn't add: "Do you know what I'm saying?"
Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection is released tomorrow.
[source of cover scan]
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