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Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand)
November 23, 2003
Welcome to the Tori party
Her lyrics are impenetrable, her conversation not much different. But there's no denying the earnest charm of Tori Amos, says Grant Smithies.
She's a very strange fish, this Tori Amos. Not eccentric, not quirky, but downright weird. To talk to her is to arrive at a dinner party where everyone else is stoned. Words flow freely but they're not nearly as witty or profound as the speaker thinks they are.
Cynics say the same thing about her lyrics, especially those on her less lucid recent records, but this North Carolina preacher's daughter sells her piano-driven albums in their millions so they must be making sense to someone. Or maybe not. There is something strangely attractive about the mere sound of her better songs. And she is surely brave.
Amos spills her guts, bleeds on your carpet. She has written songs about her own rape, her two miscarriages, her violent relationships, a close friend's suicide, songs condemning Christianity, and songs highlighting the hypocrisy of American foreign policy during a time when so many other singers were biting their tongues.
She's also covered some challenging songs by other people, most notably Eminem's "Bonnie and Clyde", a censor-baiting hip-hop ballad in which the bottle-blonde rapper drives to the wharf with his infant daughter, ranting about how he's killed her mother and is going to throw her bloodied corpse into the sea. Amos re-imagines the song from the viewpoint of the woman dying in the car's boot.
When discussing her work she assumes you are familiar with every song, every line, but for someone so lost in herself, so completely immersed in her own work and its meaning, she is very likeable.
The piano, she tells me, is like one of her limbs. She started playing soon after she could walk and won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore at age five. There she learned classical music by day and nurtured a burgeoning infatuation with rock'n'roll by night, playing along to Led Zeppelin records when she was supposed to be practising Bach. Amos moved to Los Angeles in her late teens, made a hideous pop-metal album called Y Kant Tori Read for Atlantic in 1988 and, when it failed miserably, drastically reworked her sound, marrying the forthright melodies and (in the beginning) poetically honest lyrics of early Joni Mitchell with the ethereal vocals and impassioned prog-rock piano pummelling of Kate Bush.
Next thing you know, 1992 album Little Earthquakes and its 1994 follow-up Under the Pink were on the "must buy" list of sensitive souls everywhere and Amos was on her way to becoming the multi-million selling, multi-home owning (plush home studio in Cornwall, beach house in Florida, Georgian manor in Ireland) jet-setting feminist rock star she is today.
Now she's about to release her first ever "best of" album, Tales of a Librarian, rendered indispensable to completists with the inclusion of two new tracks, some "reconditioned versions" of earlier work and an additional DVD of live tracks.
"It's a sonic autobiography," says Amos from the Cornwall studio, her speaking voice deep and syrupy in striking contrast to the high coo of her singing. "It came about after some friends and I were discussing how we would have loved to have had a female account of Rome's final days, from the fall of the Roman empire 2000 years ago. I'd really like to have heard what a female songwriter might have written if they'd chronicled that time, that society, those people's thoughts from a woman's point of view.
"I started thinking, well, I could do that, as an American woman during a time when many feel America has passed its zenith and fallen so low that those who challenge our political leaders are being vilified as betrayers of our country. And so I chose songs that go back to her as an infant, born in the year JFK was shot, the daughter of a minister and a part-Cherokee woman, and followed her life from there."
The "her" in question is, of course, Amos speaking of herself in the third person. Very disconcerting. "I took songs down from the shelves like books from a library," Amos continues. "I wanted to choose songs that would examine different periods in her life without covering the same ground as each other. Which is harder than you think, especially with songs about relationships. Even if a song concerns a different man, it's often the same ground being covered all over again." She laughs at this, a deep velvety chuckle.
Before her marriage to sound engineer Mark Hawley in 1998, Amos wrote so many songs about bad relationships you could be excused for thinking she was a masochist. "Some of the men in my songs are exasperating assholes, for sure, but some of the women aren't so great either. The song 'Cornflake Girl' is about being betrayed by a friend, and 'Professional Widow' is about that same friend going over the edge, reaching that emotional vampire stage, becoming a predator.
"I'm really interested in how the world affects women, how women who're brought up in the Christian church are forced to choose between the two Marys, the virgin or the whore."
Amos once had a tour T-shirt made for her emblazoned with "Recovering Christian", copies of which have since become de rigueur for fans.
"Well, religion has a huge hold on the American psyche. You can't write about America without writing about religion and the kind of mythological archetypes it has put in place for people. I write about women who have survived against that background. If you were to hear this Librarian record in 100 years you'd know this woman is a provider, she is a lioness, a hunter for the tribe. She's not dependent on a man in that way, but she is dependent in other ways. She has fantasies about them. She's deliciously attracted to them, to that dark prince archetype, or if not the dark prince then to all manner of male baby demons."
Amos lifts off into deep space at this point, leaving a trail of perplexing verbiage. She lists what she calls the "predominant male archetypes" and illustrates their qualities with lines from a dozen songs. Characters hatch, mate, dissolve, morph into one another. The dark prince, it turns out, is a disguise worn by a white-suited woman who drives an icecream truck. Betcha never saw that coming.
"You know, music came to me when I was very little, around two-and-a-half," she says.
"It's my first language, something I tap into that has always existed and always will exist. My job is just to connect people to the songs. I'm like a bridge."
* Tales of a Librarian is on sale from Friday. The Sunday Star-Times has 10 copies to give away. To enter, write your name, address and phone number on the back of an envelope and send to: Sunday Star-Times Tori Amos Giveaway, PO Box 1074 Auckland, to reach us by Thursday.
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