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The Guardian (UK)
December 5, 2003
A few of my favourite things
Interview by Will Hodgkinson
Photo: Pete Millson
"My grandfather would sing to me when I was a baby, and he was part eastern Cherokee," says Tori Amos, explaining why the music of the North American plains Indians has been such a formative influence on her life. "His grandmother was a Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears and ran off into the Smoky Mountains in 1839. So she would tell these stories about the life of her people to my grandfather, who in turn would sing them to me. That experience certainly shaped the way I am today."
Americans can say these things in all seriousness and get away with it. Amos can claim a cultural heritage by being one- 16th Cherokee Indian, but if I whipped out a fiddle in homage to the fact that my own grandfather was a roving Gypsy before his gammy leg forced him into a life in front of the telly in Huntingdon, it would quite rightly be snatched from me and smashed over my head. Yet Amos can talk about her love of Led Zeppelin being a result of her eastern Cherokee genes and, before you know it, you're discussing land rights.
"I was exposed to severe church music a little later," continues Amos, whose father is a Methodist minister in Washington DC. "Charles Wesley had an ability to write some wonderful hymns based on old English sea shanties, but the way these songs were delivered . . . it was very rigid and you couldn't find any soulfulness in there. But if I got lucky I would go to the black church down the street, and that was swinging."
Perhaps these diverse influences help explain why Amos's own music falls into such a unique place. She claims to have started playing the piano at the age of two-and-a-half, and by five she was studying at a conservatory, getting trained for a career as a classical pianist that she was never to fulfil. Instead, she became a singer-pianist, played around with a variety of images, suffered inevitable comparisons with Kate Bush and relocated to Cornwall with her sound-engineer husband. Now she has released Tales of a Librarian, a greatest-hits album that, with typical eccentricity, has been compiled in accordance with the rules of the Dewey decimal system.
"I'd rather tell you about an affair I had than let you know about the records that are on my turntable," Amos announces, countering my request to have a look through her favourites. "It's a very personal thing and I like to keep it close to my chest. But I'll tell you about a few of the things that have passed my way over the years."
Amos produces a handful of CDs that she is willing to talk about, including Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Rickie Lee Jones' self-titled first album and Joni Mitchell's 1968 album Song to a Seagull. Rumours is chosen because it has good production values; Jones because her sultry, bar-room style of storytelling suggests that she has lived a certain life, and Mitchell because she is the one singer-songwriter whose skill surpasses that of all others. "She works with complicated melodies, and her storylines have such a poetic language," says Amos. "Dylan's melodies are really very simple, but hers are intricate. I'm a musician first, not a words person, and drawn to people who manoeuvre a musical language in a way that I find unusual. There are plenty of people whose attitude I like, who I think have something to say, but few who are building a sonic architecture that hasn't been built before."
Mitchell sang about the record industry's Starmaker Machine, something that Amos knows intimately. Before the release of her own first album, 1991's Little Earthquakes, she was told that it would be impossible to market a female singer who plays the piano. The plan was to take all the piano parts off the record and replace them with guitar. "They wanted to create this fictional character of a girl with a guitar, and it almost got to the point where I was quite willing to burn the tapes of the album. After all, I could record it all again, but I couldn't go round to every house in America and say: 'This isn't how it should be. Can I play it for you again?'"
Then there's Zeppelin. It sounds like musical repression was par for the course in Amos's childhood home: her mother would wait until her father had gone to church before she got out the Frank Sinatra records, and her brother had to sneak LPs by the Doors in and out of the house as if they were illicit substances.
"Bands like Led Zeppelin did create a revolution, and they were a terrible threat to my father's kind of church, which denies sexuality," she says. "Young women were feeling things with Led Zeppelin, and I remember moving my body in a way I hadn't moved it before. Robert Plant's sensuality was something I was trying to discover, even though I was eight at the time."
Living in Cornwall means taking inspiration from the books and records she picks up on tour, and keeping the rest of the record industry at arm's length while she and her husband make music in their studio. "There's no artistic paranoia down there," she says of her reason to live such an isolated existence. "Sometimes, when I'm in London or New York, I see composers chasing after the next new thing and they can forget their own discipline. And believe me, there is no worse place to be than backstage at the Grammys. When you meet a writer of beautiful love songs who quite obviously hates women, that's when your dreams really get shattered."
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