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Gay Times (UK)
December 2003

American Beauty

For the last decade, Tori Amos has been forging a path as one of rock's most distinctive voices. Joe Heaney catches up with the gay-friendly star to reflect on who she is, and what will be on her new "best of" album.

Tori Amos is one of the few women who has the ability to reduce grown men to tears. Actually, make that grown, gay men. And, for the record, include me in the demographic.

For the past decade - since her ground-breaking debut, 1992's Little Earthquakes - Tori has been singing about men. Men at their most God-awful, patriarchal worst, and at their sexiest, darkest and most mysterious best. We've learnt what it feels like for a girl, we've been shown what it feels like to feel a man, and we've also learnt a whole load of other things that don't make any sense at all. But that's the beauty of Tori; she's in an outsider world of her own. Glorious, tragic and highly romantic. No surprise, then, she's struck a throbbing nerve with gay men the world over.

Still, the prospect of actually speaking the notorious, intense 40-year-old singer scared me to death. So, you can imagine my relief at finding Tori in a relaxed mood, eager to discuss her latest release - the Tales of a Librarian "best of" collection - from her studio-come-home in Cornwall.

With 20 songs on one disc, the album documents Tori's development from the piano-led, almost classical strains of Little Earthquakes (described by one newspaper at the time as "Randy Newman playing Sylvia Plath"), to 2001's Strange Little Girls, via the more experimental years epitomised by 1998's From The Choirgirl Hotel (although last year's Scarlet's Walk isin't represented, due to "contractual reasons").

But let's get this clear; it's not just a "greatest hits" package. In fact, nothing Tori Amos does could "just" be anything. As it's her style to adopt grand themes, the star sees it as nothing less than an essential document of modern-day America. A valuable resource archaeologists will refer to on the future o document a time of crisis - much like the final days of Rome. Big aspirations are clearly not something this singer shies away from...

"I felt to chronicle this time was a very important thing to do, as opposed to just putting together songs that were the biggest request," she explains eagerly. "It was really about telling the story of a woman's life, almost like a sonic autobiography, which she went through. For me, I would love to have seen a Roman woman's perspective in the final days of Rome, a Roman woman that was a songwriter... she was compiling something, chronicling something, you see?"

In her role as a librarian, Tori has made sure that all the different stories and reference points that span the decade have been carefully "archived". Sales-friendly chart successes such as Professional Widow and Cornflake Girl sit alongside tracks like Way Down and Playboy Mommy - which Tori felt were necessary for the sake of "completing the story" - as do two new songs, Angels and Snow Cherries From France, and re-recordings of two B-sides written in 1990, Mary and Sweet Dreams.

Whether or not the work as a whole manages to transcend being a sometimes harrowing, often beautiful, but nevertheless very personal account of one woman's life, and become something more universal remains to be seen. Some of Tori's albums - Boys For Pele and To Venus And Back, for example - are pretty impenetrable for anyone less than a die-hard fan. Nevertheless, individual songs have certainly managed to do this - something Tori herself identifies: "You realise that you need to include things that touched the masses," she says, "because they touched the masses for a reason, and you can't discount that."

And what about her gay fans? Is that part of the story covered, I ask her? "I think it's sort of unspoken because it goes back a long way - back to my introduction to my womanhood," she replies warmly. "We talk about 'what makes up this woman'; well, one part is the gay community that showed her the ropes. Yes, it was the religious community [Tori's dad was a Methodist minister] and yes, she played for the political elite in Washington when she was a teenager - that was her job. But what has to be said is that the people she was working alongside were the gay guys - those gay waiters in Washington and Georgetown in the 70s - and that's what partly formed her. I don't think you can get away from what forms you."

So, with all the stories neatly archived, and the benefit of hindsight on her side, does Tori have a good idea who she is now? She pauses and thinks for a while. Then, with a wry chuckle, she replies: "I think I know her well enough to... not be packing a piece whilst in the room with her."

Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection will be released on November 17th though EastWest.


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