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Word (UK)
January 2004

Why does TORI AMOS want to penetrate the patriarchy?

by Sylvia Patterson

Tori Amos swoops into the London hotel room like a friendly bat, huge black rectangles of silken cloth dangling from the sleeves of an interesting jacket. The polemical singer/songwriter/pianist/poet is publicising her first-ever-best-of collection, Tales of a Librarian, hewn from 13 years as a lyrically visceral, musically abstract, piano-playing, spook-art virtuoso. A child prodigy (playing piano at two-and-a-half), she fronted metal-rawk combo Y Can't Tori Read? in '87, was brutally raped at gun-point by a member of her own audience, released landmark debut solo album Little Earthquakes in '91 and by '94 had established the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organisation in the U.S. In '98 she married British sound engineer Mark Hawley with whom she has a daughter Natashya (almost four) and lives in rural Cornwall surrounded by "farmers whom I get along with, they're very direct!" Now 40, she's lost none of her combative intensity.

When you look at the tracks on your "sonic autobiography", what do you see?

The story of an American woman's life who was one of the first generation to benefit from feminism. When she was five years old, women were burning bras. For the first time in Western history people like me didn't have to get married to do their art; they could be in control of their careers and that was huge. Also, she grew up in a heavily religious household, started working at 12, playing lounge piano for congressmen, she had a rape, there were miscarriages. She doubted if there was a woman in there somewhere, a minister's daughter who had religion shoved up every orifice she's got.

You recorded Under The Pink ('94) in Trent Reznor's house, site of the Sharon Tate murder. Are you drawn to the grim?

I'm drawn to things that have really happened. You're walking into a place where you know something occurred that was devoid of humanity on every level. In England I go to places where things occurred, where Anne Boleyn lost her head, that kind of thing. I'm not afraid to walk with the dark. Having been violated, there's something in me that's intrigued by the violator. I study the way the violator's mind works, so that I can fight them. Without becoming violent yourself. My whole modus operandi is 'penetrate the patriarchy without violating it'. Why should we do to them what's been done to us?

How did you feel about Courtney Love losing custody of her daughter?

When I heard the news, I cried. For a moment. I didn't weep buckets, but c'mon, it was a moment. Any time a woman has a child taken away from them, it's a deep pain, no matter what chaos they've caused. Y'know the music industry is not a place where I've found a supportive sisterhood. I've found there are many guy's gals, many women that will cut you dead before they'll give you a bell, or send a warm message to you, who would sooner cut your clit out. There's not a lot of compassion. A very competitive industry. I have a lot of acquaintances in the industry and unfortunately the male acquaintances are a lot more genuinely supportive. My women friends, a lot of them are painters, writers, not a lot of musicians, and that's been disappointing. There was a time, especially when Courtney and I were starting to get played on radio, they'd be playing one woman and that was enough. So you were competing for one slot. They pit you against each other, they just do, it's not the same way with men. Now it's opened up a little bit, there's more exposure.

Maybe so, but usually only for a certain kind. The highly sexualised, young kind. They're all highly paid strippers now.

Absolutely. You've got some great entertainers, yes. Musicians, not so many. The industry is not nurturing that side. There was a time when you waited for that fourth album from Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, whoever, the musician-poets, and you wanted to know what they were going to sing next. Now, it's very much about, get as much out of this artist as you can, I've seen it with my own eyes. It's created a mass-consciousness that says, 'I wanna know what she's thinking, feeling, I'm gonna know every part of her, almost to her gynaelogical records, and then, guess what? I'm gonna go on to the next one'. Let's face it, you can get a lot more out of young artists because you don't have to treat them fairly. They're not in a position to negotiate as well. You don't really wanna nurture artists that become powerful and have followings because then they can make demands. This is extortion. You can't just keep taking and taking and taking without giving back. If they're taking gross, some mangers feel that they should take gross, so that means an artist might owe a quarter of a million dollars after touring for eleven months and the manager's pocketed 1.2 million sitting on their ass in California eating vegetarian food. And you think that doesn't raise the hackles on my neck? These are stories I've heard form other artists. If you end up like a Courtney Love and you're losing your kid, you think the industry, or anyone, or the NME, is gonna go try and help her? No, she was good copy. And I've realised I'm not good copy any more. Because I'm not tragic.

Here's a quote from you from 1996: 'Historically, women who are praised are either virgins, large over-sexed cunts, dead under a horse or insane. There are very few who have all of the sensuality, the strength, the intelligence, the passion, and the respect'. No change there then?

The song remains the same. But if you're still throwing telephones across the room at 40, then you really don't know how to do battle. I think it's about whether you can negotiate. Can you get them to want something that you're willing to give? That's the trick. Sometimes, though, somebody tries to get you to change what you're doing creatively, or change your image so that you can't respect yourself, so that you make a scandal of yourself, so everybody talks about it for ten minutes. They want you to defecate on yourself. Don't think I'm kidding, I'm telling you the truth, that's 50 % of the people I have to deal with. It's emotional defecation. Do something shocking to get the public there, but usually not because of the music.

Is this exactly what Madonna's choosing to do with her faux-lesbian sideshow?

Breaks my heart. And she's the real thing. I do think it's a little tricky to be bringing out a children's book and be French-kissing somebody who's young enough to be your child. The timing's a bit tricky. Whose side are you on? What are you willing to do, to sell records, or copy? I say, go make the music great. Women my age, we don't know how to grow older, because everyone seems to be scared shitless of it. Instead of going 'no, you don't get wisdom by being twenty-five and having a tight butt', you get it by having experience. We're not the ingenues anymore. And we have a great opportunity to bear torches for the new ingenues. Instead of running after the ingenues, and trying to steal their fire. Because right now there is an adoration of youth, it's so desired, above all else, instead of 'no, I want wisdom, above all else'. And I think that's fucking sexy. And that doesn't mean you go make out with the ingenues. Or you're just devouring them. Or, you're letting them think that they can take wisdom. 'Cos what's in it for them? That they can taste a piece of that? The only way that they can do that is if they're around in 15 years.

D'you see your spiritual descendants anywhere? Avril Lavigne? Pink?

Well, I won't pick those artists apart, it's not good sport. We can look back in history and 'Oh Mickey You're so Fine', that was her zenith, whatever, and there's always been music that can make people want to ... get up and dance on their bed. Your twenties, really, it's about dancing. You know it and I know it. Not everybody's born to be Bob Dylan.

You've said America is at its crossroads right now; where will it go?

America is losing its civil liberties and that is without question. People will look back and study this. One day my daughter will ask me, well, did you do anything? No different from the civil rights movement, which happened in my lifetime. My parents marched in the marches with Dr King, as millions of people did. There was direction the country was going in then and it's going in a different direction now; rights are being taken away by this authority. And people don't see it. You have to get people to start thinking about what they believe in. 'Cos then they will vote and then you will see people revolt. You are what you believe. A generation must rise.

But will it? How can a best-selling book like Michael Moore's Dude, Where's my Country? Exist, detailing Bush's business friendship with the Bin Ladens and there not be rioting in the streets?

The truth is buried alive. I've been touring the last couple of years, being in Manhattan on 9/11, touring two weeks later, playing when the administration announced we were going to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq and what I saw was consent on such a mass level, through emotional blackmail, and people just hacking off beliefs that they'd once held true. I would ask people, what about what you've always stood for? And they'd just say 'fuck that, look what's been done to us'. Can't you see how you're been manipulated, to agree to this? This administration is making us, in the end, turn against what our forefathers and our foremothers died for. And everything we've talked about today, from Courtney, to kids, a nation, they're serving themselves up and that's a betrayal of themselves. All the good guys are dropping. We're been tested in ways we haven't been before. It's a challenging time, not the time for those who can't stomach it. This was done at the Nuremberg Trials; people that question those in power are unpatriotic, betraying the country, we're being attacked by an outside force, the evil. And unless you give us more power, then everything you know will be taken away from you. While they're taking. This is what I've learned: there is a fundamental belief system in some people that is about taking. If you take it back to the music industry, it's about what they can get out of it, not what they can give to it. Same everywhere. And that's a DNA strand. A personality. There are not a lot of corporations saying 'what do you need to feel better, what can we give you?' When are we gonna re-define power? A powerful guy is not a guy that has power over us. It's somebody who doesn't need to take anything from us.


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