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Scotland on Sunday (UK)
February 20, 2005
A new Tori policy
by Aidan Smith
ONE rule of the ancient craft of newspaper journalism forbids, in all but the most extreme circumstances, the use of exclamation marks. "You're not working for a bloody comic," was a reprimand often administered to me as a snotty-nosed hack and I like to think I've learned my lesson well.
But Tori Amos is those extreme circumstances. The singer-songwriter demands exclamation marks because she speaks in them, all the time. They spike the end of her sentences and, like the prong protruding from the bulky gold choker fastened tightly round her neck, they could impale a galloping horse. They come thick and fast right from the start, in what you might call her "opening gambit", but I would term simply her "gambit".
Amos, 41, now lives in Britain with her Brit husband and a daughter who will never know what it's like to grow up a cornflake girl like her mum. And she's talking about what she misses about America.
"I miss that it can be very casual, you know? Sometimes I will go into a restaurant here and the waitress will just resent you for being there! It's not like she hates my music or is a right-wing Christian, but her attitude will be just terrible! I don't take it. I'll say: 'Why don't you go back to school?
If you hate your job so much why don't you get out of here, because guess what, you're never going anywhere! You're lucky if you get to stay here!' A friend of mine from Los Angeles was shopping in London and asked if she could get the dress from the window display because they didn't have her size on the racks. The assistant said they didn't sell from the mannequins and my friend just exploded. 'Do you want to make a sale? You've got nobody else in this store!' She just walked out. Burn in your failure!"
But Amos likes us, I think - after all, her roots can be traced back here, or hereabouts. She likes coming up to a swanky establishment such as the Soho Hotel, draping her grey pinstripe and scarlet hippychick ensemble across its furniture and talking through a peekaboo in her long orange tresses about her new album - and she loves to talk. Talk about "seeing 50 different girls inside of myself", about how "a little Jung never hurt anyone", about "reuniting the two Marys within my being" - but there's maybe slightly less of the dingly-dell stuff than I'd been expecting.
Mostly, though, she talks about her life in Cornwall, with her sound-engineer husband Mark Hawley and their four-year-old daughter Natashya. It's a quiet life of bookshop-browsing and school-runs, and as a result, it's a quieter Amos that holds court today. This is definitely an added bonus. She's currently got the builders in. "One guy is this exotic Jamaican-Mancunian mix, an ex-bouncer who answers to 'C', and he's like the Hulk or Shrek. He's dark chocolate and he might as well wear a 'No Vacancies' sign round his neck because he's a busy boy! He's got a long line, up and down the coast because he's an attraction!"
But Amos is no desperate housewife. After various rococo romantic entanglements - what Amos calls her "shenanigans" - she has found the right man. "Mark is not like other guys I've known who thought they were the Demon Lover; he's very quiet and he's made it very clear to me that he's a one-woman man. I may run around the world, buzz around like a bee, but I know the rules." So she's a one-man woman? "Yes, or at least I am until I'm not. We were both with other people when we first met. I was playing the piano and I noticed him.
'Oh no,' I said to myself, 'you're not supposed to be doing that!' I got the jumbles. 'Stop it! Down, kitty! Purr'." But how does she stop the jumbles ever happening again? "I just don't have the same response. I mean, I run into a lot of guys and I might think 'Well, that one's certainly got something.' But I've got this detachment mechanism now. Listen, you'd better put one in place!"
In a glib way, there are four things people know about Amos. She's a preacher's daughter. She plays the piano sitting astride the stool, bucking-broncostyle. She once promoted an album suckling a pig. And - not viewed glibly at all - she was raped at gunpoint by a fan to whom she offered a lift after a gig, then wrote a song about the ordeal. Make that five things: she's as mad as a bottle of crisps. Or at least she was, or that was the manner in which she was always portrayed. "The most commonly-used word to describe me? Oh, that would be 'kooky', right? Well, sometimes Mark and I change roles. Sometimes he's the dreamer - about Arsenal, mostly - and I'm the pragmatist. I could surprise you with my brutal observations of situations. I'd be like, 'OK, I could buy into this fantasy for another 25 minutes but we're going to cut the bait and move on'. That's the mermaid in me."
So if this new Tori policy means more pragmatism, less kookiness, and if marriage, motherhood and rustic bliss offer up less opportunity to explore miscarriage, genocide and religious oppression in her songs, does she end up losing her edge? The new album is called The Beekeeper. It's definitely an Amos record; titles such as 'The Power Of Orange Knickers' confirm that. But it's a safer affair than before. Lyrics such as 'Driving in my Saab/On the way to Ireland' would have been booted off her 1992 debut with all the urgency with which she used to eulogise about Robert Plant's pelvic thrusts with Led Zeppelin. So is this how it all pans out? Does even Tori Amos end up sounding like Katie Melua, the most jejune of the new breed of female singer-songwriters, who are a Melua melange of bland? "I don't think the cheeses at the record companies want you to be singing songs that cause Clear Channel to have to edit you, or breastfeeding a pig on Sunset Boulevard so that right-wing Christians have to picket you," she says in defence of the current crop but also of herself.
Amos speaks from bitter experience. She was shelved by the Atlantic label in 1998 but not released from her contract. Effectively, she was an industry prisoner. "Usually, if they don't let you go, they sell you like a horse. I told them they weren't going to get the money back if they just fed this horse oats and carrots.
"Little did I know they don't have to give you oats and carrots, they can sling you hay. So my head was hanging out the stable door and I was looking longingly at this Arabian and pleading, 'Can you spare some oats and carrots!'" If she couldn't record, then at least she could still ride that piano-stool. Touring and the internet maintained her profile and probably saved her career.
From the first single, 'Silent All These Years', Amos has been viewed as a more than adequate substitute for Kate Bush while the latter was wuthering away in semi-retirement. Now that Bush is about to make her much-delayed comeback, what does Amos do next? Answer: write a book. In Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, penned in collaboration with rock journalist Ann Powers, the fire-obsessed, fairybelieving songbird poses questions that would make Melua blush. "How does a woman penetrate?" she casually enquires on page 14. "We don't have that organ. Fundamentally, we don't pee standing up. And that changes your view of life..." This is typical Amosese, proving, I suppose, that she hasn't lost the knack.
Much more rewarding, however, are the chapters dealing with her grandmother, Addie Allen Amos, and her - metaphorical - threesome with God and Robert Plant.
Amos is part-Cherokee but there's some Irish in the mix and also some Scots. "Grandma was an Allen and her family was originally from the south of Scotland some place, and they all came over to Virginia and intermarried with the Carters. She was educated - it was almost unheard of in the 1920s for a woman to go to university - and she was very Christianised. I call her The Puritanical, The Shame Inducer. I was brought up in the city, outside Washington, but she lived six hours south, in the mountains. Have you seen the movie Deliverance? I knew those guys! I knew the pig!"
Grandma desperately tried to protect Amos from the fallout from the Swinging Sixties, while her son, Amos's dad, was busy trying to become the next Billy Graham. "Before I was eight, in the bedroom I shared with my sister... I had this afghan made of wool and I remember lying underneath it and squeezing my legs and pretending Jesus was there," she writes. "That's around the time Grandma told me I needed to love Jesus. I just rolled my eyes at her and said, 'Grandma, you have no idea'.
"Also around that time I started listening to Led Zeppelin, focusing mostly on Robert Plant. My father would come home from board meetings and say, 'This Zeppelin thing is just a thorn in everybody's side'." Ironically, it had been her dad's devout hope that music would be Amos's salvation - "to save me from sexuality". The reverse happened. Amos says there is a pop equivalent of the actress's casting couch. "You just have to dance faster and hope they get drunk quicker."
Her battles with the "cheeses" in the industry left a bitter taste - her mother still has the bill Amos was sent for the flowers she thought had been a present at the start of a tour - but the fights are hopefully in the past, and she's also been reconciled with her father. "My dad and I get along much better now. He's always in hysterics when he hears Tash speak up because she reminds him of me as a girl. 'Look,' he'll say, tugging at his shock of white hair, 'you did this to me!' Well, I can't have been all bad - I didn't make him go bald."
If there's a single lyric on The Beekeeper which best sums up Amos's worldview right now, it is probably: "The sexiest thing is trust." This wasn't always her idea of the sexiest. Referring back to those "shenanigans", she admits to having fallen for the "Dark Prince" archetype.
She encountered lots of "baby demons", the kind of men for whom you were "just another scalp on the belt", not ideal for a part- Cherokee. Then the cavalry rode to the rescue in the shape of Mark Hawley, who cut through the Amosese to pose the age-old question: why do nice girls always fall for bastards?
She thinks back to her mother's time, and especially that of her part-Scots gran, when women stayed in unhappy marriages because it was deemed the right thing to do. Back then, no one dared suggest it wasn't possible to love one person all your life. What does she say to that?
"It is possible. I don't think it's easy. It seems to be very easy for a lot of people to throw up their hands and say, 'It's not working any more and nobody makes it anyway.'
"Now hold on a minute. If you get so far along the road, then you have the chance to take the next step. Stop now, and you'll probably always stop at that point. Saying that, we're fast coming up for our seven-year-itch!"
The Beekeeper is released by Sony/BMG tomorrow. Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, available in America, will be published in Britain later this year.
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