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The Sunday Times (UK)
February 20, 2005
Everything in her garden's rosy
Life on a Cornish farm hasn't dented American singer-songwriter Tori Amos's fierce originality, says Dan Cairns
After all the adversaries she has faced and dispatched in her 41 years, Tori Amos seems finally to have met her match. The person who has managed this unique feat is three-and-a-half years old, and calls Amos "mum".
Rarely lost for words or explanations to help her steer a path through what has clearly been a complicated life, the American singer-songwriter sounds uncharacteristically befuddled when describing what sound more like negotiations than conversations with her daughter, Natashya.
A longed-for child, after years of miscarriages, the girl gives it to her mother straight. And, because, running through all Amos's new-age jabber and messy, stream-of-consciousness candour are a spine of solid steel and a sign saying This Close and No Further, that isn't an experience mum is much used to.
"The other day, before I left," says Amos, away from home on the promo rounds, "she said, 'Mummy, I don't want you to go. Why do you have to go do telly? Why don't you let that Tori Amos go do telly? Tell her I want my mummy back.'"
In an interview two years ago, the singer said of her husband of seven years, the British sound engineer Mark Hawley, that he was the right choice because "you have to be with somebody who doesn't nail you down". So I ask her whether her daughter fits the bill in the same way.
"It took so much to get her here that, in the moments when I start to lose my rag, I just say..." At this point, I expect Amos to admit that she admonishes herself and bites back on her anger. Apparently not.
"I say, 'No, you can't just act like that just because I've been working. I know you're upset I haven't been here and I feel bad about it, but you can't treat mum like that, it's not okay.' And sometimes I just say, 'We need a break from each other.'"
Amos is absent from the Cornish farm she has called home since 1998 because she has a compelling new studio album, The Beekeeper (her eighth), to promote. At the same time, she is gearing up for a world tour and the publication of Tori Amos Piece by Piece, an as-told-to book about her life. All three occur at a point in her career where the singer has the luxury of knowing she can post respectable record-sale returns and sell out medium-sized venues without feeling the hot breath of the bean-counters on her neck.
Gone, then, are the heady days of her early albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, and their attendant singles such as her breakthrough hit, Cornflake Girl. But gone, too, is the prurient, greedy scrutiny that accompanied this success: the endless picking over of, in particular, her rape at gunpoint by a fan she had given a lift to, and the subsequent in-song purgings of Me and a Gun and Silent All These Years.
"It was a paradox," she says now of those early years. "I was close to thousands of people on stage, and more comfortable there than being alone with a guy in a room. So I'm able to have conversations with the world, but alone in a room I run for the hills. But that makes sense, because, you know, you feel invaded. There is a protection in having an affair with thousands of people. Nobody can really cross the line."
Long bedevilled -- often unflatteringly and always un- imaginatively -- by comparisons with Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, Amos's work would be more accurately described as sharing some of the qualities of both (er, she is a woman, she plays the piano, her melodies swoop and soar), but channelling them through an entirely discrete creative filter. In any case, what is so wrong with (very occasionally) echoing either, as she does on her new album track, Barons of Suburbia? Those strange Joni phonetics are conjured up in Amos's rendering of "Beer-ans", while the song's ghostly, fluttering harmonies are pure Bush. But the singer's own fingerprints are all over a line such as, "I have heard you pray before you devour", and the unsettling brew of blues, jazz and classical could only be hers.
Religion has always played a huge part in the shaping of Amos's reactions and subject matter -- which isn't surprising, given that her father was a firebrand Methodist preacher. But this rigid aspect of her upbringing battled for dominance with the free Cherokee spirit she inherited from her mother. Almost from the beginning, then, Amos was at war. Four decades on, she says, it is one she is still fighting.
"Come on," she says, laughing. "I was brought up as a daughter of the church. People have been asking me, 'Are you back in touch with your Christianity?' What are you talking about? I've always been in touch with my Christianity. I was brought up in it, church four times a week. Are you nuts? I was indoctrinated."
Seasoned Amos-watchers tend to zoom in on what they see as the dippy and/or shoot-from-the-hip nature of her utterances. Certainly, with the best and most open-minded will in the world, you would struggle to maintain eye contact during punctuation-averse musings such as, "I walk in, to the voice of Sofia, who says, 'Do you really want to do this for your daughter, do you really want to do this for my daughter, who you will call earth? Then you must eat of the forbidden fruit, or you will be exiled.'" Or when she refers to Hawley as Husband. But there is something refreshingly reckless about Amos's willingness to, as it were, experiment, to throw caution to the gale-force Cornish winds. Later, she suggests: "It makes me sound like I need to be put into a mental hospital. You can see where it gets all convoluted in the kooky thing."
Listen, though, to her description of growing up with her Cherokee grandfather and how that informed her approach to songwriting. "He would say, 'Young 'un, do you hear what the tree's saying to you?' And I'd be like, 'Pfff, no, I don't.' But when the songs started to come, I would say, 'Poppa, I cannot hear what you hear, but these melodies, these are coming.' And he said, 'Then don't let them go; invite them into your life.'" And contrast that with the bland, media-trained formulations of the average Hollywood star, and tell me which intrigues and engages you more.
This fixation on flakiness, quite apart from overlooking the hard-eyed, business-savvy, contract-combing bruiser in her, misses a key point about Amos, which is that she is a compulsive risk-taker. Doing battle with her previous label, Atlantic, as its parent company was busy merging with AOL, she says she told the powers that be: "'You are more interested in your shares than you are in music. You have no idea what an 18-year-old girl, a 28-year-old girl, a 38-year-old girl, a 57,000-year-old girl wants to hear.' I was never going to be forgiven for that."
And on The Power of Orange Knickers, the standout track on The Beekeeper, Amos duets with Damien Rice to a lyric ("Those girls that smile kindly, then rip your life to pieces") that contrasts feminine fruitfulness with the menace it is capable of in the shape of female suicide bombers.
Now, you could call this ambition batty, but you couldn't deny that it's a brave one. "You know," Amos explains, "the word terrorist was just ... we'd all had enough of it. And it was just irresistible, I must say, having a guy sing the title words." She says she had the idea for the album's (loose) concept while straddling two wildly different worlds, at home in Cornwall, but with the TV news on. "I had to find an entry point into all this (the post-9/11 world). You've got the big three, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, involved in this war. And I'd be walking around in the garden, watching the relationship between the bee and this organ, the flower, and seeing how it's a win-win; whereas on television, if it's a win, someone has to lose. But the bee takes its nectar, does a little sprinkling and the garden propagates. Then the bee does a dance to her sisters, tells the girls where the hot organ is, and they go."
She pauses. "Then Husband gets me an organ -- ha! -- in my piano room: a bit invasive, but I thought, he's telling me something. What is in all three religions that hasn't been acquired, that's autonomous? Well, all three have the bee tradition, and there I was in ancient pagan soil, realising it was still alive."
The first sounds you hear on Parasol, The Beekeper's opening track, are a piano and an organ, in harmonious coexistence. Later, on Sleeps with Butterflies, Amos takes on the persona of her daughter, promising Natashya's mother: "I won't hold on to the tail of your kite." Could this be wishful thinking? Because, for the first time in a life of many hard-won victories, Amos faces serious competition. Never mind the pram in the hallway (or the organ in the piano room): the mother and daughter of battles surely looms. And who better to chronicle the process, than the most fiercely original female songwriter at work in the world today?
The Beekeeper is released tomorrow on Sony-BMG
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