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March 27, 2005

Scary Tori Amos

by Nadine O'Regan

Two gig-goers got a little more than they bargained for at a recent Tori Amos gig -- the singer kicked them out of their front row seats when she decided they hadn't been paying enough attention to the show. During the song Code Red, Amos stopped to tell the fans, "Get the fuck out of my show! It's a privilege to sit in the front row and I reserve those seats for people who appreciate music, get the fuck out!"

I met Tori Amos once. It was scary...

Tori Amos makes her hands into fists, then plants them on my face. She eyeballs me. "Hmmm?"

Yes, I stutter. She must be feeling very cold indeed. Approximately 20 seconds into a 20-minute interview, Amos, the woman who once suckled a piglet for an album shoot, has already managed to unnerve me. She grins and sits back down in the suite at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin.

In an adjoining room, Dave Fanning and his crew, fresh from an interview with Amos, are packing up their lighting equipment. Amos thought Fanning was an intense interviewer. Very quick and rapid-fire, you know?

I do know. Half of Ireland knows. But eight studio albums into her career, Amos is used to the snap-snap feel of the interviewing process. As one of the most successful singer-songwriters alive, she's also well accustomed to huge sales and adulation. Frankly, Amos could record herself playing piano for a chorus of frogs and millions of people would still run out and buy it. Which brings me to my first question. Given all she has achieved, has it become difficult to remain artistically ambitious?

"I'm a lioness," Amos says, staring hard at me. "If I'm going to get a wildebeest for the tribe, I'm going to take it down. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Ahem. Not really."When is your birthday?"

October 11.

"So you're a Libra," she says. "Balancing those scales."

The way she says it, I'm suddenly not so sure being a Libra is a good thing.

"If I'm going to make something, I'm not going to do it half-assed," Amos continues. "If I'm going to hunt and pull down that wildebeest for the pride to eat, I'm not going to just rip a leg off.

"I'm going to rip its throat out and kill it, because it's more compassionate, quicker and effective. Some artists are happy to rip off a leg. I don't do that. It's about making the record as good as I can make it."

She stops. I almost see her sniff the air. A scuffling noise is emanating through the walls. Amos leaps from her seat. "Hey, guys?" she says, opening the door. "Could you keep it down? Thank you!" She blows them a kiss. "Love you!"

She walks back to her seat. "Lioness," she murmurs, flashing a triumphant grin.

It's this capacity for striking metaphors, coupled with her aforementioned imaginative taste in album artwork, that has earned Amos a reputation for being a bit eccentric. Amos's recent autobiography, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, penned with journalist Ann Powers, has done little to dispel the impression that she calls the fairies her homies. One typical quote runs: "When you start believing you are Aphrodite, or believing you are the Dark Prince, first of all, you have offended the Divine."

Amos is aware of these interpretations -- and misinterpretations -- of her. "You have to survive being thought of in a certain way by the masses," she says. "I'm on the firing line right now. I can accept that. But when you walk into a place and people have this impression of you, it's hard. You're already judged."

True. But much as Amos may dislike the 'weird' tag, she must also see that she cultivates it. Throughout this interview, the intense eyeballing continues. Later, when she's being interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on Tubridy Tonight, she eyeballs him too.

Suddenly, Tubridy is stuttering, looking blank and repeating himself. The fact that Amos is traffic-stoppingly beautiful doesn't help matters. At 41, her green eyes remain vivid, her skin is unlined. Orange tresses float down her back. She boasts a wardrobe, meanwhile, that would make Sex and the City's Carrie jealous.

Even as I work to take in the clothes (a coat with an aquamarine and orange pattern, white leather choker, pinstriped trousers and strappy sandals), and ignore the eyeballing, Amos takes advantage of the visual overload to throw my queries back at me.

One question she finds clichéd. She understands another question, but wants me to think of it "in a different way". Sometimes it seems like the problem is that she just doesn't like the direction in which the queries are heading.

Her new record, The Beekeeper, is a concept album that features 19 songs divided into six 'gardens' bearing titles like Elixirs and Herbs and Desert Garden. These six gardens of life are intended to mirror the six sides to the cell in the beehive.

All of this would be fine if the theme hung together properly. But as one writer noted, "the concept doesn't explain any of the album's songs; indeed, it actually further obscures their intent." You suspect this opaqueness suits Amos just fine.

In her early days, Amos, who was brought up in Maryland, bared her soul on several songs, most notably the harrowing Me and a Gun, in which she gave an only slightly fictionalised account of her real-life rape, aged 22, by a fan to whom she'd offered a lift after a gig.

There were other battles, other endurances. But things are different now. Amos got married in 1998 to the sound engineer Mark Hawley. The couple live in Cornwall (they also have a home in Kinsale), where they are raising their four-year-old daughter Natashya. As definitions of happiness go, it sounds like a good one. So, is the concept album a way to make art while still protecting her family? Amos crosses her arms. There is an alarming silence.

"Clearly, you thought this through," she says finally. "I'm not goingto lie to you and say that you're wrong because you're not wrong. So the question is, 'how do you stay honest and shield everyone at the same time?'" Well, it wasn't, but okay.

"That's tricky," she continues, in a more gentle tone. "But I'm intrigued by story-telling. Different styles of songwriting really appeal to me. All of a sudden this woman can be a nun. Or she's in an arranged marriage. You're able to hold all these different women or men within your being. As a writer, you have to be able to excavate your own life, but not just work within your own limitations."

Although in intensity, power and reach, The Beekeeper doesn't compare to Amos's luminous debut, Little Earthquakes (1992), it is nonetheless a relatively strong album, which features enough soaring moments to keep her core audience happy.

The Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice duets with Amos on the track The Power of Orange Knickers. "Someone was playing his album in the house," Amos explains. "So I heard his voice and called somebody and said, 'send him the track, see what he thinks'. The idea of a man singing the words, 'The power of orange knickers' is irresistible.

"It also crossed my mind that having an Irish guy sing the line 'Who is this terrorist?' has a whole other meaning than an English or American singing it."

Political references are embroidered into the album, but there is no song here that is lyrically coherent enough to amount to an attack or a challenge. The record buzzes rather than stings -- Amos fights shy of revelation, both in a political and personal sense.

It makes you wonder if Amos will ever write a song as soul-baring as Me and a Gun again -- and if she has good reasons not to do so. She agrees there were times when she regretted releasing the track.

"Once you put out a song like that," she says, "people think they can bring it up any time they want. It's one thing when someone says, 'I relate to this', another when you get interrogated by somebody. It's a double-edged sword. How do you let people into your private thoughts, and yet have a sign that says, 'No vacancy'?"

Amos opens her eyes even wider than before and eyeballs me. Once again, I forget my next question. Once again, I feel -- there is no other word for it -- intimidated. Through all the tactics -- the eyeballing, the questioning of questions, the bizarre metaphors -- Amos seems to be making one thing clear. She is the power here, the force.

The assertion of that power is more important to her now than ever before. Earlier, she spoke of her difficulties with the music industry.

"There are not a lot of 41-year-old women releasing albums that go into the top five. Because we're not seen as marketable. But some of the biggest acts in America are my age. U2, the Chili Peppers -- they're thought of as sexy and in control.

"I decided I'm going to break this fucking paradigm."

I suspect that if anyone can do it, Tori Amos can. She's a lioness, after all. And leaving this interview, I feel a little bit like a wildebeest.

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