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The Independent (UK)
Saturday, April 9, 2005
by Glyn Brown
We all know that the singer Tori Amos is a little... kooky. But how about this: a Paris fashion show where the world's top models are made-up to look exactly like her. What's going on? Glyn Brown joins the front row. Photography by Roger Hutchings.
DOES TORI Amos still matter? On the evidence, I'd say so. At 41, here she is still coming up with weird concept albums full of half-decipherable lyrics, melodies that sway and a message, if you care to hear it. At 41, in a competitive field, she still fills a venue without doing anything so silly as popping out of her clothes (or, like some we know, attempting faux-lesbian action). In the US, her gigs attract young indie groovers; in the UK, the audience is a wee bit older: the women look charged and the men take pictures and mouth every word as if perhaps she wrote it just for them. At 41, Amos won't conform, writing political stuff, sexy stuff in an adult way (these days, a shocking thing to do) and dyeing her hair vixen red. And on top of all that, she's the new muse of Viktor and Rolf, the strange young Thompson Twins of designer fashion. For their latest catwalk show, in a crumbling theatre, she will sit centre-stage, pounding out something newly invented while clones of herself stalk past. Well, if that isn't sci-fi I don't know what is. Thus, one day during last month's Paris Fashion Week, I get to see a most unusual meeting of forces ...
12.05pm: Off the Eurostar, stuffed with fashion editors, and to the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. It looks pretty grubby, but it's seething with security so it must be the place. Inside, decrepit grand guignol, hugely La Belle et la Bete. People mill about like ghosts in the half-light, hissing frantic instructions in French, German, American, Japanese.
12.20: A miked drawl: 'Soundcheck. Tori's at the piano, quiet please!' And here's the diva, lost inside so much crimped hair that it must surely have its own trailer. Amos is boned like a bat, but her hands are paws, exercised by a life of bashing the keyboard, and now she thuds out scary notes and begins to sing a lullaby of beautiful menace, terribly Bram Stoker. Then:
'Yowch!' Silence. Amplified gum chew. 'Something odd's going on in the treble. Can't you hear it?' Amos looks around. The fashion crew stand rigid, rabbits blinking in headlights.
12.50: Backstage. Serious wattage. Stench of hairspray. Girls at mirrors, girls knitting, chewing gum or eating while their faces are whitened and their eyes brushed pink or violet. Redhead supermodel Karen Elson, halfway done, strides past. Roger the photographer and I are marooned in a sea of crimped hair.
1.05: Time to go. I can't actually see to the top of the girl standing next to me.
1.10: Into a tiny room to speak to Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren. They are 36, Dutch, and though their work "transgressive, cerebral, arty" makes them the Gilbert and George of fashion, they swear they have never been partners, or not in a personal way. Their website has them posing in schoolboy blazers: up close today, however, they have louche floppy hair, beards, geeky glasses and suits. Big friendly grins. Kind of Jarvis Cocker meets Vic Reeves. So what is this lookalike obsession?
Rolf (I think it's Rolf): 'Of course, we play with our image. But from the beginning, people would say, Who's Viktor and who's Rolf ...?'
Viktor: 'They couldn't tell us apart ...'
Rolf: 'They could never tell us apart. And people ask us, who does what?' Shakes head. 'Everything is one joint effort. So looking alike is saying we're one designer, one mind.'
And you've said the shows reflect the state of that mind ... Viktor: 'It's always about us. Especially this show. Tori's music is what we listen to privately. It comforts us.'
Good Lord. What do you find comforting about it? Rolf: 'It's pure emotion, straight from the heart. And our show will be an intimate bedtime story.' But a surreal one?
Viktor, crushingly: 'There's always a surreal aspect to our work. But here, we just wanted to go to bed and be safe and be loved. So there'll be quilts, blankets, waffle pillows.' Dreaming can be disturbing, of course. Viktor, smiling: 'No. We say that bed is a place where all good things happen. It's a haven.' You've clearly never had insomnia. Both laugh. So innocent.
The models and Tori look the same. Any reason for that? Rolf: 'Two years ago, we did a show with Tilda Swinton where all the models had her vibe. This is the sequel, if you will.' Viktor: 'And Tori's made the soundtrack for us. She will play it once, then never again.' Amos's eerie vocal rises like mist from the stage. Time to go. Viktor, rising, brushing down his suit: 'That's all we'd like to say, really. I mean, they're both beautiful women, but it's their 'mind' that inspires us.' If only more men were like that. What worthwhile chaps they are.
2.45: Show should have started at 2pm. We've had to wait for the fashion pack, bowling on down from Galliano or Dior or something.
3.05: Finally. Amos appears at the piano, clad in crimson kimono, and begins an imploring vocal. 'Come, my sister, my bride...' In keeping with the Dracula theme, models appear, heads against vast pillows, hair swathed eerily upward upon the lace. The whole scene is obscurely moving: the haunted, Victorian gothic faces, the trailing dresses, but above all the words that reverberate around our minds: 'I sleep, but my heart awakens ... I don't need shoes to follow you.' Amos sings this one exclusive invocation, improvising, for 15 minutes.
4.10: Shoes, though, are today's big thing. Amos plays in V&R's arch, symbolic red high heels and in the dressing room, once it's all over, she high-fives Tilda Swinton, who is mannish in a suit, her hair bleached white-blonde, her black pumps precarious.
6.15: I'm at the Four Seasons Hotel and so is Ms Amos. There's a bit of time to talk. Still in stage make-up, she stares at me from elaborately red-rimmed eyes; there's an unhealthy suggestion of myxomatosis. Amos is pretty done in; holding up her head with all that hair probably doesn't help. To aid energy levels, she rips open a massive bar of chocolate, hands me half ('You need it. C'mon, now. You know it') and starts to chomp the rest. We briefly discuss the show. 'Viktor and Rolf find sleeping comforting.' She shrugs. 'I find waking up comforting. Still, one of the best things about this collaboration was when they came to visit me.' Amos has a home in Cornwall with her husband, the sound engineer Mark Hawley, and small daughter Tash. 'It's a tiny hamlet, where I live. And to see them strolling down the road, smiling and waving at people ...' Quite David Lynch? She nods. 'Most entertaining.'
Amos is currently in the news due to a just-released album, The Beekeeper, and a book -- Piece By Piece, co-written with the journalist Ann Powers -- which should find its way to the UK any day. The book is as much as anything a series of conversations, moving from Amos's Cherokee ancestors to her upbringing in North Carolina, daughter of a methodist minister. At five, she's accepted to study classical piano at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute; at 11, she becomes obsessed with Led Zeppelin (and so confused she turns up at a Zep gig with a sock stuffed down her trousers). Career as a concert pianist scuppered, at 15 she embarks on touring lounge bars, her father acting as chaperone. The Reverend Edison Amos is a devout and repressive man with no idea -- though by now no doubt he's read the book -- that his daughter is spending time with the bars' gay waiters, 'specifically one called Joey. He showed me how to dress, how to push a Joan Fontaine look, and how to give a blow job on a cucumber ...'
Amos has grown up a lot since then. Hugely prolific (the new album is her eighth), she is successful, hard-headed and compassionate " founder of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, she's actively involved in the charity, having been a rape victim herself. Her interests are wide but, always bubbling near the top, are those deeply unfashionable topics, spirituality and feminism. These, in subtle guises, are all over The Beekeeper, and it's the second one we go for now.
The track that applies is 'Hoochie Woman', and its key line, for me at least, is 'I went to work and the office girls were all burning their poetry'. Amos sips her latte thoughtfully. 'I think that when you begin to think you're liberated, but in fact you're just an object -- completely objectified, an orifice -- then you walk into the profane.' But what exactly is a hoochie woman? 'It's a scuzz. It's a woman who has lost any sense of self-respect and conscience.' In the song, a lady of this sort -- and it could be someone in a bar, or indeed at the office -- makes off with the narrator's man. Not, of course, one worth having. But still. 'There's a belief that to get any attention,' she says, 'you have to take off your clothes and demean yourself.' A weary tone, and I get the feeling we're talking about the rock world now, though we might not be. 'Just to get ahead, to succeed. Some very talented people have been talked into doing these kinds of stunts.'
The song's final glorious irony is that the guy doesn't earn much, so he asks his wife if she can spare some cash to spend on his bag of washing. 'That's the great part,' says Amos. 'That he can't make it work with the alpha female, so he chooses a woman who's an object, and he still needs help. And the wife, once she's left him, isn't bitter about the girl. In the end. In the 'end', she's able to say, 'Honey, if you have no poetry in your life, then you really are empty.''
But let's not run away with the idea that Amos is a puritan. Grief, no. For instance, it seems the genesis of The Beekeeper was stuff she saw in her garden. According to comments she's made, certain insect action brought the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe to mind ... Amos rolls her eyes. 'Yee-es?' Let me quote you: 'Christian women had orgasms looking at her flower paintings.' Fustily: 'I don't remember saying this load of baloney.' Oh. Was it baloney?
'Naoow! Not really.' She lets out a great hoot of mirth. You've said that it doesn't get any hotter than what goes on in the garden. The bee sits on the flower and has the time of its life. So you think bees gathering pollen are getting fantastically stimulated? 'Oh, I do ...' A beat, another piece of chocolate ... 'Well, that's what the beemaster says.' She folds her arms and sits back, triumphant.
Which is just as she deserves, really. Amos has worked like stink to scale the sheer face of the rock world. The album is an intriguing listen: though some have found it dull because she no longer shrieks like a gang- banged cat, and although it doesn't rattle any cages, there are at least three stand-out tracks. The book very honestly reveals the sheer slog of producing an album; the months, even years of nailing certain songs, the research, the collecting of scraps of melody and phrase.
And since we were talking about the male/female divide, there's one more element that probably made life tougher. For half her career, Amos has had endometriosis. Repeated surgery for that, surgery for pre-cancerous conditions. And then on one particularly wretched day not that many years ago, in rainy grey old London working on a film soundtrack and in a considerable amount of pain with what turned out to be a massive cyst, she sought Harley Street advice. The doctor told her she needed to have her fallopian tubes out, and booked her in for next day.
It's clearly awkward for her to discuss, but she does, though it will affect the way we see her. So tired she can't really keep her eyes open, she's telling me, 'When you're not feeling well, when you're alone, you're not thinking right for yourself. You're worried about what's wrong with you. You can't make calm decisions.' What is important, as she sees it, is that 'other women realise this kind of laziness knows no parameters'. You can, as she did, just say no.
7.00: And that's it. Hurling back her bundle of hair, she heads off to get rid of all that slap. 'Thanks for making the trek to this madness. I'm fading. Eat that chocolate. Thank you ...'
Ladies and gentlemen, Tori Amos. A bit more than a fashion muse.
'The Beekeeper' is on Epic. Tori Amos begins a UK tour in June.
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos