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Ungovernable: Tori Amos
By Antonella Gambotto-Burke
During her first Sydney Opera House performance, Tori Amos swings to the left, mid-note. Continuing to play the Bosendorfer with her right hand, she straddles the piano stool, and - eyes closed, that Bora Aksu gown a spume of silk - begins to rise and fall on the seat as if making love to it, her left hand now on the B-3 Hammond organ before her. With her lips crushed against the microphone, she completes that chillingly ethereal note while simultaneously playing the two instruments. Scarlet stage lights make brilliant that thread of saliva trickling from the microphone. The primarily female audience implodes.
After four standing ovations, she is emptied. It has been a decade since Amos last toured Australia. Locally, the Original Sinsuality Tour sold out within the first week, forcing Sony to add new dates in Melbourne and Sydney. She has spent five out of the last ten years on the road. Her nine albums have shifted twelve million units; her songs are included in the soundtracks of Toys (1992), Twister (1996), Great Expectations (1998), Mission Impossible II (2000), and Mona Lisa Smile (2003). Nominated for eight Grammy Awards, she has toured with Alanis Morrissette and performed duets with Tom Jones and Robert Plant. With The Beekeeper's release, Amos joined the female musical elite: like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Barbra Streisand, she has now had over five US Top 10 debuts. Her fame long ago transcended the nerd base predicted by executives.
"The Internet practically has my gynecological record," she said, "and I accept that."
White light pours in through the Sydney Intercontinental's atrium skylights; it's an overcast Saturday morning. A foreign film crew and roadies mill about the elegant lobby. Amos has always insisted that her band and crew share her hotels. "Does it cost a lot of money?" she asked. "Are you kidding? Of course it does. Would I save thousands and thousands of dollars - six figures - if I had my band and crew stay in Motel 6? Substantially. But it's worth it."
Her lateness is more frequent these days but never capricious; touring with her English husband, Mark Hawley, and their only child, Natashya, makes adherence to a strict schedule near-impossible. "It's tricky now," Amos sighs. "Natashya feels that Tori Amos is coming between her and Mommy. At two and a half, they just have a good time, but at five, you get these conversations. Natashya will sit and talk to my manager about Tori Amos. You know, this four-year-old's negotiating for Mommy Time! But I can't give up my music. It wouldn't be healthy for her. She needs to know that you can be creative, you can be loving and giving as a mother, and also be a creative force. She needs to understand that."
The achromatic harbor extends to the horizon below the Intercontinental's private club. Amos plucks a hotel pen from her handbag and uses it to mix her green tea. Her full lips slip into a wry, lopsided grin: "This is what I do. I take hotel pens to use as stirrers, you know? I'm thinking that not too many grubby hands have been on it, because it's white."
Her face is a winter valentine. Those silk-green eyes are light and bright and evaluative, sometimes sparking with intense interest ("Tell me," she urges, leaning in). When she speaks, it is with the same range and precision of her singing: whispers unfurl suddenly into yelps. Only her hands surprise: small and muscular, their grip is veined.
Her signature look has always been a kind of aesthetic mayhem - blue aprons with red tulle underskirts and white platform heels, jeans and boas, mutated Mexican - but she now sports diamonds and sapphires, and those frilled scarlet espadrilles are Louboutins. Designers Viktor and Rolf had her to play at their most recent show; she mesmerized the fashionistas with her reworking of the Song of Solomon, and US Vogue covered it all. The Beekeeper (2005) peaked at number five on the Billboard charts the same day.
Money has changed her. Raised in lower middle-class Baltimore, Maryland, Myra Ellen Amos is the second daughter and third child of Dr. Edison Amos and Mary Ellen, his wife (who now runs Amos' publishing company, Sword and Stone). Amos was awarded a full Peabody Conservatory scholarship at the age of five; at 11, the scholarship was discontinued on the grounds of her refusal to play by the rules. In 1983, the rebellious child prodigy adopted the name Tori. ("If you look at that word," she laughs, "it's in a lot of other words: vic-tory, terri-tory, cli-tori-s.") Her Methodist minister father supervised her early performances in gay piano bars and five star hotels. A long way from the fried okra, turnips, and collard greens of her youth, Amos now presides over three houses.
"A Georgian in Ireland," she says, "and I go to the Florida beach house to recharge. That's where Natashya and a lot of the songs were conceived. The beach house is very fertile; it's on the Indian River. The Cornish house is our workshop. Everything revolves around the studio. The house is a small cottage. The studio is quite grand, in that it's an old barn - hundreds of years old, wonderfully maintained - but then you walk inside, and it's Battlestar Galactica. We're thinking of opening it up to other musicians, which is why we're building the residential out back. It's really hard for the record company to get there, so you can create without interference."
Her relationship with the industry has never been easy. "Little Earthquakes  was rejected, okay?" she sternly says. "So all the pianos were to be taken off. Some of the people who were going to be brought in to take those pianos off were some of the most famous producers of the day. One of them produced Norah Jones. The Powers That Be said: This piano thing is dead. So I fought that battle. And I won that battle." There were more to come.
She has threatened to burn masters when attempts were made to manipulate her music, and has never backed down. After a long war with Atlantic, she shifted to Sony in 2001. "See," she exhales, "this is really the beginning of the end of Warner Music, and, as you know, Warner Music went on the stockmarket this week much lower than they thought they would."
The real acrimony began in December, 1998. Amos discovered that instead of properly promoting her work, Atlantic was purchasing blocks of tickets to her concert in exchange for promoting far more potentially lucrative artists. Despite the fact that she could - and did - fill Madison Square Garden, she was - discreetly - being sidelined. Leaving was not an option. She speaks through her teeth: "That's when Those Who Are said: we own you, Tori Amos. It doesn't matter if you wanna leave. We want four more records, and we'll have 'em. After that, you'll be too old." The idea? She would be buried by poor promotion, stress and middle age.
Atlantic's contract stipulated that she owed them another three albums. Amos bridled at the thought of losing further original work, and so released To Venus and Back (1999), a live album. The set went platinum. (A number of her albums have gone platinum without the piggyback of charting singles.) Her part-Cherokee mother telephoned to tell her of a dream: the ancestors said that the contract did not specify that the work had to be original. The ancestors were right. Which is when Amos - simultaneously nursing her daughter - decided to record Strange Little Girls (2001), an album of covers, songs by male artists ranging from Eminem to Lou Reed and Slayer. Its debut? The Billboard Top Ten.
Her parting words to Atlantic were private: "Checkmate, motherfuckers."
"When [my third album] Boys For Pele  got played for Atlantic in New York City, noone could move," Amos explains. "They were waiting for the commercialization of the victim. That's where they thought I was going. I remember a comment: We need to put her in chinos. They saw the dollar signs just slipping away through their fingers, and yet I thought that this was about music." She pauses. "It was hell. They just completely turned their backs on that record. You walk into this world where you say -" and here she quotes Talking Heads, "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!"
Her tone is incredulous. "They weed out and break the ones that might not conform. By the time you're 41, you should be able to be where Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp are, but no, no -" her voice rises: funny, engaging - "I'll tell you right now: I'm 41! I've got my pirate ship out there, too, and I'm coming to take Jennifer Aniston - the male in me could romance that girl - in another life - and show her ... herself.
"Sometimes I look at women and say: Honey, you're looking for love in all the wrong places - and I can't believe I quoted that song - but you see all these hot pictures of [Brad Pitt], and yeah, people move on, whatever - but I'm like, Jen, honey - the Viking Sven [in me] could turn you out. So no worries! Because I've got my own pirate ship! And I'm as old as those cats! Brad What? Johnny Who? I play a fucking 9'1" - my piece, my tool is 9'1", motherfucker. And, look - there's my pirate ship - look, there -" She indicates the replica of the Bounty on the harbour.
For all her courage, Amos loses herself in sensual expression. Responsive and volatile in her youth, she now exhibits a more primal, mature, and affecting eroticism onstage. "Mother Mary and the Magdalene: one stripped of her sexuality, the other circumcised of her spirituality. If you marry the Marys within your being, then you have -" and here she pauses, and her voice drops to a breathing whisper, "transmuted this division: you've healed yourself."
Her eyes are steady. "I really couldn't walk into eroticism until after I became a mother. The mother in me wanted to explore fragments that maybe I hadn't allowed myself to explore. So: pieces of the mosaic. I began to piece my own personal archetype together, y'know - seven percent Athena, two percent Aphrodite ..."
Amos documents the miscarriages she suffered before the birth of her daughter, Natashya Lorien Hawley, in her biography, Piece by Piece. The restorative properties of motherhood shock her. (She once described an ounce of breast milk as "even more potent" than tequila.) "Because Natashya was an invasion I agreed to let in, she was able to expel and push out - as she expanded - all the unwilling invasions." Here Amos is referring to her rape in 1985 by an audience member, the subject of one of her most famous songs, Me and a Gun. ("It was me and a gun/ and a man on my back/ and I sang 'holy holy'/ as he buttoned down his pants.")
But in this instance, art was not enough. Amos founded the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in 1994. This non-profit national toll-free hotline for victims of sexual assault was initially funded by the Atlantic Group and Warner Music. In an open letter to survivors, she wrote: "I put Me and a Gun on the record not to stay a victim anymore. You see, I was still a victim in my own mind ... Passion, joy, and love were not things I felt I could have ... It took me many years to make the decision to deal with this, but a bitter woman was what I was becoming and when I was young I always saw myself as a passionate woman."
It was in her 1998 marriage to Mark Hawley, her studio and live sound engineer, that her passion found its mooring. She quickly realized that the relationship was "about monogamy." (He was the inspiration for songs Northern Lad and Goodbye Pisces.) Production manager Andy Solomon recalled warning Hawley of involvement: "Look, this is not such a good idea, you know. If you're bad in bed, your career could be over."
Suffice to say, Hawley's career still isn't over.
"I had a crush on Mark from the first moment he walked in the room," Amos says, her voice suddenly steeped in honey. "I was in another relationship that I'd been in for a long, long time, and Eric and I had a great relationship but we were becoming more colleagues. And I saw Mark walk into the room for the Under The Pink Tour, 1994, January, and my heart stopped. I had felt so empty at a certain point performing onstage, and during the end of that tour, I was in physical pain; I was aching for a male essence to ... desire. To explore, adventure, cross frontiers ... spiritually, sexually."
Her expression is grave. "I've let men into my body before, and it's sort of like an In-and-Out burger, you know? But this was different; this was letting him into the harbour. I was drawn to him - it was consuming - but I didn't make a move, because I feared rejection. I'd rather sit at my piano and sing to him at the desk and desire him without him ever knowing, than have rejection. I couldn't bear the rejection from him. Because I've never let anyone in that deep, except my husband. Never."
Rumored to have had an intense - and, ultimately, bitter - relationship with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Amos is reluctant to elaborate. Her only number one hit single on the European Billboard charts was the dance remix of Professional Widow, said to be about Courtney Love ("Don't blow those brains yet/ we gotta be big, boy"), and She's Your Cocaine is known in the industry as The Ballad of Trent and Courtney Love ("You sign Prince of Darkness/ try Squire of Dimness"). In 1998, she said: "I haven't quite figured out if the girl singing is really pissed off that she isn't special anymore, or if she is just horrified that she put this guy on a pedestal and he's chosen ... this black hole."
Reznor was more direct. "Other people put their fingers in the pie, and they kind of messed up a friendship. We're not that close now. Some malicious meddling on the part of Courtney Love. But I still feel the same feelings for Tori."
Amos rolls her eyes when Reznor's name is mentioned, eager to return to the subject of her husband. "Music was my partner - it still is - and you know what? I'm with a man who didn't ask me to give that up. And that's the key. Other men hadn't asked me to give that up - oh no, not asked me; but there was a competition. I've always been with men who are in some way creative. And so it would be threatening that I put the music first all the time. I never put a man first, and I still don't. "Mark doesn't need me to put him first, and nor does he want me to; that's part of the eroticism of the relationship. He is the love of my life, there's no question. Because he makes me feel like a treasure." Her voice drops, barely audible. "The way that he desires me; the way that he shows it - it's very subtle, sometimes; he shows me that he's thinking about me; when he closes his eyes, he's desiring me as a woman; and he makes me feel ..." She shuts her eyes and stops for a full minute, enraptured. "To experience a man that wants me to win - that's what makes me let him in deeper and deeper and deeper."
As a result, the intimacy of her performances has intensified. At one point, she grasps her vulva through her gown - delirious, abandoned. Audience members are left feeling as if they have been eavesdropping, or watching a stranger undress. In part, Amos attributes this to her husband's presence at the mixing desk. "You are feeling our union coming out of those speakers; he decides how much of me you all get. Maybe people don't see it, but there's a love affair happening every night, a sensual, sexual erotic dance between us. There's a sacredness to intimacy; you hold birth and death onstage."
Her intensity is also a byproduct of grief. In November 2004, her only brother, Edison Michael Amos, 50, was killed in a car crash. "It was raining and, uh, he lives in a place where the pine needles ... hit his head, didn't have a seatbelt on." She pauses. "Nothing can take Michael's love, and what he gave me. He was my greatest teacher in music. He brought me the Beatles - he brought me everybody: Hendrix, the Doors, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Janis Joplin - he brought me everything he could get his hands on. Half of it would come in and go out before my father came in - especially Zeppelin and the Doors - but Michael would say: You have to learn this before dad gets home! He saw something. He said: You can be great. He never 'achieved' but without him, I wouldn't be sitting here; I wouldn't be playing the Opera House tonight."
While her brother's name is on the guest list every night, Amos understands that wisdom has its price. "At my age," she concedes, "I'm finally where I wanna be. With every hour of every day, just experience it. I don't wanna be 27 any more. There are trade-offs."
Backstage after her last Sydney show, Amos, in that drift of pale silk, is as slight as a child and so hoarse that she can barely speak. She summons grace from her exhaustion, croaking her thanks. Further up the hall, roadies kick at the jammed clasps of the Bosendorfer's huge case in an effort to release them so the piano can be packed for Perth.
Copyright 2005 Antonella Gambotto-Burke
* First published in Cream
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