home / interviews
Palm Beach Post (US)
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Tori Amos is on a natural high from her home near Stuart
By Leslie Gray Streeter
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It makes perfect sense that Tori Amos, Grammy-nominated singer with the expansive mane of red hair and rich tradition of cryptic lyrics invoking folklore and all things mystical, would live in Cornwall, England, with its centuries-old stone cottages and rich tradition of mysticism.
It seems less obvious that the elegantly ethereal Amos would also feel at home in the sweaty, oppressive, "Is it hot enough for ya?" South Florida sun -- specifically the home near Stuart where she and her family live part of the year. Post Arts Critics
And, no, it's not hot enough for her.
"I think you're drawn to what you know," says Amos, calling from Martin County on a particularly hot morning. "I was born in 100-degree weather. Cornwall is great. It's a magical place. But I'm a lizard lady. Jim Morrison doesn't have a copyright on that. He was the Lizard King. But I'm a Lizard Lady -- with a high heel."
Much about Tori Amos, who plays Sound Advice Amphitheatre on Wednesday, seems to be at once airily mysterious and insistently matter-of-fact -- the effortless yet furiously complicated way she plays two pianos simultaneously, how her lyrics evoke lofty spirits and basic human brutality, how she writes seemingly confessional musings even as she intensely maintains her privacy.
Even with her contradiction of lovely and angry, of sweet and tart, it's hard to imagine Amos, spiritually guided muse and invoker of ancient wonders, sitting on a Treasure Coast beach or shopping at the mall. But she loves it here.
"I feel very close to nature (in Florida)... This land is very old," says the 41-year-old Amos. "Our house is not in a built-up area. We're on the water, and sometimes I just feel the sun bakes you like a little muffin -- and sometimes we as gals need to heal our muffins. It's a different kind of relationship you have with the land. It's like going out in the desert when there's no one there, and having a spiritual experience."
Amos' music has been decidedly spiritual for her devoted fans since 1992's Little Earthquakes. Lyrically-based piano music was something of a shock amid the grunge dissonance and politically fierce rap on the era's charts, but Amos' album was no less insistent or angry, with a quiet woman's defiant awakening in Silent All These Years and the harrowing Me and A Gun, written about her rape. (And in concert, she acknowledged the grunge aesthetic her own way, with a powerfully haunting version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.)
Amos' exploration of the divine and of despair continued with Boys for Pele, From the Choirgirl Hotel, the covers album Strange Little Girls, and this year's The Beekeeper, a 19-song journey separated into six parts or "gardens." Each part, Amos told Billboard magazine earlier this year, "represents the emotional life of this female character whose voice we hear on the album." Even with a complicated backstory, the accessible, gently rocking rhythms of The Beekeeper helped it enter the Billboard charts at No. 5 in March.
The life of Myra Ellen Amos has been an interesting journey. She was born a Methodist preacher's kid in North Carolina and raised in Maryland. A piano prodigy, she studied at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory, but by her late teens was in Los Angeles seeking fame as a pop singer. Her parents, Edison and Mary Ellen Amos, moved to Port St. Lucie in the 1990s, not far from the home she shares today with husband Mark Hawley, a sound engineer, and 4-year-old daughter Natashya.
But something more special than mere pop stardom awaited Amos. With 12 million records sold, she is one of the godmothers of the modern era of female singer/songwriters, largely responsible for the reintroduction of piano to radio, and a muse and lyrical guide to an audience that identifies with her high, succinct wail, her pain and her strength.
While the legions of Amos fans connect intellectually with her music, it's obvious from reading several Web sites, attending her shows or speaking to a fan, that the appeal is both lyrical and emotional. She has been a vocal supporter of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a support and educational group, since it was formed in 1994. Confessionals on her sites range from people who had considered suicide, been sexually assaulted or struggled with coming out, but found strength in Amos' music and her personal approach to her listeners.
"When you meet her in person, she is the most sincere person ever. When you're standing in front of her, it's like you're the only one there," says John Bonebrake, who operates a web site where Amos fans can trade free bootlegs of her performances. The fact that she encourages the taping of her music, and has meet-and-greets before her shows, are just some of the things that draws fans, he says.
"I started listening to her when I was 15, in 1995. A friend let me borrow a mix tape, and at the time, I was into Janet Jackson," says Bonebrake, who lives in Indiana and has seen Amos about 15 times. "When I heard the piano and her voice together, I knew I had never heard anything like that. Being 15, and coming out of the closet, and not knowing what was going on with myself, I felt like she was singing just for me."
And on this tour, Amos is, in a way, singing just for her fans -- there's a segment during each show called The Piano Bar, where Amos does two cover songs requested online by her fans, Bonebrake says. Recent ones have included songs by electronic pop masters Radiohead and Australian dance diva Kylie Minogue.
While her experiences inform and inspire her music, she considers her songs to be separate entities, visited on her almost by friendly possession. And she is surprised and inspired by their effect on listeners and on herself.
"The truth is, I try to hold space for these women, these archetypes that come and take over my body. They have relationships with people all over the world that I don't know about," Amos explains.
For instance, the sensual, Brazilian-influenced Sweet the Sting, on The Beekeeper, about a knowing encounter with a dangerous man, "does all kinds of things that I shouldn't know about. She's a sexy mama, very spiritual, and she won't allow any of the other songs to judge her. She's my Afternoon Delight gal."
The song Hoochie Woman, also from the new album, is about a woman choosing to keep the lover who is cheating on her with Miss Hoochie, an act that Amos says is powerful rather than pathetic.
"You don't look for men to forgive you or to approve," she says. "That must be done internally. This is powerful medicine. Looking to men is part of being an emotional vampire instead of being able to be whole.... He had an affair with another woman, but he comes to (her) for money and she gives it to him. She didn't choose to be vengeful."
That song goes deeper than forgiving a lover, Amos says -- it's about the recognition of a woman's power.
"It's about sacredness and her sexuality, marrying them," she says. "I was going after the Christian mythology, where you have the two Marys, the mother who's been (stripped) of her sexuality, and Mary Magdalene who's been stripped of her spirituality. To marry them in the song is very powerful."
While Amos is grateful to be the vessel for such songs, she's careful not to take that for granted.
"I guess on one level, it's humbling," she says. "As I've gotten older, I appreciate the muse coming to visit. It's not an entitlement. Some (writers) think it will always occur, but it certainly doesn't. They go away. The music has to want to come. You have to be capable of tapping into that. But if we see ourselves as the creator, then the hubris comes in. That's a very dangerous thing.... It's about respecting these creatures."
And when she respects her muse, the songs come to her in ways she can't imagine. She listens appreciatively to a reporter's tale of a show several years ago outside Philadelphia, when she played Neil Young's mournful Philadelphia and reduced the audience to tears, even though many of them had never heard it before.
"Sometimes, we're responding, the songs and I, to a place, or to an event that's occurred," Amos says. "We played Rome the day that London was bombed. There were a few thousand people gathered together, and they were moving close, standing very close together, like beautiful flowers in a garden. It seemed quite lush, like they needed to feel each other. That was a natural opportunity to try to allow people to grieve."
So she played John Lennon's Imagine, "because I felt, that night, that I needed to do that."
It turns out that's what the audience needed.
"They all started singing along at a certain point, but it didn't start out that way," Amos says. "They needed to express their anger and grieving and loss, to bloodlet emotionally, and to express the fear of tomorrow by embracing it and looking it right in the eye. That song has always been about taking in the poison to get the antidote. And that night had a lot of poison."
Amos' gift of extracting the poison has made her a muse to her fans, but also the kind of person that you could walk up to and say hello -- she laughs when told that she'd been spotted in The Gardens mall, just shopping like a normal person.
And in her welcoming but private way, Tori Amos accepts that -- within reason.
"Usually it's 'Hey, Tori! How's it going?'" she says. "They feel they can come up and say hi. That's positive, I think. Then again, coming up and knocking on the door at 6 in the morning when I'm feeding my daughter is a little much."
She laughs, a throaty, knowing chuckle.
"That's why you have gates."
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos