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The Sunday Times (UK)
June 14, 2009
Tori Amos: Queen of the fairies
She's the sensual singer who's away with the fairies. But inside Tori Amos there's a red-hot businesswoman who's just dying to get out
Tori Amos has had more personalities than hot dinners -- from hippie-dippy singer to self-confessed 'hooker', from doting mum to 'that woman who suckled a baby pig'. But she can also be a shrewd negotiator. And now she's found her spiritual home -- in a London street market.
Hanna Hanra meets the most contrary woman in music.
Photographs by Perou
Like many women, Tori Amos is at war with herself. Tottering towards me in clunky heels and gigantic sunglasses, she looks much more like an LA babe than queen of the fairies, as she was christened early on in her career by a host of journalists. A second look confirms her elfin features; eyes that turn from blue to green to brown, and shoulder-length russet hair flowing gently in the breeze.
Dressed head to toe in white, with a battered blue leather jacket and an enormous, overflowing red patent-leather handbag, the 45-year-old is the epitome of rock-star expensive cool. A mongrel of the indigenous world, her roots are traceable to Ireland, Germany, Scotland and Native America. To look at her, you couldn't imagine anyone less likely to have links with Native American Indians. Tori is tiny, with translucent skin, large impish ears and a long, thin smile.
It seems her Native American spirit guide not only helps her with music, but also, possibly, with shopping. After spending several thousand pounds on an Yves Saint Laurent trench coat, two pairs of Pierre Hardy shoes and three floaty, brightly coloured dresses, she proclaims that the upscale central London fashion emporium Dover Street Market (where a pin badge costs £5) could be her spiritual home. "It's where I get my spiritual powers; the ancestors speak to me," she says. I presume she doesn't mean on the shop floor, although the idea of holding a powwow in the changing room is appealing.
Amos has just released her 10th album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, which takes its title from a line out of Guys and Dolls. "We live in a different place than we did two years ago. These are difficult times," she says. "People are afraid of losing everything they have worked for."
Her fan base ranges from middle America to burgeoning English pop stars -- indie weirdo Patrick Wolf and the much-hyped Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine are both confirmed fans, as is celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. "Tori is a fairy creature from the woods -- or another planet," he enthuses. "Words cannot describe what a profound impact Tori Amos has had on my life. Her songs resonated with me and they still do. It would not be an overstatement to say that her debut, Little Earthquakes, is one of the best albums of all time... Every time I listen to that album, I hear something new."
Indeed, she would surely feature more on his blog if she were not so notoriously private.
The multiple personalities of Tori Amos are well known. In the early days of her career, they were much more individual: "But they are more integrated now, these different sides of the self. They come out at different times. It's not as if one goes and strips in a strip club somewhere.
"My many personas come from my lifestyle," she states, pre-empting my question and going straight for the answer. "I don't step into this completely different other person any more,
I think my life is more..." she searches midair momentarily "...I have access to other alter egos." There's a fork in her hand. I wonder how many personalities there are, and if any of them have violent tendencies. "They are all sitting with us here now. Not all of them choose to come out with everyone I have lunch with; it's not the right place for them. But there are some circumstances where you let your guard down and are comfortable enough for them to be there."
I imagine her with several heads with different red hairdos, like the Greek god Typhoeus, and I hide a smile. We're in the dimly-lit restaurant of The Hospital, a private members' club owned by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. She chooses pea soup, because "it would look nice with my hair". And salmon because "I love food, especially fish. We have a chef at home who does it all for us".
The aforementioned lifestyle is rock'n'roll jet set, with just enough ethereal qualities to allow her to retain her weird edge on the singer-songwriter set. "I know that's a paradox. I'm American, I'm not British, people get confused just because I have a British husband and I crash at his house." Her voice crackles a little. She is being defensive; she obviously really loves her husband, the British-born sound engineer Mark Hawley, whom she refers to only as "husband". They have a house and recording studio in Cornwall, where there are no lizards, and another in Florida, where there are. Husband stays in Cornwall.
It's a bi-coastal relationship: Cornwall to Florida. Husband didn't want to move because he'd been there since he was 16 and, let's face it, piano-playing rock'n'roll stars have never been known for not having it their own way.
"I don't work here," she emphasises, pointing to the ground. "I'll do some shows and record. But many musicians move around to record. Oasis record in the States, but that doesn't make them American." I get the picture. She's not British.
"I am here because my husband couldn't bear to leave this place, even though I thought I'd always live in a warm place, with lizards," she says, as if wild lizards are a vital part of her life.
Like many Americans, she is staunchly patriotic. Although her husband and family are based in England, it's the United States of America that spur her on. Her leanings towards the left are well publicised: "I was very vocal with the song Yo George" (off the 2007 album American Doll Posse). The lyric went: "Is this just the madness of King George/Yo George/Well you have the whole nation on all fours."
"I paid a price for that. And yet, I stand by it every step of the way. I got blackballed on some levels. People wouldn't carry the work here and there -- it's not good to give names, because they might be coming in on this record and I'm a f***ing hooker, so I have to take what I can get." It's strange to think that someone heralded as an outspoken singer-songwriter would be so desperate for collaborators as to button her lips.
Although the song she's talking about is obviously critical of the Bush administration, it is not as outspoken as she leads me to believe.
The lyrics "Cause I have now an allergy/to your policies it seems" doesn't really stand up to, say, the Sex Pistols' "God save the Queen/The fascist regime/It made you a moron". But then perhaps it's easy for middle-aged ladies who tinkle the ivories to think they are being more naughty than they actually are.
"It's not as if I am going to start criticising this UK government, it's not my bloodline. I haven't integrated here," she says. "People who've come here to live and work, who say, 'It's my healthcare, this is what I do,' then I can respect that they've become an immigrant. But I am not a f***ing immigrant. Husband and I, we've discussed it a hundred times; if we split, the Cornish place is his and I'm back to the lizards."
She flips from being hardcore about American politics, her American accent thickening, to being a bit mumsy about the lizards again.
But the mumsiness and the floaty dress soon give way; it's hard to keep her off the subject of her Native American ancestors for long. When I ask her what other parts of the world she comes from, because in America most people are the product of multinational breeding, she ignores me. Clearly, it's the Indian way or the highway. "When I am travelling the States, there are certain people who will visit me from the Native States and bring me cedars and sweet grass. They come quietly. My mother's mother and father both came from the Eastern Cherokee band. My mother's mother's grandfather escaped. He had a child with a white woman. Then he was killed. Some gun-thingy. Dead." The LA-babe persona momentarily replaces the Cherokee storyteller. She repositions herself and regains hold of the storyteller facade. It's confusing at times; I don't know which personality is going to show up next.
"My grandfather's mother escaped the Trail of Tears and lived to tell the tale. She lived in the mountains, with her bag, with everything in it." She stops to remind me of her huge bag with everything in it, the babe rearing her head again. "See, ready to go," she explains, "and some arrows. Then she went in as an indentured servant to a big farm. She signed her life away. The boss woman died. Her husband, much older." She wrings her tiny fingers to explain that there was little time wasted bed-hopping to the farmer. "Soon there was a bun in her oven and they married. The boss's sons tried to run her off the estate. The story goes that she always kept a tomahawk tucked in the side of her apron, right by her girdle. And the two sons came in with guns to run her off, and she took her tomahawk and split the door in two, right between them."
I have to confess I'm a little gripped by her tale. It's easy to see how these stories would add to the sense of depth that a soulful and autobiographical songwriter seeks, albeit one who is as mad as a hat-stand. Having started her career at the age of five with a scholarship to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, she then lost it at 11 owing to her lack of interest in sheet music and her new-found interest in pop music. She soon started working the local piano bars of her home town of Baltimore, Maryland, accompanied by her father, a reverend. After moving to LA aged 21 in the 1980s because she "just had to get away -- I'd outgrown my home town and the people there", she hung out with "a group of people who were exploring different techniques in order to expand their consciousness". Were drugs a part of this?
"There were certain circumstances after a day of fasting that you would enter a 24-hour lock-out with a group of people, where ayahuasca [a naturally occurring psychotic] was involved."
Her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, released in 1992 on Atlantic Records, was met with critical acclaim, giving her the leeway to be at the forefront of female singer-songwriters who dominated pop music at that time. For Myra Ellen Amos -- her given name, Tori, came later at the suggestion of a male friend -- just to be leading the way was never enough. By 2005 she'd sold 12m records worldwide, with massive commercial hits coming from the likes of Cornflake Girl and Professional Widow. Her song topics don't shy away from the difficult; Cornflake Girl is about female genital mutilation. But rape, sexuality, her two miscarriages, feminism and, of course, spirituality, are all subject matter for her. "The experiences I have in order to write my songs are not always..." she smiles and sounds all LA babe again, "going shopping." Of course they're not. Her career wouldn't span 20 years if it had. It's not easy reaching inside yourself and writing songs about being the victim of sexual assault, as Amos was in her youth. She later went on to found Rainn -- the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a freephone helpline for victims of abuse in the US. The new album, however, is not so dark. Maybe California re-visits the time and place of her writing Little Earthquakes, telling her that her future will be rosy. While Lady in Blue is thematically based around a woman who is wronged by a man, yet still wants to play with the boys.
ask her if she feels she has compromised anything because she's a woman in what is basically a man's world: the music industry. For the first time in my company, she looks me straight in the eyes and says: "No." There's a long pause. She doesn't need to explain herself. We both wait until the silence is touching the awkward barrier. Then Tori, or one of her personalities, carries on. "I've fallen out with a lot of people in the music industry and in other industries. You can't stand by your beliefs and not have confrontation." She's clearly one of those women who always get what they want and will fight to the death for the cause. She comes across as someone you'd want to fling your arms around when the chips are down, but someone you'd want in your corner for the battle.
After being signed to Atlantic for 15 years, she joined another leading label, Epic, in 2002. Under their umbrella, she released what she thinks is her most important work, Scarlet's Walk. "The work was supported by months and months of research. I studied where the Native American nations held land before the European invasion. Scarlet's Walk is a metaphor for walking the walk of the Good Red Road, which was sacred to our Native ancestors. After I released the album, the Native community opened its arms to me and have been trying to teach me about the meanings of their spiritual ways. You can't seek them out, they have to find you."
Abnormally Attracted to Sin was born out of how you define power. "The concept of power is at the core of all my questions. A powerful person is not someone who abuses their authority. We have to redefine what a powerful person is. The only way to survive someone else's destructive behaviour is to out-create it. If you don't create out of the negative events that come your way, then you become a shell of emptiness walking." She sits alert as she tells me this, and it is as if she has become bigger than her tiny frame. "My creative juices flow when I am going through a transformation. It's challenging when you have to grow and make your changes."
The new album is released on Universal. As fate would have it, a woman pacing past her dinner table in a restaurant turned out to be on the phone to Tori's old mentor, Doug Morris -- the chairman of Universal Music Group. "I went up to her and I interrupted," she says. "It's not something I'd normally do. I told her to send him my love. She was a little aghast that I did that. And she told him and then she hands me the phone. He says to me, 'Are you out of your Epic deal?' He didn't say 'Hi'. We hadn't spoken in 14 years. And I said, 'I'm out.' Within five days he'd flown out to me and said, 'What do you want?' "
It's true, you do make your own luck. But you have to seize the moment when you see it. Tori didn't make the woman walk past her with any special powers. "She was standing there and I went up to her." Everything happens for a reason, I tell her. She nods, and it's almost as if I'm the one who's talking mystically.
Does she think she could be a shaman, I ask, just to see how she'll react. I want her to say that she is, without a doubt, and for her to warble on about her ancestors some more. But instead, she says: "Well, that's a very disciplined path, and I think there are a lot of sacrifices involved. Contemporary life for one." One wonders what parts of contemporary life she's thinking about. Shopping with her daughter, perhaps?
"Tash is fine. She's eight. She's amazing. We were shopping yesterday in Selfridges. We got school shoes and fun shoes. Husband says, 'Why didn't you get school trainers, Wife?' And I said, 'Well, we got glamorous trainers, Husband. They're way cuter, they're glittery and have flowers on.' And he says, 'No, they have to be like this.' And I say, 'Oh, you British people, no wonder you lost the Empire.' "
Husband and child are clearly the most important people in Amos World. And she obviously enjoys the conflict, or her and her big bag would be back with the lizards by now.
On stage, Amos has a long history of sliding across her pianos. She often plays two at once, playing in a half-standing position, face to her audience, back to her band. "Every night on stage is different. The show changes depending on what's happened in each place. You utilise songs to tell the story, like sitting around the fire at the end of the day, recounting the battle. The songs are my palette and I use them to paint something different in front of everyone.
"I was in Washington, right when Bush announced we were going to war. That night I played Raining Blood. I was playing at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall. And being a woman, and having that moment to speak about what was going on, I'll never forget that concert." She smiles and looks into the far distance.
Unlike your average pop star, she doesn't touch a drop before a performance. And, once on stage, she ritually blesses each corner of it. "When you're on a stage, you have to own it," she says, with the sort of extra meaning that can only come from decades of performing. "That means you don't share it with a single person. It's a love affair with a few thousand people at one time, and yet you have to be monogamous with each and every single one of them. I can't see my audience, but I can see the energy they emit."
"Queen of the fairies" might be a misnomer. She's far too ballsy to be a fairy -- even if she is connected to the ether.
"It's a feeling." She leans into me and stares intensely. I wait for her to impart a pearl of wisdom. "Sometimes somebody expresses themselves with concepts that aren't anchored down. I can feel these ideas. But sometimes we live," she pauses and lowers her voice, "in a world where if you walk that road then you are met with cynicism. I have this intimate relationship with these beings that aren't in the flesh, and sometimes I either call experiences to me or I'm drawn to certain things, or certain things happen [her voice by now has risen to almost a shout] which help me get past the two lines of the song I can't get past because I haven't had an experience that helps me see what the song is trying to say. That's where songwriting can be similar to birthing. You do it alone, even though there's a being inside of you. You have to bring life into the world." Baffling. I look at her; I don't know how to respond.
I have my suspicions that her flame-red hair is not homegrown. Word has it that underneath her most distinctive characteristic lies a short red bob. Maybe one of her personalities fancied a bit of dressing up today, but I'm glad she's good at being complicated. It means she's not lost her womanliness, not even one bit. Still, I am a little confused as to who she really is. I tell her that. She smiles, and says: "Reality is an elusive seductress. I like watching her hips move."
photo outtake by Perou
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
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