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August 25, 2009
Tori Amos: Welcome to Her World
By Nancy Dunham
Tori Amos tells everyone the song "Welcome to England," the first single off her new album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin (released May 19 on Republic), is just a story. But when asked if it isn't really something more specific, perhaps a love song to her husband, she hesitates.
"I don't usually like to answer those questions," said Amos. "I tell everyone it's just a story and I happen to know the people in the story. But yeah, that one is kind of obvious. It is [a love song]. But it's also more."
As fans know, Amos made her name by barring her soul. Her songs have fearlessly exposed a host of personal issues ranging from her love life to her childhood to her rape. Ever since Amos' breakout album Little Earthquakes (1992) listeners have heard intimate details about the artist's life. Consider "Silent All These Years" from that album. It was the B-side to "Me and A Gun," which many radio stations declined to play because of its graphic imagery. Both songs are moving – some would say blood chilling – accounts of Amos' rape. In the years since Little Earthquakes Amos' songs still revolve around her main topics – religion, sexuality and abandon – but seem less confessional and more distanced. That's perhaps never been truer than on her new release. Instead of the songs about her rape, the cruelty of childhood ("Precious Things") and even a scorned romance ("Blood Roses"), Amos' new material is moving more toward the observational tone of "Cornflake Girl," which she wrote about betrayal among women.
Amos credits her 1998 marriage to Mark Hawley, her musical collaborator, for helping to center her life. One impact Hawley made was to convince Amos to move to England where they could maintain more privacy in their personal relationship. That's another point explored in "Welcome to England."
"It's tricky sometimes when you are not in your home country... and you followed somebody else to his world. You lose pieces of yourself behind [you]," said Amos. "Then you wake up thinking 'Wait a minute. I have to make sure I bring my own perspective and who I am.'"
Amos has always worked hard to establish her independence. She was a child prodigy playing piano at age two and composing music by age five, when she entered the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her time at the acclaimed musical conservatory - where she was given a full scholarship - was cut short when she clearly voiced her preference for pop and rock music and declined to follow their intensive instructions.
That feistiness continues to this day, Amos said, even when she's working with Hawley. But that just brings more passion to the music.
"When you're collaborating with somebody in a creative way you won't always agree and get along," said Amos. "The situation is sexy and it's an interesting way to be inspired." Of course, the intensity is adjusted a bit more now than perhaps it was in the past. Although Amos and Hawley work at her home studio in England, they also balance parenthood. Their daughter Natasha – called Tash – turns nine in September. "I remember one time we were [quibbling] about music, excited about an idea, and when we walked in Tash said, 'Look at you two. Leave it outside,'" recalled Amos. "I think that was one of those moments when you realize she's getting older now and we have to keep conversations like that in the studio and step into the roles of mom and dad when we're home."
Musician, mother and good friend are all terms that Amos uses to identify herself. The one role she is hesitant to mention though is of partner with Hawley. That's why you won't hear her discuss the relationship – except perhaps for in "Welcome to England" – in her music.
"Our relationship is really private," she said. "Mark and I have our own things between us. He was always insistent on the privacy and now I understand why. It has been the right choice, the wise choice. It is kind of special to have a relationship that only the two of you know about."
That sort of privacy is crucial to Amos now that she has a family to consider as she continues to stay at the top of her career. One way she works to keep perspective is to avoid reading reviews of her work.
"I have an understanding with the work and I have an editing system in my life that is very good," she said. "I know a lot of critics hated 'Haystacks' when Monet [painted it], so it doesn't really matter does it? Their perception is their perception." That's not to say, though, that Amos is a recluse or keeps her family sheltered from her public life. At a recent Washington D.C. concert, Tash was seen and heard cheering on her mom during the show. Amos speaks with pride about how Tash is able to relate to grown ups - talking about Coco Chanel and other mature topics - and working in the catering area of her mom's tour.
"Because she is around so many adults she is able to relate," said Amos. "Each year she has a backstage theme, picks out a different wardrobe. This year it's Tasha Chanel, all black and white. She works and saves her money to buy her clothes. We don't expose her to some parts of the business; she does have a balance and we do protect her. People who come to the shows, though, know she needs some privacy and time to grow up. They're respectful of that."
And what about respecting Amos' privacy?
Amos said she insists on it as a way to balance her life and remain enthusiastic in the business. "My songs are so personal," she said. "I need a very private side to balance that." Yet she's also not afraid to sing about topical issues like politics and women's rights.
That was clear in Amos' 2007 release American Doll Posse, where she assumed five different female personas. That was a time of national, if not global, frustration, she said, and the record echoed that unrest in the heat and passion of the music. Now that the political climate has changed, Amos found it was time for some musical beauty.
"It's time for beautiful melodies," she said. "The sounds [of "Welcome to England"] were created around the feelings and working around the song structure; the structures were demanding certain arrangements. It came out sexy and modern."
The way Amos approaches song is much how she approaches life and how she portrays herself onstage. "No matter what artist you are, you have to play to your strengths," she said. "When you try to be someone you are not, like me in a g-string or sending out for champagne... that's not who I am," she said. "When I go see artists, I expect to hear a certain point of view in the world. I believe you are what you believe. But, I also think there's a time and place for everything. When I'm picking up my daughter from school I don't talk about the things I might discuss during a business call. It's all about balance."
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