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Daily Mail (UK)
January 4, 2014

'My favourite words? Numpty, muppet and plonker. I do like a British insult': Inside the head of... Tori Amos

By Andrew Preston

The singer-songwriter is not what you would call conventional. Her mother read her death poems as a child. At 50 she had the best night of her life -- not jumping off Blackfriars Bridge. Then there was the time she found Buddha at the Tesco's checkout...

What is your earliest memory?

Playing a black upright piano and not being able to reach the keys very well. My mother says I was two-and-a-half when I started playing. My father was a minister and when he went to church in the morning she would put on Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Cole Porter records. I'd crawl up on the piano stool, sit on a phone book and play. I played with both hands from the start.

What sort of child were you?

I was very close to my mother as the youngest of three. She was my playmate. I went to school but I just didn't find it as stimulating as listening to mum. She would read to me Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken and my favourite, Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop For Death. It didn't seem heavy, she was just sharing her favourite poetry and stories. She would have been an English teacher if she hadn't become a minister's wife and I was her willing student.

What has been your biggest achievement?

Getting big boy record executives to see the piano wasn't just for piano bars or for playing classical music or jazz standards.

What's been your most embarrassing moment?

Falling off the piano stool at a gig in Pennsylvania. A combination of a very slick floor and an odd stool. The drummer kept going, so I just played on my knees until somebody could run round and set me up again. Things go wrong all the time, you can't be precious about it.

What are you best at?

Making toasted sandwiches. They have to be with the right bread, not too thick and with the right condiments. My repertoire includes chicken with Jarlsberg cheese, rocket, tomatoes and spring onions.

What is your best character trait?

I'm a hard worker. I get my hands dirty.

What is your worst character trait?

I'm not as sensitive as I think I could be. 'Oh get off the cross, we need the wood'; that can be how I react.

What's your favourite word and why?

Numpty, muppet and plonker. I do like British insults, I can take them, they make me smile. We don't have words in the States that make you feel loved and take the p*** out of you at the same time. Here you can insult somebody but you know that they're not trying to make you feel bad about yourself. You're laughing with them.

Who would your dream dinner date be?

The writer Edith Wharton -- I'm reading a biography of her. I'd love my 13 year-old daughter Tash to see what women had to go through in the late 19th and early 20th century. To learn about the strength that she must have had to live as she did, and to accomplish and write what she did considering the place of women at the time.

Tell us a secret about yourself

I was so obsessed with basketball when I was nine that I would write to the coach of the University of Maryland team saying he was a complete loser. I would talk games through play by play. It had to end, I had to take a step back. I love ballroom dancing too, there's a fluidity to it like basketball. But only to watch, not to dance.

What is your biggest regret?

I regret not learning to ski. I always wanted to. I walk in the mountains in the snow, but there seems such freedom about skiing.

What or who do you dream about?

I dream about music I've composed. It's complete and fully orchestrated and I'm playing it; then I wake up and every note has gone.

Who do you most admire?

The artist Louise Bourgeois. She lived to 98 but she wasn't really recognised for 70 years. Her conviction to her work inspired so many. I love that she would talk to art students on Sundays in New York, encouraging them.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Boesendorfer pianos: they're wonderful. Ever since I was five and I played on them at the Baltimore Peabody Conservatory, I felt they were completely different to any other piano, possibly because they're handmade. They have a different soul to them and you feel that they play you, if you let them.

Describe the best night of your life

The night I turned 50 and realised I hadn't jumped off Blackfriars Bridge. There can be trepidation hitting the big numbers, but a few weeks before, I had an amazing chat with a Tesco checkout lady in Cornwall. She didn't know me but she took time to talk. I started to break down and she told me to seize life with both hands and to be present for every second. At that moment she was my Buddha; you don't know who your Buddha's going to be.

Who would you like to say sorry to and why?

My English teacher when I was 16, Mrs Susan Barrett. She told me I could be not half bad if I would pay attention. But I was way too busy singing along with all the music at the time, like Blondie's Call Me. I wasn't listening about William Faulkner. Once I left high school I started reading all the things she wanted me to read.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a good sport.

Tori Amos's musical 'The Light Princess' is at the National Theatre until February 2, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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