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The Age (Australia)
April 26, 2014
"Thirty years ago I was told, 'You're a rock chick. This
girl at the piano thing is not going to happen.'" - Tori Amos
Photo: Statia Photography
Body and soul
By Jane Wheatley
Having got over her dread of turning 50, Tori Amos insists that wisdom is sexy and women just need to stick up for themselves.
Tori Amos is a trooper. When I suggest to the American singer- songwriter and pianist that instead of talking in a hotel suite we should go to the park and enjoy Berlin's sparkling spring sunshine, she's straight into it. "Hey John!" she calls to one of her entourage just tiptoeing out of the door, "Could you bring me my trainers and my leather jacket? We're gonna take a walk."
Within minutes Amos has kicked off her stilettos, pulled on pink socks and trainers and is ready to go. Michelle from her record company walks to the lift with us, looking mildly anxious. I'm not abducting her, I say. Amos laughs like a schoolgirl scenting freedom.
On the way out she greets the doorman - "Hi! How are you today?" in that friendly way Americans have - and we walk two blocks to the Tiergarten, a great lung at the centre of the once-divided city. Leaves on the linden trees are unfurling in the first tender green of spring. She might have been here before, she says: "For a photo shoot, you know. Dressed up, told to look this way and that, then back to the hotel in a limousine. But it's beautiful to walk in."
In a career spanning three decades, Amos has 12 million record sales and eight Grammy nominations under her belt, and her soul-baring lyrics speak to generations of fans. She is in Berlin to promote her 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines; released next month, it's the latest in a long line of oddball titles. She has sung about rape and religion, politics and human rights. What is this one about?
"Okay," she says, "Two things. In Ireland I saw a picture of a woman called Geraldine looking up at the Virgin Mary and I read this story about her: she quite fancied a sailor, she's been sent away and she's at the church praying." So she is repentant? "She is, and I thought how women had to be penitent about their passions for so long. Men never had to apologise. Geraldines is about standing by what you believe in, not being apologetic, and accepting that your beliefs may change as you get more experience."
And the second thing? "I discovered Paul Cézanne the year I turned 50. I didn't get it before, but then I began to hear music as I studied the paintings, and that tells me I'm beginning to understand something."
On one of the album tracks, 16 Shades of Blue, she sings, "There are those who say/I am now too old to play ... Before you drop another verbal bomb/can I arm myself/with CÚzanne's 16 shades of blue?" Was she alarmed by turning 50? She blinks through her big, horn-rimmed specs. "If you'd asked me that last year, I'd have said I was circling the drain. Approaching 50 as a woman in the music business, in front of the camera - that's scary, for sure. I have a lot of male compadres in the business who are over 50: they can grow beards and pot bellies and it doesn't matter. They're singers, songwriters, making frontline records and they're funded for that. Not a lot of women are."
She sighs. "Look, there's a group of us women trying to smash the image that wisdom isn't an aphrodisiac, because it surely is." You wish, I say, and she laughs. Amos doesn't look her age: full lips, smooth pale skin, a fall of silky red hair. "You're so kind," she says. "I'd love to show you a picture of my mom: at 60 she looked 20 years younger." So it's genetic luck? "Partly, yes, I guess. But I don't talk about it. Whatever a woman does to herself, I don't care. It doesn't change my opinion."
Fair enough, but does she feel forced to take measures because she is a woman in the limelight? "Look, I never smoked - well, maybe a little blow-back pot on the bus in the '90s - so some of those things play a part," she says. "It's a picture, isn't it? We're in vicious world where you can't win. If you look great, they come after you; if you don't look great, they come after you."
There has always been a strong feminist streak in her work: how have Western women done in the years she's been writing songs? "A few doors have opened," she says. "Sometimes it's three steps forward, two back. Thirty years ago I was told, 'You're a rock chick. This girl at the piano thing is not going to happen.' So a few of us gals shopped at Retail Slut and got our hair this big and had tiny little clothes and didn't play the piano because it wasn't commercial. We had those battles in the '80s and the guys got it in the end."
A breeze has got up, it's beginning to spit rain and we agree to head back. She's about to go on tour. "I'm going out alone this time, with a keyboard and maybe some loops. I'm gonna kick it." It takes a lot of energy, she says, holding the stage by herself. "But Tash says I've got to do it."
Tash is Natashya, her daughter with husband Mark Hawley: they met in 1994 when he came to work for her as a sound engineer. "We got together a year later," she says. Did she fancy him straight away? "Yep." Did he feel the same? "He said he wasn't allowed to, but I think that was a nice way out." She laughs. "But I'm a grower, so that's okay. It's fine that men don't walk in and straight off get sugar plums in their eyes."
Hawley has built a recording studio at their home in Cornwall, England. "It's not super convenient," admits Amos. "I'd like to have done it in the US, but he didn't have the papers." Natashya is now at boarding school and her parents have what Amos calls a bi-continental relationship: "I travel a lot, all my business is run out of the US and I have my home in Florida." Recording is done in Cornwall, songwriting on the road - "where life and interactions are happening". Her husband is not keen on socialising, she says. "He doesn't hold on to me; he knows I'm going to pop in to New York to see friends"
It's raining properly now as we battle along the street in a wind tunnel, leaning into each other. Amos has pulled her coat up over her head and I worry that her hair will be ruined. "But we're having an adventure," she says gaily. "We're being forced to deal with nature and that's when life happens, when you're not in control of everything."
Early in her career, she tells me, she met Peter Gabriel, who gave her some advice: "He said, 'Utilise that record budget, take over a space, acquire the property, get the engineers in, don't just pocket it or blow it on parties.' He was right. I got my own team together so I was in charge. That frees you to be a creative force."
Reaching the shelter of the hotel, we find the door to the suite is locked, so we sit on a bench in the corridor and Amos tells me a story. Her great-great-grandmother was a full-blood Cherokee woman who escaped the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the 1830s.
"She was 16 or 17," says Amos. "She fled into the Smoky Mountains and lived there with her knife and bow and arrow. After a while she figured her time was running out, so she chose a farm run by an old couple and offered herself as an indentured servant so she'd get fed. They called her Margaret. Within a few years, the old woman died, and not long after Margaret was pregnant with the old man's child. He married her and the line comes down from that."
Was he a good man? "Well, I think he was," she says. "They joined forces and had more children." When a daughter, Mary, had a stroke in her 20s, Margaret took in her boy, Calvin. "That was my grandfather, Poppa," says Amos. "He grew up listening to her stories and then he told them to me. He was my go-to person when I was a kid." He died when Amos was nine. "I go to his grave to listen to the stories," she says. "I believe we walk with our ancestors."
At this point, Michelle appears and is appalled to find us sitting in the corridor, but Amos assures her we're fine. She invites me to hear her sing at London's Royal Albert Hall in the summer: "You should go visit Tash in her box," she says. "She always has a box with candy and everything pretty. And Mark's mum will be there, for sure. She's a rocking granny."
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