supplement of the Sunday Mail
November 9, 2003
Tori's Family Values
At 13, Tori Amos rebelled against her Calvinist upbringing to kick-start a nonconformist musical career. Now 40, the maverick singer-songwriter has rediscovered conventional happiness - by settling down in Cornwall with her husband and young daughter.
Interview: Stuart Husband
Photographs: Cody Burridge
"Eccentric?" Tori Amos rolls the word around her mouth as though she has never heard it before. "Isn't that just a polite way of saying kook or flake?" The corners of her mouth twist into a wry smile. "Sure, that word's been applied to me. In fact, all those words have. But I think they're a little strong." She turns her intense gaze on me. "I just come at things from a slightly different tangent."
And then some. In the continued absence of Kate Bush, Tori has assumed the mantle of leading tangentially inclined singer-songwriter. Her fans (a term she finds demeaning - devotees would be nearer the mark) love her mystical musings; her father was a Calvinist preacher, her mother part-Cherokee, and she once claimed to have been a Viking called Sven in a previous life. They also love her honesty - her first single, 'Me and a Gun', detailed the horrific rape she suffered at the hands of a fan to whom she gave a lift after a concert, while 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel album dealt with the guilt she suffered following three miscarriages. They love the drama of her live shows (or 'ceremonies', as she prefers to call them), where she alternately bashes the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and whispers in her affecting folky lilt. And they love the more outré tangents - who else would have been photographed with a pig suckling her breast, as Tori was for the sleeve of her Boys for Pele album?
Tori (real name Myra Ellen Amos, "which I just hated") turned 40 this year, though you'd never know it. She has a shock of tousled, tomato-coloured hair offsetting a rounded, open face that moves easily from furrowed and earnest to girlish and playful. She is tactile and flattering; one of her favourite phrases is "you know this, of course", usually dropped in after some arcane flight of verbal fancy. When I ask how she feels about the big four-0, her response is characteristically baffling: "Well, there was a time when I didn't know what kind of woman I was going to be, and I was unformed." she begins, deliberately, "but I know who I am now, so it's been interesting to go back and explore my feelings, because... I wasn't sure how I felt then, you know?"
The reason Tori has been 'going back' is that she has been compiling a 'best of' album spanning her 12-year career and 12 million album sales. It's called Tales of a Librarian - "because I saw it as all these little stories, which formed one big story, which is my autobiography. So it's the story of this woman who was born in North Carolina in 1963, three months to the day before JFK was shot," she continues. "Her mother laid her on the lawn and prayed for Jackie [Kennedy]'s strength. She was the daughter of ministers, brought up in that whole doctrine of God and Jesus, a piano prodigy who got into Bartok and Prokofiev at six, then rejected it all and started playing piano in gay bars at 13. She got the chance to make her own music, to write about the religious nuts and whores and angels and depressives she saw around her, and explore the society in which she lived. It's her testament, a crazy, mixed-up story, with some joy, some pain, and a lot of ambivalence."
There's a pause while Tori gets her breath back. "I would have loved to have heard or read something from a Roman woman of 2,000 years ago, some first-person account of how she saw things. So this is my equivalent." And, it turns out, it's meant for very specific ears. "I did this for my daughter," she beams. '"When she's 20 and if I'm gone, and she wonders what Mom was up to, she can put on the album. It's all here."
"I didn't go to Cornwall to eat pasties, I went for love. But I like the people, and the experience has changed me."
This is the other inspiration for Tori's stock-take; in the past few years she has found domestic bliss, marrying English sound engineer Mark Hawley (who had worked on her tours, and to whom she refers as 'Husband') in 1998, and finally having the elusive baby she had longed for. Natashya Lorien ('Tash') is now three, and the family live in an old farmhouse near Bude in Cornwall, "Twenty minutes down a dirt road, between a dairy and a chicken farm", with a studio in a converted barn. "Husband picked Cornwall," she says. "He said, 'I want to marry you, but I'm not living in the States,' so the choice was South London, where he was living, or Cornwall. I chose the latter," she grins. "He went there as a boy every summer, and a place matters to you if a person you love identifies with it. I didn't go there to eat pasties, I went there for love. But I like the people, and they've influenced me in all sorts of ways. The experience has really changed me."
And Tori reckons she was ready for change. Before meeting Hawley, she went through what she describes as "a ferocious kind of stalking of men" following the break-up of an eight-year relationship with producer Eric Rosse. "I explored a lot of places and entanglements, trying to find the secret to men, what made them want to have authority over women and try to break their confidence. It was my little midlife crisis." She thought she was looking for the Dark Prince, she says, "but then I realised Lucifer wore a white suit, drove an ice-cream truck, and was a woman". (Some regard Tori as a white witch, and it's a measure of her charm that stuff like this sounds perfectly plausible as she relates it.) Anyway, Husband rescued her from this life. "When I met him, he asked me, 'Why do you chase people who eat you up, spit you out, and leave you at the side of the road?' I had to think about that. I played him along for a while. But I knew immediately that he was the one."
Motherhood has liberated her. "It's great to put someone in the centre in a nurturing way, rather than a career or a relationship or a habit. Tash amazes me every day. There are things in her that aren't me or her dad at all. We'll go, 'Wow, where did that come from?'" Tash is a veteran of several Tori tours. "She loves being carried on stage a few steps, in the dark, just to see the people and feel the kinetic jolt from them," Tori says.
Does she want more kids? "Oh, no no no no no," she insists. "Tash is more than ten children on her own. She's so curious about everything and how and why it works. She puts me on the spot all the time - 'Why this?' and 'Why that?'" She runs her hand through her hair and smiles. "The endless chain of why."
As a mother, Tori is more sympathetic to the plight of her own parents when faced with a rebellious daughter. Her father sounds fairly benign in his own way, allowing young Tori to lead choir practice in a pair of red leather trousers ("Those sessions were always well attended," she says, grinning), and chaperoning her to her first gigs at the gay bars; he even smiled gamely through her 'pagan' wedding ceremony. "We have moved closer together", she concedes, "and he's a great preacher, but he played the patriarch when I was growing up. Maybe it's because I was the youngest by such a long way [her siblings are both medics], but he laid down too many rules. There was no place for women in his church unless they were Madonnas or whores."
But then, with her sensibility, Tori was always going to gravitate to the Native American belief system of her mother's side of the family, with its Mother Earth and goddess hills. "Land is tangible," she says. "You can lie down in it or dance on it; whereas the Christian upbringing denies anything that's primitive in you... I get a lot of letters from people," she says suddenly. "Hundreds a week, when I'm on tour. A lot are about sexual abuse, some kind of invasion." (In the USA she helped set up the charity Rainn - the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network - following her own rape.) "They're in despair. But I'm just reminded of something a Native American said to me years ago: 'Watch the land. If you think about how the Great Mother gets treated, all the poison she's fed, she processes it somehow, and still creates things she can harvest and nurture.'" She smiles. "It's a paradigm for myself, in a small, tiny way."
Her patch of land in Cornwall is "nicely elemental", she says, though the builders have been working on it for so long that they've become family, even asking her advice on their troublesome teenage daughters. There are other houses, in Florida and Ireland, but Tash and Husband are settled in Bude, so concessions have to be made. "I get Japanese tea Fed-Exed from Los Angeles," she says, "and Husband gets books and things for me on the computer. Oh," she adds, laughing, "and I can't find anyone to teach Tash the Suzuki Method on the piano, so I'm going to wear a wig, call myself Miss Honey, and do it myself. Maybe it could be an alternative career."
Despite the cosy domestic setup, there are always new tangents Tori Amos is willing to explore.
Tales of a Librarian: a Tori Amos Collection will be released on 17 November on Atlantic.
[transcribed by Pete Lambert]
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