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"I'm very selective about what goes into my mouth."
Bearing the scars of sexual and religious repression, Tori Amos claims she spits out anything she doesn't like the taste of. Is her new album, Under the Pink, an exorcism of the soul or merely the babblings of an L.A. Fruitcake?
by Steve Malins
photos by Barry Marsden
"The whole Christian theology is that god came down to experience life through his son. Well, how's he experiencing life if he doesn't get laid? Give me a break. And why would he not get laid, as he created the apparatus in the first place? Of course he soiled his little dinky," grins Tori Amos, still -- at 30 -- the impish, rebellious daughter of a Southern Methodist Preacher.
Amos's first hand experience of sexual repression, prejudice and violence shapes her opinions, her emotionally charged music and the way she likes to present herself. It's her idea to stage the photo shoot as a mock-up of Kate Moss's advertising campaign for Calvin Klein underwear, replacing the model's waifish androgynous physique with her own five-foot-three inches frame. "I don't want to look like a virgin," she laughs. "I'm a grown woman. I've earned my experiences, and my scars."
Tori's wilful escape from her oppressive religious background in North Carolina is described in vivid, often disturbing, emotional detail on her two solo albums, 1991's Little Earthquakes (which has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide to date) and this year's Under the Pink. Both have touched a chord with women, who write to her about their own sexual traumas, and with men who want to find out more about their girlfriends, sisters and mothers.
Perhaps they also see in Tori a mischievous soulmate. Seated in a café in London's Kensington, she affects a laddish bravado, closer in spirit to her infamous '80s "rock-chick" alter-ego than the dreamy singer-songwriter person of more recent acquaintance. "When I'm hanging out with the guys, a babe can walk into the room and I can totally understand why they're in love," she drawls through a wide, sassy grin. "I'm like, 'Yeah, if I had one of those things that those guys have, I'd totally be rising right now.'"
While her labelmates Tracy Chapman and Tanita Tikaram were unable to match the impact and sales of their respective debut albums, Tori's recent follow-up album debuted at Number One in the UK charts. Her continued success is partly indebted to the size and fanaticism of her following, although her large blue-grey eyes are still fired with a determination to reach out to new converts. On her current mammoth world tour, she pours out over an hour-and-a-half of her soul-baring material to her voyeuristic audiences. Seventeen years as a working pianist has left her with a stamina and professional guile which belies her New Age hippy looks.
Despite the growing scale of her business operation, the songwriter retains a potent and unusually open relationship with her devotees. Leaning forward with a fixed stare, she explains the awkward vulnerability she senses in fans of both sexes. "I'm the Queen of the nerds. I love nerds -- by which I mean, not a cool, bitchin' person. I guess I was a cool nerd. I wasn't shuffling my feet in the corner of the playground, I was the homecoming queen, but then, all the nerds voted for me."
Among her more famous fans is Trent Reznor from Nine-Inch-Nails, who joined her -- in the 150-yaer-old hacienda in New Mexico she rented for the recording -- to sing a duet on the new album. Reznor's armour-plated Industrial music and self-abusing stage persona are transparent to Tori, who can still detect the little boy inside. "There are a lot of hidden nerds. I'm aware of the exciting man in Trent The Nine Inch, but I can see the nerd in him, too. People who become the frontrunners often used to be outcasts or loners." She's less sure about the attentions of "the ones with glasses, who read their books and pick their nose. They're a little more difficult, but I love them, too. They're so heavy on the mental side that they're cut off from the emotional. Usually, the hidden ones come to my shows, but when the nerdy nerds show up, I observe them because they're so very uncomfortable with their physical selves."
Tori's wariness of these self-absorbed figures is well rounded.
Her open-legged stance at the piano on stage has attracted a few genuine voyeurs, but most of her male fans restrict themselves to wishful thinking, or letters tinged with adolescent pathos about their sex lives. However, some correspondents are more threatening. "I'm aware that I'm calling up a lot of emotional things," she says, demurely leaning back in her chair. "I communicate about issues that are disturbing, so I know that stuff is gonna come up. I get my letters from guys who wants me to tell them about their girlfriends. That's OK, although I wrote the song 'Pretty Good Year' (on Under the Pink) to help them overcome their self-pity. But then, I also have the guys who want to marry me or read the Lord's Prayer to me for 18 hours a day. You know: 'It's OK, Tori, if you're not able to listen to it. I'll have some leather thongs right by the chair in case you feel that you can't sit still.' The funniest ones are when I get a letter like that and they say: 'I need to save you from Lucifer.' And I kind of giggle and thing to myself: 'Lucifer's fine, it's not him that I need protection from.'"
Although Tori's melodies have a laid-back quality that borders on easy listening, her self-confessed aggressive personality is displayed in the emotional power of her best material. It's this fierce determination to confront "the dead wood and weeds" in her life that has touched a substantial female following, who, unfortunately, also include violent, hysterical obsessives. "There are certain people whom you cannot communicate with," she says sadly. "I've been face-to-face with people like that at gigs. There was the Avon Lady in the States, and I felt horrible because I couldn't remember her name, and she threw a tantrum. She was screaming and we had to escort her out, because, well, what do you say?" She adds: "It hurts me when a woman doesn't come through for me, more than a man. I've had this ideal of women that of course we're able to work things through and understand each other. But a lot of Under the Pink is actually about emotional violence between women, rather than between the sexes. There's a definite pecking order, which men usually don't see."
Nevertheless, her intimate exploration of rape ('Me And A Gun' from Little Earthquakes) and sexual taboos, coupled with her rakish good humour, has inspired other more rewarding encounters. She often finds that her own experiences are mirrored by those of her audience: "Although I've only done eight shows so far, I've already met several girls backstage who tell me that they can't get intimate because there's a part of them that they cut off. They can only fuck a man by pretending to be somebody else."
Tori spent years detaching herself from emotional involvement by imagining that she was being paid for sex. "If you fantasise about yourself as a whore, that's about control. I felt judged by men. But I've always been very selective about the men I go with. I might talk a good game, but I'm very selective about what goes into my mouth. I spit out food I don't like, so just imagine," she grins slyly.
Tori's whore fantasies were another attempt to burn away her dry Methodist roots. As a child, she was surrounded by "women who hadn't been wet between their legs for 20 years," and who didn't take kindly to her dreams about being Jesus's lover. "I had a really big crush on Jesus. I used to think that I would have been a really good girlfriend for him. I got into big trouble for that." If they'd known what else the inquisitive Myra Ellen (she changed her name to Tori later) had been up to, they may have been even more severe. A new track, 'Icicle', pays homage to the joys of masturbation, and includes the nostalgic line, "Getting off, getting off, while they're all downstairs singing prayers."
Twenty years on, Tori still feels biterness towards her domineering grandmother, who set out to instill the fear of God in "this young, brown-haired runt." Her mother was more sympathetic, although often equally constricted by her prudish moral values.
Tori vividly recalls her distress and anger when, with blood running down her leg, she experienced her first period in a school playground at the age of ten. "My mother hadn't told me anything about it. I thought I was going to die. I was like: 'give me a break, mother, we look at Playgirl magazines at the weekend at Emily's in between playing The Who and Led Zepplin. I'm old enough to know about this.' I got into trouble then for yelling."
These days, their relationship has improved, although it's based on some unexpected common ground. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the older sister. My mother's a Southern lady, a sweetheart. She's definitely the minister's wife on one hand, and then, on the other, she's a witch. She's a little wicked. She loves being with musicians. She has no judgment when she sees the earrings and the five studs on the tongue. When she heard Trent Reznor's vocal on my song 'Past the Mission', she said: 'Well, I do see, women are gonna be after him, he just sounds so smooth.' And I said: 'Mother, they already are,' and she goes: 'Well, there'll be more now, I promise you that.'"
According to Tori, they also respect each other's "visions" and their dreams of past lives, a talent which she claims has been handed down through their Cherokee blood-line. The singer gleefully recollects exotic past lives as a "fat little cook, chopping up food for my rough, tough knights", and her Icelandic warrior incarnation, Sven the Viking. "You know, if a 'gorgeous' man walks into a bar, I look; I turn my head and check out Brutus, right," she smirks. "But if Sven walked in, he'd get way more chicks than this idiot." She slips into the first person, as she re-lives some of her Berserker conquests. "I think I was a good guy, you know. Maybe I flayed some nuns and stuff and made some carpets in the old days, and that was kind of gross, but we've had some violent times, I know that."
The media image of Tori as a 'kooky' New Age singer is founded on such offbeat, fantastical stories, but she's unrepentant. "This is a very functional civilisation that wakes up, takes a shit, goes to work, eats, comes home, maybe gets it once or twice a week, (if they're really lucky), shits (if they're regular), and goes to bed again. Dull, press the eject."
As a four-year-old child prodigy, Tori discovered that the creative freedom she experienced on the piano was met with similar narrow-minded resistance. At weekends, her father took her to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where her taste for self-expression and rock music led to her expulsion at the age of 11. "I'm an emotional player," she says. "I've never felt anything that moves me as much as my piano. I don't really like people. I prefer my piano to people. It's totally reliable and it's alive. I can hear what it's saying. For the most part, pianos are female to me. Sometimes they're dykes, and they're always good fun." she adds, with a typical flash of humour.
Her early retirement from classical music was followed by years of playing Gershwin standards in a gay piano bar in Washington D.C: "I learned so much about real respectability from gay waiters. I used to play there when I was 13, wearing my sister's polyester pants and all made-up to look older. I was happy. The men there were more interested in my father, who was in his clerical collar at the back." She then left home and worked as a jobbing pianist, performing to indifferent diners at nightclubs and hotels across America. Despite her usually inattentive audiences, her role as a "piano girl" finally liberated her sex life. "I've never gotten a guy without the piano. It's almost like I became justified as a person when people heard me play. Before that, men would never talk with me or hang out with me."
In the '80s, she attempted to turn men's heads by ditching her favourite instrument and turning herself into a "whoring" LA rock chick. "It's hard not to notice a girl with two-foot hair and plastic snakeskin boots up to her thighs, unfortunately. That's what my band, Y Kant Tori Read, was all about. I left home at 21 and I was off to the races."
She released one flop album on Altlantic Records and was described as a "bimbo" by Billboard. "My lowest career point," she confesses. Hurt by the criticism, she made the decision to return to her piano to write the songs which would eventually become Little Earthquakes. Atlantic was so confused by this sudden change in direction that it decided to pack her off to its UK distributor, Eastwest Records, to see what they could make of it all. In a West London flat, Tori performed a private candlelit set to Eastwest executive Max Hole, a devoted Kate Bush fan. He signed her on the spot.
Aged 27, Tori was finally able express herself fully through her music, in the process opening a door on her darkest, most traumatic experience as the victim of a rape in her early 20s. "It's not something where you just go: 'Well, get over it.' Or: 'Believe in love and peace, my child, and it'll all be over.' Well, fuck you -- that isn't the answer. It's a great thought, OK, but you can go and stick the crystals up your butt and let's get on with it. I'm all for love and peace, but that's not the side I work on. I work on the part before you get into the kitchen, right, before you make a blueberry pie, sit down and drink a herbal tea and watch the sunset. First of all, you've got to pass me in the basement with the rats."
For a long time after the attack, Tori avoided "any man who looked like him. If somebody would talk about it -- or worse, joke about it -- I would be ready to kill. That's not healing. It was a very long time after that before I was with anyone again. And it has never been the same as it was before."
After failing to work out her problems through several previous relationships, she's found more dynamic support in the form of her current boyfriend Eric Rosse, who co-produced Under the Pink. "Eric was a big change. He's been a major thing in my life, mainly because he's been helping me work through this violent attack. The way that he deals with it with me has changed my whole view of men." She also reveals: "I'm gonna throw away my pills on this tour, in some city, I haven't decided where yet. At 30, I feel ready to have a child, although I don't intend to stop my career. I just don't want to do another major tour like this."
Tori's habit of leaning across the table when she's about to confide something becomes more pronounced as she continues: "I'm a better person when I'm around Eric. He has a little Irish maiden in him. Not a fair battle against my Sven, it's true, but he doesn't mind being conquered. There's a bit of 'do with me what you will' in him. He was raised by hippie Russian parents, and I sensed that he had none of those Christian hang-ups, and he knew that I had them. He was turned on by the hidden filth scene with me. You know, the revenge of the good girl. The little librarian with a tale to tell." VOX
photo: Tom Sheehan
TORI TOP TEN
"I can't put a lot of new records in the Top Ten because I have to grow with albums. Listening to older ones brings back a lot of memories, they were part of my growing up. In a few years time, some of what I am listening to now will probably form a new Top Ten."
1. ARETHA FRANKLIN Amazing Grace
"She came from the gospel church and my growing up was devoid of passionate music. This made me aware that there was passionate church music."
2. LED ZEPPELIN The Box Set
"The Girls Gotta Have It"
3. THE DOORS LA Woman
"I imagined Jim Morrison as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings riding in on his horse and putting me on his saddle. I was totally into that at seven."
4. NINE INCH NAILS The Downward Spiral
"I like to put this one on when I think the plane is going to crash."
5. JONI MITCHELL Blue
"It was good to know that a woman understood exactly what you were feeling."
6. MILES DAVIS Sketches of Spain
"It's such a beautiful example of a great musician reflecting on a great composition, the "Concierto De Aranjuez", the centrepiece of the record. Miles' trumpet is like one long stream of melody."
7. JANIS JOPLIN Cheap Thrills
"She was like a Harley Davidson becoming a woman."
8. PATTI SMITH Horses
"One of the greatest poets of our time."
9. THE BEATLES Revolver
"The Beatles thwarted my original idea of becoming a concert pianist."
10. SEX PISTOLS Never Mind the Bollocks
"Oh my God..."
[scans by Richard Handal]
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