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Daily Telegraph (UK)
Wednesday, September 5, 2001
"I needed a child in my life more than I knew"
After decades of angst, Tori Amos seems to have found happiness with a settled relationship and a daughter. Julia Llewellyn Smith reports.
Under the pulpit of the Union Chapel in Islington, north London, Tori Amos, a preacher's daughter, is sitting, legs crossed, at her grand piano, tossing her flame-red hair.
"My grandmother said you need to give your body to your husband and your soul to God and all your love to Jesus," she tells her rapt audience. "Well, what's left?"
"The music!" someone shouts. For a moment, the singer looks surprised - then she chuckles.
Amos, the high priestess of suffering, has sold more than 10 million albums in the past decade. Her songs - dismissed by some as the outpourings of a hysterical whacko - chronicle every traumatic experience of Amos's 38 years.
On her debut album, Little Earthquakes, she described how she was raped at gunpoint. Boys for Pele, in 1996, tackled the break-up of her seven-year relationship with her producer Eric Rosse, while From the Choirgirl Hotel explored her agony after a miscarriage. Her lyrics are suffused with guilt, the legacy of her relationship with the aforementioned, grandmother (like Amos's father, a Methodist minister), who warned her young granddaughter that pre-marital sex was the quickest route to hell. Reacting to this, Amos developed an iron resolve to "expose the dark side of Christianity" and, on stage, she writhes orgasmically, like a woman possessed.
Two days after her Islington show, Amos is still rejoicing at having performed in a working church ("a place that, for so many hundreds of years, has terrified people with its beliefs").
Curled up on the sofa of a London hotel, she is tiny and very pretty, with porcelain skin that is accentuated by glossy, copper locks. Her manner is polite to the point of humility, and the diamonds on her fingers are the only clues to her superstar status.
After decades of angst, happier times have arrived for Amos. Three years ago, she married a British sound engineer, Mark Hawley and settled down in a 300-year-old cottage in Cornwall. After two more miscarriages a year ago, she gave birth to her daughter Natashya Lorien ("named after Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings," she says, happily).
For a woman whose lyrics can be unnervingly candid, in person she is deliberately vague, preferring woolly metaphor to illuminating fact. "I'm sorry to be talking in such symbolism," she says, several times.
Yet, slowly, as she relaxes, the conversation becomes more personal.
With hillbilly roots on her father's side and Cherokee Indians on her mother's, Amos (christened Myra Ellen) grew up in Washington DC. At five, she became the youngest student ever to be admitted to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. At 11, she was expelled (for "musical insubordination") and began playing Send in the Clowns in hotel lobbies and bars.
At 21, she moved to Los Angeles in search of a record contract. A year later, she was raped by a member of the audience to whom she had given a lift after a show. For years, Amos tried to bury the memory. "I didn't really ever talk about this. I didn't deal with it. Girlfriends were coming up to me saying: 'You need a shrink. I'm not going to talk to you anymore.' I think there's a real embarrassment and shame to any kind of invasion on that level."
It took seven years and a viewing of Thelma & Louise before her recovery could begin. Amos went to see the film on her own, and as she watched the scene where Susan Sarandon shoots a would-be rapist, she began weeping, uncontrollably. "I breathed for the first time in seven years," she says. She went home and two hours later had composed a song called Me and a Gun, which became something of an anthem for survivors of sexual assaults.
After three more confessional albums, and with the birth of Natashya ("I really needed her in my life more than I knew"), Amos's creative misery had dried up. Motherhood had transformed her: the trademark solipsism had vanished, replaced by anxiety about the state of the world her child would grow up in.
It all contributed to her latest album, Strange Little Girls, a collection of songs written by men and reinterpreted from a female I perspective. Repeatedly, the theme returns to violence. She sings cover versions of Happiness is a Warm Gun by the Beatles, Raining Blood by the heavy metal band Slayer and, most strikingly, a song called Bonnie and Clyde by Eminem. On the original version, the rapper from Detroit sings to his daughter about killing his wife and depositing her body in the boot of his car -- and all to a jaunty beat. In contrast, Amos's arrangement has her softly whispering the lyrics in the character of the dead woman.
"When I first heard the song, the scariest thing to me was the realisation that people are getting into the music and grooving along to a song about a man who is butchering his wife," she says. "Half the world is dancing to this, oblivious, with blood on its sneakers. To me, certain thoughts kicked into place really fast. It was like her hand was reaching out of the trunk and pulling me towards her and saying: 'I see this kind of differently.'"
Ironically, in America, Amos, the white middle-class woman, is viewed as being far more threatening than Eminem. Songs about masturbating while her father prayed downstairs, and God needing a good woman to look after him, were banned from mainstream radio, boosting her cult status. It's no wonder she feels more comfortable in Britain.
"The British are less affected by Christianity, which is odd as you did take it to the ends of the Earth," she says. "But the guilt's still there in other ways -- in your class system, in the way you can't deal with success."
In fact, since the birth of Natashya, Amos has yearned to spend more time at her beach house in Florida (there's a third home in Ireland). "My husband and I are arguing about it. When he proposed! he said: 'I want to It was the most romantic thing, until the caveat: 'But I am not moving to that country.' I guess it's just fortunate I'm a better traveller than he is," she adds, drily.
There's little doubt that marriage has been good for Amos. She met Hawley through work, while she -- still on the rebound from Rosse -- was tinging herself into a series of unsuitable relationships.
"I was up to no good," she says, shaking her head. "Then, one day, my husband said to me: 'Why does the woman always seem to run after the man that's going to use her up and spit her out once he's done with her?' I walked away reeling from that, like a fish on a hook. I still think I have a headache from it."
With all her talk of past lives (she was once a Viking named Sven, she claims) and medicine women, it's easy to dismiss Amos as a harmless flake. Yet, she's a space cadet with a steel core. She runs her own publishing company, fiercely controls the rights to her songs and has succeeded in rallying corporate funds for her charity Rainn -the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. "I'm an alpha type female -- a hunter," she says. "When my work isn't coming out well, I don't have a libido."
It took the arrival of Natashya to soften Amos's control-freak tendencies. "My little girl can hold her own. Some friends asked if she wanted to pick out her own birthday present and she picked out a Barbie," she says, rolling her eyes. "I used to tear the heads off my sister's Barbies, but I can't intercede. Dad wouldn't let me hear Led Zeppelin and I grew up wanting nothing more than to have sex with Robert Plant. I have to respect Natashya's wishes and not do to her what was done to me."
Strange Little Girls (eastwest Records) is released on September 17. Tori Amos will tour Britain in December.
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