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Saturday Magazine (UK)
supplement to The Times
September 22, 2001
Ray of Light
Tori Amos, the once pained singer-songwriter, is now a happily married cornish wife with a longed-for daughter. So, has she finally found her precious things?
Interview by Alan Jackson
Photos by Ellis Parrinder
THE SMALL, STRAPPED-IN YET STILL DELIGHTED- looking person in the kiddie seat has rouged her face with soft pink goo. Used as a brush, and now held proudly aloft, is a sugar cone topped with strawberry ice-cream. Though fresh from the store, it is rapidly approaching meltdown: rivulets course down a dimpled arm, then begin an insistent drip-drip-drip on to a Peter Rabbit dress. The small pink puddle forming in its lap would be reason enough for another child to start wailing, but not Natashya Lorien Hawley She pushes the cone to her mouth again, squeaks, then giggles and gurgles, and kicks her legs in a sitting-down dance of life-not-getting-much-better-than-this. At 4pm on a summer's-over afternoon, no ten-month-old in the world could possibly he happier.
Grabbing glimpses of this child heaven through the rear-view mirror, Natashya's mother smiles as she drives. She herself seems calmly, even serenely, happy This is not an emotional colour we are used to seeing Tori Amos wear. Tortured Artist is the shade more readily associated with the North Carolina-born singer-songwriter, as witnessed on songs like Cornflake Girl and Precious Things. But here she is, palette lightened by a loving marriage and, finally, after the pain of three miscarriages, the motherhood she had longed for. And here she is in clifftop Cornwall, too. "We're close to where my husband came on holiday with his parents as a boy," she tells me. "It called him back and 1 wanted to follow."
Amos, 38, recalls exactly when she first met her husband-to-be, Mark Hawley, and how it made her feel. "One of those moments when time stands still, but also speeds up. When your head is filled with photographs from your past, but also from your future. All of these different realities playing simultaneously, and yet only a few seconds have elapsed. Only a few seconds, and yet you know your life has been changed for ever."
She pauses, smiles, welcomes me into the converted farmhouse that is their home: "He, on the other hand, didn't notice me." she continues. "He just looked at me, said, 'Hi. Nice to meet you,' and was off. But I? I knew there and then that 1 was in trouble. That my whole life was going to have to change, and in a very big way." This, even though Hawley was only auditioning to be her sound engineer, a post he claimed in 1994 and holds to this day.
It took time for love to blossom. The two joined professional forces just as Amos began a lengthy series of concert dates in support of a second album, Under the Pink. During its gestation, a seven-year relationship with its producer. Eric Rosse, had fallen apart. Thus, much shaken by this, but also by her sudden, unspoken attraction to the new man on her team, Amos admits she sought distraction elsewhere while on the road.
"I played the role of professional widow all over the place." To forget about Mark, or to provoke him? "Everyone knows the lyrics to I'm Not in Love (the old 10 CC hit). Well, with him I was playing precisely that game. My intentions were not at all honourable, but still we were just acquaintances. Then, one night, at sound check and towards the end of a very gruelling tour, he turned to ask, 'Will you tell me one thing, Tori?' I said that I would try."
Hawley's question was this: "Why is it that women chase after, and run off with, men who never see who they are or value what that is?" Big stuff. "Yet absolutely the right thing for him to ask of me at that particular point in time," says Amos. "It stopped me dead in my tracks." And, crucially, gave her a first intimation that he, in turn, harboured feelings for her.
Today, the inquisitor is playing football barefoot on the lawn with the young son of Natashya's nanny, quite possibly to avoid the small media storm (my visit coincides with that of various hair and make-up, costume and photographic people) that has gathered beneath his roof. Later, when I track him down to the adjoining studio where the new CD, Strange Little Girls, has been recorded, he demonstrates not only an unforced charm, but also a quiet, affecting pride in the achievements of his wife of three years. Their home feels like a happy one.
Achieving this equilibrium took time. Like any two people trying to create a life together, they found that compromise was called for. At the time of their epiphany, Amos was living in funky, fashionable Notting Hill. Hawley was south of die river. "So I upped and moved to Streatham [endearingly, she invests the place name with a kind of holy import] and did my best to make things work. I would shop at Sainsbury's and then come home and try cooking. I would watch the telly and we would go for walks, spend time with his friends. But..." She trails off, as you knew she would. Somehow, Tori in Streatham was just never going to work.
Rock star money (12 million albums sold worldwide to date) can buy mobility. The couple tried living in Ireland, and are currently restoring a Georgian house in Kinsale. There is also a property on the Florida coast, but Hawley finds America debilitating after a while. "So he set out on this quest." says Amos. "Said he had to revisit the area where once he'd been so happy. And when he found it again, he also found this house."
Luckily, Cornwall's mystical and spiritual associations appealed to Amos, who is well-known for her interest in pagan and fairie lore. On top of this, she found a subtle intimacy revisiting the places of her partner's youth. "To be with the one you love and hear their stories ... You can almost see the eight-year-old running on the beach," she says. "If we're having a dark day, we walk on that same sand and try to connect his younger self with mine, far away in the 100-degree heat of Carolina and busy eating watermelon."
Though living m relative isolation outside Bude, the pair seem to have been accepted into the wider community: they worked with local craftsmen to create the magnificent recording complex, and local boffins help man it. All that was missing, then, was a Natashya.
A first miscarriage took place before their marriage, and was partially documented in the hurting songs on the 1998 LP From the Choirgirl Hotel. "I thought after that, 'No! Over! I've had enough!'" says Amos. But tests showed that there was no specific medical cause, and that the Hawleys had simply been unlucky. Two further losses later, they felt very unlucky indeed. "I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone," Amos says quietly. That she, the daughter of a Methodist minister, had fought so hard in her early life for the right to believe all is not divinely ordained - that it is, in her words, "a free- will planet" - seemed only to make things worse.
"At first, I tried to play poker with every god from every religion. To negotiate with them. I walked to the edges of this dimension to ask, what do I have to do for which of you in order to keep a baby? I waited to see if any of them would show up to talk to me. The Islamic God? The Christian God? Any god would have done: just give me the child! But no, they were all busy playing golf."
In time, a kind of acceptance of their situation was arrived at. "Acceptance of the fact that not everything in life works out for you," says Amos. "That sad things happen to kind people - because some really loving and compassionate individuals do have losses that no one could ever fathom. It's a very hard lesson to learn, but a true one. And on learning it I said, 'OK, I surrender!' Well, maybe there's something in doing that because. a little while later, I thought I had the stomach flu. Nine and a half months after that. Natashya was that stomach flu, the best kind anyone could ever have."
During that interim, Amos became acutely aware of the differing male and female reactions to her confinement. "My girlfriends would call and say, 'Tori, you've been on your butt for months now. Get yourself together. Let's go!', which is exactly what you hope they're going to do. But the men were really interested in the pregnancy itself. I found they were all of them curious as to what it must be like to carry life inside of you - to be, in my case, a home and host organism in kitten-heeled boots. That difference in attitudes intrigued me."
Depressing her concurrently, as it must many mothers-to-be, was a heightened awareness of the sort of world into which, hopefully, she would soon he bringing a son or daughter. "Intolerance and malice towards women, towards gays. The language of violence that surrounds us. I'm the biggest believer in free speech, but you get to a point where you see all of this and you just want to scream, 'Well, what about intolerance for intolerance, then?!'"
The result is Strange Little Girls, out now on the eastwest label, and the artist's first collection of non-original material. it takes its title from a 1982 Stranglers hit, and includes tracks drawn from such disparate songbooks as those of troubadour Lloyd Cole (Rattlesnakes), heavy metal band Slayer (Raining Blood), The Beatles (Happiness Is a warm Gun) and the aforementioned 10 CC (yes, her take on I'm Not in Love).
The unifying factor is that all of the songs are written by men about women, or male-female relationships. And none more shockingly or controversially so than '97 Bonnie And Clyde by rapper Eminem. Yet, for Amos, the shock and controversy arises not just from the fact that its narrator has killed or near-fatally wounded his wife, has secreted her body m the boot of his car, and is now driving with his young daughter towards a lake in order to dispose of it. More disturbing for her is a young audience's ability to consume such subject matter blithely and without question.
"It's like they're dancing with blood on their sneakers." she says of this non-reaction to a lyric that takes the form of a father-to-child monologue and which, in its original version, is delivered in a strutting, she-had-it-coming-to-her style. For her part, Amos, in what is an interpretative tour de force, near-whispers those same words hoarsely and urgently, in a way that somehow makes the dying, mute woman seem like a real, communicating presence on that hateful journey.
"I know what it's like to he held in a car against your will [in her early twenties, she was raped at gunpoint by a fan to whom she had offered a lift after one of her concerts]. And so, although Eminem is a very powerful writer - all of these men are - it wasn't his character who spoke to me. It was the wife's voice that I heard, even though she's effectively silenced."
Any words she could speak would, Amos feels, be directed towards the daughter. "This is a piece of domestic violence, a myth of our times. She sees her child being made an accomplice to that and, so, being divided from the normal world forever. Yet she cannot reach out and hold her, nor reassure or protect her from it. She cannot say, 'Baby, you are not a part of this, it is not about you at all.' She can't do anything because she is dying. It's all going to be over in a matter seconds. All she knows is that her child is going to grow up to be a strange little girl as a result - the strange little girl of the album's title song. I heard all of that and more from her, and I hope I've succeeded in giving it voice."
Amos is not, she insists, on any anti-male crusade. Nor is she passing judgment on the composer of this or any of the other songs. "I have no animosity towards any of them," she says. "Whether or not we could sit down together and have a cup of tea, I have no idea - I imagine that I'd be surprised by just which of them I'd get along with. But the fact is that when I was working on this music, I was holding in my arms a daughter of my own. And so whenever I heard the sound of men's anger against women, I didn't feel it was directed only at me and a grown-up world any more."
Did it feel odd, meanwhile, for Hawley to work in the studio on such loaded material? "You'll have to ask him that," she tells me, and I do. He smiles at the question. "Not really. I think my views about aggression and maleness are pretty much the same as Tori's."
Natashya's bedtime is imminent, and the household has begun to take on a different rhythm. We incomers are soon to be on our way, and there are the first signs (dinner being prepared, a table cleared) of the quiet evening-in that lies ahead. Amos hugs her newly-bathed child, kisses her goodnight, and watches until she has been carried up the stairs and out of sight.
"Little ones seem to have this way of looking at you," she says. "It's almost as if they read you with an X-ray. They don't see your shame. They don't see the times when you did demeaning stuff to yourself or someone else. It's like they hold a picture of your true essence - of you as the best you can be. And through that, you with all your shadows can become the person they see." She stops herself and, with eyes glittering, bends down to pick a favoured toy from the floor. It will be back in its owner's arms before she realises it had gone.
The album Strange little Girls has just been released on the eastwest label.
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