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High Life (UK)
British Airways magazine
Tori and the hardest words
Flame-haired American siren Tori Amos is a master of the lost art of conversation -- as long as that conversation involve sex, seahorses and a lot of non sequiturs. "I am happy," she tells Chrissey Iley, "because I no longer have to play chess."
It's nearly ten years since Tori Amos first became a famous pop singer. There she was, all red hair and lace, looking like the weird child that had got lost somewhere in the woods of a Grimm fairy tale, part vulnerable and part vampire. There she'd be, howling from her heart and writhing around.
There are many interesting little dichotomies that make you listen to the plaintive voice and the crashing piano. Take her childhood, for instance. Born in North Carolina, daddy was a preacher and mama was part Cherokee Indian - so much contradiction, so much myth. She is a reverend's daughter who sang about menstruation and her own rape on her first album. There was masturbation on her second and castration on her third. Her miscarriage was immortalised on her last.
She was a child prodigy, could play Beethoven by ear by the time she was three and was given a scholarship to Peabody in Baltimore. She was hailed as a genius and virtuoso pianist. By 14, though, she had a career as a lounge bar act. Then, of course, she ran away from home and reinvented herself, or perhaps just got in touch with the wild without the child in her.
She's now 37 and has just had a daughter of her own who, in a strange way, was the inspiration for her new CD, Strange Little Girls. It's what is called a concept album, and the concept is taking traditional male songs that are loaded up with testosterone - sex, violence or just boys' kind of love - and singing them from a female perspective.
But it's not just Tori singing them. Oh no. She's created 12 different characters inspired by the songs. The songs come from as diverse artists from Lou Reed to Slayer, Depeche Mode to Lennon and McCartney. There's Lloyd Cole, there's David Bowie, Neil Young. There's the Stranglers's Strange Little Girl, Eminem's 97 Bonnie and Clyde and my personal favourite, 10CC's I'm Not in Love. For Bonnie and Clyde, in which Eminem justifies chopping up his wife to his children, Tori takes up the role of the murdered young, white-trash mother. For I'm Not in Love, traditionally about men who want to deny their emotions, she's a dominatrix. All hard-edged eyes and crackablc whip.
"I was nursing my daughter and, being a mother, you really have a lot of time on your hands. You think a lot about being a woman. I thought that men are up to all sorts of weird things. They do extreme things, especially heterosexual men, in the United States. They have bonded because they need somebody to hate. They need to subjugate women and gays." Tori wanted to make their words her weapon, turn it all round, which she does in a sometimes intriguing and sometimes downright baffling way.
She talks about the characters in the songs as if they are not just voices in her head, but real people. "Each woman approached me and said 'I have a different point of view on this song that may change how you hear its meaning."
She has many layers and most of the time you're not sure whether she's being literal or metaphorical, whether she's being clever and purposefully confusing, or just confused and trying to work it out there with you. For example: "When you are a writer, you really do feel that you have to do a seahorse." What? "Seahorses. They can impregnate themselves. So, having done both, having had a baby and having had song children, I felt that I was very in my animus." What's the difference? "When you're having a baby, the childbirth drugs they give you can be very nice," she says, very earnestly.
She still has the red hair, but straightened and sleeker now, and the same huge grey-blue (or are they green-blue?) eyes, her pillow lips and her rather sweet prominent front teeth. It's hard to imagine that these trademarks could be disguised by the trickery of wigs and make-up and a costume department, but she can look quite unlike herself. In the past, her songwriting terrain has always come from good or bad sexual experiences, most famously Me and a Gun, the autobiographical final track on Little Earthquakes, which was about being raped.
When Tori was 21, playing piano in a club, she gave a lift home to a member of her audience. He raped her in the back of her car with a gun to her head. She's always been fascinated with the image. "The gun is about owning and claiming your anger, claiming yourself as warrior." It comes again on this album, in the words of Happiness is a Warm Gun. What she has moved into now is the area of examining sexual psyches, the chemical make-up of sexuality, of who does what and why.
"I think Gloria Steinem and her posse had a huge impact on helping women to bring home the bacon, and now we have to look at the impact of that role on the alpha male. Out of it comes songs like Bonnie and Clyde. 'Words,' she says, 'are like guns.'"
She then launches into an impassioned diatribe about the emasculated alpha male, who only feels comfortable with prejudice and hatred because he has suddenly discovered his own weakness. He is threatened by women who have the greatest capacity in the universe - the power of motherhood. You can imagine the kind of thing. But as she doesn't speak in complete sentences, you're left bewildered, thinking she's partly a brilliant mesmerising preacher and partly on another planet. Anyhow, she chose this particular collection of male songs because she was helped by what she calls "a laboratory of men".
"I had my little control group to see how they responded", she says, adding: "They came from both continents." And the laboratory came up with every song that made the final track listing, except Bonnie and Clyde. "That's got to be mine," says Tori, "because this man Eminem, who had empathy for this character, intrigued me so much. I know he's saying he has irony, but irony is something that one needs to Understand. Some people use irony well and some people just show they're, screwed up.
"Eminem is a very powerful wordsmith and I was drawn to the woman he murdered in the song. The woman took me by the hand and pulled me in there with her, and became real. She showed me, with her last breath, as she lay there..."
Tori is so relentless in her passion you believe that women in songs really do talk to her. But what also talks to her is her past, the rape that so shook her and left her with a quest to understand what makes men do this, left her on the edge, left her failing again and again for those bad-boy relationships where she can practise a little bit of self-destruction and get some good songs at the end of it.
"Yes," she hums, "degrading myself. I'd have just cut a million-dollar deal and then be willing to go and be humiliated by some boy. I'd find myself becoming a piece of meat, being the object of someone's disgust because I wanted anything from him." It's unclear whether the him is one person or a general, group him. She's a very strange girl. One minute she'll talk with wincing intimacy about how she felt at the end of four miscarriages, and then she'll turn less invasive lines of questioning into opportunities for soap boxing.
The character she chose to sing the I'm Not in Love song is inspired by the fetishism of power. Which turns out to be something Tori relates to. "Oh yes. There's a real power-as-aphrodisiac thing going on for her. Women can get really turned on by power. I've been on that path, but on both sides of it. By choice and not by choice."
What exactly do you mean? "Oh, because I could walk out without getting murdered."
I look at her earnestly, but really haven't a clue what she's talking about. "I'm talking about a kind of kidnapping that happens in a relationship where you lose control without realising it, from Tuesday to Tuesday, and then you think: 'I didn't know I'd just given away a section of myself.' But then after some time, I'd look up and think: 'Look what you've given away.' You know, you can talk yourself into almost anything with a man. You can think I'm strong enough, I'm empowered, I can live with it, and then you realise you're just another scalp on this person's belt. Of course I'm not necessarily like that right now in my life."
Right now in her life, she appears to be happily domestic with husband Mark Hawley, her sound engineer, and they live most of the time in Cornwall, England, with a converted barn as their studio, She works obsessively, six days a week, and says: "I've always liked tech-heads. It's that mental sexy thing. We come from very different backgrounds. He's a Brit and I'm an American. Some things don't translate. For example, in the States, if a waitress is a bitch, you deal with it. Here, you don't want to cause a stir. I address stuff. And with him, you know, it's all underneath." But she insists she is very happy.
"Because I am no longer having to play chess." She elaborates: "I'm no longer compelled to the chess game. The one thing that has changed in my life is the notion of what I find erotic. In the past, it was all that fantasy game of claiming power of having to submit or having them submit, or just getting drawn into where power and sex became the whole damn thing. Sometimes I just feel my own power, the power of being a mother and sometimes I feel the earth and what a vortex she is." She's looking very dizzy here, readying herself for more Tori-speak.
"And sometimes when I'm with my husband or when I'm with myself, I feel the greatest passion is feeling myself, feeling that I can open up, like the earth would open up. It's a kind of birthing with myself It's tapping into that vortex and you don't need another person for that. I've been writing a song about that called Fresh Mown Grass about how women are really able to access that through kundalini and have a complete orgasm, just because we're women and can align ourselves." I get worried that she's turning into the female Sting, when she becomes normal again and we talk about her husband.
"I absolutely adore him and love the fact he's British, so you don't know an awful lot. I mean, he puts things in different drawers, in different cupboards and you have to go and find them." This is a typical Tori confusing moment. I'm not sure whether her husband is going round hiding the sugar, or the sugar is metaphorical candy and we're talking a kind of still waters running deep British psyche. But then she adds: "The biggest turn on is that he's a safe place for our daughter." Do you think you've been involved with unsafe men? "At times in my life, I've been involved with men who were drawn to younger women, much younger. I mean jailbait. So you worry about them." I think she worries too much, but she continues. "She's just ten months old, but there are men who sexualise women that they should not be sexualising. Although I'm not talking about infants. I mean, you've got a 16-year-old girl and you've got a man who's looking where he shouldn't be looking. You know, where's the safe place?"
Trying to make our chat more normal, I ask if she gets on with her father now. Yes, she's finished the rebellion with him. He's been very supportive of her. Once, when he felt the then head of the record company was not giving her a good enough deal, he stormed on in.
"It was years ago, but he went up, took his Bible, marched in and said they were cheating his daughter. He threw the Bible at my boss and he reversed a few things. That's really my dad. He can be quite the champion." Although she grew up often at odds with him, they were able to get over it. She was not, however, able to put aside the feelings that she had for her grandmother.
"She was an evil thing, no question. I'm sure I could have been the youngest child in jail for murdering my grandmother. At five, I wanted to take the butter knife and slit her throat."
Why was she so evil? "First of all, she had the ability to pretend she was holy. She was a minister, but she was not holy. We were enemies since I was five, although recently I had a spiritual vision where I had to say: 'Grandma, wherever you are, I don't want to carry on warring with you. I don't want to carry it around.'"
But why did you war? "Because she would say things like, 'Until little Ellen [that was the name Tori was born with but chose to dump because she didn't think any man could feel sexually attracted to a woman called Ellen] learns to love Jesus, there won't be a present under the Christmas tree.' I said to her: 'I love Jesus in ways that few women could ever contemplate.'"
What a precocious child. "Yes, I know," trills Tori. "She and I were definitely on different peaks. She was full of self-righteousness and guilt and finger-pointing. It was very hard for my grandmother to claim the dark side of her femininity." She launches into something about how the legacy of the grandmother meant she used to find it difficult to be sacred and sexy all at the same time, but now she's grasped the Mother-Madonna-Whore thing.
Tori can come up with some very funny and dirty one-liners, and for a while we are on a roll of girltalk, before we go down another route - to her Cherokee Indian tribal past. Now, try hard to follow this. She think the Indians had the ability to embrace and own land, which makes them more sophisticated people, not like the Americans that overran them, they didn't understand "owning" land, which in some very deep, "I'm in touch with the earth" level, means she doesn't enjoy living in the States, but loves Cornwall. Because it, too, has a past that is somehow mythical, magical, empowering.
"I love driving around the coast, up and down. It decides if it lets you in or not. It holds secrets and it keeps them. The weather is so passionate and alive, and I love that."
During our conversation, something about her seems to have shifted. Strange little girls are characters she plays out in her collections of songs. The strange little girl is also a character she plays out in interviews to promote them. But there is some evidence of another girl, a normal girl, who's goes home to Cornwall for walks by the sea and to play with her baby and make cups of tea - without necessarily having to go through any emotional cupboards.
Strange Little Girls by Tori Amos is out now. The American leg of her world tour concludes in San Diego on November 20, before moving to Europe, with UK dates in December.
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