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The Observer (UK)
Sunday, January 5, 2003
My Husband and I
On the eve of her Scarlet's Walk tour, famously eccentric
singer-songwriter Tori Amos talks about marriage, motherhood, mysticism and her revolutionary chess gambits
by Harriet Lane
Kook. Flake. Witch. Moonchild. High priestess of Weird. The sexiest
piano player in Christendom. The Sylvia Plath of Rock. Tori Amos has
been called all of these and more, though not necessarily in the same
paragraph. Her concerts are famous not just for what happens onstage -
tomato-haired Tori astride a piano stool in a scarlet suit, attacking
two pianos simultaneously while singing, in her clear, sometimes
serrated voice, about the terrible things that have happened to her -
but because her audience must be seen to be believed. Who else could
unify such a disparate collection of goths, rockers and tear-stained
teenage girls in fairy wings?
After a few months on the road in the States, promoting her new album,
Scarlet's Walk, Tori's tour is coming to the UK. This time, the songs
are a little different. Not happier - that's not her style - but more
discreet, more ambiguous. There's a character at the heart of the new
songs, but it's not necessarily Tori. In Scarlet's Walk, which is full
of her trademark dramatic chords and some delicate, almost folky
touches, a woman called Scarlet takes a road trip around America,
meeting a very Tori-ish selection of people (fading porn stars, manic
depressives, religious nuts) and telling their stories.
Amos made her name with her 1992 album Little Earthquakes, in which she sang about her rape by a fan to whom she had offered a lift: 'It was me and a gun and a man on my back/ And I sang "Holy holy" as he buttoned down his pants.' In 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel, she wrote, equally devastatingly, about her guilt after yet another miscarriage: 'Then the baby came/ before I found/ the magic how/ to keep her happy.' So you can't help wondering whether by creating Scarlet, by filtering events through this character, she has finally decided to wrest back a little privacy for herself.
Tori widens her eyes, pretending such a thought has never occurred to
her - 'Well! Imagine that!' - and then laughs, though not unkindly.
'The good thing is that it's a mystery. You don't know exactly when I
did that thing or if I did. There's an ambiguity, a shadow of a doubt -
you're not completely sure. It may be thin, but it's enough.' Yes, it
looks very much as if the fact that she became famous for using the
recording studio as a confessional began to trouble her. She will admit
she likes the idea that people (and Tori's fans are passionate and
obsessive about her) will not be able to cross-reference her life with
the Scarlet lyrics to quite the same degree. On the other hand: 'I'm
not not going to stop giving away what I feel about something. So the
question is, how do you do that without involving people who don't want
to be dragged into it?'
At this point, she is referring to 'Husband', which is how Tori refers
to Mark Hawley, the English sound engineer she married in 1998. And now there's Natashya, their two-year-old daughter, the baby she wanted so much and who eluded her for so long. They live in an old farmhouse near Bude in Cornwall, with a studio in a converted barn. Tori's fans love the fact that this mystically inclined, part-Cherokee daughter of a
Methodist preacher has settled down there in a great jumble of stone
circles, ley lines and fairies. They especially love the fact she buys
books from the King Arthur bookshop in Tintagel.
'Husband picked Cornwall. I didn't pick it,' she declares. It turns out
he spent summer holidays there as a boy. But yes, she felt something
for it, too, as soon as she saw it. 'How can you not feel something for
Cornwall? Especially if you get off the freeways and really go out and
hike. Before we had Tash, we spent a lot of time getting lost. I love
getting lost. Specially with him, it's good,' she says dreamily. 'We
have a terrible sense of direction.' She puts her killer heels - heels
that add at least two inches to her basic 5ft 3in - on the coffee table
and leans back into the sofa in her London hotel suite.
She's wearing a dark tulle top, tight jeans, a long, toffee-coloured
cardigan (somehow very Bude, though it's bound to be Donna Karan) and an earring featuring a feather, a shell and a tiny blackened key.
'Let's not kid each other. I know people sometimes have this fantasy
about Cornwall. But the Cornish are so grounded. They don't talk about
all this mythology, they don't sit around and talk about the fairies,
but it's in them.'
Her builders have provided a social entre to the county. Twenty-five of
them have been swarming over the farmhouse and barn for the past four
years, gutting and rebuilding and, from the off, Husband wooed them
with his tea ('Mark makes the best tea. He just does'). It did the
trick and now they're accepted as part of the com munity. 'There's a
bad storm, you need some help, the locals check in on you. But I'm a
guest here, I have no illusions about that. Oh yeah. I would never
presume to tell you what to do about your politics or anything else,
but everybody presumes to tell me what we should do about ours.'
Though Tori has a beach house in Florida, Husband refuses to
countenance the notion of raising Tash in the States: 'It's not like we
had a battle. It's logical.' She feels uncomfortable about the present
US administration, about the way post-11 September debate - she was in
New York on that day - was discouraged. 'There was manipulation and
emotional blackmail going on, which fuelled my tank - "If you ask
certain questions at this time, you don't love America". I found that
extremely offensive. These weren't either-or questions. Now, people
have their own agenda and they're using our emotions to do what they
want to do, even if it's a personal vendetta.'
She also has eight nephews and nieces growing up in the States. 'I know
what some of them go through and I wouldn't want to put a kid through
that. I understand the violence and those fears. Cornwall is one of the
most beautiful places, with great people - there's not a great downside
to it. It's just sometimes I miss certain things. The smell of orange
jasmine. You know what I mean? I have an exotic garden in Florida. When I was pregnant, I was out there pruning. I just loved getting my hands dirty, listening to the June bugs. There's something about that balmy, 89-degrees-at-its-coolest climate. There's something in it for me. It's part of my body map.'
When asked if she does any gardening in Cornwall, she pulls a face. She
wouldn't know how. But thinking about it, she might just plant a big
old lavender field. 'Let's face it, farming's great, but you know
there's farming around. I just think a coupla acres of lavender could
balance that out.'
So this is the new, domesticated Tori Amos. In the old days, she used
to talk in interviews about being a Viking in an earlier life, and
dream-messages from Anastasia Romanov. Now it's tea and pruning and hiking and how smart her little girl is ('She's great at putting CDs
and DVDs in and out. She can fast-forward. That's really good, for
Oh yes, there's still the occasional detour when she loses me
completely - don't start her on Native American land rights - but even
then, such is her well-placed confidence in herself as a storyteller
that you find yourself pinned back against the sofa, hypnotised by the
shapes she makes with her big, generous mouth as she says, slowly and
melodiously: 'The Maya calendar ends in 2012 and the Native Americans believe that time will shift as we know it. I'm not into the whole psychic trepidation thing. I always believe if a plane's going down, there are always dolphins... but when I'm playing chess, I don't ignore any information. If I know the other chess player is distracted by a gal in a yellow dress, I'm not going to ignore that.'
It's only afterwards, listening back to the tape, that you occasionally
think: pardon? While she's talking, she works an undeniable kind of
magic; there is something white-witchy about her. She is charming in
the most literal way. (She puts her money where her mouth is, too.
After a fan came to see her backstage after a '94 concert and asked for
help, she set up Rainn, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a
US-based helpline and counselling service into which she pours
considerable funds. It has won her several humanitarian awards.)
Her priority, naturally, is Tash. Tour plans are very detailed because
they are shaped around her daughter's needs as much as possible. In
Cornwall, Tash, whose accent is part East End (the nanny's husband),
part Tori and mostly Cornish, has friends, playgroup, swimming, a
routine she loves. It's a big deal, uprooting her while keeping her
'When you're on the road, how do you prevent her throwing up her hands
and saying, "I want to go home, Mom"? That needs planning ahead.'
So Tori and Mark and the Road Nanny (as opposed to their nanny in
Cornwall, who gets travel-sick and hates flying) look after Tash in
shifts: meals, museums, trips backstage, Harry Potter videos on the
bus. Tash has a knack of finding the people in the crew who like kids,
so she hangs out with them a bit, plus there's always her bodyguard,
who has children of his own. Tori doesn't want to talk about the
reasons why she finds it necessary to hire a bodyguard to look after
her daughter: 'I don't want to go into it because I don't want to rev
something up that doesn't need to be revved up. But there are reasons.
It's just smart. You don't leave people who can't defend themselves.
You can't take chances.'
In the past, Tori has been very critical of her own upbringing. The
youngest by seven years (her siblings are both medics), she clashed
with her father, a Methodist preacher from North Carolina, almost as
soon as she could speak, although he sounds like a fairly
long-suffering kind of father in his own way, letting his daughter wear
red leather trousers to choir practice, chaperoning her to gay bars and
piano lounges when she landed her first gigs at 12, and refusing to
kowtow to his congregation when they objected to this. Yes, she says,
her relationship with her parents has improved now that she's a parent,
but not just because she has changed.
'My dad has grown a lot. There were certain things he was doing that I
didn't think were OK. Certain lines that were crossed... the fact that
I was the youngest by such a long way might have something to do with
it, but my dad was very hands-on, very controlling. He was the father
of the house. He would make decisions - "This guy isn't good for you to
date" - all that kind of stuff. It crossed that line of, "I care about
you; are you OK?" But he and I have grown. We've had to. Now we can
hear each other.'
Contentment may be less fascinating than misery and Tori's fans may
miss her dark creativity, but one hopes they don't begrudge her this
Tori Amos's UK tour: Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow (12 Jan); Apollo,
Manchester (13 Jan); Wolverhampton Civic Hall (14 Jan); Hammersmith
Apollo, London W6 (16 Jan)
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