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The Guardian (UK)
February 11, 2005
Reasons to be tearful
After spending years singing about her troubles, Tori Amos is blissfully happy. What's she going to obsess about now, asks Dorian Lynskey
Tori Amos tells a revealing story about her daughter Natashya coming home from school and asking her if she believes in God.
"My instinct was to ask her, 'Do you mean the God behind the God?'"
Amos recalls in Piece by Piece, the biography she has just written with music critic Ann Powers.
"'And you know what I did? I said to myself, 'Jeez, T. Back off - she's only three and a half.'"
That first instinct is the kind of thing most people expect from Tori Amos. Early in her career the singer-songwriter was labelled a fairy queen, and the cliche of a navel-gazing kook lingers in many minds. She is, after all, the woman who was once photographed for an album cover suckling a pig.
But remember that self-administered slap on the wrist: "Jeez, T." A flaky moonchild wouldn't own her own studio and publishing company, or co-found a major charity (Rainn - the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). Amos is tougher and more savvy than her reputation suggests.
More glamorous, too. She glides into the room - immaculately attired in pink and grey, one long earring dangling like a silver icicle from her right ear, tangerine hair tumbling halfway down her back - and curls up on the sofa.
A tray of tea and biscuits arrives, and Amos springs into action.
"You're the British person so you should do it, but I'm the wife. I've been trained by my husband and my husband's mother. One for you, one for me, one for the pot,"
she recites, her soft, North Carolina purr briefly usurped by the spirit of Penelope Keith.
"My mother-in-law will be pleased. We get on quite well. We're both Leos. Lionesses. They usually love each other or they want to kill each other. Do you want a cookie?"
Amos, 41, has lived in Cornwall with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, since 1998. The general assumption was that she would be sitting on a mist-shrouded clifftop at Tintagel, dreaming of Merlin. The reality is more prosaic.
"The builders hang out at the house a lot because we're converting the barn into a residential studio. When we have a party all the builders are there and their kids are jumping around on the trampoline. I live in extremes. I go and play Radio City in New York for three nights and then I go home and there's Pearl next door telling me what's happening with the cows."
Amos tends to think big, however. Her last few albums have all had grand concepts. On Strange Little Girls, she covered songs by male artists (Eminem, Slayer, Neil Young) from a woman's point of view. Scarlet's Walk was an American travelogue, researched by travelling through all 50 states. Her best-of collection, Tales of a Librarian, categorised songs according to the Dewey decimal system.
And now comes The Beekeeper, her eighth studio album. This has a concept, too, but it's a slippery one: something to do with Cornwall, nature, Christianity, the war in Iraq and the gospel of Mary Magdalene. At the end of her long and winding explanation, I'm none the wiser.
When Amos talks, it sometimes seems as if she's composing a literary dissertation on her own life, picking out themes, tying together characters, analysing archetypes, suggesting further reading. While supposedly answering a question about her mother, she segues into an animated discourse on the Gnostic gospels. Jeez, T.
She was born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina in 1963. Her mother was a Cherokee Indian whose ancestors lost their land in the 1830s. Her father was a preacher with designs on becoming the next Billy Graham.
"I've got both sides - the conquered and the conqueror,"
she says, sliding off the sofa to sit cross-legged on the floor.
"With the election going on and this whole religious power structure going on there, I was hearing a lot of Biblical references. The minister in me, the daughter of a preacher man, said, 'I've been dormant for a few years and I need to redress that.' I'm a daughter of the Christian church, for good or ill. No matter what, you can't get away from how you were reared. I don't align myself with any religion but it's a part of my vocabulary."
Amos's attitude to spirituality is complicated. She has said before that if Jesus were around today he wouldn't be a member of the Christian church, but rather than give Christianity up, she has developed her own, feminist interpretation, hence her obsession with Mary Magdalene. The villain of the piece is her paternal grandmother, a fire-and-brimstone type whom Amos calls the Shame Inducer.
"She would say you turn your body over to your husband and you turn your soul over to God. And you're like, OK what do I get? Nothing."
When Amos entered the elite Peabody Conservatory at the age of five, her father hoped Myra Ellen would become a composer of religious songs. Obviously it didn't quite work out like that. Over dinner one night a few years ago, he told his daughter how hurt he was by a song called Father Lucifer, but Amos cheerfully assured him it actually referred to the time she took the psychedelic Amazonian root ayuhuasca and had
"a sexual/spiritual experience with a creature named Lucifer".
That must have been an interesting dinner.
These days all is well between them.
"My dad is a pro,"
she says proudly.
"He'd go up to Atlantic Records with his Bible in his hand and read passages and say, 'You're cheating my daughter.' And they were!"
Amos had a bumpy few years at the start of her career. When Atlantic tried to impose its choice of producer halfway through recording 1994's Under the Pink, she threatened to burn the tapes.
"The record business hierarchy is about control,"
"When people smell success they start to mistrust your ability to make decisions. They want to bring in other producers who know how to sculpt you. This reminded me very much of God - this idea of you will do what I want you to do. I didn't want to be sculpted because I'd walked down that road with my family."
The dark, stubbornly uncommercial follow-up, Boys for Pele, emerged from the break-up of a seven-year relationship, a series of affairs with men she calls
, and that hallucinatory encounter with Lucifer. Even after she married Hawley, her long-time engineer and friend and a man so limelight-averse that the only picture of him in Piece by Piece shows the back of his head, she was not out of the woods. She suffered three miscarriages, which cast a long shadow across her next record, From the Choirgirl Hotel.
Since Natashya was born in 2000, however, Amos's albums have focused on storytelling rather than autobiography.
"If I'm honest I find myself in the songs, but I play that one pretty close to my chest, even with my husband. He'll tell you we don't talk about what the songs are."
This must make life easier. The centrepiece of her first album was Me and a Gun, a harrowing account of the time, aged 22, when she was raped at gunpoint by an audience member to whom she'd offered a lift. She thought she might inspire other rape victims to discuss their experiences. She didn't imagine she was giving strangers carte blanche to raise the topic.
"There was somebody in the media who brought it up when we were eating spaghetti,"
she says, emphasising the word as if the choice of pasta made it especially inappropriate.
"Now I know why some artists pull back and become reclusive."
Amos didn't take the hermit option. Despite initial comparisons to Kate Bush, the bend of her career more closely resembles that of Joni Mitchell: a burst of enormous mainstream success, settling into a stable, long-term pattern of regular recordings, healthy sales and sellout tours. She seems to have things worked out.
So what went right?
"I married the right man. If you draw the wrong people to you, fairweather friends, then when you have the darker days, which you will have, they won't be there. There were musicians in the early 1990s who made certain choices that in the end were not the right ones. I think I made good choices."
The Beekeeper is out on Epic on February 21.
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