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Financial Times (US)
May 11, 2007
Telling it like it is
By Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, FT.com site
Tori Amos recounts a story of being approached by a 16-year-old female fan in Los Angeles. "Will you tell it how it is, then?" the fan asked her, fiercely. "So how is it?" Amos responded. "Well, I wake up to a war every morning in my own house, do you know about that?" the fan said. "Try having to push your stepfather off you every morning."
"And she just walked away," Amos says. "I never saw her again."
The 43-year-old singer-songwriter, whose career sales top 12m records, answers her fan's request on her new album American Doll Posse, which tells us "how it is" in customarily idiosyncratic style. A state of the nation concept album on which she sings in the guise of five different female personae, its premise is Amos's hostility to the Christian right in the US -- she is the daughter of a Methodist preacher -- and her disillusionment with American women's passive acceptance, as she sees it, of the Bush administration.
"I frankly couldn't believe that we -- and let's face it we have more women in powerful positions than any other country in the world -- how could we support this rightwing regime?" she exclaims when we meet in London.
Amos grew up in Maryland but now lives in Cornwall with her English husband and their six-year-old daughter. "I really write about my culture, that's where I come from. I don't really think I have a right to write about yours. I don't know yours. I've slept with yours but I don't know it," she says with a smile.
Her career began in 1988 with a flop debut album, a misguided attempt at soft metal called Y Kant Tori Read. She found her feet on its follow-up, 1991's Little Earthquakes, whose confessional tone and wild swoops of imagination prompted comparisons to Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell.
A piano prodigy who won a scholarship to a conservatory in Baltimore at the age of five, she has a reputation for eccentricity, enhanced by her flame-red hair and a predilection when younger for saying things like "the music is the magic carpet that other things take naps on". She still has the power to stop an interviewer in his tracks.
"There are times I've wished I was a man because I'm the same age as Johnny Depp and he might know how women taste but I know how they think," she tells me, tapping her head. "I think I'd have had gals lined up around the block, mate." Silence hangs in the room as I struggle and fail to frame a follow-up question.
Her albums have enhanced her quirky image. She appeared on the cover of one suckling a pig; another is a concept album based on gardens. It is easy to stereotype her as lost in some personal fairy land. "I think being a woman songwriter has its different set of rules and the media has a way of trying to come after us. I am used to it," she says.
The kooky reputation does Amos a disservice. There is a consistent thread of interests underlying her music, which is preoccupied with questions of sexuality and power, myth and femininity. She subscribes to an earthy, sensual form of feminism.
Her early work was autobiographical, such as her harrowing song "Me and a Gun", which dealt with her experience of being raped. Latterly, she has moved from memoir towards character-based songwriting. "I don't know if it matters whether I put my dirty laundry outside, tag it, say who it is," she explains. "My husband doesn't want to know what the songs are about. We don't talk about it."
American Doll Posse takes this process of invention to a new level. The five female characters created by Amos each has her own name, back-story and musical mood. A different "gal", as Amos calls them, will appear each night on her forthcoming world tour. The singer mentions David Bowie's alter egos and the identity-morphing photographs of Cindy Sherman as inspirations.
"These are my repressed feminine selves," she says, laughing. The aim is to combat the self-censorship that she thinks is endemic among US women. "In the States, with sexuality, there is an extreme. You're either the successful woman who doesn't have a whole lot of sensual qualities -- they're not allowed because they're seen to be weak. And then, of course, there are the other women who seem to be reacting to the right wing in some way by showing more flesh and exposing more bits. They think they're showing them who's boss."
Sexual liberation, according to Amos, has turned women into objects. "I don't think it's very liberated," she says animatedly. "Look, I'm going to spread my legs to whoever I want, I'm in control of my life. Isn't that one of the most painful things you've heard?"
American Doll Posse is a fine album but there is something magnificently quixotic in her hopes that it will reach out to a younger generation of women whose tastes are more likely to be catered for by Beyoncé or Britney Spears than a 43-year-old mother.
"Seduction has a power, music can seduce," she says. "I do think this concept is very seductive to women who are drawn to fashion. Let's face it, there is an interest that women have in their image. If those are the tools we need to get them thinking, then I'll use my body to do that, no problem at all. And I'm learning a lot by exposing myself to certain repressed feminine character types that I haven't really welcomed into my life. I think my husband is quite lucky. I said to him the other day, 'I don't know how you feel about all this.' He said, 'It's great, I'm monogamous but I can have an affair with all these women.'"
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