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The Sunday Times (UK)
May 3, 2020


With her fiercely honest lyrics and rebellious femininity, Tori Amos rewrote the rules for a generation of women. As she bares all in her new memoir, she talks to Louis Wise about the neverending fight, motherhood and why age hasn't mellowed her

by Louis Wise

Tori Amos is recounting, down the phone from Cornwall, one of the many battles she has had during her career. The flame-haired American singer-songwriter, now 56, became one of the pin-ups of alt- pop in the 1990s thanks to her bracing piano-led songs -- songs that were often ambitious, obtuse, seductive and wild, not unlike the woman herself. Yes, she sold millions of records, with hits including Cornflake Girl, Caught a Lite Sneeze and Crucify (not to mention the banging Armand Van Helden remix of Professional Widow); yes, she sold out hundreds of shows across the world. But "there was a word that drove me insane", she says in her soft but insistent manner, her accent still tinged with her Maryland roots. "Journalists would ask of my work, 'Is this cathartic for you?' " An indignant pause. "Like, 'Is this a therapy session?' Some women journalists would ask me that," she recalls, still shocked. "And I would reply, 'You have the audacity to say that? Do you say that to the men you're talking to?' "

It's understandable why you might chuck "cathartic" in glibly. After all her lyrics are often deeply personal, covering love, trauma and loss. What she hates, though, is the suggestion that she is just releasing some hysterical "feminine" ramblings -- because Amos knows her craft, and then some.

She is, notoriously, a piano prodigy who can't ever recall not playing the instrument; she was the youngest person to get a scholarship to the prestigious Peabody Institute music conservatory, aged just five. Now, 50 years later, she has released 15 studio albums (1994's Under the Pink reached No 1 in the UK), been nominated for eight Grammys and influenced a host of artists, from St Vincent to Lady Gaga.

Indeed, it feels like a whole bevvy of classic gen X artists are being hailed again by a new crowd -- women who were fearless, innovative and expressed themselves in defiantly individual ways. This goes for Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, both back on the scene this year, or PJ Harvey and Bjork, with whom Amos shared the cover of Q magazine in 1994.

"We all had to fight our battles, the three of us," she says of the latter two, still going strong like her. "And there were other women who did too, but we were of a certain time. I have an affinity for them."

Amos is calling from the barn-cum-studio behind the house she shares with her British husband, Mark Hawley, a sound engineer, and, occasionally, their 19-year-old daughter, Tash. Holed up here for longer than planned thanks to Covid-19, she is on the line to promote her new book, Resistance. It is part manifesto, part career retrospective and part remembrance, mourning her beloved mother, Mary, who died last year. Her song lyrics spur her on from point to point in the book, which, as ever with Amos, veers between seeming totally bats and shockingly sane.

It would be easy to sum her up as a kook. After all she calls all her songs "she" and talks willingly of "the Muses", who apparently appear and write most of her songs for her (she just collects the royalties). She describes her personality as "Scorpio rising, Libra moon". No, she doesn't do magic mushrooms any more -- she knocked that on the head when she got pregnant -- but, yes, she does miss them. "Because," she sighs, "how can you ever wanna turn down dancing elephants while you're bicycling through the stars?"

However, there is also something very grounded and earthy about her. "I'm a Southern girl at heart," she settles, despite more than two decades of long spells spent in Cornwall. (She also has homes in America and Ireland.) She has a very dry sense of humour and, in general, a survivor's toughness. Her extraordinary trajectory hasn't lost any of its weirdness in the telling. Born Myra Ellen Amos, the youngest of three children, in North Carolina, from the age of 13 she was playing in a gay bar in Washington, under the strict supervision of her preacher dad. His religious fervour was only matched by a zeal for promoting his daughter's talent. He would often sell extra Tori merch out of the back of his car after gigs, and keep the cash. Tori's relationship with her father, now 91, is good, but it's the subject she is most sensitive about. "If this story ever gets made into a TV series, I just wanna know who gets to play the Reverend Edison Amos," she laughs, "because it's the role of a f****** lifetime." She hit the big time in 1992 with her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, and the success of it feels surprising, even now. Who was this woman suggestively straddling a piano, purring and yodelling densely poetic songs, and how had she got on MTV? It's crackers to think that an album like her third, Boys for Pele -- "a punk read on piano and harpsichord", in her own words -- should have gone platinum.

The penultimate track on Little Earthquakes was Me and a Gun, which detailed Amos's rape in a car, at knife-point, when she was 21. "I'll never forget, one of the record executives said to me, 'Tori, this should not go on the record. It's very uncomfortable,' " she recalls. "I said, 'It's supposed to be very -- extremely -- uncomfortable listening.' He said, 'Well, why in the world would you wanna put somebody through that?' And I said, 'Because this is what happens.' " She became one of the first spokespeople for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and still works with them closely now.

Today she also bemoans the ageism within her industry. She is lucky, she says, to have an established career and a devoted fanbase who have seen her through, even when her record sales dipped in the 2000s. But few other female singer-songwriters her age get that chance. "They've been put out to pasture," she says. "You don't have a parallel to the Helen Mirrens and the Meryl Streeps. You see Stevie Nicks a lot, but there are not a lot of songwriters who sell out the Albert Hall ... So," she sighs, "it's kind of a quiet genocide."

Ageing has had its upsides, though. "After menopause, it's kinda like, ooof!" she exhales loudly. "Let it fly, sister! If you can survive menopause -- which is not easy by the way -- if you can get through that, there is a gift if you survive it." She talks about this a lot; she thoroughly disputes that it makes you "barren". In fact she is still "fertile -- creatively fertile!" But it's sobering too. "You know you're on the other side, so you've got less time than you already had."

She promises that she "still lives like a rock'n'roller", but takes care of herself now. Having her daughter "sorted out some of my damage", she says. Meanwhile her marriage has its own charms. Amos married Hawley in 1998, when she was 34. Is it particular being married to a British guy? Another deadpan pause. "Oh, yeah." Hawley is, she explains, "really un-PC ... because he calls things as he sees them, as certain British people will do". For instance, he is very liberal with "the c- word", she says. I wonder how Amos feels about that. "Well, I laugh my head off," she shrugs. In fact, she says, laughing now, "I actually get the jokes now. Which I didn't for years. And now that I do, I don't know how I survived!"

Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos is published on Tuesday (Hodder & Stoughton)

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