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Irish Independent
May 24, 2020

Tori is still making little earthquakes

'I was following a religious energy and my father's family are Scottish-Irish' - Tori Amos talks religion, fighting the patriarchy and moving to Kinsale

by Barry Egan

Ahead of the publication of her new book, Tori Amos tells Barry Egan about the lessons learnt from religion, fighting the patriarchy, her mother's death and moving to Kinsale

'Me and a Gun has been my flashlight -- it took me by the hand and led me down a very, very, very long recovery path...' - Tori Amos

SHE was born Myra Ellen Amos on August 22, 1963, in North Carolina. In 2004, by then long since re-imagined as the queen of kook rock Tori Amos, she was asked by Q magazine what was wrong with being called Myra Ellen. (She changed it when she was 20.) Her reply was typically Tori.

"My mother is Mary Ellen," came her answer. "My sister is Marie after the French Mary. And I'm Myra, after the Hebrew. My father has the need for the same name of the mother of Jesus everywhere but I think you can only push your faith on a child for so long. It's a lot for a little girl to take on board, especially as Mary did not have a child through consensual sex. How can you be like Mary the mother -- unless, of course, you get to [have carnal knowledge with] God too?"

I think I can safely say there are very few artists who could shape a sentence like that; and not offend pretty much everyone of religious faith in the world. As such there are very few artists like the one and only Tori Amos. My head was spinning (in a good way) after 60 minutes of conversation with her last week. Tori was speaking from her farm in Cornwall where she lives with her English husband Mark Hawley (they married in February 1998 and lived for many years in Kinsale, Co Cork) and their 19-year-old daughter, Tash.

Tori first came to Ireland to record her album Boys for Pele. "The original plan was to make it in America. We wanted to do it in an old southern type house, but the realtors knew who I was -- and when we tried to rent a house, everybody was out to fleece me.

"I was following a religious energy and my father's family are Scottish-Irish. I felt I needed to trace it back. I went to the old world," Tori said of Ballywilliam House, which she sold last year (see panel) . Her dad is the Rev Dr Edison McKinley Amos, who is 91 now and lives in Florida. "He was a Methodist minister," she says. "He kind of got talked into being a minister by his mother who was a missionary type. I guess, he wanted to be Billy Graham. He marched with Dr King. In some ways he was a paradox, because on one hand he was very strict, you couldn't call him liberal but his views were. He believed in equality."

Not a member of the Christian Right that has propped up President Trump, then, I say to her as a joke. "He wasn't one of them. I'd call him more puritanical, more like John Knox from Scotland [where her father's family originated from], you know Protestant? They are not as fun as the Catholics, in my opinion."

The youngest of three children, Tori was possibly too much fun for Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute, where she was accepted at the age of five to study classical piano. She was their youngest ever student, and one of their most mercurial.

At the age of 11 she was expelled because, she says, "I didn't understand why they weren't teaching The Beatles. They said, 'No one will know who The Beatles are in 30 years. I said, you are so wrong.' I probably said, 'You are f **ing wrong.' Because I had a real black is white minister's daughter's rebellion side to me, which didn't go down well."

Two years later, the 13-year-old played her music in Washington DC with her preacher dad watching by her side.

"With his clerical collar secure above the cross pinned to his lapel, we asked to play at every restaurant and bar on M Street," Tori writes in her new book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, a follow up to her previous memoir, 2005's Piece by Piece. It was in the capital of crooked American politics that young Tori saw, she says, the corruption at work: the white-collar crime of the all-powerful lobbyists making deals with what she calls "liquid handshakes".

"This was the late 1970s, 1980, the year of the election, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and I was watching a country turn. I think this is really what this book was trying to capture as well: watching people stop asking themselves rational questions and stop doing the research to just get an easy answer. I was coming from that point of view, as a teenager being exposed to things most teenagers are not exposed to in a professional way, watching these men in action, and some women, but for the most part it was men."

"Those pimps in Washington, raping the land," she sang on Benjamin a few years ago. "I wrote that song in 2017 when it was clear that the lobbyists were really in control."

Tori writes in Resistance about the artist's role in society, "particularly during time of crisis, a personal crisis or an artistic crisis... you find your true north through it. The book is also talking about collective traumas without realising we would be in the biggest collective trauma, one of the cataclysmic events of our lifetime," she says. There were other more personal, more painful cataclysms in Tori's past.

In 1988, she had brief outing with awful synth-pop group Y Kant Tori Read. "The record company didn't want the girl on the piano," Tori says. "I capitulated. I thought I had to get out of the bar room. Record companies might have a slot to fill. So I filled the slot. I almost faced artistic death here. I filled a slot that was disingenuous."

What was the slot? "Image-wise, I guess, it was rock chick," she says. "There is nothing wrong with rock chick. You've got to believe in it, blood and bone."

And Tori didn't? "It's not just that. It's not that I'm not a rock chick but it is a commercial rock chick, I need it to be my own vanguard. The suits weren't interested in seven-minute songs."

How did they react when Tori wrote Me And A Gun in 1991 -- from her debut solo album Little Earthquakes -- about her horrific experience of being raped in Los Angeles in her early twenties?

"Well, they... most of the suits didn't want it on the record because it's -- as they said -- 'Who wants to listen to this? It's not very comfortable.' I said, 'You're damn right, it's not very comfortable'."

It was me
And a gun
And a man
On my back
And I sang 'Holy Holy' as he buttoned down his pants.
And do you know Carolina
Where the biscuits are soft and sweet
These things go through your head when there's a man on your back
And you're pushed flat on your stomach, it's not a classic Cadillac.

The record company's reaction to Me And A Gun made Tori "realise that I was not going to make music again for any other reason than serving the muses and documenting the time as I saw it; and if that didn't work for the label, then we just might have to go to battle. I have gone to battle through my career at different times, especially if you are doing something different like Boys For Pele. They didn't understand."

Tori told Time magazine in 2014 that the controversial image of her breastfeeding a piglet on the cover of her aforementioned 1996 album Boys For Pele was "about nurturing that which had been rejected from going back into the fold; the idea from Christianity of embracing that which we judge to be non-kosher, non-acceptable. That was my Christmas card, my Madonna and Child. What do we say is an acceptable child? When do we open the fold as a quote-unquote Christian family? But at the time that message was about do we judge our gay and lesbian children as not loved by Christ. Where is our Christ consciousness?"

So does Tori possesses Christ consciousness? "Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves," she answers. "The tricky part is if we are acting out our damage by projecting on to others what is actually a hidden self-loathing."

In terms of the organised religions she saw growing up in America, Tori says, "I've seen how it works. I've seen how it runs as an institution and perhaps I just saw too many people not loving their neighbour as themselves. God knows what they were doing Monday through Saturday, and come Sunday, they would come to church and wanted to be absolved."

(In a late 1990s interview, which added to her image as ferocious fairy queen of kook, Tori once mentioned meeting the devil in a South American ceremony: "He said a lot. He said I needed to stop wasting my time with baby demons. Dark princes don't defecate on women. They've graduated from that.")

Returning to the subject of the music industry run by men, Tori says that the only way to beat them is "to out-create them. That's the only way. Or they'll destroy you. They try to silence you with contracts, but not all of them. They hold all the cards except one."

Which is?

"They don't have a hotline to the muses."

One of Tori's biggest muse was, unquestionably, her mother. What was her reaction to hearing Me And A Gun? What did she say to Tori?

"She couldn't talk about it. She was torn up. It was beyond her... her emotional [long pause] my mother was a very loving woman who put her family first and just couldn't take on board that violence."

"Me and a Gun has been my flashlight, the thing that has taken me by the hand and led me down a very, very, very long recovery path," she said in 1994. That same year, she was honoured with a Visionary Award by the Washington DC Rape Crisis Centre.

Asked to describe her part-Cherokee mother who died on May 11 last year aged 89, Tori says, haltingly, her voice cracking with emotion, "My mother was... she had real unconditional love for people. She loved them. She really walked Christ's path. I have heard of people who have and I have heard of people who talk about people like that but she was one person who really, really did. We miss her a lot."

Can Tori remember the last conversation with her?

"It's difficult," she says. "She had a terrible stroke and for two years it was quite cruel. She couldn't speak. So, I think with her passing it is about remembering how she was before that tragedy."

In terms of another tragedy related to her Cherokee ancestry, Tori told The Guardian a few years ago: "I'm not in a position to speak for First Nation people -- that's a sacred task. But, as an observer, it seems to me that, unlike Germany, we've never had to really face our holocaust. Until we do that, the healing can't begin."

"When will the healing begin?" she asks now. "When there is no running water, how are some Native Americans supposed to wash their hands? When the real history of how European Americans stole almost everything First Nation's people possessed except for their spirituality is not taught. How can 'we the people' know how to hold our government accountable? And then invest in our First Nation communities. An example of the stark reality of how Native Americans are treated -- they have been labelled as 'other' in the Covid-19 data."

Tori's sister Marie Dobyns is a member of the Association of American Indian Physicians, "a big believer in championing the voiceless". Did that brand of idealism run in their family?

"Dr Marie Dobyns," Tori says, "has taught me a lot over the years. Her mission is to empower people to take an interest in their own health and not wait for someone to save them. She understands the complexities of this particularly when most of us are not medical so she believes in educating her patients to ask the pertinent questions. She also knows the disparities between those who can afford health care and those who cannot. This is her soul's calling."

Tori's soul's true calling is pretty evident when you listen to her voice on international hit singles like Crucify, Silent All These Years God, Cornflake Girl or Caught a Lite Sneeze.

Asked about the first song she wrote, Tori replies that there were always variations of songs being written at an early age. "That was my escape route from religious doctrine. Jesus was never the problem, it was the interpreters of his teachings whose tone I did not trust." Tori was trusted enough to be the first musical guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, America's biggest TV show, after it returned to the air following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She sang Tom Waits's Time.

In early 1987 when U2 released The Joshua Tree album, Tori and her friends would spend their time at Joshua Tree Park in the Mojave Desert. Tori and her pals would "lay under the stars" and "cry into the arms of mother earth". Tori went with the singer Nancy Shanks "one of those people who was wise and taught me many things and who passed last year of ALS. So those memories of being with her are golden right now," says Tori, before talking about her daughter Tash.

"Hopefully, she has inherited her father's sense of humour and organisation. She has less edges than I have," she says, adding by way of explaining where her edges came from.

"There were a lot of battles to get a piano in the mainstream in the early 1990s. There were a lot of battles when they were only playing two women in alternative radio. And that was one too many. Those battles create who you are. I am very grateful." So are we.

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