Below the first instalment of the very first interview in which Tori Amos talks at length about American Doll Posse. In the process she also addresses other associated subjects. By Paul Tingen.
There are some striking, and unexpected, differences between the private and public personae of Tori Amos. Last November, I had the pleasure of meeting both when I visited the singer at Martian Engineering (left), her recording studio in Cornwall, on assignment for Sound on Sound magazine. The intention was to query her about her then brand-new 5-CD boxed set, A Piano, and about her recording studio, which was soon to go commercial. In addition to covering these two subjects, the singer also discussed many other things, including exclusive details of her forthcoming album, American Doll Posse, about which she has until now refused to speak at any length. This article conveys some of the things she said for which I didn’t have space in the SOS article.
During my visit to Martian Engineering I spoke at length with Tori Amos three times. The first meeting took place when she came over to greet me after I had been dropped off by a taxi that had taken me on the 45-minute drive from Exeter station. We had a cup of tea in the studio’s brand new entertainment and dining room (below), which has gorgeous views of the surrounding Cornish countryside. Amos was warm and welcoming, yet also guarded—she’s experienced her fair share of journalists who were sympathetic in person, and would misquote her or cut her down in the printed interview.
After chatting for a bit, and giving her copies of my solo CD and my book on the electric music of Miles Davis, Amos seemed to relax. I’d obviously seen her image for many years in the media, and what struck me most in meeting her face to face was how normal and unassuming she appeared. By contrast, Amos’s public image is that of the dramatic, attention-drawing pop star. The reputation that precedes her is that of a beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed but also slightly peculiar woman who has shared some very personal stuff in her songs, including most famously the experience of her real-life rape, and who has an interest in mythology and spirituality and other things that some would qualify as obscure or airy-fairy.
Among the clichés and stereotypes that have been attached to Amos are those of sex-symbol, diva, femme fatale, rock ‘n roll chick, crazed genius, “woodland nymph,” “kooky” eccentric, “baffling flower child,” and so on. Yet in the flesh she displays none of these characteristics. Yes, she is beautiful, but almost in a girl-next-door kind of way, if one can say such a thing about a woman of 43. Apart from clothes that are slightly on the unconventional side—scarf and colourful jacket for instance—and that suggest a hint of the middle-aged ex-hippie mother, Amos seems just very natural, and quite relaxed in being so.
We talk for 20 minutes, after which she goes to take care of Natashya, the 6-year old daughter she has with her husband and engineer Mark Hawley—the family’s habitat is across the courtyard from the studio. Meanwhile I go down to the studio’s control room to interview Hawley and fellow Martian engineer Marcel van Limbeek. Towards the end of that interview Amos briefly walks in, to relate to Hawley that Natashya complains about her mum going off to work again, ie doing the interview with yours truly. Hawley promises to take care of it, and half an hour later I meet Amos in her writing room, in the basement of the new studio extension.
Pride of place in Amos’s writing room goes to her favorite Bosendörfer, which she is playing as I come in. The moment I’ve set up my microphone and MiniDisc, the subject inevitably first turns to the instrument of her trade. She used to take this piano with her on tour, but, says Amos, “she has now been designed to remain in this room. Many of the songs that I wrote have come through her, wherever I was in the world. But we decided that she needed to be refurbished and cared for. I also wanted to have my own piano and writing space, because we’re opening up Martian to the industry.”
Two walls full of books, mostly novels, mythology and art books, also demand attention. But the most arresting presence in the room is that of Amos herself, who seems almost a different person from the woman I met two hours earlier. Yes, she’s swapped clothes and has put on make-up, but what’s changed most of all is her presence. Gone are any girl-next-door resemblances. Instead she’s best described as a queen in full regalia: self-assured, forceful, larger-than-life, even looking slightly taller purely physically. This is the Tori Amos that the public and the music industry suits get to see.
Earlier she spoke quickly and unselfconsciously, but—frustratingly for a journalist also watching the clock and his recording gear—now she articulates slowly and deliberately. She appears to weigh and emphasise her every word, often while looking me straight in the eyes with great intensity. No doubt her careful way of expressing herself is in part informed by the presence of that very recording gear, and her previous experiences with journalists. But there’s also a force-of-will, a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude—“the lioness” as co-writer Ann Powers called her in Piece By Piece, Amos’ autobiography—that’s one of the main driving forces behind her success, and that has also found its way into her public Tori Amos persona.
Amos is acutely aware of the difference between her two personas. In Piece By Piece she talks of the process of creating and maintaining her own image, and how to maintain a healthy, inner distance from it. Since the birth of Natashya in 2000, one of Amos’s main concerns has been how Natashya would handle the gap between public image and her flesh-and-blood mother. It appears that Amos has done her best to tailor her public persona, and even her music, in such a way as to be non-threatening to her young daughter. The music on, and the images surrounding, Scarlet’s Walk (2002), Tales of Librarian (2003) and most of all The Beekeeper (2005) were strongly informed by this. The fact that Amos judges this to be no longer necessary has shaped much of the direction of American Doll Posse.
“Tash came to me a little while ago, and asked me something that made me understand that she was ready,” explains Amos. “She said, ‘Mommy, Tori Amos can be very naughty, can’t she?' I asked her what she meant and she replied, ‘well, some of the kids at school say so.’ She then asked, ‘can I talk to Tori?’ I replied, ‘hold on.’ [Amos moves body sideways and moves her hands as if changing her face, and then re-faces me.] So she musters up all her courage and flashes me the index finger. Then she asked, ‘Can I have my Mommy back now?’ and I understood from this that she realises that I transform into someone who she can’t take to school, and that this won’t tear her to pieces anymore.”
Tori Amos has, of course, sometimes flaunted aspects of herself on stage and in her music that one would be hesitant to expose a toddler to (e.g. “give me peace, love and a hard cock”—‘Professional Widow,’ live version on A Piano). And so The Beekeeper features more relaxed, harmonious music than on Amos’ previous albums while the album’s cover images of her spell mythological young ‘mother’ rather than ball-breaking ‘seductress.’ By contrast, the first publicity shot for American Doll Posse is instantly confrontational: Amos with a manic, doll-like stare in a tight purple dress, a bible in her right hand, the word ‘shame written on her left hand, blood dripping from underneath her skirt, down her left leg.
Clearly it helps that young Natashya is now able to distinguish between ‘Mommy’ and the woman in this disturbing image. According to Amos, two other elements also contributed to the direction of her new album. First there was the completion of the A Piano boxed set, which covers the last fifteen years of her work, and which gave her a sense of completion with the work she had previously done, and hence a strong impetus to try something new. Second, says Amos, it’s a matter of “being sexual and being political in a country [the US] that has chosen to put people into authority that are taking us down a very dark road.”
Despite having lived in the UK for more than ten years, Amos still strongly identifies with being American. Our interview took place days before the American mid-term elections of last November, and a topic to which we returned several times, before and after the interview, was whether it was possible for the US constitutional and electoral system in general and these elections in particular to stop a corrupt and war-mongering president in his tracks. As we all know, the Democrats won the elections, but so far are having a hard time finding the courage to put an end to Bush’s war policies. And so one of the aims of Amos’ new album is to empower Americans, particularly young American women, in stopping the runaway war machine that their government has become.
“The main message of my new album is: the political is personal,” states Amos, with great emphasis. “This as opposed to the feminist statement from years ago that the personal is political. I know it has been said that it goes both ways, but we have to turn it around. We have to think like that. I’m now taking on subjects that I could not have been able to take on in my twenties. With Little Earthquakes I took on more personal things. But if you are going to be an American woman in 2007 with a real view on what is going on, you need to be brave, and you need to know that some people won’t want to look at it.”
She pauses for a moment, as if to let the gravity of her words reverberate and then continues, “There’s so much that’s not expressed in a country that should be the land of the free, and at the same time there’s so much concern, it’s beyond concern. For me the new album is about representing the American women that I see and meet, but that right now is not the world’s view of American women. And there are those in the American media and right wing that try to shame these women for speaking out. And you know, I’m a minister’s daughter, so if you try to shame me, my mojo grows!”
In the few brief comments she has previously made about her forthcoming album, Amos has made mention of bringing out a “warrior woman,” and these comments offer a hint of what she meant. One wonders whether the new direction of American Doll Posse is a full-on “warrior” assault on the establishment, along the lines of Neil Young’s Living With War, but when this is put to Amos, she recoils in horror. “No! No! Absolutely not!”
She then laughs, and continues, “I love Neil Young, but number one, I’m a woman, and number two, I’m a preacher’s daughter. And I know that unless you deal with religion, how it has paralysed people with shame and ideology and has hi-jacked Jesus, you’re not going to be effective with the masses
With this Amos opens up a familiar front: because of her background as a minister’s daughter, she’s long fought against the way the Christian church pushes women into guilt and shame about their femininity and sexuality. The bible and the word ‘shame’ in the image are clear allusions to this. But this time she’s pushing things much further. Whereas in the past she was on a journey of personal liberation, now the ‘political is personal’; in other words, her aim is to help liberate American women and thereby affect political change. If this sounds like she should go into politics, Amos believes that being an artist offers her a unique platform.
“In the past it often were the fool and the court jester in the room who had the most political power,” she observes. “They were the effective ones… and this is all about being effective. I’m not interested in the old farts that Neil Young probably reached with his album. I’m after their teenage daughters. This is about rousing 18-year olds to wake up and make choices. I want them to realise what their future will be in 20 years time, unless they start voting for whom they truly want in power.”
While I enthusiastically endorse Amos’ political views and ambitions, her ultra-combative rhetoric concerns me, because a) most artistic political ventures have stranded in the morass of general indifference and personal burn-out and b) as a general rule, music that’s essentially a vehicle for a political message, or any message for that matter, has rarely been very good. And if I had to choose between Amos making a politically effective album and a good album, I’d –reluctantly– opt for the former, but ideally I’d like to see her do both at the same time.
As if reading my thoughts, Amos explains, “This is not about being right-on political. Instead my way is a woman’s way, which is very different. This is about walking in the ladies’ room and putting on lipstick and high heels. And music itself has a transformative power that tends to be forgotten. It can ignite a flame in the listener. There’s nothing stronger than making someone feel that they have the right to question those in authority. And I don’t think this battle will be won by using music the way it was used in the sixties. You don’t want to get dragged into the rhetoric of either party, because if you are, you’ve been seduced into their lair. Instead it’s about reminding women, and men—but there are more young women than men standing in line at my show—of their potential.”
© March 12, 2007 Paul Tingen. You are welcome to quote a few lines from this article, but please do not copy this article in its entirety without permission. If you want to alert your friends or a discussion group to it, link to this page.