Talking to Tori

My grandfather would sing to me when I was a baby, and he was part eastern

Cherokee,” says singer-songwriter Tori Amos, explaining why the music of

the North American plains Indians has been such a formative influence on

her life. “His grandmother was a Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears

and ran off into the Smoky Mountains in 1839. So she would tell these

stories about the life of her people to my grandfather, who in turn would

sing them to me.
That experience certainly shaped the way I am today.”

Americans can say these things in all seriousness and get away with it.

Amos can claim a cultural heritage by being one-16th Cherokee Indian, but

if I whipped out a fiddle in homage to the fact that my own grandfather was

a roving Gypsy before his gammy leg forced him into a life in front of the

telly, it would quite rightly be snatched from me and smashed over my head.

Yet Amos can talk about her love of Led Zeppelin being a result of her

eastern Cherokee genes and, before you know it, you’re discussing land

rights.

“I was exposed to severe church music a little later,” continues Amos,

whose father is a Methodist minister in Washington DC. “Charles Wesley had

an ability to write some wonderful hymns based on old English sea shanties,

but the way these songs were delivered . . . it was very rigid and you

couldn’t find any soulfulness in there. But if I got lucky I would go to

the black church down the street, and that was swinging.”

Perhaps these diverse influences help explain why Amos’s own music falls

into such a unique place. She claims to have started playing the piano at

the age of two-and-a-half, and by five she was studying at a conservatory,

getting trained for a career as a classical pianist that she was never to

fulfil. Instead, she became a singer-pianist, played around with a variety

of images, suffered inevitable comparisons with Kate Bush and relocated to

Cornwall in western England with her sound-engineer husband. Now she has

released Tales of a Librarian, a greatest-hits album that, with typical

eccentricity, has been compiled in accordance with the rules of the Dewey

decimal system.

“I’d rather tell you about an affair I had than let you know about the

records that are on my turntable,” Amos announces, countering my request

to have a look through her favourites. “It’s a very personal thing and I

like to keep it close to my chest. But I’ll tell you about a few of the

things that have passed my way over the years.”

Amos produces a handful of CDs that she is willing to talk about, including

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled first album and Joni

Mitchell’s 1968 album Song to a Seagull. Rumours is chosen because it has

good production values; Jones because her sultry, bar-room style of

storytelling suggests that she has lived a certain life, and Mitchell

because she is the one singer-songwriter whose skill surpasses that of all

others. “She works with complicated melodies, and her storylines have such

a poetic language,” says Amos. “Dylan’s melodies are really very simple,

but hers are intricate. I’m a musician first, not a words person, and am

drawn to people who manoeuvre a musical language in a way that I find

unusual. There are plenty of people whose attitude I like, who I think have

something to say, but few who are building a sonic architecture that hasn’t

been built before.”

Mitchell sang about the record industry’s Starmaker Machine, something that

Amos knows intimately. Before the release of her own first album, 1991’s

Little Earthquakes, she was told that it would be impossible to market a

female singer who plays the piano. The plan was to take all the piano parts

off the record and replace them with guitar. “They wanted to create this

fictional character of a girl with a guitar, and it almost got to the point

where I was quite willing to burn the tapes of the album. After all, I

could record it all again, but I couldn’t go round to every house in

America and say, `This isn’t how it should be. Can I play it for you

again?”’

Then there’s Zeppelin. It sounds like musical repression was par for the

course in Amos’s childhood home: her mother would wait until her father had

gone to church before she got out the Frank Sinatra records, and her

brother had to sneak LPs by the Doors in and out of the house as if they

were illicit substances.

“Bands like Led Zeppelin did create a revolution, and they were a

terrible threat to my father’s kind of church, which denies sexuality,”

she says. “Young women were feeling things with Led Zeppelin, and I

remember moving my body in a way I hadn’t moved it before. Robert Plant’s

sensuality was something I was trying to discover, even though I was eight

at the time.”

Living in Cornwall means taking inspiration from the books and records she

picks up on tour, and keeping the rest of the record industry at arm’s

length while she and her husband make music in their studio. “There’s no

artistic paranoia down there,” she says of her reason to live such an

isolated existence. “Sometimes, when I’m in London or New York, I see

composers chasing after the next new thing and they can forget their own

discipline. And believe me, there is no worse place to be than backstage at

the Grammys. When you meet a writer of beautiful love songs who quite

obviously hates women, that’s when your dreams really get shattered.”—GUARDIAN NEWSPAPERS LIMITED 2003

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