Tori Amos' Secret Garden

With a little help from her faeries, she is doing more than just getting by

June 25, 1998
Tori Amos
Tori Amos on the cover of Rolling Stone.
David La Chapelle

You are Tori Amos. Year after year you've opened a vein for your public, serving up for their consumption every painful detail of your personal life, including your own rape. Despite the fact that your very own father is a Methodist minister, you've stared down the Christian patriarchy and offered listeners the escape of a mythical, pagan, faerie world. You have given till it hurts in interviews and sung your lungs out in hundreds of live shows a year critics call you sensuous, electrifying and possessed, and fans flood backstage for your healing touch. Yes, you're all that, plus tax. You're sometimes dismissed as an ineffectual sprite, but you've managed to rally major corporate funding for your charity, RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. And despite having been assured that your girl-and-her-piano shtick will never, ever play, you've become, as one observer put it, "a moon child for lost souls and misfits" with a million devoted followers worldwide.

Next thing you know, your hard-won success is opening the door for a new generation of rock ladies with personal revelations of a more polite nature. And here they come: the Joan Osbornes and the Sarah McLachlans, the Paula Coles and Shawn Colvins and Jewels, mild-mannered Pottery Barn poets who, one by one, get all the multiplatinum albums and pop-radio play and Grammys that have always eluded you. Then there's this little piano-playing glam freak Fiona Apple – a teenager, yet – who even has among her musical-journal entries a song about being raped. The press, being the press, gives her the benefit of the pout. What's a girl to think?

"Isn't it great, all this diary stuff?" gushes the real Tori Amos. "So much better than it was a few years ago, when record companies had a quota of, like, ten female signings a year. I'm so uncompetitive, really.

"You can't control your popularity; I know I'm an acquired taste I'm anchovies," Amos explains with typical moon-child exuberance. "And not everybody wants those hairy little things. If I was potato chips, I could go a lot more places, but I'm not. On my second record I thought that way, like with the song 'God': Why don't people want to hear about God getting a blow job? I thought those born-again Christians would love that. But then I realized that even my sister wouldn't buy my records if I wasn't her sister to her, I sound like the psycho in Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blonde. She says, 'Why do I want to listen to that on my way to work?'"

The erstwhile Mr. Blonde is presently cooking up her latest sardine platter down among the gentle quilted hillsides of Olde England. The county of Cornwall is England's most westerly and independent-minded and also its most mythical: The wind-swept province, with its own language and culture, was the setting of the Tristram and Isolde fable, and, according to legend, King Arthur convened his Round Table here. Among the scattered possessions in Tori Amos playback room is a shopping bag full of books from the King Arthur Bookshop in neighboring Tintagel.

It's appropriate that Amos has elected to record in Cornwall, being something of a far-out, mystical type herself. Her last album, Boys for Pele, was named after a Hawaiian volcano goddess, and Amos rarely forgets to thank "the faeries" on her liner notes; her publishing company is called Sword and Stone. And asking her the most straightforward question is liable to produce a radical and unnerving detour into any number of ancient cultures or religions – show the slightest unfamiliarity with names like Osiris or Persephone or Demeter, and Amos will simply fix you with the indulgent smile of a grade-school teacher addressing a slow learner.

Women Who Rock: In the Pages of Rolling Stone

If there's one well-known mythical name you would expect Amos to drop, it's Lilith, the figure of ancient Jewish lore, adopted by the defining event of the femme-rock era. Surely the uncompetitive and surprisingly well-adjusted Amos must find her spiritual home in the pagan bosom of the festival for which she is unofficial den mother. Then again, maybe Amos is not quite that well-adjusted. "Well, I would have a good bottle of wine with Sarah [McLachlan, Lilith Fair's founder] any night of the week," she allows. "But my shows are theater, and I've worked a long time to get them to this point. This isn't just about eating some chicken and hearing a few of your favorite female singers. You walk into my show, you walk into a world – it's a film every night. I can't impose that on Lilith and vice versa.

"Plus, I'm not into the all-male, all-female thing," says Amos with growing agitation. "Where's Dionysus? Where's Hades? You can't cut out the testosterone. And we need some pansy-ass people, too, like little camp Hermes. Even though I'm sure some of those women have more testosterone than Hermes," she adds with a slightly unsisterly roll of the eyes.

As she speaks, Amos clasps in her hands an Eeyore tea mug. In between sips, she presses it to her jaw to ease the discomfort of a bone deformity that's troubled her for two decades.

"When I was fifteen, I thought it was a brain tumor," Amos says ruefully. "Well, of course I did! The condition is sufficiently grave to give Amos headaches she compares to the pain of a tooth abscess. Surgery is not an option, and since painkillers do not agree with Amos' constitution, she simply gets "Tiger Balmed-up" backstage before every show and iced down afterward. The condition is a "little, tiny handicap," according to this ethereal survivor. "It's so boring for everybody – and I hate to bore people.

To make her new record, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," Amos has convened her own high-tech round table in a converted barn that's distinguished from its neighbors by the modest satellite dish on the roof. Behind a door with a scrawled sign that says "rock factory" lies Amos' inner sanctum, the airy room where she communes with her muse. It is, like the rest of the premises, bare, enlivened only by a Bösendorfer piano and a nineteenth-century Russian chaise longue with elaborately carved dolphins on each arm. (The $12,000 piece is one of what Amos calls "Tori's follies," the other one being the moat around her spread in Ireland.)

The one-lane bridges and sheep-congested back roads that greet visitors who make the five-hour drive from London would certainly act as a handy deterrent to any record-company suits who might fancy checking in on their investment. "They could pop in before Little Earthquakes did well," Amos says with a glint of steel. Since that debut album took off, she has enjoyed such complete control of her career that she can now smugly utter the statement, "Mess with me and you will not survive." Scratch the space cadet and you'll find a starship trooper underneath.

Amos accomplices on the Cornwall mission are a group of well-trained engineers who have come to understand her uniquely exacting ideas about sonic geometry. If she asks them to make a track sound like, say, a desolate scene from the movie Fargo, they will spend as many hours as it takes to make it so.

Tori Amos was creating her own world around her long before she was taking thirty-strong bands of "pirates" on world tours. At the age of five, her imagination inflamed by the Poe, Dickens and Faulkner her mother would read to her, Amos could conjure up a whole playground of pals. "I would get lonely sometimes when other children didn't want to come and play with me," recalls the bib-overalled artist as she sits outside watching her neighbor's cows feeding at their troughs. "I had millions of friends from the other world. As a little girl, you play with who you can, and if they're not in human form, they're still very real to you. The habit persists to this day. Let's put it this way," Amos says. "It's never lonely in my Toyota 4-Runner."

Amos reads avidly about arcane imaginary worlds, taking eminent mythographer Joseph Campbell as her lens and prism. In his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell ties together the world's mythologies into a "monomyth," tracing each story back to a universal archetype. The common theme among all myths, the author posited, was a hero taking on an adventure, then suffering in an unknown land before returning home, triumphant and enlightened. By the standards of The Hero With a Thousand Faces – which, incidentally, inspired Star Wars – Tori Amos own life has all the makings of a pretty decent myth.

Born in North Carolina to a Methodist preacher and his part-Cherokee wife, Amos was, at five years old, the youngest-ever student at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory. Expelled at eleven for musical insubordination, Amos took to playing piano in bars in her teenage years; a week after her twenty-first birthday, Amos decamped to Los Angeles to pursue her own musical vision and, after numerous strange side trips, had a painful fall from grace. Only after she was exiled to England did Amos ultimately find redemption, returning home triumphant and, yes, somewhat enlightened.

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