Tori Amos' Secret Garden

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

Tori Amos
David La Chapelle
Tori Amos on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

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.

Physically, too, the thirty-four-year-old Amos has something of a mythic aura. She is a tiny creature of Tolkienian aspect, with an Irish Spring complexion, piercing gray-blue eyes and a pillowed lower lip on which rest her prominent front teeth. It is no great surprise that the English comic-book artist Neil Gaiman was able to use Amos appearance and persona to shape Delirium, a character in his epic, labyrinthine Sandman series.

"I remember congratulating Tori after a show in Minneapolis, and she said, 'Now we must jump up and down and down, and dance around and around,'" says Gaiman, who met the singer after she name-checked him in her lyrics. "And we did! She has that wonderful un-selfconsciousness that allows one to say exactly what one thinks. That moment at the end of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' when the child stands up and tells everyone that the emperor is actually naked that's very Tori. The mistake people make is thinking that's all there is to her."

How low can you go? How about "not quite getting it together to audition" as a keyboard player for Billy Idol? Feeling genuine elation that you managed to edge out the then-unknown Sarah Jessica Parker for a Corn Flakes commercial? Not mythically low enough? Try working as an extra on a Raquel Welch commercial for Crystal Light and being told by the director that Miss Welch would like you to tone it down, please. Finally, after being sneered at by the casting director of Howard the Duck, you slink off to your regular gig as happy-hour entertainer at the downtown-L.A. Sheraton, where you sing "Send in the Clowns" and "Feelings" in your best "Love Is a Battlefield" outfit.

These were some of the outrageous slings and arrows endured by Tori Amos after she moved to Los Angeles, trying to make it as a singer/songwriter. The sum total of her experience up to that point was playing piano bars in the Washington, D.C., area – her father would drive her in from the suburbs. Now here she was, a big-haired hopeful living in a scuzzy one-room apartment off Hollywood Boulevard, "making friends with the palm trees."

Adrift in Hollywood, sick of day-job degradation and music-industry rejection, Amos ditched her beloved Bösendorfer to form a pop-metal ensemble called Y Kant Tori Read. The band, which played but one live show, was signed by the same Atlantic Records staffer who brought you Twisted Sister and Skid Row.

Billboard used the word bimbo in a review of Y Kant Tori Read's debut album, and the record stiffed. Amos did not leave her apartment for a week. "I cried constantly; I was on my knees," she says. "From child prodigy to musical joke in twenty years – how do you reconcile that? So I went back to the faerie world." And to happy hour at the Long Beach Sheraton.

Q&A: Tori Amos Talks in Tongues

Amos says she got down and sucked the big Böse, rediscovering her self-belief in new, piano-based material that was to become Little Earthquakes. The songs were a little bit Joni Mitchell and a lot Kate Bush, but they were distinguished by their striking personal revelations. Amos' signature track was "Me and a Gun," her stark account of being raped. The record company wanted to hear guitars.

At twenty-eight, Amos had been down that road before. So she drew herself up to her full five feet three inches and pulled her American Indian blanket (worn for "protection and clarity") tight around her shoulders and intimated that there was another company interested in her. It was a bluff, of course, but Amos did not blink. The tracks were released in their original form, and Amos shipped out to London to relaunch her career, slogging away at the bottom of meaningless bills in shabby little venues.

Amos' Virgil in London's underworld was fellow U.S. expatriot Karen Binns. "She looked like a teenage bag lady," says Binns, a fashion stylist who took the late bloomer under her wing, "poor white trash and completely out to lunch. I didn't know what planet she was on, but it was definitely the right planet. I said, 'Honey, I can give you a Galliano dress and tell you you're fabulous, but just keep it real. Reality always sells.'"

Little Earthquakes did, of course, sell. And Tori Amos judgment was never again called into question. By her third album, she had Atlantic renting Sunset Boulevard billboards featuring an image of her suckling a piglet.

Tori Amos strides down a central London street, pulling up her red woolen hood against the driving rain. Despite the inclement weather and the fact that Amos perfectionist ear has found fault with the mastering process of Choirgirl Hotel, there is a distinct glide to her gait. This could be because she just got married.

The happy event was staged just north of London in a church built on a 1,000-year-old pagan site. Very Amos, as was the flowing diaphanous dress she wore. The Church of England ceremony was not, however, quite what you'd expect from a sworn enemy of Christianity. "Yes, I know, the religion that chopped all the women's heads off," Amos concedes, referring to King Henry VIII, the Church of England's misogynous founder. "I thought I was never gonna get married, but it felt right. I didn't have a fantasy of this ritual, and I played at so many weddings."

Amos' groom was thirty-two-year-old Mark Hawley, an engineer on Amos' new record. Her last serious romance was a seven-year union with the co-producer of her 1994 album, Under the Pink, Eric Rosse. "I like men on the tech side of things," says Amos. "They have a different point of view, and I like that – they don't want to be in my world; they want to be playing with knobs."

Keen Tori watchers might have caught the reference to "my wedding day" on "Jackie's Strength," an elegant Choirgirl Hotel ballad inspired by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – a most unlikely addition to Amos' goddess pantheon. "The songs just grab me by the throat sometimes and say, 'We're coming in,'" Amos explains. "I saw Jackie as a bride and I used to think I would never be a bride. I started to look to Jackie and how that woman held the country together after she watched her husband get cut down right in front of her."

Choirgirl Hotel's other guests are a motley bunch, indeed, with traditional Amos piano-based arrangements yielding to a band setup. "The piano pulled me aside and said, 'You're boring me to tears,'" Amos says. So I was like, 'Calling all sailors. . . .'" Amos hired a crew of able seamen, who chop out vacuum-packed studio funk in the Peter Gabriel mold; there's even some dance-music dabbling, inspired by Armand Van Helden's abstracted dance remix of Amos' "Professional Widow," a huge U.K. hit early last year. And there are plenty of what they call "treated vocals," the ones that sound like someone is singing through a toilet-paper roll. All in all, nothing that Depeche Mode didn't try five years ago and nothing likely to put her among the popular girls of Lilith.

Then again, applying ordinary standards to Tori Amos music is missing the point by a glorious margin. Earthbound analysis can't diminish Amos in the eyes of the fans who celebrate her freedom to follow her muse all over the map. On Web sites and in fanzines, they breathlessly interpret every line, every nuance of her records; the baroque time changes, vocal mood swings and loopy metaphors only deepen the intrigue. While Amos' work certainly taps into the contemporary appetite for public confession, there is a larger dimension to her appeal: She's part of a culture that's unloved by media trend suckers. This is the widespread fin de siècle tendency to obsessively immerse oneself in complex myth worlds, from Myst and Dungeons and Dragons to Star Wars and Star Trek. And this – far more than Lilith Fair – is the context to which Tori Amos belongs: Think of her as the Anne Rice of rock.

A few years back, Tori Amos was sitting in yet another anonymous hotel room, flipping channels on the TV, when she happened across one of her own concert performances. As she saw herself writhing on the piano stool, furiously tossing her mane, the performer had an odd reaction: She was utterly horrified.

"I know when I'm playing passionately, and it's primitive and it's as old as time," says Amos. "But I know when I look at myself and I'm in anguish, sexualizing myself. At that point I was very cut off – I only knew how to express myself sexually through my instrument. But it left me as soon as I got offstage, so I searched for it and tried to find it in other people. It's painful when you don't know how to be sexual.

"I was so torn apart by the pain of not being a woman. I wanted to experience things I'd heard other women talk about: Like Pinocchio said, 'I want to be a real little boy.' It's real private. . ." Amos adds, trailing off in a rare moment of self-censorship.

Amos began to re-examine her own persona as she was writing 1996's Boys for Pele. "You would not," she avers, "have wanted to have a drink with me during that record." The nineteen-song Pele was no bargain for listeners, either. Produced by Amos herself and recorded in the wake of her split with Eric Rosse, the record is by some distance the singer's least accessible. To her it may have been like "crossing the River Styx into my own psyche" or "the descent of Inanna [of Sumerian legend] into the underworld," but many nonbelievers heard only musical sophistry and emotional incontinence. Amos overeducated fingers got medieval on your ass, hammering seven shades of Scheherazade out of a harpsichord, while her keening anima ran wild and free. This unholy union of progressive rock and self-help literature proved that rock's femme era could rival, in terms of sheer excess, the strutting cock rock of an earlier age.

Even though she knew she was in bad shape, Amos undertook a mammoth world tour in support of Boys for Pele. She collapsed from exhaustion. "I didn't cancel, Amos says with perverse pride. It's not part of my nature to cancel; it's just not what I do – I play." It wasn't until she crawled from the wreckage of that tour that she began to get perspective on her relationship with her art – and it wasn't pretty.

"I think I was in real trouble, and I happened to be in the public eye," says Amos. "You're playing your wound – and sometimes you reach your hand in there and it doesn't feel so good. I see other singers doing this: They're in serious pain, and they're doing stupid, crazy shit that I used to do. But that doesn't go too deep. You have to go deal with it privately; you have to do the work."

The work, for Amos, meant everything from intensive reading to visiting psychics. Perhaps tired of being a shrink to the rest of the world, Amos engaged a Los Angeles analyst, whom she consults regularly by telephone. "Now, things come up and I have a way of working through them," says Amos. "Before, I would write the songs and never discuss them, except with journalists, maybe. Now I'm more aware of what I'm writing about not always when I'm doing it, but after it's done, I'll sit back and go, 'Oh, jeez.'"

To recover from the turmoil of the Boys for Pele tour, Amos took a hiatus at her Florida retreat, north of Miami. It was there, on December 23rd, 1996, that she encountered her gravest crisis yet. Pregnant by her future husband, she miscarried.

"You feel death, but you're alive," says Amos, sitting in a small central-London cafe. "You're walking between the worlds. I went through many different sides to it. You go through every question. I even went through a phase where I felt rejected. Then I began to feel a peace; the spirit started to take me to another level of love. Like the Grinch, my heart grew three times that day – I began to feel the capacity again."

Music was once more the key to Amos survival, with new songs like "Spark," "Iieee" and "Playboy Mommy" helping her work through unspeakable grief. "I didn't know when I was gonna make another record when I got pregnant," she says. "I was going to put things on hold for a while. But the music became vital again, as it always seems to. Songs started to come, and they showed me different ways of feeling and expressing, ways that surprised me. 'Playboy Mommy' dealt with my feelings of rejection – 'Wasn't I enough to be your mother, didn't you want me? Well, don't come, then. Go choose some little right-wing Christian for your mother.' It's a human response."

Rockers Turning 50

Amos orders up a cappuccino, "real milky, like you'd make it for a child," and when it arrives, she clutches the cup to her jaw. As the pain subsides, her face takes on a distant look. The spell is broken when Madonna's "Frozen" comes on the radio. "I love this song!" Amos squeals. "It makes me want to . . ." Amos trills an operatic version of Madonna's spiritual opus, then clamps a hand over her mouth as Saturday-afternoon shoppers turn their heads her way.

Tori Amos could have been Madonna. Well, more accurately, she could have been Tiffany or Debbie Gibson or Taylor Dayne, or any one of the other Eighties disco bimbos who rolled off the production line in Ms. Ciccone's sacred image. In a bizarre subchapter of the Amos myth, she was discovered at a D.C. hotel bar by a pop-soul producer, Narada Michael Walden, who put together some demo tapes for her. Among the aspiring dance diva's 1982 compositions were "Predator," "Rub Down" and the implausibly titled "Skirt's On Fire." "You think Y Kant Tori Read was bad – you haven't heard anything," Amos says with a laugh. She sings a few bars of "Skirt's On Fire" with admirable commitment. Actually, it's quite catchy.

The following day, Amos is sitting in her favorite restaurant, a little French boîte in London's exclusive Mayfair enclave. Luxury is a necessity for this cosmic cracker, whose taste for the good life runs from fine wines to Manolo Blahnik shoes to the $600 Nicole Fahri coat with thick fur collar and cuffs – "That's fake fur, sweetie" – that she's presently dousing in mussel sauce. ("At least it's keeping my sweater dry," she notes.) Amos was making $600 a week as a sixteen-year-old barroom chanteuse, and she retained enough of her family's Protestant work ethic to subsidize her artistic flights of fancy. "I have always been able to pay my bills," Amos boasts.

Kate Bush and Béla Bartòk and Jimmy Page are some of the oft-cited musical influences who put the wind beneath Tori Amos' wings, but an equally important character in her fantastic voyage is her paternal grandmother, Addie Allen. Amos' maternal grandmother was also, she says, a "tough broad"; but it was Allen who captivated the young Myra Ellen Amos, as Tori was known for the first seventeen years of her life. It was Allen who seems to have imbued her with much of the strength she has needed to survive as a moon child in a harsh, uncaring world.

The Waltons, Amos has said, were living in luxury compared with the Scottish-immigrant clan that spawned Addie Allen. As a teenager, Allen came down from the Appalachians to the University of Virginia to attend summer school and, says Amos, "could give you interpretations of Byron and Shelley that would make your head spin." But it was Allen's formidable toughness that really impressed Amos.

When Amos was just five years old, she became aware that grandma Allen – like her son, she was a Methodist minister in the Church of God – was taking a particular interest in her upbringing. She'd see letters in which grandma earnestly advised Amos father that his youngest daughter needed to learn how to love Jesus. Such messages, of course, only served to deepen the child's intransigence.

"That church is very controlling – I guess that's why I'm such a control freak," says Amos as she walks back to her hotel. "I hated her, sure, but you had to admire her power over people. She definitely had a mission."

Despite the fact that Tori Amos has escaped the Manifest Destiny of her hillbilly genes and has wrenched material comfort from the jaws of psycho-religious turmoil, there is a sense that she, like Addie Allen before her, is still on a lifelong mission.

"Yes, I do have a mission," Amos says bluntly. "To expose the dark side of Christianity."

This, judging from Amos' dead-on stare, is not just shtick. The woman has few peers in the God-baiting stakes. Compared with the Amos oeuvre, Madonna's blasphemous stunts look positively devout; and when this little minister's daughter starts exorcising the "shame" of her "Victorian Christian upbringing," she makes soi-disant Satanist Marilyn Manson seem cartoonish and ineffectual. (Not, admittedly, an enormous feat in itself.)

Tori Amos wants a piece of you, Christian right, and she knows where you live. The struggle for self-preservation may have mellowed Amos, but the ironclad resolve she brings to her own anti-Christian crusade would impress even the unsinkable Addie Allen.

"Jesus had wonderful things to say, but Christianity is dickless," Amos asserts as she paces the floor of her expansive suite, popping minibar pistachios. "Jesus was not made from semen, so Christians have been using that conquering sword [makes phallic gesture] to find that in their religion.

"The problem with Christianity is, they think everything is about outside forces, good and evil. With Christianity there's not a lot of inner work encouraged. I don't like it that people don't own up to the fact that every thought we could possibly have, we've all had. That's why kids get into weird cults they're desperately searching for the dark side of themselves. You probably won't do it if you look at it. I think a lot of kids are starving in high school &ndahs; they want tools to do the inner work."

Amos' own years at Richard Montgomery High School, in suburban Rockville, Maryland, were largely anonymous, save for her surprising coronation as homecoming queen. She still seems somewhat mystified by her rare brush with peer popularity. "I was kind of a nerd in high school," Amos muses. "I never really fit in, but I had a little bit of status because I was playing clubs. And I got along with the minority groups really well. I never liked bullies – I have a lot of time for the nerds of the world, the ones that don't make the cut. I'd hang out with science kids they can blow things up! I mean, what's cooler than that?"

The constituency that voted Tori Amos homecoming queen is probably not too distant from the "lost souls and misfits" who launched her into the rarefied orbit of rock stardom. It's a public that takes her every word as gospel, heartily applauding her untethered imaginings, accepting the literal and the oblique with equal gratitude. One wonders how such complex and occasionally confounding music can possibly mean so many things to so many people.

"Because the songs are complicated and not so literal, people get lots of room to move," says Amos. "And I think the songs can become little myths for people. All the myths are symbolic and representative of something." And anyone who mocks these myths can expect the moon child to morph once more into Mr. Blonde.

"I want to torture the people who don't understand the world of faeries," fumes Amos with almost church-lady righteousness. "You'll get some reporter from Vogue who doesn't know what she's talking about, who paints me as some insipid Tinker Bell character – well, Tinker Bell ain't up my Strasse, baby. I'm not some shivering waif in the forest. Sometimes I want to grab these bitches by the hair and take them to the world of faerie and say, 'Would you repeat that?'

"People can be so vicious toward the imaginary world, and it saddens me. You kill a lot of little people's dreams that way. You're no different from Hitler, as far as I'm concerned."

Amos stares her piercing stare. You wait for her to realize what she's just said and issue a disclaimer or make some gesture of self-deprecation. She does not blink.

This story is from the June 25th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 789: June 25, 1998
x