Tori Amos: 'Now I can open my eyes'

After 15 years of wilful weirdness, a newly serene Tori Amos is ready to face up to her turbulent past, hears Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

If truth be told, I'd expected a bit of a loon. Early in her career, the singer-songwriter Tori Amos developed a kooky reputation, a result of her penchant for bizarre imagery - one of her album covers has her photographed suckling a pig - and her singing voice, a primal howl that drew instant comparisons with that other alleged fruitcake Kate Bush. Then there are the songs. Over the years Amos has written with disarming candour about rape, masturbation, miscarriage and orange knickers. Her albums tend to have grand themes - Scarlet's Walk was a travelogue composed as she traversed all 50 states of America, while her greatest hits album, Tales of a Librarian, was classified according to the Dewey decimal system.

Certainly, conversation with Amos doesn't follow the usual journalist-interviewee conventions. No sooner have we been introduced than she launches into a series of unprompted monologues on all manner of subjects, from the recording process and her troubled dealings with record companies to childbirth, Cleopatra and the Greek god Zeus. She also has a tendency to talk about herself in the third person and refers to her songs as "her children".

Yet underneath is clearly a canny operator. More than a decade into her career, she remains one of the most successful female singer- songwriters. She has sold 15 million records and still, despite a deliberately lowered profile since having a child, continues to enjoy sell-out tours. She is also known to guard the rights to her songs with a ferocity that makes lawyers quake in their shoes, and is the founder of a major charity, Rainn (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network).

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, the extraordinary debut that first introduced us to this green-eyed, red-haired songstress. To mark the occasion, Amos is releasing A Piano: the Collection, a vast, career-spanning, five-disc compendium comprising classic songs, rarities, B-sides and previously unreleased tracks. Amos compares the experience of going over her back catalogue to time-travel. "I felt like Billie Piper in a sonic Tardis. In a second you're back with those feelings all over again. You're enveloped by the sound and sitting there trying to make decisions that don't pervert the integrity or intention of the composition. It was much harder than I imagined."

It was with a mixture of pride and pain that Amos revisited songs such as "Me and a Gun", which detailed her rape at gunpoint by a customer at a bar where she worked, and "Playboy Mommy", which tackled her multiple miscarriages in the late Nineties. "You have to shape-shift," she says. "Watching native American shamans has really shown me how one is able to step into another state of being. They can walk into a different reality and leave behind a part of themselves. That part can maybe watch. You have to open up a memory bank. That's what I try to do on stage when I play those songs and that's what I tried to do here."

Among the more significant tracks are those that were originally removed from Little Earthquakes at the behest of her record company. Amos seems to have spent the last 15 years locked in a battle with music executives either wanting to alter or claim ownership over her work. When she first delivered Little Earthquakes, she tells me it was rejected on the grounds that there was no market for female singer-songwriters who played the piano. The solution as they saw it was to replace all the piano parts with electric guitar. "There was no way that these piano parts were coming off, but they held the master tapes," she explains. "I said 'If you do that, then I won't be part of the project. You will have no artist to promote or perform these songs.'" In the end, some songs were removed and replaced by new ones, but the piano stayed.

When, for the follow-up LP, 1994's In the Pink, Atlantic Records were keen to bring in their own producer, Amos threatened to burn the tapes. "They wanted a repeat performance of the first album, which is very hard to contrive, especially when you're no longer the next new thing."

In 1998 she faced yet another battle, this time over royalties and creative control. "It was a war that went on until 2002," she recalls. "I still created, as I knew that I had to keep my value up on the street. If I had just sat it out, they would have won, so I decided to retain my musical integrity. There's a chess-game that you play when you're battling with a something that is so much bigger than you or your resources. I have seen the lilies trampled in the field, great artists who are back singing tiny clubs because they can't fight this fight."

Born in North Carolina to a Methodist minister father and a mother of Cherokee descent, Amos was playing the piano at three and singing in front of her father's congregation at four. She developed a liking for Led Zeppelin and starting writing songs such as "Father Lucifer" which dealt with her distrust of religion. At 13 she was playing gay bars in Washington DC and by 21, after moving to Los Angeles, she had signed a six-album contract. Having been told that there was little hope for her as a solo artist, she started the pop-metal band Y Kant Tori Read. When their first album bombed, she ditched the loud guitars and the band and returned to more simple, piano-driven songs.

"I realised from an early age what happens when you go against yourself," she says. "You need to be able to look in the mirror and say: 'I'm making choices that I can support.' Being able to do that has pretty much sustained me for the last decade and a half."

Having long abandoned the bright lights of LA, Amos has lived in a 300-year-old cottage near Bude in Cornwall since 1998 with her husband, the British sound engineer Mark Hawley. The pair have a six year-old daughter, Tash. Amos says: "I'm 43 and I've lived a very complete musician's life, so to include her, I don't see it as a sacrifice."

Since her daughter was born in 2000, Amos has started looking outwards for inspiration. "Sometimes you can become so self-involved that the world does start to revolve around you and it can turn into this big black hole. After Tash was born, I found could open my eyes and finally see what was happening."

Amos admits to a contentedness that, 15 years ago, she would never have thought possible. "You could say I've had my cake and eaten it," she smiles. "It's been one hell of a battle but then being at war in one way or another was clearly my destiny. And I wouldn't be the person I am now without that."

'A Piano: the Collection' is out now on Rhino

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