From that piano-ballad cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to her new-found fascination with Gnostic texts, Tori Amos has remained one of the most compelling and enigmatic solo artists of the past ten years. Here, she fills Peter Murphy in on the intriguing background to her latest album, The Beekeeper, her reasons for relocating to the bucolic splendor of Cornwall, and the difficulties of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of corporate profiteering. Oh, and beekeeping, of course.
The remarkable thing is not that Tori Amos got Gnostic on the gospels, but that it took until now. The daughter of a Methodist minister father and Eastern Cherokee bibliophile mother, with a dose of Scottish and Southern blood mixed in for good measure, Amos has just released her ninth album The Beekeeper, a cycle of songs framed by a concept constructed from suppressed Magdalene texts applied to the ancient art of shamanic beekeeping.
Britney it ain’t.
And as you might expect, Amos, ensconced in her Westbury Hotel suite, is a magnetic individual and a somewhat intense interviewing experience. As with her songs, there’s something both affected and compelling about her manner, evident in a hypnotic way of speaking and general air of cultured bohemiana. These are not qualities I necessarily gravitate to in a person, but in fact I found her disarmingly warm and welcoming. And of course, she’d turn heads in any crowd: henna hair tucked behind elfin ears, attired today in a sort of lacy Lainey Kehoe-ish number in a shade of green that complements huge jade eyes whose stare can start to feel like sunburn.
I open my inquiries with a question about how exactly the Gnostics – and Elaine Pagel’s scholarly studies of the Nag Hammadi texts – informed the conceptualisation of the new songs.
“There are parallel things going on here, so just stay with me for two minutes,” she begins. “Coming back from the Scarlet’s Walk tour, after being in the states for quite a while I was already beginning to hear from women like Ann Powers (journalist and co-author of the Amos auto/biography Piece By Piece) about infringements on civil liberties, rights that women have worked very hard for, even the idea of equality in the workplace. And as the Christian Right was gaining more momentum I was drawn to read the Gnostic gospels, the gospel of Mary Magdalene and Thomas, the Gnostic Paul and on and on.
“And as I was watching the BBC from my perch in Cornwall, I was seeing that the language being used to gather together many Americans was the language of the New Testament. And so the minister’s daughter in me wouldn’t let me sleep, she was shaking the Native American in me that had kind of taken over my being. And she said, ‘Stop dancing by your fire for five fucking seconds and go do some homework. Can’t you see what they’re doing? Can’t you see that they’ve become fishers of men? Can’t you see how they’re using language? Well, you could use language. You’ve been brought up in this. You know how the bishops work.’
“My dad was very much about wanting to be the next Billy Graham,” she continues, “there were bishops at my house, talking and politicking and the whole thing. And of course, I was brought up with the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who was saved. And I kept thinking about that word over and over and I started to realise that ‘pro-stitute’ could have been ‘pro-phet’. And as I started to think about Jesus’ teachings being usurped, I wanted to go back and see where women were before that.
“And so, as I began to see that the exact same thing had occurred before – the leaders using mythology to stop women’s rights and certain civil liberties – I knew that I had to weave in the voice of the ancient feminine, and it kept going back to the division of women from men within the church, the division of women themselves, the sexual with their spiritual.”
At this point, I’m about to ask how such apocrypha relates to the album’s bee motif, but Amos has already anticipated the question.
“Now we go to Cornwall and beekeeping,” she says. “And of course the bee tradition is very interconnected with the ancient feminine mysteries, Isis et cetera, and of course it’s matriarchal, and let’s face it, the worker bees are all female. So that was a metaphor for the emancipation of women through nature, and that’s why the bees have been very much about sacred sexuality. So there you have it. Those were the parallels.”
So how did Amos, who has sold enough records (12 million and counting) to allow her to live pretty much anywhere she pleases, fetch up in Cornwall?
“There’s something I have to tell you about Cornwall, that I’m desperately trying to find words…”
She sits back, organises her thoughts and begins again.
“To make a long story long: I went to Cornwall to live because Husband is drawn there. He grew up going there every year with his parents, and I think there’s no other home in his life. And we couldn’t decide where to live in London. I wouldn’t go south of the river, he wouldn’t go north, same old stupid story, but it really happened to us. He just said, ‘I’m not going to live in that fucking poncey-assed north of the river rock star laden…’ I went south, I was a lot more generous, but it’s just not for me. So basically we found middle ground and moved to Cornwall.”
Which is probably the closest thing England has to a Deep South. What’s her impression of the place?
“In Cornwall I think the place claims you or spits you out,” she says, “or it just lets you do your tourist-y thing, waltz through thinking you’ve had some kind of merging with the stones or whatever, then lets you go on your merry way. Or by osmosis you have this tattoo of the place underneath your skin, you’re questioning things in your life, you just have a different kind of purpose. If you don’t feel like taking from the land it just doesn’t feel right. You either take from the land or you’re a caretaker. You’ve been anointed by your god to possess this land and do whatever you want with it.”
It would of course be all too easy to react with a healthy dose of agnostic flippancy to such talk. But like I say, Amos doesn’t seem like your common-or-garden airy-fairy. For one thing, she’ll throw you off the scent with an exquisitely enunciated expletive. And let’s face it; the premise behind practises like beekeeping, and indeed bee shamanism, is as plain and unpretentious as the work of water diviners and curers of warts.
“When you said the word shaman, it’s curious,” she says, “because in this Celtic tradition, or whatever you want to call it, your ancient tradition, this would be to me a parallel for the medicine man in the native American tribe. The medicine man, bee-master, medicine woman, bee-mistress, this goes all the way from Ireland to Wales, Cornwall, Lithuania, pockets where this ‘path of pollen’ as they call it, has been nurtured. They have been able to kind of fly below the radar screen and miss the Inquisition, some of these people have been able to keep their beliefs to themselves.”
According to the gospel of John Lee, blues is the healer. Likewise, Tori Amos’s devotees have often gravitated to her music as though it were some font of holistic therapy. And while one can be sniffy about the notion of entertainment as mystic shtick, last summer this writer had a Mailer-sees-Sun-Ra-in-Chicago epiphany at the Stooges’ Dublin Castle show that left me staggering out of the grounds feeling utterly and cosmically voided of badness. The point being, the way in which Amos’s fan base experiences her performances is just as hardcore, albeit in different sonic terrain.
“Just let me say this,” she responds. “I think it’s harder and harder for musicians to have a stage because there are a lot of people making music that aren’t aligned with this intention or the tradition of musicians at all. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; since the beginning of time there have been people that are there to entertain that aren’t necessarily players of music. They use music as a backdrop. I use fashion, but I’m not a creator of it. I put on something because it works for sitting at the piano and the organ so I don’t flash everybody. Y’know, I’m a mom now, I gotta think of that stuff!
“But it’s funny that this lip-synching thing has become an issue in America, because people have been lip-synching on Top Of The Pops for donkey’s years, and so it kills me, people saying we don’t want that. This is key, because for the last ten years, since 1995, ’96 when the boy band thing started to happen, and nobody would play live because it’d mess up their dancing – and yet the bloody O Jays could dance, The Commodores, The Pointer Sisters, they could dance and sing like nobody’s business! – you just sort of say, well…”
She trails off, the threads of thought having become somewhat entangled. A moment to clear her head, then she resumes:
“What you just said about when you saw The Stooges and being reduced to that, and you don’t really see it much anymore… musicians that can do this, who aren’t playing anywhere, who should be, are just frustrated because of the chess game you have to play, not just with the big bad record companies, because they’re not the only player in this game we’re talking about. The public is another one, and the media machine is another. Some of these musicians just don’t look cute showing their bellybutton, so therefore they’re don’t get played on the radio because the advertisers don’t think it’s going to sell their product.
“It’s one thing to feel sexy and feel desired,” she goes on, becoming more animated. “Don’t you think I want to feel desired by a guy that I dig? Well, yeah. It’s heartbreaking to see somebody that I desire look at another woman that is able to seduce by cheap tricks, and then you wonder, maybe am I desiring the wrong man. But of course, I have my wiggle system too! But there is a part of me, and a part of The Stooges too probably, that has had to fight all kinds of battles to try and retain that line with the tradition of musicians, we’re talking about from the ancestors. There’s a tradition of musicians, and there’s a code, and it’s humbling once you really understand what you’re part of. But when you had to be a musician to make a record, there was a different game in town. Now that half the business is made up of people who don’t write music or songs or play an instrument, it’s very hard.”
Has she made her peace with that?
“I’m always fighting to bring a piece more of that into the mix. When I talk to the big cheeses, I was just talking to Donnie Ienner (Sony President and CEO) last week about it, and you know, he’s a good guy but he’s frustrated too. He’s like, ‘Y’know, we have to keep our numbers up, but I want to protect my artists.’ I mean he’s got Dylan and Prince over there, and he’s making sure that they’re heard; you see what I’m saying? But now that the multinationals have taken over the music industry and the media, who they give pages to and time to is not necessarily people like The Stooges, who can break your heart and make you think.”
The Beekeeper is out now on Sony. Tori Amos plays Vicar Street on May 30.
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