If Tori Amos had her own TV show, it’d be Cooking With Tori. She’d share her recipes for huevos rancheros, homemade salsa, and her mom’s fried chicken with lots of drippings. She’d reveal the secret ingredient in her spaghetti sauce (maple syrup–she wanted something with three layers of taste: savory, but with a tart little bite and a sweet aftertaste). Food holds a powerful attraction for Tori. She falls in love with chefs all the time, “even though they’re three hundred pounds and they’re saying Bella! Bella! Bella!” At moments like that, she has to have a friend remind her: she’s not in love with the man, just his marinara sauce. And if they got married, he wouldn’t want to be always cooking for her, just as she wouldn’t want to play piano for him first thing in the morning in her bunny slippers.
When Tori writes songs, she sits down with her Bosendorfer piano and listens to what it tells her. Lately, the songs she hears have been about her experiences with men. Her new album, Boys for Pele, is not just about her romantic attachments, but all the men who are important to her, from her sound engineers to Jesus Christ. On vacation in Hawaii, Tori decided that she had spent too much time in her life looking to boys for passion. “I hit bottom with my male relationships,” she confides. “I mean, I could not put one more fishing line in one more boy’s pond.” So she wrote songs about them, and offered them up to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Originally she intended to push the boys into the volcano, but once she summoned up the image of them standing on the brink of molten lava, she decided to give them all marshmallows and a long stick and have a party. (Tori was never a fan of the soccer star Pelé, although she says, “Any gorgeous man with calves means something to me.”)
Last year, Tori and Eric Rosse–her producer and boyfriend–ended their relationship of six years. Tori’s careful to emphasize that Boys for Pele is not a song cycle lamenting the end of their relationship; nevertheless that melancholia colors the album. Asked what the best way to break up with somebody is, Tori grimaces. “Everybody knows there’s no good way. Oh God, if there were a good way, I don’t think I would have written this record.” She blinks, staring off into space, holding her lips closed. “You remember sitting in that restaurant after it’s over, meeting up again just because you have to, and you’re crying at the table. You can’t help it. He’s sitting there, looking beautiful on every level–and yet you know not to reach across the table to touch his hand.” She falls silent, playing a painful movie inside her head.
Tori was born Myra Ellen Amos, the daughter of a Methodist minister in North Carolina. She was a piano prodigy who dropped out of Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory at age eleven to perform at gay piano bars–with the reverend Dad as her chaperone. At twenty-one, she headed to Hollywood. There, she fronted a heavy metal band in the Pat Benatar mode, Y Kant Tori Read, which flopped. Shattered, Tori rediscovered her first love, the piano. Alone with her keyboard, she recorded a handful of songs about her life and dreams, and at twenty-seven, moved to London.
Those solo piano songs became 1991’s Little Earthquakes. Emptying out her diary, Tori made an intimate record that found a large audience. She followed up in 1994 with Under the Pink. She wasn’t ready to talk about boys yet, so she dealt with the girls: sisters, best friends, rude waitresses. “Under the Pink is like an adolescent girl who’s growing her breasts and needs to hide them,” Tori says now. She’s cast herself as the antic elf for so long that Tori’s not sure whether to call herself a woman or a girl. “I don’t think one supercedes the other, but being thirty-two, it’d be quite helpful if the woman showed up.” Tori’s latest big step towards maturity: she’s stopped dyeing her hair with Clairol Torrid’s Touch Crimson and started going to a salon.
Where Little Earthquakes was emotionally and sonically naked, Under the Pink dressed up her music: jangling mandolins in “Cornflake Girl,” bossa nova rhythms in “God.” Boys for Pele strips it down again, with songs of broken hearts and boys in dresses. Much of Tori’s music is gently mournful, a hand reaching out that never quite brushes somebody else’s fingertips. But Pele expands on that tone in every direction from the raw (the song about sucking off Congressmen) to the twee (the one where she talks to Mr. Zebra). Tori’s fans respond to her music’s unclothed emotion with utter devotion, and she tries to return the favor. She’s lamented that her growing popularity means she can no longer speak with every member of the audience after a concert.
When Tori was singing with Y Kant Tori Read, she wore plenty of spandex and sequined bustiers purchased at L.A.’s Retail Slut boutique. “It was a good time to be a metal chick,” she reminisces. Now all of those miniskirts and push-up bras are locked in a trunk at her parents’ home in suburban Maryland. Today, in New York City on a break from the mixing of Boys for Pele, Tori is sporting what she calls her librarian look: a gray-and-brown sweater, blue jeans, and a pair of Hot Tuna sneakers. But we’re on a mission to upgrade Tori’s footwear–we’re heading for the shoe department at Barneys New York.
“Shoe shopping is a real art,” Tori says, and skips up the escalators of the swank department store. On the fourth floor, she wanders amid the creations of her favorite shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik, holding up various pumps and sandals for me to admire. “When I’m in geometrically sound shoes, I feel like I’m part of the physics chatter.” She wriggles out of her sneakers to try on nine or ten pairs, revealing that her toenails are painted bordeaux red. Ultimately Tori rejects glam options like a pair of lemon-gold high heels, reasoning that she needs more sedate shoes to mix in right now; she settles on four pairs of Manolo Blahnik flats. She heads over to hosiery (“Socks and mittens are my friends,” she says), leaving the shoe salesman to put the $1,700 charge on her American Express card.
When explaining themselves, most people take you from point A to point B. Tori’s method is to stand on point B, waving her arms, saying, “Hey! Can you guess how I got here?” Witness her explication of the new “Muhammad My Friend”: “I’m having a cup of tea with Muhammad and saying that there are as many belief systems as there are people; to not acknowledge that means chaos, really. Of course, I had to bring Gladys Knight into it. She’s a bit of a goddess.”
Since Tori’s not afraid to share these diffused ideas, she’s gotten tagged as something of a flake. “If you speak of love, you’re….” She stops, searching for the right term to belittle herself with. Finally she remembers one: “a New Age waif shivering in the forest.” Tori’s thought processes are authentic in that she does see the world at a perpendicular angle from the rest of us, but what seems like free association sometimes recurs verbatim with different journalists. During interviews, she likes to steer questions into long predigested chunks of Tori-thought, like a White House press secretary getting out the message of the day. After every interview, Tori hugs the journalist. This may be more manipulative than it’s meant to appear, but it’s also rather sweet.
“I use innocence in my demeanor like a Venus flytrap,” Tori says. Her prim librarian clothes may be meant to reassure the world that she doesn’t bite, but this is a woman who has Cleopatra fantasies and who sings about shaving off all her pubic hair. In concert, she humps her piano bench. She’s taken generous helpings of shrooms through her life: “I’m definitely a hallucinogenic girl.” In Little Earthquakes’ “Leather,” she sings “Hand me my leather,” while in Boys for Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” she sings “took my leather off the shelf.” When I ask Tori whether those leathers are clothing or some other object, she declines to answer, blushing.
Tori spent too long at Barney’s, trying on every hat in sight. Now she needs my help packing her bags if she’s going to catch her plane to L.A. to finish mixing the record. In two days, she’s made a mess of her hotel room that rivals the results of the Kobe earthquake. There’s notebooks, empty bottles of Diet Pepsi, packages of Donna Karan petite nude hose, and a mountain of clothes and shoes. Heading into the bathroom with a fresh outfit, she makes meowing noises behind the door as she changes, while I stuff her shoes into voluminous duffel bags.
When she emerges from the bathroom (Animaniacs t-shirt, blue zippered jumper), I sneeze loudly. Tori has a way of dealing with this situation–she points at me and cries, “Herr Sneezer!” Once I recover from the surprise, we discuss the physiological similarities between the sneeze and the orgasm. Tori smiles–she’s figured out what to do if she ends up pushing all the boys into the volcano. “Just in case I’m ever down on my luck,” she says, “I’ll get some black pepper.”
By Gavin Edwards. Originally published (as “Magical Mystery Tori”) in the March 1996 issue of Details.