My grandfather would sing to me when I was a baby, and he was part eastern Cherokee,â€ says singer-songwriter Tori Amos, explaining why the music of the North American plains Indians has been such a formative influence on her life. â€œHis grandmother was a Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears and ran off into the Smoky Mountains in 1839. So she would tell these stories about the life of her people to my grandfather, who in turn would sing them to me. That experience certainly shaped the way I am today.â€
Amos can claim a cultural heritage by being one-16th Cherokee Indian. Yet Amos can talk about her love of Led Zeppelin being a result of her eastern Cherokee genes and, before you know it, youâ€™re discussing land rights.
â€œI was exposed to severe church music a little later,â€ continues Amos, whose father is a Methodist minister in Washington DC. â€œCharles Wesley had an ability to write some wonderful hymns based on old English sea shanties, but the way these songs were delivered... it was very rigid and you couldnâ€™t find any soulfulness in there. But if I got lucky I would go to the black church down the street, and that was swinging.â€
Perhaps these diverse influences help explain why Amosâ€™ own music falls into such a unique place. She claims to have started playing the piano at the age of two-and-a-half, and by five she was studying at a conservatory, getting trained for a career as a classical pianist that she was never to fulfil. Instead, she became a singer-pianist, played around with a variety of images, suffered inevitable comparisons with Kate Bush and relocated to Cornwall in western England with her sound-engineer husband. Now she has released Tales of a Librarian, a greatest-hits album that, with typical eccentricity, has been compiled in accordance with the rules of the Dewey decimal system.
â€œIâ€™d rather tell you about an affair I had than let you know about the records that are on my turntable,â€ she announces, countering my request to have a look through her favourites. â€œItâ€™s a very personal thing and I like to keep it close to my chest.â€
Amos produces a handful of CDs that she is willing to talk about, including Fleetwood Macâ€™s â€˜Rumoursâ€™, Rickie Lee Jonesâ€™ self-titled first album and Joni Mitchellâ€™s 1968 album â€˜Song to a Seagullâ€™. â€˜Rumoursâ€™ is chosen because it has good production values; Jones because her sultry, bar-room style of storytelling suggests that she has lived a certain life, and Mitchell because she is the one singer-songwriter whose skill surpasses that of all others.â€œIâ€™m a musician first, not a words person, and am drawn to people who manoeuvre a musical language in a way that I find unusual. There are plenty of people whose attitude I like, who I think have something to say, but few who are building a sonic architecture that hasnâ€™t been built before.â€
Mitchell sang about the record industryâ€™s Starmaker Machine, something that Amos knows intimately. Before the release of her first album, 1991â€™s â€˜Little Earthquakesâ€™, she was told that it would be impossible to market a female singer who plays the piano. The plan was to take all the piano parts off the record and replace them with guitar. â€œThey wanted to create this fictional character of a girl with a guitar, and it almost got to the point where I was quite willing to burn the tapes of the album. After all, I could record it all again, but I couldnâ€™t go round to every house in America and say, â€˜This isnâ€™t how it should be. Can I play it for you again?â€™â€
Then thereâ€™s Zeppelin. It sounds like musical repression was par for the course in Amosâ€™ childhood home: her mother would wait until her father had gone to church before she got out the Frank Sinatra records, and her brother had to sneak LPs by the Doors in and out of the house as if they were illicit substances.
â€œBands like Led Zeppelin did create a revolution, and they were a terrible threat to my fatherâ€™s kind of church, which denies sexuality. Young women were feeling things with Led Zeppelin, and I remember moving my body in a way I hadnâ€™t moved it before. Robert Plantâ€™s sensuality was something I was trying to discover, even though I was eight at the time.â€
Living in Cornwall means taking inspiration from the books and records she picks up on tour, and keeping the rest of the record industry at armâ€™s length while she and her husband make music. â€œThere is no worse place to be than backstage at the Grammys. When you meet a writer of beautiful love songs who obviously hates women, thatâ€™s when your dreams really get shattered.â€