Tori Amos: 'I’m too raw for straight men. They are tortured by my shows'

Almost 25 years since her debut album, the ‘Cornflake Girl’ has a teenage daughter, knows how to handle onstage malfunctions and still loves Madonna

Hi, Tori! Nine in the morning is early to be doing an interview.

I’m always up by now. I’m more of an early bird these days. Our daughter Tash is in school in London, but we’re with her a few days a week. (1) Mark [Hawley, her husband] has a studio here and that’s where we’re working on the Light Princess album (2), but teenagers change your life.

How has she changed it?

Our life changed completely when she was born. We were walking out of the hospital in Washington and Mark said to me: “They’re actually letting us leave the hospital with this baby.” Our baby nurse’s husband was an FBI agent and we were always waiting for them to take her away from us. The baby turned blue once. We’d been touring 12 months a year and when you tour like that you think you can handle a baby, but you can’t. Tash was about three months old and wasn’t sleeping sometimes, and you don’t always do everything you’re supposed to. She was finally sleeping so peacefully that we thought, ‘You don’t have to burp them, right?’ Not so. Thirty minutes after feeding, she was turning blue, so we took her to the hospital in Florida, and this Lurch-like [nurse] was putting things on her. And it was all because we didn’t burp the baby!

Did Mark do his share with Tash?

I’m fortunate that I got one of the modern dads. To do this on my own … I’m fulltime working and he is, too, but we did this as a partnership. When she was three months old I was working on a record and Mark was busy, and Neil Gaiman flew in and said: “You need a nanny.” The next month, we got one. I’d had a few miscarriages before, so this baby was really wanted. I was 37 when she was born and I just wanted to be a really good mom.

How can it be almost 25 years since Little Earthquakes? (3)

I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like it. Tash will ask me about the 90s because she and some of her friends have discovered Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and Polly [Harvey] is still out there rocking and making records. It doesn’t feel like 25 years, because she, at 14, is discovering some of that music, so she keeps that time alive.

You’ve lived in England for years – which British trait do you just not get?

I married a Brit, so I do like the Brits. I adore them, and part of that is because I didn’t grow up here. But there are two things that kinda drive me nuts: when someone is intimidated by someone else because of their upbringing, and when they don’t really tell you what’s bothering them. They have an issue, they’re bothered and they’re telling you they’re bothered about something but not really telling you what it is. British women will tell me, but the men? I have a couple of women on my crew – the best lesbian in the world, and another who’s married to a Brit, but she’s American. But I have a lot of men, but they don’t always want to talk about what’s going on and you don’t want to pry. They think they’re whingeing and don’t want to go on about it.

The Light Princess
The Light Princess, the National Theatre’s fairytale musical written by Tori Amos Photograph: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The song 16 Shades of Blue, from the 2014 album Unrepentant Geraldines, was about your misgivings as you approached 50. (4) How has the big five-oh panned out?

You’ve got to be there for all those girls in their 40s and late 30s who might be dreading it. It’s a little bit of a different game. Sometimes it seems like the entertainment industry, especially the film industry, shows us different things about how to think about age. Our leading men are in their 50s; George Clooney and Johnny Depp are older than I am. There’s an aphrodisiac effect that happens to men – with a bit of wisdom, some lines, maybe not the perfect body any more but still in shape – they hold some magical, mystical power. But there are not a lot of women over 50 who have a frontline recording contact. I don’t mean a catalogue deal that just does your catalogue, or your jukebox musical, I mean paying you to make another record of your own work.

But you’re doing well yourself, still signed to a major label.

Yes, I am, but I had to fight for that, to prove that I’m bankable. I tour every other year; Geraldines came out last year and I toured for many months. And I’m putting out another album this year, the cast album from the musical. It’s not like most cast albums, where it’s recorded in two days. I want to make this proper. Neil Gaiman said I had to do it like Jesus Christ Superstar. That kind of quality hasn’t been done in a long time, and Universal asked if I’d produce it for them. They said this would be my first step into the National Theatre world. I’m producing it like I produce everything else. We’re in the mix now. It’s taken seven or eight months. It’ll come out in the early fall.

Have you encountered the ageism that’s doled out to a lot of older female musicians?

When an actress is over 60, the public will accept that she’s a grand dame. But when you’re still singing and writing songs, there isn’t a role in the music business where you play the grandma. We don’t go to see Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen to see a granddad singing granddad songs or to revisit only his past. Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, the Chili Peppers – they aren’t far from me in age, but these guys are still putting out work that’s considered relevant, but there’s an attitude that the women have had their day, so they should give room to the younger ones. But that doesn’t apply to men. It was Tash who came to me and said: “Mom, you go out there and play alone and you kick ass. But some of those [younger female artists] are stealing your moves and it matters to me. You go and remind the children, because they think these twentysomething girls came up with this crap.” And she said: “Go out there!”

There seems to be a vilification of older women – Madonna took a lot of flak when she fell at the Brits.

Let me ask you: was there a lot of meanness about her?

There were a lot of unpleasant comments on Twitter.

Madonna is an entertainer. There are very few people who could’ve gotten up off that floor. It wasn’t because of her that she fell, but it was because of her that the performance carried on. Some of the vilification comes from women as much as men. She’s making choices and she’s able to do things physically that a lot of people 25 years younger can’t; she got up and refused to allow that to shame her. I think people want her to be shamed into a role that they find acceptable for her age. It makes me sad that we can’t embrace Madonna and say, Wow, this is an artist who’s expressing herself in a certain way.

You’re pretty physical yourself when you’re at your piano.

I work really hard. I have to prep for these tours, so I have to stay in shape, and I don’t eat fast food. Potato chips are my weakness, but I think if you’re active and you have a good skin regime, you look good. There are days when I feel older than I’d like, but you have to be active and take those walks. The 50s is a transitional time for women; we have to decide whether we’re going to become the cliched definition that the younger generation want us to become. With exercise and eating, we can stay stronger for longer.

What’s been your biggest onstage malfunction?

Tori Amos in concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Tori Amos in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Rex Shutterstock

I fell off my piano stool in my 20s many times, but there’s something that makes you get up. Malfunctions happen, mics fall down – I’ve ended up playing on my knees because the mic didn’t have enough testosterone to not fall down so I played the rest on my knees with no pedal. The fact that you can continue and not just walk offstage and regroup, to be able to do that, it takes quite something. You don’t have to agree with Madonna’s outfit choices or how she sees her own sexuality but we can admire that she’s out there doing it.

You have some of the most passionate fans I’ve ever seen – people actually cry at your gigs.

I always believe the songs have relationships with people. Once they leave me and go into the world it’s none of my business what happens. They go off to college with high heels on and say: “When we leave you we’re not children any more and we go into the world and make our own friends.” They’ve told me they have relationships with people.

How does it feel to have that kind of connection with people?

I don’t think [the adoration] is projected at me personally. It’s a relationship with the songs, not me. I learn a lot from people who come to shows. I try to do a meet-and-greet backstage before the show. How I get my information is by listening to people’s stories, and when you listen you begin to be amazed. And it’s not always a tragic story. It might be a story of how people have given up on what they wanted to do because they wanted to make their parents happy, and then they decide to do something else. And they embrace those songs and that leads to a connection to me and me to them.

You’ve had a big gay following ever since your first performance, aged 13, at a Washington DC gay bar. (5)

It goes back so far, that was the beginning of my professional career. I was very impressionable at that age and they tried to teach me things, and they’re still teaching me things. I’ve learned a lot from my gay friends and continue to learn. With my gay male friends, they weren’t trying to tear me down or make me doubt myself; there wasn’t a competition, no secret envy of success that sometimes unfortunately can happen among young women where you compete with each other. You try to be magnanimous about your friends’ successes and try to be happy, but I never felt compared against gay guys. And even with dykes, I didn’t feel compared to them either. But I was brought up more by the gay boys – the lesbians came a bit later. If you’re a straight man, there are a lot of heterosexual women at my gigs, so my crew says that this is where straight guys should come. But for straight men, I’m too raw, the emotional thing, the things you don’t want to talk about – that’s what goes on at my shows, [straight men are] tortured by what goes on.

Tori Amos’s first two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, are out now in remastered and expanded versions on Rhino.


1) She also has homes in Cornwall, Ireland and Florida.

2) A stage musical she co-wrote, which was staged at the National Theatre in 2013.

3) Her debut album, released in 1992.

4) She celebrated her 50th on 22 August 2013.

5) She was chaperoned by her father, a church pastor.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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