Tori Amos has never shied away from thorny subjects. The outwardly lilting, inwardly wrenching songs on the ten studio albums the singer-songwriter has put out in her twenty-year career – her latest, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, is due out May 19th – have dealt with her own rape (“Me and a Gun”) and the three miscarriages she suffered (“Spark,” “Playboy Mommy”) before the birth of her daughter Natashya, now eight. Her gritty-pretty music also routinely reflects on sex and religion, topics that Amos, the daughter of a minister who’s also part Cherokee, has spent years exploring in her own life.
But despite the glimmering darkness of some of her lyrics and the personal hardships she’s endured, or maybe because of them, Amos, who is married to British sound engineer Mark Hawley and splits her time between Cornwall, England, and Florida, when she’s not on the road, has a remarkably upbeat approach to life. “The universe never deals you a problem you can’t handle,” she says, on the phone from London. “If it’s on your plate then it’s your time to learn this at Earth school.”
In a candid, rather intense and occasionally un-PC conversation, Amos spoke to Babble about facing tough times, appreciating her husband’s smell, and the pleasure she takes in sharing “Blueberry Girl,” the poem Neil Gaiman wrote for Natashya and recently released as a book. – Amy Reiter
You released one of the new album’s songs, “Maybe California,” as a free download for Mother’s Day. What are you hoping to get across to other mothers with that song?
All of us as mothers are pushed to the edge sometimes and need another hand or some higher self to reach out to remind us that, more than anything, we want to be with the ones we love, even if we can’t make it all okay. I think it’s the hardest when we can’t make things okay, when we can’t give the husband his job back, when we can’t make the hurts go away. Yet the truth is, we’re irreplaceable as mothers. Nobody can fill our shoes. I felt like that was something we all needed to pass around to each other, because sometimes we suffer in silence and keep our downs in private. I tend to keep them there. These have been some dark times in the last year, but we’re not alone. All of us have to reground ourselves and remember that success is sometimes being able to survive tumultuous times and to be a safe port in a storm.
Do you feel like these tough times are hitting mothers particularly hard right now?
I do. If you’re a working mother and your partner’s being laid off, you have to redefine what success is, what power is, what a provider is, and still find your self worth in all that. This is not a time of economic abundance, but it can be a time of spiritual abundance. We just have to create out of the destruction and find different ways, and mothers are amazing conjurers.
We need to find bright spots in the dark times.
Well, I’ve had a rough year. A lot of people have for different reasons. It’s a year of change. Yet through these challenges, there have been times when it’s the songs that have been there for me and reached out to me.
How has this year been difficult for you?
I don’t want to go into detail. It’s just been challenging and I’ve had to make a lot of changes. Change doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Sometimes you just have to upgrade your own system and your way of thinking. You have to look at the situation with pragmatism and know that you’re capable of anything. But the universe never deals you a problem you can’t handle. If it’s on your plate then it’s your time to learn this at Earth school. If we know that, then we go, okay, I’m ready for the next class.
Where have you found your greatest joys in motherhood, and the hardest challenges?
There’s so much fun in having one-on-one time with my daughter. That’s when I really get to know her and begin to see that you don’t have to be old to have wisdom. Because of their innocence, because they don’t have all the responsibilities we do, sometimes children can see something sharper than we can because we’re so distracted by a detail. So I think, well, why can’t an eight-year-old give me really good advice? She gives me good advice all the time, but not about “problems.” Children can be so observant and they know when things aren’t right, and yet they don’t always need to know the details. That’s one thing I’ve had to learn. Sometimes that discipline has to kick in, that “I have to be the mom. She doesn’t have to carry this burden. She doesn’t need to know what’s happening yet. Let’s see if the winds bring in a different result.” And sometimes they do. Sometimes death passes your door. Sometimes what you think is going to happen doesn’t happen.
How have you balanced your life as a mother with your life as a musician?
We share music, and she loves the wardrobe and high heels and all that stuff. Because of what I do, Natashya’s not going to accept play makeup. She likes Dior. You can’t be sitting there with great makeup artists and hair people and be using these products and then say, “Okay, here’s your Barbie stuff.” She got rid of that at five. But now she’s experimenting. She has her own makeup mirror and she does her own makeup. It’s a balance, but it’s about being a mother lioness and letting the cubs grow up. She wants to explore with that, so instead of it being in a vulgar way, she sits and watches the best as they work on mom, and then she works on herself. Then she wants to go make people up, and they’ll let her. She does a very good job.
That sounds like fun.
“A traveling circus can still be grounded.” You know, I’ll say to her, “Is there something you’d like to do?” She’ll say, “Well, I’d love to have a facial at a spa, please.” And, okay, so that’s one of her favorite things to do. But because we travel the world, this is in context. If you ask Tash, “So what’s one of the places you like to go?” She’ll say, “Well, I like Prague very much, and Rome, and I want to go to Moscow soon.” That is just her life. Tash does see the world and she does visit places, so we can’t treat her like we would if we didn’t ever leave a certain town.
So she tours with you. How do you create a sense of stability for her in the midst of it all?
A traveling circus can still be grounded. It has a center. And the bus is the home. But we go into hotels every morning as well. You have to make home where you are. She has her little special things that she takes with her. And backstage, she has her own room, with her music set up. She’s into music, and her books and her dolls and stuff. And there’s tutoring on the road and structure and a routine. She wants to be part of the show, so she always sees the beginning, and then she gets put to bed at a certain point, and she accepts that.
It’s nice to hear she’s into music. Does she make music, too, like you did as a kid?
She sings and writes her own melodies and lyrics and is really into acting and theatrics, so she’s studying that as well. She goes to school in the U.K. I’m in London right now and her father is with her. England is really his stomping ground. We have a beach house two hours north of Miami, and we tour so much that the home front changes. But it’s just part of our life. It doesn’t seem strange to us.
How do you and your husband split the childcare duties?
When we’re out on the road, Tash and I share a bus with the band, and Mark is on the engineer bus, because we’re all on different schedules. But when I’m doing a promo tour, setting up an album, I go off and he holds the fort down. He runs a recording studio by where his house is.
Right, you guys built your own studio.
It’s really his. England is his, and he lets me crash there because I’m not so bad.
Has becoming a mother changed your music?
Yes, I think it has. But differently at different times. You become interested in other subjects. Some continue through your career, but some shift. This emptiness that was inside me before Tash at a certain point completely got filled up. Motherhood was a huge healer for me.
Religion is a big part of your music and how you were raised. I know you don’t adhere to anything specific right now, but has it been an issue for you in raising Tash?
Tash is very aware that Granddad is a minister, but she has her own ideas of Mother Earth and God and what all that is. She’s also really aware that she could be the first [female] American president and the Prime Minister, because she’s checked it out. She’s very much a feminist, Tash. And she thinks Jesus is a very kind person and she doesn’t understand why all those people that are in religions want to kill each other because they disagree. I think that makes a lot of sense, frankly. My personal path has been inspired by the Native American path. My relationship with that community has grown, and a sense of a deep spirituality has been developing that has been influenced by traveling the world and seeing different cultures and perspectives. It’s about being more open-minded instead of accepting some traditional structure that got passed down from my grandparents. That seems very myopic and small-minded to me.
How do you feel about the poem Neil Gaiman wrote for Natashya, “Blueberry Girl,” becoming a book? [Read Babble's interview with Neil Gaiman about "Blueberry Girl" here.] And more important, how does she feel about it?
“Mothers are women. We are sexual beings. That’s how we became mothers.” She is over the moon that Uncle Neil did that for her. He’s one of her godfathers. We were in a bookstore in the States and bought a couple of copies to send to relatives, and she was really cute. She said, in her British accent, “Do you think, Mummy, they’ll give me a discount because it’s about me?” I said, “No, Tash, that’s not how it works, honey.” That poem he wrote for her, it’s a poem that he and I wanted him to share. I wanted to share it with all the other mothers for their children because I think it’s just the most beautiful thought that I could ever think for Tash.
You sparked some chatter with your last album by calling yourself a MILF. How has your sense of yourself as a sexual being changed since you became a mother?
It changes for a while, because your body is changing. I nursed, and then I wasn’t producing enough milk, but I kept the night feeds up so that she could get the immunity. I’m happy I did that, but then my body changed. It wasn’t that voluptuous shape anymore. Once we got out of that time, I started to focus my interest on other women’s issues, not just little kids’ issues anymore. The human slave trade of women really bothers me, the idea that there are people that need to own a woman because they get off on having power over her. I thought, well, hang on. I, as a woman who is a mother, want to explore my own idea of eroticism, but not in this demeaning perversion.
There has to be a spiritual erotica. Your partner is somebody that you respect and respects you. Mothers are women. We are sexual beings. That’s how we became mothers. That’s how it happens. It doesn’t happen from the stork or because the angels sing or, you know, God passes over and drops some seeds. It happens because we’re sensual women and we did the most beautiful thing a man or woman can do. We have to see that as sacred but sexy. Because if we don’t see it that way, somebody in the office is going to see it that way and try and get your man.
Somebody asked me, what’s the best smell you can think of? Some British paper, of course. And you know what I said? The best smell I can think of is when my husband gets off his motorbike. That’s a good smell to me. I know I’m alive and I’m a woman and I have my high heels on. Let’s go! We as mothers can’t be stupid. Don’t be stupid. Tend your own fire, or some young girl, while your head’s turned, is going to tend it for you.
What sorts of parenting lessons have you learned from your own parents?
My mother had an amazing way of asking me not “How did it go?” but “How do you feel about it?” It’s not about the result; it’s about how I felt about the result. That’s very different. Some nights, when the performances haven’t gone the way I wanted, I’ll call her up and she’ll say, “Now, look, the question is not whether or not you’re a champion. The question is what can Mama do for you?” Sometimes you just need a hug. That’s all you need from Mom, to know that, whatever you do, she’s going to love you.