Friday, 12 June 2009
Billy Bragg once said, “I don’t mind being labelled a political songwriter – what upsets me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.”
Bragg had politics to write about. He musically came of age when Thatcher was doing one over on every working man that moved, Russia was giving off the nuclear farts of the decomposing Cold War, and people still believed in protest. These days British democracy means being governed by a slack-jawed mushroom who was neither elected nor validated by the public before he gained the authority to place the burden of billions of pounds of debt on its shoulders, nationalise the banks and remain in office while his entire cabinet – and the entire government – rot away around him in scandal.
Thus apathy has replaced activism in the universal attitude to the regime. Jamie T might carry the punk ethic and street serialising of Bragg into this century, but he point blank refuses to be directly political, in songs or in conversation. “I don’t talk about politics because I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he says, blue eyes flashing defensively on a pub terrace in Wimbledon. Presumably then, this is a one-dimensional view of suburbia – all beer, fights, fag and girls? “It’s sad to think that people think that’s all it is – beer, fights… I’ve got a wider perspective than that. I think it’s more important to know how you feel about a situation than to know what you’re fucking talking about. Your daily life comes from a lot of things, a lot of things can affect you, and I don’t think my life is just about beer, fights and cigarettes.”
A little riled, he slurps on his Kronenburg and leans back to light up, in illustration. This is Bragg in reverse: this is politics for the attention-deficient solipsists of a disenfranchised generation – and the only politics they know.
“If I find myself in two years in a mansion having a chat with Mariah Carey then I’ll write about that,” says Jamie of his consistency, “but until that happens I’ll write about the things around me. And no, it hasn’t changed all that much. I think you’d probably know if it had – you’d hear it.”
What you will hear on the Sticks ‘n’ Stones EP on June 29 and forthcoming album Kings and Queens is the same soundbitten street-life, wrapped up in cling-film choruses to sing along to. Jamie’s muses still scuff their shoes on suburban pavements and find mischief in their safe, symmetrical confines. His personal vaudeville is a stage for many players, guest starring, for this series, the gun-toting Emily, the cocky counsel of Joey, and the usual chorus of nameless mates with drug habits and attitude problems.
Four years since Panic Prevention’s schizophrenic mix of beats, punk and raw acoustics and the chain-smoking 23-year-old is still, by his own admission “a cheeky little git,” only now he’s got a top ten album, Mercury nomination, and Best Solo Artist award from the NME, no less. “I suppose it’s difficult when you have to deal with so many people’s opinions and people asking you who you are and what the fuck you think you’re doing,” he comments in a voice that implies he never gave it a second thought. “But once I came to the agreement with myself – early on – that I was going to do whatever I wanted, I didn’t worry about any of that. I didn’t feel particularly part of the limelight in any kind of manner, you know. I feel really part of being in a dark room for seven hours a day and writing music.”
Don’t let the south London accent and wide boy affectations fool you - Jamie Treays is a good boy come good. Raised by supportive parents and educated at private schools, he describes feeling like a ‘Vietnam veteran’ when he came back from touring Panic Prevention and wasn’t supplied nightly with a rider of carrots, hummus and pitta bread – hardly the diet of lager and snuff you might expect. He still lives in his hometown of Wimbledon, twenty minutes from his parents’, with his mate and the big brother who can be held responsible for his first musical outing. “My brother wanted to play the drums and I fucking hated my brother, so that’s when I decided I was going to play the drums to piss him off. He had a little cry about it,” says Jamie, “and after that it becomes your identity as a kid if you start doing something – it becomes what you do.”
What Jamie did was listen to a lot of records – a lot of ska and punk, and then a lot of garage and UK hip hop. But it started with ska. “Back then I was into a lot of Desmond Dekker and stuff like that, constantly trying to work out how it sounded so good – I still haven’t worked it out. So I spent a lot of time locked away, to some extent, having a lot of fun and going [he puts on a Dick Dastardly voice] “shut up, go away, I don’t like you! I like Desmond much more, you’re an idiot!””
Plenty of clean little white boys have appropriated music in their bedrooms. Few sign five-album deals with Virgin. Even fewer stop snivelling over acoustic guitars and write songs that become biting social commentaries better than any government white paper.
“I’ve always known I wanted to do music,” Jamie says, matter-of-fact. “I like doing graphics and a lot of that arty kind of shit. I’ve always been into that stuff, and that goes with doing it your own way. It’s better to do it your own way because if it’s not good then you’ve only got yourself to blame, and that’s what you want. Fuck pointing fingers.”
It seems Jamie T always left the finger-pointing and fisticuffs – political and otherwise – to others. Doesn’t he ever plan to turn his hand to the bigger picture? “We’ll have to see, won’t we? We’ll have to see. I’d rather talk about what’s going on at the moment than think about writing iconic epic songs that have world meaning. Leave that to Bono.”
Funny thing is, for all his apolitical posturing, Jamie T speaks for the streets better than any politician. Just don’t tell him that.
Tuesday, 2 June 2009
There’s something terrifying about pop music. All the smoke and mirrors of unrealism clogging the pores – the promise of the impossible sugared by sinister painted-on smiles. Pop music was invented to distil escapism into three minutes; to make us believe that there exists a place where sex-starved, gorgeous women are ten a penny and money comes for free and you can have what you want. Ultimately, pop music is about deceit.
And then there’s Tori Amos. A weird, writhing creature of many faces, she became an icon for the unconventional back in 1992 with her first solo album, Little Earthquakes. It was a deeply personal debut, perhaps best remembered now for ‘A Man And A Gun’, describing Amos’s own experience of rape. At first, Atlantic, her record label, rejected the album, fearing piano pop – the first of its kind – wouldn’t sell in an alternative climate of early nineties hip hop, trance and grunge. Amos fought a four-year battle to have the album released as she wanted it, fending off the ideas of an A-list producer who tried to replace all the pianos with rock guitars. Finally, Atlantic complied. The record was an immediate success.
“I had confrontations with record people at certain times that I don’t think would be my way now,” Amos tells Pigeon, curled up in black in the armchair of a Kensington hotel suite. She’s physically tiny, softly-spoken, and tired – but there’s a steeliness to her manner that can only have come from years navigating the choppy waters of the press. “You don’t even realise you’re agreeing to things, because the industry has so many tentacles. It’s not only the record company, that’s just one little facet. There’s the commercialised media, and then there’s the public – there are a lot of players in this story.”
Tori Amos’s story wasn’t ever conventional – and her pop music was about deceit, but of a different kind. Hers was the kind where fucked up people get fucked – and come out the other side.
It was carried by the enigma that is Amos herself. An odd-looking ‘moonchild’ with a static frizz of red hair, she used to rub herself suggestively against the leather of her piano stool during performances, falling across its keys with total abandon. The spectacle fascinated and enchanted onlookers, as much as the rawness of her material. Endlessly strange and ethereal, that talented pixie-pianist quickly divided listeners, winning legions of fans who stood with her on the outskirts of convention, and felt liberated by her openness and eccentricity.
Twenty years since she signed to Atlantic, and it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not with Tori Amos anymore. She’s mastered the art of disguise, transforming from brazen and bare-faced into quite the smooth professional. Any direct questioning is bound to send her off on rambling tangents about spirituality, mythology and the psyche, while the front that she presents to the world is a polished veneer of thick, ageless make-up and stiff fake hair. She keeps Pigeon waiting half an hour while being minutely groomed by her stylist, who hovers, readjusting things intermittently, during the photoshoot. Has age made Amos vain? Or is this self-defence?
“I realise that I’m 45 and that this is my tenth album,” she says. “But time marches on, and so I guess I’m at that age where you either become someone about whom people say ‘wow, she’s carved a trail’ or you become a tragic figure.”
Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive: surprisingly often it’s the pioneers who burn out under the pressure of their own innovation. The Amos whose first album ushered in a new generation of frank and forthright female singer-songwriters, including Beth Gibbons, Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor, has spent the ten years since trying to escape from the clutches of the aforementioned ‘players’, becoming ever more surreal in appearance in the process. It smacks of escapism, her way of coping with the industry that lays claim to her, and it’s rooted in an early struggle for control.
“I’d say in the nineties there were those moments when I got in trouble because I let the woman walk out the room and the teenage girl step back in. But that was more in the early nineties – mid-nineties – and then you learn that being a woman is such a powerful thing. That doesn’t mean I can do everything, but you have to be an expert at choosing experts, and it’s taken me a while to understand that. When you hand over too much power you have to ask yourself why you’re handing it over.”
And then, suddenly proud: “These are all little things that you learn in order to be making your tenth album, and sitting where I am – it’s not because it was handed to me. And the challenges I face all the time are just in a different arena from an artist on their first album, they’re just different issues in 2009 to those that I faced in 1991.”
Power struggles punctuate Amos’s biography. She was born in 1963 – the same year that The Beatles’ first album introduced the world to pop music, and the death of Kennedy signified the end of a democratic era. At the age of five she was awarded a scholarship to study classical piano at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore; by eleven she’d been thrown out for insisting on playing her own pop compositions in exams. At 21 she moved to Los Angeles, where she formed a rock band by the name of Y Kant Tori Read, the line up of which included future Guns ‘N Roses drummer Matt Sorum. In the same year she suffered the sexual assault that would later be relived in ‘A Man With A Gun’. Her band signed to Atlantic and released one album in 1988, which flopped, but the six-album contract meant that Amos was legally bound to continue producing music for the label: Little Earthquakes was the result.
“I wouldn’t choose a pissing match with a big cheese, I’d sooner drink champagne!” she laughs, but there are chinks of fragility under the bold exterior. “They never set out to be there, nobody sets out to be there, they don’t seem to be in control of their life, but sometimes you’re busy, and sometimes there’s so much coming up that they hand everything over and then you don’t know how to take it back. It’s very easy to hand it over but it’s very hard to start taking responsibility of your life.”
Is Amos talking about herself? Her longheld tendency to deconstruct the female psyche and deflect personal enquiry was best demonstrated on 2007’s American Girl Posse, which saw her adopt various guises to depict five alter egos, both in the artwork and her performances. “I don’t think that one female archetype is totally and completely any woman I’ve ever met,” she explains, aware of the dangers of taking certain character-types to the extreme. “Sometimes someone will show me something and I’ll seem a bit scary, and I think that’s got its context, but… That’s the thing, I’m strong when I need to be strong, but a strong woman can also be very supportive and nurturing and loving, and very feminine.”
Does she think of herself as feminine? “I do! My husband does, my daughter does, they think I’m really warm – southern American and warm – like my mother. But if I’m battling the big boys, in whatever structure I’m having to deal with, it’s a different tone.”
Repeated battles with the big boys at Atlantic Records eventually fuelled Amos’s decision to construct a physical retreat from label pressure. In 1995, while in Ireland to record third album Boys for Pele with sound engineers Mark Hawley and Marcel van Limbeek, Peter Gabriel advised Amos to build a private studio. Two years later, in a collaborative venture with Van Limbeek and Hawley, Amos founded Martian Studios – and a year after that Amos and Hawley were married. Her studio was constructed in Cornwall to escape the pressures of LA, London and New York, and when, in 1997, Amos suffered the first of three miscarriages, the importance of Martian studios to her career can barely be overestimated. It gave her freedom to work independently and respite from industry pressure, allowing for room to experiment. Today, with the ordeal of those troubled years well behind her, Amos has a much more flippant view of Cornwall, saying “my husband lets me crash there, and my daughter goes to school there, but so much of my life happens in the states…”
Her daughter, Natashya, was born in 2000. Afterwards Amos revealed that Atlantic had only allowed her two days to recuperate from the third miscarriage before pushing her back into a gruelling promotional schedule. It was the final straw, provoking her split from the label in 2002, and although she found a home with Epic for several years, last year Amos announced that she’ll be operating independently of all major labels from now on.
Label independence seems hard-won, but not unexpected. Amos has solitarily crafted every album since the completion of Martian Studios in its quiet confines, preventing any major label meddling with her masters. And her output is staggering considering the traumas of her personal life over the last ten years. Typically, however, she attributes her productivity to something else entirely: “I serve the muse. I do, I serve the creative force. I have to do it, when it takes over,” she says. “It can be when I’m taking a shower, sitting having a coffee somewhere, and she walks in, in a dream in the middle of the night – a lot of the time when I’m travelling, because your senses are heightened and you’re out of it. I just resolve myself to the muse being in control.”
And of her latest album, Abnormally Attracted To Sin, “I didn’t think I was going to do it, I thought I was going to take a break, but it took over…”
Why can’t Amos take credit for her own talent – for her own proven ability to withstand the multifarious pressures of producing records and media enquiry? It’s a contradiction that’s dogged her all her life – and a subject that finds a home on her latest release – “I’m fascinated by the idea of erotic spirituality,” she says, oblique as ever. But then: “there’s this idea of being attracted to something that once we’re into we’re not attracted to any more; once we realise what it is, it doesn’t seem very sensual, it seems disgusting to your spirit.”
The struggle between her compulsion to write and release records and the baggage that goes with the whole process is perhaps the reason that she’d now rather let imaginary friends take credit for her achievements. Amos has learned to deal with public and professional scrutiny by invoking eccentricity, and coating it with the lacquer of a contrived ‘public’ face. This deceit – this deflection of reality in favour of a more exciting alternative – is the very definition of pop. But talk to the woman long enough and it’s very clear that there’s a shrewd mind at work behind it all: “I’m a woman who carries my own weight: I hunt,” she says, blue eyes burning behind that distracting red wig. “So if you don’t hunt and you need help, that’s different, but if you’re a good hunter and you’re just sitting on your ass, I’m gonna kick your ass: you can come out and hunt with me.”