Well, Amos won that coin toss, but neither
she nor her label guessed that in early 1991. In his Q101 interview just
a few minutes before Amos talked to IE, Robert Chase recounted his DJ
experience after first hearing the emotional powerhouse of Little Earthquakes
and his call to Atlantic Records to tell them he was going to play it
on the air.
ďYouíre kidding!Ē was essentially her label's response.
Who, after all, was going to play a girl and a piano on the radio alongside
Poison or Nirvana? That was the attitude Amos was up against all around
the dial in the early '90s. Remember, at the time, there were no Jewels,
Alanises or Natalie Imbruglias. And Sarah McLachlan was still Canada's
best kept secret.
ďWhen I was playing Schubaís, I really didnít know where it was all going,Ē
Amos admits. ďAfter Y Kant Tori Read I had a huge dose of what
it's like to be on the precipice and then Zola Budd comes and knocks you
off. Bloody hell. I had no idea that Little Earthquakes would get
heard. It was such a dose of humility.Ē
That early humility is something Amos says she must continually remind
herself of as her albums now rack up platinum sales and the audiences
have risen from a humble 75 to sweaty crowds in the thousands.
ďYouíre always having to check in with yourself because this business
can be a real seductress," she says. "It can. And you have to remember
why youíre doing what youíre doing.Ē
Part of the reason Amos has succeeded as a girl-and-her-piano
act is because of her Prince-like hybrid of the sacred and the profane.
This is no Carole King. When she bucks and rocks atop her piano bench
and drawls out a loaded line like ďboy you best pray that I bleed real
soonĒ from Little Earthquakes or ďif you want inside her, well,
boy you better make her raspberry swirlĒ from Choirgirl, she
evokes erotic abandon as much as musical rapture. And how many other
artists talk candidly about giving God a blowjob? But the first attraction
to Amos was in the deeply personal struggles in her lyrics. She talked
of rape and emotional betrayal with a raw honesty that compelled and
attracted like a car wreck cranes heads. Ultimately, Little Earthquakes
broke through because of its intense honesty.
ďI think Iím honest on all the records," Amos offers. "I think that
Little Earthquakes made such an impression because it was the first
time you heard that from me — itís like a virgin experience. Itís like
the first time that she goes down on you and you think ĎOh my god itís
the most amazing thing.í And then sheís still doing it two years later
and you go Ďoh yeah, thatís my wife.íĒ
Certainly Amos has worked to stave off any public jading of her lyrical
head. If her honesty hasnít changed, her musical direction has continually
evolved. Under the Pink found her concentrating on the relationships
of women and adding some real crunch ("God") to her repetoire. Her last
disc, Boys For Pele, brought in harpsichords and trumpets in
an attempt to expand her palette further. While the latter disc came
off as muddled, From The Choirgirl Hotel at last stops dabbing
a toe into the waters beyond the vocal-piano format and finds Amos jumping
in full-time with a full rock band - the first time sheís consistently
collaborated in that format since Y Kant Tori Read. The result
is her most energetic and accessible record to date.
ďAs I was writing the music, I knew that the songs were requiring that
I cut them live and the engineers, Mark [Hawley] and Marcel [van Limbeek],
convinced me to do that. They said Ďyouíre never going to get the pocket
you want unless you cut live. Itís never going to happen.í So that changed
the way I approached this record. For the most part, the other records
were built around the piano and the piano-vocal performances because
I didnít want the piano held hostage to a drummer...drummers have a
lot of power, because they decide on the pulls and pushes of the tune."
As it turned out, former flame and early Amos producer Eric Rosse ended
up turning her on to the drummer who would anchor the varied soundscapes
of Choirgirl without dragging her and her piano down to drown.
"I talked with Eric and he said, 'Matt Chamberlin, Iíve just worked
with him, I really believe the two of you will have a language all your
own.' So Matt flew in and we played some of the material that Iíd written
last summer. I knew immediately that this was right."
As her April and July Chicago area shows proved, the resulting fleshed-out
band atmosphere is a huge and welcome step forward for Amosí sometimes
ďI am enjoying the interplay with the band,Ē she admits, though she
doesnít promise whether or not sheíll keep it together after this current
tour. ďItís hard to know where anythingís going. I could tell you that
I think I know, but sitting here right now, whatís today? Friday? I
donít know. This tour is really where all our focus is, and weíre recording
it. So I might put out a live record because the people that come to
the shows have been asking me to do this for a long time. They have
a lot of shitty bootlegs out there. And Iím thinking of touring with
it. I donít know if itís the right time."
Perhaps the most exciting about the band collaboration for Amos is the
live reinterpretation of some of her older material in the new format.
"A lot of the old songs are shifting," Amos explains. "Itís really groovy
working on songs from the other records. Because [when we perform songs
from] this record, itís very clear what it is. The rhythm was built
into the structure. We play the songs pretty much as they are on the
record. With a lot of the other songs, the rhythm was not fleshed out
on the albums. So there are a lot more surprises coming from the older
material than from the new. With the new songs, itís more like, can
we deliver what the record has? Thatís always the challenge of a night.
Can we go beneath that little space in the back of the spine and just
crawl inside there like a snake and ignite you?"
While there were reports that Amosí voice was tiring early on in the
tour, she says thatís under control now, thanks to a visit to the local
ďI got into Chinese medicine. I have these elixirs on the road that
are pretty potent stuff. Loads of Echinacea, Golden Seal and Siberian
Ginseng. They help my throat a lot. They do for you what prescription
She admits that some of her early vocal strain may have come from the
unusual (for her) stress of belting over a band.
ďIt takes a lot of power to do it. It takes a lot of strength. But I
think having done 40 shows in Europe that Iíve got a good pace now.Ē
If Amos is in a stride today, it's due in large part to past pains.
A song about her own rape by a fan in the Y Kant Tori Read days launched
her solo career, and following her breakup with Rosse, she got involved
with her current studio maven, Mark Hawley. The loss of their child
in a miscarriage at the end of the Boys for Pele tour and the
subsequent deepening of their relationship (they married this year,
though Amos steers away from talking about their private life) are the
two can openers to the sometimes oblique lyrics of heartache and celebration
in Choirgirl. And while Amos avoids talking about her marriage,
she opened herself up to potentially difficult and constant questioning
about the effects of the miscarriage at the outset of the Choirgirl
tour. She says it was necessary as a writer and a performer to speak
to the meaning behind her words.
"I think as a writer, if youíre going to put work out thatís based around
something, for you not to say what itís based around is like...you know,
are we playing telepathic mystery record? When I sing things like 'sheís
convinced she could hold back a glacier but she couldnít keep baby alive.'
I think that's really clear. To not be honest about it...well, it would
drive me insane to do hundreds of interviews and backpedal about it."
Amos says the pain of dealing with the miscarriage had its effect on
her relationship with Hawley, as well as on the making of her record.
"We shared something..." she says, breaking off to think a moment. "They
say something like that can push you away or make you feel like you
really understand each other. I think the latter happened with us. I
donít talk much about our relationship in public but...there was a sense
of depth, a little place that we could go and make mudpies there and
we didnít have tickets there before."
Ultimately, she says, learning to understand and live with sorrow is
a part of life. A part that has shaped all of Amos' records.
"I really accepted my feelings on this. And they change, you know, sometimes.
Itís been a year and a half since I lost the baby. And the record isnít
just about that, itís about how my views on the life force changed.
I donít find this record depressing, really. There are moments of sadness
for me on it. I really spent time with sorrow on this record and I said,
I really realize that sorrow goes to raves every Friday night. And that
she looks at life differently because she understands tears. But that
doesnít mean that she doesnít have a dirty little laugh. She has all
that. But she just sees life from a different angle. Thatís really what
this record was all about."
The honesty that has led Amos to talk about her rape, to form a rape
and incest survivors hotline (R.A.I.N.N.) and to sing about her lost
child has drawn a fanatical devotion to the singer from her fans over
the past seven years. When Amos played Park West last spring, she was
nearly pelted to the floor with offerings of lip gloss from the audience
when she couldn't find her own — just one example of how intensely
her fans know her. (When was the last time you went to a concert prepared
with lip gloss because you knew the lead singer liked the stuff?)
"They always keep one lip gloss hidden now in the piano for me, so I
donít do that again," she laughs. "That was dangerous, wasnít it? Jesus."
The "Chicago Lip Gloss" incident is just one indication of the worship
level of her fans. A Washington Post article recently noted that
there are more than 4,000 web sites devoted to things Amos. Some of
them are updated more frequently and show more design innovations than
Microsoft's or Netscape's. Tori has won a lot of hardcore fans.
"I donít have a computer, but people tell me about the web sites, yeah,"
she says, pointing out though that she plays for hardcore and newbie
fans alike. "What I try to say is , tonight, weíre playing to 5000 people
in Minneapolis. Out of that there will probably be 100 hardcore people
there. You know, for the most part, everybody has a few nutcases. But
these kids are very intelligent. Itís not like theyíre..." she pauses.
"Itís very tricky. I donít want to offend anybody else's fans, but for
the most part I really find that these people, you can have an intelligent
conversation with them. I think at my shows youíll find a serious art
crowd. Sometimes there are people that might show up a lot. But the
ones that show up for every show are not necessarily the weirdest ones,
you know? They just jump on a leg for 10 shows. They all have friends
and they connect and they know each other from the Internet. Itís not
a big deal. They'll [come after a show and] say 'hey Tori, just thought
youíd want this today and they give you something like a book they thought
you might like. It doesnít feel Iím being assaulted. At the shows, it
just seems like a really into music crowd. Really into music."
If there were any complaints from those rabid fans at her recent shows,
it was the distance the introduction of the full backing band created
between their "saint" and themselves.
"It is a plugged show," she shrugs. "Itís a completely different tone.
You canít expect a monologue to be the same as a big theatre production.
Itís a totally different show. Itís not just me up there playing. But
hopefully you feel that bachnalian, dionesyian energy seeping through
and that weíre working everybody into this primal sort of place. Thatís
what this show is really about. Itís about that ancient [Mike - she
called it "coon-de-lini energy" — any clue? Not in my dictionary!]
energy where your body is moving and youíre watching your hips do all
these wonderful things and your heart doesnít feel so ashamed."
When Amos sings, shame is definitely not the emotion she's promoting.
Honesty, yes. Free expression, yes. Finding — and using — your inner
Shame just doesn't belong in this girl's choir.
Y Kant Tori Read
Y Kant Tori Read
Amos' debut disc is one of the most highly collectible pieces of vinyl
on the market these days, but at the time of its release, it was largely
ignored. A revisit finds that Amos' trademark breathy delivery was already
in evidence and these slap-bass, synth-heavy bits of radio-ready drama
are actually quite palatable, in a pop tarts sweet way.
Don't look for any lyrical depth here, but Amos proved
early that she had a way with a hook, and if her sensitive-but-edgy
singer-songwriter phase plays out, she can always get a job writing
tasty fluff for Belinda Carlisle.
From the first notes of Little Earthquakes it was
apparent that this was a fresh voice and major talent on the rise. With
operatic vocal slide attacks, furious piano pounding, and breathy, whispery
clutches of emotion, the demons are loosed and conquered on every song.
"Crucify" leads it off with Amos' then-shocking but now-familiar thematic
trend of wrestling with religion, and "Silent All These Years" soon
follows, setting the standard for all future songs about personal growth
and "finding one's voice." But for many the ultimate eye-opener was
a song that also appeared a few months earlier on an EP — "Me And A
Gun," a harrowing a capella depiction of rape from the point of view
of the victim.
Under The Pink
Amos sounds more confident and a little less confessional on her second
solo disc, concentrating more on other people's relationships than on
her own. "Pretty Good Year" is lifted from a fan letter and "God," with
it's drunken guitar scratches and brazen lyrics ("God sometimes you
just don't come through/do you need a woman to look after you?") proves
that despite her usual piano, Amos can actually rock — with bite. "Cornflake
Girl" seconds that emotion with a spaghetti Western background whistle
and a shuffling piano-drum interplay. "Baker Baker" still stands as
one of her most poignant compositions, and "Icicle" is likely the only
song in modern music that sensitively depicts a masturbatory experience
upstairs while the Bible's being read downstairs.
Boys For Pele
Tori Amos' third solo album found the singer-songwriter at something
of a crossroads, reaching out for new sonic ideas...but maybe not enough
of them. "Caught A Lite Sneeze" fits into the "Crucify," "God," "Cornflake
Girl" songbook. On several songs, Amos trades in her Bosendorfer ivories
for a harpsichord which makes "Blood Roses" sound like 19th century
classical music. And "Professional Widow" uses the harpsichord for power
chords, a decidedly daring and surprisingly successful, move. On several
songs throughout the album, a horn or other orchestral instrument is
brought in for background, but often, as on the otherwise perfect soliloquy
"Father Lucifer," they seem more intrusive than fully integrated with
Amos and her piano.
From The Choirgirl Hotel
Choirgirl leaves behind the "preciousness" of solo
piano and voice compositions to feature a full band on nearly every
track. The result is a 12-song tour de force of the singer-songwriter's
top strengths: Amos delivers palpable emotion on a hotplate of piano,
guitars and scintillating rhythm, tossing off intermingled religious
and sexual references like parade confetti. While on Pele, some
of the non-piano instrumentation sounded false - jewelry clipped onto
her piano attacks after the fact - on Choirgirl Hotel the strings,
guitars and percussion act as a unified whole (the harpsichords and
trumpets are thankfully left behind). "Spark" melds a classical piano
solo with powerchord fury, "Raspberry Swirl" centers the disc with an
astounding burst of danceclub noise and "She's Your Cocaine" offers
a distortion happy strip and strut bar grind. Two of Amos' finest ballads
turn up here as well: "Jackie's Strength" is a mellifluous tapestry
of tragedy, teenage memory and the warm buzz of orchestral strings and
"Northern Lad" unfolds into a gorgeous bittersweet piece with the impact
of Under the Pink's "Baker Baker."