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The Rocket (US)
Innerview: Tori Amos
SMELLS LIKE POP DIVA
by Charles R. Cross
Weird Al Yankovic isn't the only one covering Nirvana hits these days. Tori Amos' acoustic piano version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out several months ago in England and has, naturally, gotten lots of airplay here in the Northwest. It's a striking rendition of the song -- and the only version where you can actually hear the lyrics -- both because Amos' voice is so beautiful and because she's full of the same anger that fuels Cobain and Co.
There's much more to Amos than Nirvana covers (her "Smells Like Teen Spirit" comes out this month in America on a CD5). Her recent Little Earthquakes (Atlantic) is one of the best new releases of the year and an MTV Buzz clip has put Amos on the bring of stardom. Her voice is haunting and remarkable, which is why comparisons to Kate Bush, Sinead O'Connor, Laura Nyro, Suzanne Vega and Mary Margaret O'Hara have already been plastered about.
The songs on Little Earthquakes are personal, eloquent, heart-warming, and at times (like on "Me and a Gun," about an attempted rape) downright tragic. "I'm angry about a lot of things," she says by phone from her home in London. "I'm angry just because I'm a girl who plays acoustic piano. I don't have 180 dBs of volume behind what I say. So what I can't get out in the sound, I try to put in the content."
"I play with my body straight at the audience," she says. "The piano can be a wall between us and I try to get around that. My style is confrontational but I also have a sense of humor. I have fabulous shoes."
As the songs on her new album and the direction of her conversation reveals, Amos is a complex singer/songwriter who is not afraid to reveal herself. Her work tends to seem self-confessional, which she says can get taken too seriously by the audience. "When I sing these songs I completely expose my heart. You have to go through these steps so that you can open yourself up on a higher level. Some people want to crawl out the window. Some of the show is funny and some is really painful."
When the audience gets too serious Amos says she may start asking the crowd what they like on their bagels. Or she may need to remind them the process of self-examination can also provide humor. "It's like you can be serious about Monty Python too, a show that means a lot to me," she says forcefully. "It's not about me ultimately -- it's about what people see of themselves in my music."
The new album is not Amos' first foray into the business. A child prodigy, she's been performing since she was five. The daughter of a minister, she rebelled against her classical training and upbringing and spent years as a lounge singer (a la Billy Joe's "Piano Man") in the Washington, D.C. area. Then she moves to L.A. where her first album (in 1988) was an attempt at heavy metal pop called Y Kant Tori Read. It flopped and sent her into a period of self-doubt that eventually led to the introspective style of the new album. Moving to London to hone her style, Amos wrote the new album as a form of therapy.
"These songs are heavy and I know I went through a lot when I wrote them," Amos, now 28, says. "It wasn't about editing at that point. I was really aware not to edit while I was writing. When I wrote this record, it was do it or literally die emotionally."
As for her Nirvana cover, recorded before Nevermind really took off, she says the song attracted her because of its passion. "Covering the Nirvana song was a hilarious idea and a radical concept. I'm into radical concepts." That leads Amos off on a discourse about the nature of shaking things up a but, something she obviously relishes.
"Radicalism is an interesting idea because it only works if what people do is unpredictable. The predictable means of protest are not radical. Radical is when you feel like your whole world is being ripped apart. That's what new ideas do. And that's what you get from the Nirvana song."
She's also cover the Rolling Stones' "Angie" and Led Zeppelin's "Thank You." In concert she promises a rendition of "Whole Lotta Love," performed acoustically on the piano. "I look at the acoustic piano as a living being. I don't think of it as a calm instrument. I think it can be anything and it can thrash."
Free expression is a subject that Amos warms to. Even in London, she says, the papers have covered Washington State's new "erotic music" law. "We've been reading about your Governor and how he wants to not allow kids to buy Nirvana records. If Jesus were alive, he'd be going to a Nirvana concert. As a minister's daughter I can confirm that. These issues are not about censorship, they are about control.
"We're all made up of love and lust. When it's suppressed we end up going to a McDonalds and shooting people with a machine gun. If we censored ourselves we'd have to Rembrandts, there'd be no Van Goghs. We'd have no great art. The censorship forces are afraid of themselves. When a band like Nirvana comes out that just cuts through those lies.
"What groups like Nirvana do is expose the monster inside them," Amos continues. "People don't want to admit that they have their own monsters in them. But when I put on a show, I want everyone to bring their own monsters." And remember to wear great shoes.
(Tori Amos is at the Backstage in Seattle 5/6, at Vancouver's East Cultural Center 5/7, and maybe in Portland?)
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