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The Year in Rock
TORI AMOS KEEPS HER HEAD
by Elysa Gardner
Photograph: Chris Carroll
TORI AMOS LOOKS YOUR STRAIGHT IN THE eye when she speaks to you. "We're living on a very sick planet," she announces. "And it's getting more sick, in a sense, because we're not pressing our freedoms home. Especially in the art community -- painters, writers, dancers, musicians. There is a numbness that is happening. It's as if a sleeping drug has been given." Amos is wide awake at the moment, and digging into a bowl of pasta in a dimly lit Italian restaurant on New York's Lower West Side. The topic of discussion is what the singer describes as the "intimidation" of today's pop music community. "We musicians have turned our self-worth over to those who listen to our music. The troubadour thing was that if they didn't like you, you'd hope you didn't lose your head and then move on to the next castle. But these days we turn over our music like puppies: 'Please love us, please tell us it's okay.' I mean, not of all us do that, but I know I've had that tendency in me."
Amos' Little Earthquakes, a collection of dramatic, starkly introspective ballads, has made her a favorite on college radio and MTV and led critics to herald her as one of the most promising new singer/songwriters of our young decade. "The exposure on alternative radio has been really good fun," Amos says, "because, as a piano player, you wouldn't think I'd be up their street." Conversely, you wouldn't think Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be up Amos' street, but on an EP released this year, she gave that song the acoustic piano treatment. Far from an irreverent spoof, Amos' version is as earnestly tender as the original is wickedly catchy.
Amos points to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Ice-T's Body Count as examples of "out-breaks" -- indignant and necessary reactions to the malaise she believes is afflicting our pop climate. "These artists are saying, like it or not, this is the truth from my point of view; this is what I have to say, with no fear of repercussions. It provides the thread between chaos and vision; it centers us, it brings us back into our bodies. Because about 90 percent of the time, most of us are just not present. We're just floating around, trying to avoid confrontation -- trying to avoid the fact that we don't have the guts to say what we really feel. So, yes, artists have a responsibility to come from the heart -- to come from the tummy."
Many of Amos' songs address concerns and experiences common to women. "Me and a Gun," a graphic first-person account of rape, delivered a cappella, deals unsparingly with dangerous assumptions about female sexuality. The daughter of a second-generation Methodist preacher, Amos is neither as calculated in using sexual imagery as Madonna nor as rash in her comments about abuses of power as Sinead O'Connor -- whose actions on "Saturday Night Live," tearing a photo of the Pope to shreds, Amos chooses not to condemn: "She wanted to express that, and felt she had to. I respect that."
For all her colorful outspokenness, in fact, Amos is a study in post-feminist -- and, given her upbringing and her preoccupation with all things spiritual, post-Christian -- ambivalence. Her assertions, whether in lyrics or over linguine, reveal complext, often conflicting feelings about sex, God and other matters prevalent in pop music and dinner conversation.
"I've been reading the account of a woman from the Middle East who became a free spirit and as a result was put in solitary confinement for the rest of her life. This is an example of a person's spirit not being honored, and it makes me sad. And I'll tell you another thing that saddens me, that makes me lose my temper. I have such respect for a lot of today's rap poets; I think that their is the music most committed to telling the truth. But if they were more comfortable with women, these poets wouldn't always need to be demeaning them. No matter who you are -- man or woman, whatever your race -- you honor another spirit. That's where the Native Americans were coming from."
Amos should know: Her great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, and passed many of her beliefs concerning nature and spirituality to her son, Amos' grandfather, who the singer says "trained me every day, teaching me about life."
"My dad can tell you all about how, after giving birth to Jesus, the Virgin Mary did it and had, like, three or four kids. Nobody wants to talk about that fact, but my parents didn't hide it from me. And I'm totally proud of Mary! If you look back at mythology, you'll find that the goddesses represented in most cultures were not cut off from their sexuality. Now, Mary is the Christian version of a goddess. And Mary -- the Virgin Mary -- has been the role model of Christian women for almost two thousand years. Well, we can't be the Virgin Mary -- we've messed that up -- so now what? Hmmm...
"I wonder what would happen if certain people allowed themselves to admit what they were really feeling -- what's really going on in their minds when they think about sex. Do they think any woman who would throw a man against a wall and lick every inch of his body couldn't prove as capable a mother as a woman who believes that such action goes against God? Now, there's the far left as well as the far right; they're not that much apart."
Amos' flirtatious smile and penchant for caressing the piano bench with her hips and thighs are trademarks of her performance style. It's easy to detect a wry, self-knowing humor in that swivel and grin. "Really good tragedy has to have a giggle in it," she insists. "It's like, with loud music, you have to have a moment -- just a moment -- of silence. You have to alter the dynamics so you can appreciate the loudness again. So that it means something."
Which brings Amos back -- again -- to the need for honest, purposeful statements in art and in life. "We have all these communications systems all over the world, and we can fill that space with thoughts; we can fil it with possibilities. We need truth now, we really need truth. It doesn't have to come with a sword. Why can't it simply come as truth?"
ALL THESE GEARS
Tori Amos uses Shure Beta 58 microphones and a Bosendorfer 9'6" Concert Grand piano when performing live. For recording Amos used various mikes, including a Neumann U87 and U47, Telefunken 251 and a Rosse E43. Her keyboards included Bosendorfer, Yamaha and Steinway grands, and an Emulator, a Kurzweil and a Yamaha CP80.
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
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tori amos digital archive