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London Independent (UK)
Sunday, January 16, 1994
Kooky or what?
by Justine Picardie
Section: The Sunday Review Page
Tori Amos, rock-babe-at-her-piano, was an overnight sensation: cute,
talented and a little bit weird. But we've seen girls with sorrowful songs like
her before. Will she outlast them?
TORI AMOS became a famous pop singer all of a sudden in 1992. Her first solo
album, Little Earthquakes, sold more than one million copies worldwide. Her
videos were on MTV, her weirdly beautiful face was in glossy magazines and
music critics said that she was a new star for the Nineties.
Melody Maker called her a genius. She sounded a bit like Kate Bush, a bit
like Joni Mitchell, breathy whispers one moment, ear-piercing melodrama the
next. She sang about God and sex and the deep, deep pain of existence,
accompanying herself on the piano with lots of big, portentous chords.
What was it that made her so appealing to so many record buyers? Well, she
was a babe, and she played the piano rather well when most people were
strumming away on acoustic guitars. Her tunes were good, too; you could hum
along with them on the radio and it felt like you'd always known them.
Also, she seemed to be writing about important things: there was a song
about rape on the album, others about betrayal, religious doubt and suffering.
There's always a niche in the market for a woman to sing about emotional
misery: Dory Previn, Marianne Faithfull, Janis Ian. When no one understands
you, when you don't want to jig about to noisy pop music played by men with
loud guitars, you can lie on the floor in a darkened room, listen to a
plaintive woman's voice and know that someone else is just as unhappy as you.
So what else made people want to listen to Tori Amos? Her colourful
American childhood probably helped - she was born in North Carolina, raised in
Washington; daddy was a preacher, momma was part Cherokee Indian. Tori - or
Myra Ellen as she was known at the time - was an infant prodigy, playing the
piano at the age of three, training as a concert pianist at the prestigious
Peabody Institute in Baltimore by five. She didn't talk very much about the
intervening years before she had a brilliant career - the years she spent
playing cabaret standards in hotel lounges, then trying to make it in a
terrible heavy metal band. That wasn't part of what was for sale in 1992 - what
we got was kooky, gorgeous, sincere Tori Amos .
And now she's releasing her second album, Under the Pink. Big things are
expected by her record company. So she's out there again, promoting the
product, making the videos (the latest one, to accompany "God", her current
single in America, shows Tori participating in a spooky religious ceremony
surrounded by 140 rats). She's 30 years old, and it's crunch time. Will she go
the way of those equally sincere singer-songwriters - such as Tracy Chapman or
Tanita Tikaram, both on the same record label as Amos - who have one huge album
and then fade away with the second, saddened and flattened and half-forgotten?
Or can she keep churning out those emotions, telling us how it is, making the
people who bought her first record believe that she still knows the truth about
life? She has to stay sexy, and serious too. And don't forget the catchy tunes.
It's got to sound good on the radio.
I HAVE BEEN dubious about Tori Amos ever since I saw her on television,
writhing about on a piano stool in her fake-orgasmic way. Then there's her
lyrics. Tori Amos writes things like this: ". . . in the doorway they stay and
laugh as violins fill with water screams from the BLUEBELLS can't make them go
away . . ." (She used quite a lot of capital letters in the lyric sheet for her
last album, which is what mad people tend to do when they write angry letters
in green ink to newspapers.) The capital letters have been dropped from the new
album, but the lyrics are still slightly obscure in places. The final song is a
nine minute epic called "Yes, Anastasia", all about the dead Tsar's daughter.
(The first line is: "I know what you want the magpies have come if you know me
so well then tell me which hand I use . . ." ) You find yourself singing along
I arrive at her London flat, which is in a big white house on an expensive
road in Holland Park. She has just returned from Los Angeles and her
living-room floor is strewn with the contents of five gaping suitcases.
She is wearing green shorts, green woolly tights, a green shirt and a
peculiar pair of green furry snow boots. Her hair is dyed red and she has a lot
of make-up on. She has large blue-grey eyes and a wide glossy mouth. In her
bathroom there are seven little pots of kiwi-fruit lip balm.
We go out to lunch, and before we sit down she's telling me she wants a baby
this year and revealing intimate medical details with a blithe, trusting
abandon. Then she orders green salad, mineral water and a plate of assorted
vegetables. "What's good?" she asks the
waitress, in a friendly way. "What are the best
potatoes? Broiled?" The waitress shrugs. "Oh
well, I'll just have them as they come," says Amos. She eats her food
with enthusiasm when it arrives.
She launches into the story of her life, which has all the elements of a
hillbilly fantasy: "My father's family lived way in the
Appalachian Mountains . . . The Waltons looked like luxury compared to them." Both
her paternal grandparents were ministers in the Church of God, a Methodist
offshoot. Her grandmother was regarded as a saint by the rest of the community
and instilled the fear of God into her family. She's dead now, but Amos still
doesn't feel too good about her. "If we met at the
River Styx, I don't know if I'd give her a ride in my boat."
Then there was her mother's father, who gave her an insight into a different
kind of spirituality. "Just because I haven't been
reared in a completely Indian environment . . . the point is, if I'm walking
through the forest and I'm lost, there are other ways to get out of it besides
having a compass."
It was a terrible shock, she says, to go to the Peabody Institute, where "everything was analytical." Amos is not analytical. Her conversation swoops and swerves; she talks about shamanism and self-expression and how your molecular structure changes when you listen to music. ("It's true," she says. "A scientist has proved it.") Eventually, she gets back to the narrative of her life. Her brother, who is 10 years older than Tori, introduced her to rock music in the Sixties. "He brought home Sergeant Pepper, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix . . . I thought Jimi was a pseudonym for Jesus. Jesus was a hippy in my mind. I was writing this romance in my head with him and Mary Magdalene. You know how you are when you're five."
"Needless to say, my philosophy wasn't very popular at Sunday lunch." Being an infant prodigy set her apart, she says, but it also had its uses. "Everywhere I went, I was asked to play. I was the girl who played piano . . . I knew my assets. I'd go, 'God, that boy isn't noticing me much, but when I start to play this tune, he will.' So I got as manipulative as I guess Joan Collins was when she was nine years old and trying on high-cut panties."
Sex comes up a lot when you talk to Tori Amos . Sex and religious guilt,
like in her songs. She's happy to bare her soul and the details of her teenage
sex life. It seems to have been a troubling business. "If
I was going down on a guy, I'd think, oh God, Jesus is watching." It
wasn't until she was 21, she explains, that "I realised
Jesus is a little bit busy. He's got a few other things to do."
At the same time as losing her religion, she moved to Los Angeles. And after
years of rejection letters from record companies "saying
this girl and her piano thing is never going to happen," and years of
singing "Feelings" six times a night in hotel happy hours, she formed a group
called Y Kant Tori Read. She wore short skirts and had big rock-chick hair. It
worked, up to a point; Atlantic Records signed the group. But then the album
flopped. "I was called a bimbo in Billboard. To go from
child prodigy to bimbo is a very hard thing . . . It's like, how could I get
this so wrong?"
Nevertheless, Tori Amos persevered. The record company paid for her to do
some more recording, but they didn't like what she delivered. First of all they
suggested replacing the piano with a guitar. (Hey, rock and roll!) Amos said
no. So they packed her off to London because they figured that the English
might like this weird chick music. She arrived in 1991 and started playing
third on the bill in small clubs. "I was playing every
week," she says. "No one came. I had no
friends." But eventually, towards the end of the year, Melody Maker gave
her a good review, and the record company decided to release her album. They
gave her a big push, spent a lot of time and money on promotion and marketing,
and it worked. Her songs got played on the radio and she toured almost
constantly, and people bought the record. Lots and lots of people bought it.
THE RECORD company has to tread carefully right now. After all those glowing
reviews for its new star in 1992, a backlash would be unfortunate. Maybe there's
been a little bit too much emphasis on the kooky side of the product. It's OK
to be intriguingly individual; insanity is not so good. (Time Out ran a few
lines in its diary last week, asking "Is Tori Amos a couple of keys short of a
full piano?" This was prompted by Amos telling a journalist that she had been
visited by the ghostly presence of Anastasia Romanov, who wanted her story told
in a song. Amos recounted the same incident to me. It had happened in October
1992, she said, just before a concert in Richmond, Virginia. She had food
poisoning at the time. "I was feeling so sick that I
wanted to be put out of my misery. And then I get this presence. It's like a
light, a blueish-greyish light ... The message was, 'You need to learn
something out of writing my story.'")
The day after our meeting, I telephone Tori Amos to check a few things. She
sounds a bit worried about how she's going to come across.
"All the kooky inferences - I don't really understand it,"
she says. "It's getting a little stale, Justine. My
voice is getting twisted a lot right now. I'd rather the music speaks for
itself." But she still talks for another half an hour, about sex and
love and songwriting and betrayal. You just can't stop her, but then that's her
job. She deserves to be famous, she really does.
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