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Philadelphia Daily News (US)
Thursday, March 24, 1994

Amos' Piano Pop More Than Music

By Jonathan Takiff

To explore the arty piano pop of Tori Amos is to swim into a maelstrom of naked emotions. Her intensely wrought, lushly melodic songs are meditations on religion, romantic relationships, gender wars, self-realization and release from sexual guilt. Interviewing Amos is a similarly cathartic and cleansing experience. The red-haired 30-year-old singer-songwriter readily opens up her heart and mind, revealing what has driven her work on the million-selling "Little Earthquakes" album and its powerful new follow-up, "Under The Pink."

Monday, she'll be featuring material from both albums at a sold-out Keswick Theater show and is likely to return to play a bigger venue like the Tower or Mann this summer, she says.

Much of the first solo album, Amos says, was sparked by bitter experiences with men. It is most dramatically revealed on an autobiographical song of violent rape called "Me and a Gun." Ironically, that's also the number that first attracted a significant following for Amos in Great Britain, where this North Carolina native resides.

On songs like "The Waitress" and "Cornflake Girl," her new album delves more into "violence between women," she explains.

"Women can be hardest on other women. There's a deep betrayal between women, a viciousness and a lying. We don't own up to our part in it, how we treat each other badly and how we blame the men. Until we can look at that realistically, we'll never be as strong as we could be."

Another new Amos song, "Bells for Her," is about "girlfriends who turn on each other because they can't take responsibility for the fact they've turned their power over to a man," Amos says. "I don't want to hear about all the excuses anymore. That's not gonna make us heal."

Amos has never had therapy, she volunteers. She works out her angst in her music and live performances, and in backstage conversations with empathetic fans and the press. She says "one out of every three women I meet" has endured a harrowing sexual experience like her own. She credits a "wise woman in New Mexico" with leading her out of the darkness. "She told me, 'You can't change what's happened to you. But there's a man here with love and desire for you. First you'll have to let go of your Victims Anonymous badge.'"

Amos has been speaking through her art practically from infancy. At age 4, this brash daughter of a Methodist minister was composing her first songs. A year later, while studying the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album, she sent her parents into fits with the declaration, "This is what I want to do."

A self-proclaimed "freak child who had really good rhythm," Amos trained between the ages of 5 and 11 at the acclaimed Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, only to be dismissed for "irreconcilable differences" - a passion for pop and a too-easy gift for piano noodling.

"I came in playing by ear and could play almost everything I heard. The whole idea was that to be a classical pianist you had to learn to read music. I knew that, but the way they did it was to try to break the ear so that it would force me to read."

Making the best of her dismissal, Amos' father told her, "If you're not going to play in a conservatory, at least be good at popular music."

"The only thing he could equate with pop was Judy Garland, with cabaret performing. Mention Joni Mitchell and he'd say, 'What?'"

That's how Amos found herself, at the tender age of 13 and 14, playing weekends in Washington, D.C., at a gay bar called Mr. Henry's and at a "mixed clientele" spot called Mr. Smith's.

"My parents chaperoned. The experience was fantastic. I played standards - a little Gershwin and Cole Porter, your Billie Holiday stuff. I'd also do whatever was current - Zeppelin, Carole King, Billy Joel, Elton John. Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' was a biggie. You had to do 'Send In the Clowns' and 'Feelings' at least five times a night. Plus your Beatles and Stones catalog."

Most musicians never escape lounges. Performing "covers" dulls them for more creative work.

"What I got from playing so many different kinds of music was the possibilities," says Amos. "You see what can be done with 12 notes and you start developing your vocabulary."

Amos finds it funny that she's compared to ethereal singer-songwriters like Kate Bush.

"Women get compared... for surface reasons rather than from the interior motivations that drive our work. A lot of women are talking now about emotional things, but guys are very emotional, too. They're raging all over."

In fact, she admits to being a closet Jimmy Page fan who once aimed to duplicate his guitar feel on piano and tried to yell "like I had razor blades down my throat."

Amos veered in the mid-'80s with a hard-rock band and an album called "Y Kant Tori Read." A Billboard magazine review that dismissed her as a "bimbo" still causes her grief, but she learned from the experience.

"You can dress like a rock chick and pump the hair spray. But people smelled the dishonesty. My intentions weren't to make music but to get attention."

"The bottom line for me is that I play the piano and sing like a choir girl. I learned to accept it and stopped trying to do plastic surgery on my instrument."


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