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New Haven Advocate (US)
New Haven, Connecticut
June 9-15, 1994
Tori on Tour:
By Christopher Arnott
It's Friday evening in Washington, DC and, right after this brief phone interview, Tori Amos is off to "do something I don't get to do enough of." In the midst of a 110-date national tour, she's entertaining a group of kindergarteners and other children. It wasn't that long ago that she was a child herself, a pre-adolescent prodigy who was booted out of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for her indifference to reading music and her preference for improvisation and playing-by-ear.
At 17, she changed her name. "I hated my name. My body was screaming to be
called something, and it wasn't Myra Ellen."
The number of *inner* children she has touched in the past three years of
ceaseless touring and recording, is beyond number. Spokesperson for a dysfunctional generation, her lyrics elaborate on big, unanswerable questions - the
existence of God, the nature of sexual relationships, various denominations
and moral capitulations. Her singing and stage performance, by contrast, are
straightforward and disarming. Her songs are touching and direct, whether unadorned live or swirled with ethereal production techniques on record.
Tori Amos plays the Palace Theatre in New Haven on June 13 (already sold out,
alas), and at the Strand Theater in Providence on June 24.
Her 1992 album _Little Earthquakes_ was only one part of her initial break-through, delicately marketed but with the fear that it would get lost in the
mass-market shuffle. A concurrent four-song EP, _Crucify_, with two original
songs and three inspired, wistful covers - The Rolling Stones' "Angie", Led
Zeppelin's "Thank You" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - solidified
her acceptance in a cross-marketed singer-songwriter/alternative world.
Her not-so-well-known and self-admittedly botched 1988 debut album, _Y Kant
Tori Read?_ has become a holy grail in the collector's market and is widely
bootlegged. "I only have one thing to say about that," Amos says. "Why??"
"The only good thing about that album is my ankle high boots," she says. Too bad the bootlegs aren't reproducing the original artwork.
It goes without saying that she had little control over _Kant_, a situation
assertively remedied since. Free from conventional studio sterility, _Under
The Pink_ was recorded "in New Mexico in an old hacienda. We'd be cooking
chicken while they were setting up the drums. Life *happened* while we were
making the record."
The title _Under The Pink_ refers to inner turmoil that is more than skin deep
("Pink" referring to pulpy flesh). The latest single off the album, "Cornflake
Girl", is inspired by graphic details of women's genitalia being removed by a
patriarchal society, in Alice Walker's novel _Possessing The Secret of Joy_.
The single "God" talks back irreverently to a deity. But in "Waitress", one
of the stand-outs on _Under The Pink_, Amos fends for herself on a much lower
level of the social order, exploring the service-trade pecking order. Describing an aggravated feeling of inner violence,
"Waitress"'s ironic kicker (a line now emblazoned on a diamond-shaped metal
pendant sold at shows) is "But I believe in peace, bitch." Whether in church
or in a restaurant she dares to question the ritual. She then has the rare
strength, when necessary, to throw up her hands and say she doesn't get it.
Perhaps it's that not-my-idea first album, or the single-voice intimacy of
her lyrics, or the piercing wail that shouldn't be harmonized, but Tori Amos
is frankly not keen on collaboration. "It bores me - I know what I want anyway, so what's the point?" Nevertheless, she reveals that she and Neil Gaiman
- the British novelist best known for his comic book _Sandman_ - "are working
on something. Not really something *yet*, but it may be something."
She's touring now without a band. "I really don't want to repeat the CD. I
use loops and stuff in the show, but the songs have a different feel to them."
The solo instrument she's bringing to the Palace is "not just a piano. It's
nine feet long, baby. It's the one that sounds exactly the way I need it to.
Without this piano, the shows are totally inconsistent. There's things you
just can't do."
Having cut her teeth performing in cabarets in the '80s, she has affection
for the old standards. Asked for her favorites, she comes up with songs which
reflect the same mixture of multi-layered internal-monologue lyrics and
accessible pop melodies as can be found in her contemporary covers, not to
mention her own songs: "I Can't Get Started With You", "These Foolish Things",
"Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", and, seasonally apt, Gershwin's
"Summertime". Thinking about the old tunes ("Nobody ever asks me about them"),
she decides that she might try performing one at her New Haven concert.
She certainly has the voice to sing them. She is frequently, if superficially,
compared to Kate Bush, whose wavering mezzo-soprano she shares.
But in the spell she holds over audiences, in the skill with which she recon-
structs any song into something uniquely hers, she more resembles a Nina Simone
or a Chet Baker. Like those figures, she has tapped a spiritual sycophancy
in many of her fans, who worship her like a goddess. Just one more irony, one
more internal/external, lust/faith, heaven/hell dilemma for Tori Amos to explore.
[For an interview with Tori Amos' hand-picked opening act Bill Miller, see
HappenStance. When asked if she discusses religion with Miller, Amos says,
"Usually we're just telling bawdy jokes."]
~ ~ ~
Interview with Bill Miller
By Christopher Arnott
Amos' opening act Bill Miller has a few things in common with Amos as well - a Native American heritage (he is Mohican, she is part Cherokee) and a strong
Christian background. "I was brought into the Christian church because missionaries had visited our tribe," Miller relates. "They allowed us to worship
Christ as we wanted, and they were condemned [by the Church] for being so
respectful to us. I don't consider myself a radical Christian - I'm not about
to drop my Native American heritage for a church."
He nevertheless appears to be more devoutly respectful of God than his tour-
mate Tori, several of whose songs are reactions against her strict Methodist
upbringing. But Miller doesn't mind. "Everybody from Moses on down is crying
out to God," he says in discussing Amos' antagonistic single "God". "I take
that song as being much more abstract. She's a true artist."
There are some obvious presentational similarities. Miller is traveling with
just a bass player, and "she doesn't have a band either," he says.
"Like with Tori, when you hear my songs you can hear the roots of the songs on
the album, in the overtones of the guitar or piano, you can almost hear the
strings, all the production elements."
After 18 years in the receptive college-concert circuit and the independently
released albums, Miller's been thrilling wider and harder-to-please audiences
- including crowds waiting to see Pearl Jam or The Oak Ridge Boys, and movie
audiences for an upcoming Lou Diamond Phillips feature whose soundtrack includes
a Bill Miller song - with a soft, warm set of Western tunes which reflect his
Wisconsin-based Native American upbringing and culture. Abused an impoverished
as a child, Miller found salvation in a combination of Native American, Christian
and artistic values. _Red Road_, his major label debut album on Warner, is
produced by Richard Bennett, who was lead guitarist in Steve Earle's band and
produced a series of Emmylou Harris albums.
The tracks on _The Red Road_ are extraordinary for merging tribal rhythms,
chants, esoteric wind sounds and classical strings with standard country/folk
elements like pedal steel guitar, harmonica and keyboards. That in itself is
not so special - making it sound like more than a lame 90s retread of _Wichi-
Tai-To_ is the awesome achievement.
"This is the most honest piece of work I've ever put out. _The Red Road_ is a portrait of my life at the time - like Picasso's blue period, mine is a red period," Miller says. Aptly, he's also a painter - those sharp colored-pencil artworks in _Red Road_'s CD package are his, and he's considering having prints made of his sketches and paintings for sale at shows.
Musically, Miller's known as a singer-guitarist, but a lot of the other sounds on _Red Road_ are his too. "The flutes I play are ones I have been given over the years - people don't think it's me, but I've been playing the flute 15 years."
A cliche found in most Miller interviews is how he brags about overcoming skepticism and overwhelming unprepared audiences. The acclaim is noteworthy, if overstated, because it's genuine. Warner was having little success finding appropriate acts for Miller to tour with on a schedule which coincided with _Red Road_'s promotional push, when Tori Amos called out of the blue (or Under The Pink, as it were), having read about him in the Irish Times, having bought his album, and having felt an immediate kinship.
"It works because I'm honest, and I'm a pretty likeable guy. I don't want to fake anything. I don't think of an age group of 18, 19 when I'm writing" - much of his audience is now in that age range, though Miller himself is 39 with a wife and kids. "I grew up with a Native American way of looking at things." But he doesn't see himself as a propagandist for Native American affairs. "I'm not going on the road to be a medicine man."
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