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New York Times (US)
Sunday, January 14, 1996
By Ann Powers
Ann Powers, the music editor of The Village Voice, is co-editor of "Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap."
"SINCE I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I've been a musician first," says Tori Amos, who is about to release her most musically adventurous album yet. "I wasn't just an extension of the piano; I was the piano. That's how people looked at me."
A former child prodigy who spent her teens playing in piano lounges and ran off to Los Angeles at 21 to join a rock-and-roll band, Ms. Amos has occupied virtually every artistic incarnation her instrument offers. The 32-year-old singer-songwriter has worked hard to become the pop star she is today. Her former band, Y Kant Tori Read, failed after one ill-conceived album, and she retreated to England, where she reacquainted herself with her alter ego, the piano, before emerging with "Little Earthquakes," an album full of lush fantasies and confessions, in 1991.
Fans and detractors alike have found plenty of ways to look at Ms. Amos since then. She has been called a twisted mystic and a sexual healer, lauded as a champion of female independence and condemned as a pretentious New Age babbler. But Ms. Amos, who entered the Peabody Institute in Baltimore at age 5, says she is only now beginning to see how all the pieces of herself fit together.
"The musician was excelling, and the woman really needed to catch up," she says.
She may have only recently reached a plateau in self-understanding, but Ms. Amos has certainly made an impression getting there. An innovative and masterly musician whose style blends Bach with show tunes, Debussy and Led Zeppelin, Ms. Amos has come to embody a thoroughly modern brand of female bravado.
Her first hit from "Little Earthquakes," "Silent All These Years," was a delicate yet acerbic coming-of-age song. "Me and a Gun" described Ms. Amos's own rape with an immediacy that proved so inspirational she won a Visionary Award from the D.C. Rape Crisis Center in Washington. In "God," from her second album, "Under the Pink," this Methodist minister's daughter took on the Man Upstairs, suggesting he might need "a woman to look after you."
Ms. Amos has been compared to singers like Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush, and she owes a debt to all of them, as well as to Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. But she has created a style of her own by setting her stories within a mythic landscape marked by signposts from the ancient world, theology, popular culture and her own imagination.
Big ideas require big music, and Ms. Amos creates expansive suites that begin with infectious melodies but grow to accommodate whatever influence captures her fancy. She belongs to a new category in rock, which includes Bjork, P. J. Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. These artists form a mainstream underground, one equally inspired by punk's defiance of convention and the old-fashioned idea that rock can be an epic form, liberating in its force and unbridled in its scope of expression.
Ms. Amos brings to rock's vanguard an uncommon ability to translate the most intimate emotional matters -- sexuality, spirituality -- into music. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who collaborated with Ms. Amos on "Under the Pink," admires her vulnerability and honesty as much as her musicality. "Her music gives me goose bumps whenever I listen to it," he says. "It's very rare for music to affect me that way."
Ms. Amos is now releasing her third album, "Boys for Pele," and it's hard to imagine how fans who have taken her songs to heart will react, many of them young women who hear their own inner struggles expressed in Ms. Amos's open-ended songs. "I'm going to send them a bottle of wine with this one," she says.
Not only are her stories increasingly wrathful, the music has grown even more dense, the songs longer and more intricate. "It's my boy record," Ms. Amos says. Her romantic relationship of seven years with Eric Rosse, co-producer of much of her first two albums, dissolved during the recording of "Under the Pink." After that, she had a few encounters that left her thinking about her relationships with particular men and masculinity in general.
"It's multileveled," she says. "There's the personal, but also there are patterns and myths, like the story of Mary Magdalene, that started to make me see. Why did I always look to these men? I was always reading where I stood by what they saw. Stealing their fire. Trying to."
Throughout "Boys for Pele" (the title refers to the Hawaiian volcano and human sacrifice), Ms. Amos sings of emotional and physical violence. "Blood Roses" is about prostitution, "Maryann" about a murdered childhood friend, "Little Amsterdam" about the bloody aftermath of an interracial romance in a small Southern town. Other songs are addressed to unnamed intimates. "Father Lucifer" hails a betrayer who's exposed as a pathetic loner. "This little masochist, she's ready to confess," she sings in "Hey Jupiter," which might be about the same shadowy character.
More striking than her elliptical lyrics is the album's risky sound. Ms. Amos's singing is bolder than ever. A deathly croak might become a sweet croon, then plunge into an unstoppable wail and finally resolve in vaudevillian patter -- all in one song. Ms. Amos has obviously been influenced by her friend Polly Harvey, whose albums stretch the limits of propriety for the female voice.
The instrumentation on "Boys for Pele" shows Ms. Amos growing ever more eclectic. She is joined once again by the bass player George Porter Jr., who was an original member of the rhythm-and-blues pioneers the Meters. Also featured are the African percussionist Manu Katche and a gospel choir that she assembled in New Orleans. Ms. Amos, who is still based in London, did some recording in Ireland, which reminds her, she says, of her childhood home in North Carolina. She also cites West Indian and Central American music as influences. "To me, this isn't a 'pop' record," she says. "It's a work from top to tail."
"Boys for Pele" is a collection of exceptionally complicated songs. But talking music with Ms. Amos isn't exactly like getting a lesson from Itzhak Perlman. Here, somewhat condensed, is her account of the composition of "Little Amsterdam":
"I've set it between two release points, an intro and an outro. It helps the smell of this song, so you really get the honeysuckle with the sweet potatoes and the black-eyed peas. And just like you weave down those roads in the South, you know, you're in swampland, and then you hit water, and then country, and sugar cane. And then you hit a gas station somewhere and you're in a town, and you've gotten into the Christian sound. It's like those writers I read as a little girl, Faulkner and Williams. This is how I write. It's not about sitting down and putting 18 bars here or there."
Ms. Amos communicates this way, in dizzy metaphors and tiny operas. Music shapes her colorful speech, her view of the world, her sense of her own body. Her flamboyant playing style, for example, may seem to be a sexy ploy, but it actually serves her needs as a player. She seems stimulated, to say the least, as she rises off the piano bench, pounding the keys with her head thrown back and her legs apart. But in reality, she says, "I think I'm more turned on at the dentist."
"I'll show you how it affects the muscles," she continues, placing her palm on her abdomen. "My back leg gives me support, and that's what pulls up my diaphragm and my body, so I have the power to play and sing. I mean, to play a nine-foot instrument with power, it's not like strumming an acoustic; it's very big, just like a double bass."
On "Boys for Pele," Ms. Amos conquers another formidable instrument, the harpsichord. Its arcane sound lends a mythical resonance to the album. "Harpsichord represents a time that holds secrets," she says. To record this album, Ms. Amos and her crew of engineers set up a piano and a harpsichord next to each other in a church. Microphones were placed around the instruments to obtain a raw, spacious sound. Ms. Amos stood inside a small box, with only her arms protruding to produce the most spontaneous possible keyboard sound without interference from her body movement.
"My engineer came up with the idea that instead of blanketing the instruments to improve the acoustics, we'd blanket Tori, put me in a box," she says. "I had to stand up to do it, because in the box I couldn't swing my feet around. And this was not about cutting tape together; the space in between, the time it took me to turn around, you could never duplicate that."
It may seem rather baroque to reject computer technology in favor of enclosing yourself in a box to play the harpsichord, but the move makes sense for Ms. Amos, whose music is as much about the relationship of artist to instrument as it is about spiritual or sexual enlightenment. Her nearly primal link to the piano -- she began playing by ear at age 3 -- seems to have forced her to create her own language, grounded in sensual memory and poetic imagination, not the music-school rhetoric she rejected when she dropped out of the Peabody at age 11.
Ms. Amos treats the piano and harpsichord as living beings, and her body as the link between them. "It's not about being subservient, but it's not about being in control, either," she says. "I'm lying between the two instruments, metaphorically and letting myself know they carry a code."
For Ms. Amos, everything starts with this encounter with the keyboard. In the knotty weave of melodies and words she's creating, she is reshaping the deep structures of pop music. The arcane resonance of the harpsichord tangles with a jazz bass line and a Moroccan drum, all in the service of stories encompassing goddesses and movie stars, Jack the Ripper and a little girl who grew up thinking she was a piano.
"I don't know what is normal to you," Ms. Amos says. "That's one man staring at the moon. I'm getting to a place that's just endless, the possibilities, so I'm starting to push those limits more than I had before."
[Caption with Photograph]
More Wrathful, More Daring Tori Amos, performing at a church in Manhattan -- Singing of sexuality and spirituality. (Linda Rosier for The New York Times) (pg. 27); Tori Amos rehearsing for a concert at Symphony Space last year. (Jack Vartoogian) (pg. 34)
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