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The Washington Post (US)
Sunday, May 17, 1998



Tori Amos, Local Legend

At 34, the Singer Deals With Love, Loss, and a New Band

by Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer

Eighteen years ago, when Tori Amos was a 16-year old playing in Georgetown piano bars, she told The Washington Post, "I want to be a legend."

At the time all the Maryland-bred singer had to her name was a self- pressed single on which she earnestly sang the praises of "Baltimore". Today, a copy of the record - 10 of which are thought to exist - would fetch hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Amos's last three albums have gone platinum, and it's likely that her brand-new "from the choirgirl hotel" which entered the Billboard charts this week at No. 5, will do the same. Devoted Toriphiles have set up approximately 4,000 Web shrines devoted to the singer.

Amos's recent return to Washington - she prefaced her first-ever band tour with a warm-up date at the 9:30 club - was attended by several changes. "Choirgirl hotel" marks the first time Amos has recorded in the studio with a band, and the current tour - which include an MCI Center concert Aug. 14 - is the first time she has played arenas.

Other changes are more personal. The 9:30 club date was also the first time she has performed in Washington without her parents in the audience; retired Methodist minister Edison and wife Mary Ellen Amos recently moved from Rockville to Florida. And last February she married her longtime sound man Mark Hawley, in a secret ceremony in England, where she has lived for much of the past six years. Nonetheless, pictures from the wedding soon appeared in the British tabloids, suggesting a very mystical Renaissance- style ceremony and celebration. "We thought we kept it quiet," Amos says with a sigh. "That side of my life is really private, though I feel exposed on a lot of other levels."

On the Internet, for instance, where her lyrics and interviews are endlessly dissected and analyzed, and Toriphiles share communal epiphanies. "I think I made my bed for myself," Amos admits, "writing the kind of songs that strike a nerve, even with people who hate my work."

Indeed, both Toriphiles and Toriphobes are passionate on the subject. The former thrive on Amos's decidedly idiosyncratic approach to writing and performing, appreciate the emotional intimacy of her songs, perhaps even share her skepticism toward religion. The latter dismiss Amos for her quirky musical affectations, deride her mystic gambols among what she calls "the fairies and mermaids" and decry her often elusive, sometimes impenetrable lyrics.

"You know, sometimes when somebody's tearing me to shreds, they're not even talking about the music," Amos says. "It's that you're talking about secrets, things that shouldn't be talked about, bringin up questions that [tick] people off, or making people feel like 'Wow, I have these questions, too.' People either align with it or want to stamp on me like a cockroach."

"I'm really non-confrontational as a person, except with myself," Amos insists. "Until we get into certain issues. Like Christianity, for example."

The media, Amos says, usually depict her as the minister's daughter, who is hostile towards religion. She says that she's always trying to correct, or at least clarify, that impression. "I'm just committed to discovering the dark side of Christianity," she explains. According to Amos, "women have been sexually suppressed through the institution of Christianity," which she calls a patriarchic, paternalistic system threatened by the power of "a sexual, spiritual female." As she put it on "Icicle", "I think the Good Book is missing some pages."

Amos, who attended church four times a week until she was 21, concedes that her longstanding critiques of what she calls the hypocrisy of organized religion were - and continue to be - the source of spirited debate with her father.

"I'm looking for a balanced way of living with these questions I have," Amos says. "My relationship with the Christian God right now is very much about 'See you on Friday for margaritas, I have hundreds of more questions.' Of course I believe in the great spirit, the divine, but as a Christian deity, He knows His gig but He doesn't know what it's like to be a red-headed girl in this body that has a lot of questions and not many answers."

In December 1996 Amos miscarried a baby girl at three months. That loss and an attendant sense of sorrow and helplessness inform several of the songs on "choirgirl hotel," including the first single, "Spark," where Amos sings "she's convinced she could hold back a glacier/ but she couldn't keep baby alive."

"You know, I love my mother and I adore my father, but that isn't the same feeling I had being a mother," Amos says softly. "My mother always told me until you feel motherhood, you'll never understand. It's not something you feel as a kid for your parents and you don't feel that for a lover, it's just not the same. She said it's protecting and giving and giving... and I never felt like I would do anything for another life like that before."

It's nothing new for Amos to channel her pain into creativity. She turned a rape into a cathartic song, "Me and a Gun", and eventually helped found the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network to foster awareness of violence against women and children.

"There's an immense joy in my life right now because of the songs," says Amos. "I may not be creating human babies but I'm co-creating song babies. The love doesn't go away, so I have a feeling of love that I haven't felt before, not just for this being but for life. How do you get through your loss and then find the beauty in life again - that's really what this record was about. It became about living again, about seeing life in a way with new eyes."

Though she's only 34, Amos can look at the professional life of a musician with near-ancient eyes. After all, she was playing the piano by ear before she could talk. As a 5-year-old prodigy, she became the youngest student ever admitted to Baltimore's Peabody institute. Her musical studies there lasted until age 11, by which time her passion for rock and her resistance to authority (no less oppressive in the conservatory than in the church) led her to being expelled.

At 13 she began playing in Georgetown's gay piano bars. Her father drove her to those gigs and sat quietly in the back as Ellen (her given name) began to meld her pianistic proficiency and preternaturally assured vocals with her first original songs.

Cradling a bottle of Evian in the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel - only a block from where she maintained a long residency at the Marbury House's Lion Gate Taverne - Amos recalls "Married Man," a song written in her early teens.

"I'm too young for a man but I'm too old for a boy/so can't we just pretend that I'm older than I am/but then, only little girls pretend... Married man, stop pulling me closer/married man, I could be your daughter/you know you have the best of both worlds."

"That makes me cry when I think about it," Amos says.

So would the frustrations of trying to penetrate the record industry in the 80's, though from the start one could find hints of ambition unlikely to be diminished by rejection. For instance, at Richard Montgomery High School, where she was homecoming queen, Amos had written a paper titled "You Too Can Have a Career in Music," in which she promised, "Nothing can stop me. I know what I can do and I believe in myself."

So did her father - he wrote to various labels on church stationery, but his letters went as unanswered as his daughter's prayers. In the mid 80's, Amos - who by then was calling herself Tori - moved to Los Angeles, formed a band, played all over the city and eventually snagged a contract with Atlantic Records. Her 1988 debut, "Y Kant Tori Read" - the band's name and a reference to Amos's problems with Peabody instructors over her refusal to read music - became one of rock's notorious disasters.

Luckily for Amos, more people have probably heard about "Y Kant Tori Read", than ever actually heard it (10,000 copies were pressed, with less than half actually sold). That album presented a very different Tori Amos - a big-haired, leather-wearing scimitar-wielding rock chick making what Billboard immediately dismissed as "bimbo music."

"I was trying to make myself into something they felt they could package," Amos says of the experience. "I tried to write songs for the market and some of them still have pieces of me in them, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons at that point. I got away from the fact that I wanted to be a french fry - and I'm not a french fry, I'm an oyster."

The pearls, as it turned out, would have to be cultivated overseas.

The "Y Kant" debacle led Amos to reconsider herself on a long sojourn, made at the suggestion of her label head, in England, which has long been a haven to eccentric originals. It was there that Amos recorded 1992's "Little Earthquakes," a collection of piano-graced confessional purgatives that eventually sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and helped set the stage for Fiona Apple, Paula Cole and Alanis Morrisette (who called the album a "shocking revelation").

In England, Amos reinvented herself as "a girl and her piano," offering intimate, provocative and at times unrelentingly frank ruminations on love, sex, family and religion. As Amos herself put it in "Girl," "She's been everybody else's girl/maybe one day she'll be her own."

Once she was, Amos began to build a network of devoted fans through constant touring here and overseas. Her albums - including "Under the Pink" and "Boys for Pele" - grafted on additional studio textures, but in concert it was always just Amos and her oversize Bosendorfer grand.

"Playing by myself for so many years, doing so many shows, I thought maybe I was hiding behind myself at the piano," Amos says. "I felt like it was time to bring in real players, real rhythm. It's such a magical thing when a group of people can groove together, and I wanted to plug in to this ancient place where the banshees go. There can be beauty and ballads there, but it can also grab you by the throat."

"I want the mermaids to show up with black leather boots, to bring the life force out of them."


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