home / interviews
The Tennessean (US)
August 23, 1998
Tori Amos fills Choirgirl Hotel with mythic metaphors
By Rick de Yampert
staff, The Tennessean
Tori Amos, that singer-pianist who's part sensitive chanteuse, part freaky-raw rocker, is talking about a visitor she had last year - Pandora. Yes, that mythical ancient Greek babe who opened the box and let out all sorts of mayhem.
"I didn't really know what was in store for me when she came," Amos says by phone before a concert in Charlotte, N.C. "It almost made sense that she came first, because she sort of paved the way, as she did mythologically, for other experiences, other feelings to come."
Even a casual listen to From the Choirgirl Hotel, the new album by Amos, will reveal it's littered with references to figures from various mythologies and religions - Pandora, Persephone, Judas, the Sufis. As Amos talks during a break in her current tour, which comes to the Grand Ole Opry House Tuesday, words such as "Dionysian" and "shaman" pop up casually.
The impression: Amos isn't glibly tossing out names stuck in her brain since reading The Odyssey in the 10th grade.
So, when Amos mentions "Pandora" and then keeps referring to "she this" and "she that," it's hard to determine whether she's speaking of a vision, if she's speaking in metaphor, or if she's personifying the song Pandora's Aquarium on her new album.
But any probe of Amos and her psyche is sent crashing down to earth when she mentions that "Pandora was the first song to really come after we had lost the baby, when I was just trying to find a reason to wake up in the morning."
In 1996, a pregnant Amos was winding down a tour and looking foward to motherhood with her soon-to-be husband. Then, two days before Christmas, she miscarried.
"You know, your hormones are crashing, you're chemically a mess," Amos says.
At first her voice seems as frail as a fairy-tale maiden trapped in a dark castle. But her steady delivery soon changes that impression. Her voice is sweet yet as sturdy as Xena the Warrior Princess.
"Emotionally, there's nothing you can really say to a couple who have just lost their baby," she says. "To say 'It's God's will' makes no sense. Don't try being a poet if that's what you come up with. That's just completely uncompassionate.
How arrogant. I've heard so many people say, 'Well the angels were there for us and everything turned out OK.' But what happens when the angels aren't there for other people and it doesn't turn out?"
What happened for Amos is that she turned to music. After all, this now-poppish, now-quirky songstress had always dared to be frankly confessional in her three previous albums. Make that brutally confessional. She had written an autobiographical song about being raped. She had brazenly combined sexual and twisted religious imagery in her lyrics - her rebellion against the Christianity she was taught by her Methodist minister father while growing up in North Carolina and Baltimore. In fact, Amos recently told Rolling Stone magazine that she has "a mission to expose the dark side of Christianity."
But, in the harrowing days after her miscarriage, she turned to music only after encountering another interesting visitor.
"It's funny because when I lost the baby, I was looking for any deity I could find," she says. "I found the Christian god. I felt like I had a few margaritas with him and I had millions of questions. Just where do souls go when they die?
"As I started to ask more questions, the songs started to come more and more. The songs started to show me things that I really had to integrate, and I'm still integrating when I play them live."
From the Choirgirl Hotel is hardly some Diary of a Miscarriage. In typical Tori Amos fashion, the lyrics veer from stark realism to lofty, erudite allusions, to oblique, even weird and unfathomable word play - sometimes within the same song.
Spark, the first single, is typical. "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier, but she couldn't keep Baby alive," Amos wrenchingly sings at one point. A short time later she's claiming, "If the Divine master plan is perfection, maybe I'll give Judas a try." Then the very next verse, she tosses out a mystifying line about "trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin."
Amos throws out a truce, of sorts, to Christianity. "I have no real issues with Jesus, but the institution manipulated so many of his teachings," she says. In fact, Amos is just as dismayed by New Age spirituality.
"The problem with the New Age is there are a lot of bells and whistles, but not a lot of people walking their talk," she says. "It's like spirituality as a fashion. You go to the right shaman or you spend time with Deepak Chopra, and then you come back and you're horrible to your employees. I just find that ... there's a side to New Age thinking that there's a short cut, that if you take the course, then you have it. But as you and I really know, it's a life-long path."
Amos admires the spirituality of her part-Cherokee grandfather, who, she says, saw "a sacredness as part of his everyday world, no different than smoking his pipe." His example has led her to be "drawn to open-mindedness, mythology and spirituality."
She laments how media superfically portray spirituality, how media "take the power of it away" by giving it a "Disney" treatment.
She pauses and sighs before adding, "It's like the fairies are torching themselves like Buddhist monks, in protest to how they've been represented."
And once again we're left wondering whether Amos is speaking of a vision, a metaphor - or perhaps both.
Tori Amos and The Dev-lins will be in concert at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Grand Ole Opry House. Tickets: $30 and $25, available through Ticketmaster (255-9600).
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos