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The Calgary Straight (US)
September 3-10, 1998
Tori Finds Her Inner Berserker
by Alexander Varty
Beautiful and Fierce music reveals her killer instinct
Tori Amos's new recording, from the choirgirl hotel, comes with all the usual trappings of stardom: lots of moodily intriguing photographs and drawings of the artist; all the lyrics, carefully transcribed for sing-along buffs; a listing of who played on which tracks; and an address for Take to the Sky, her U.K.-based fan club. But there's one extra thing that this CD has that most others don't: a map. Carefully drawn in a spidery hand, the chart suggests a physical landscape to accompany the emotional terrain Amos delineates so well in song.
The style of the illustration seemed familiar to me, but it wasn't until I started reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "the Hobbit" to my six year old daughter that I realized where I'd seen it - or something very much like it - before. On the inside back cover of that fantasy classic you'll find a similar piece of cartography; Amos seems to have appropriated the conical tress, meandering rivers, and craggy mountains of Tolkien's Wilderland for her own nameless territory.
The singer laughs when I raise the comparison. "Yes, I was a big Ring Trilogy follower," she says, on the line from a St. Louise, Missouri, hotel room. But Tolkien would never have decorated his maps with such cryptic notations as "valley of the Duel of the gentlemen that weren't", "Hum of the Amazing Echo Plex Shrine", "Ballerinas that just wander around endlessly shoeless", and "Cocaine Lip Gloss sale stand". Amos may have borrowed her mapmaking style from the inventor of Middle Earth, but her sense of humour and her cartography myths are all her own.
In fact, there's little that isn't singular about Tori Amos. The singer might have endured repeated comparisons to Kate Bush during the early years of her solo career - the two women do share an interest in mythology, and similarly acrobatic vocal styles - but since the release of 1996's Boys for Pele, Amos has moved toward an even more idiosyncratic and satisfying fusion of words and music.
"Pele was a real turning point for me," she says, adding that both that record and choirgirl hotel were inspired by the lessons of a Native American "medicine woman" she studied with. The singer, who is part Cherokee on her mother's side, credits the Native healer with putting her in touch with the darker side of their nature - and giving her a way to use that energy in her art.
"She basically taught me that many women pull in . . . well, she calls them ‘baby demons'. I think a lot of women are trying to conjure up the prince of darkness - and, as you know, a lot of women pull in men that are a bit didgy. And she felt that women are trying to access that side of themselves through these people, instead of realizing that Lucifer is actually a woman, wears white, and drives an ice cream truck . . . It was a big realization that I had to kind of go into myself and find the violator in my own being, and it took about a year of intense work. But I found her, and that was a real . . .um, big turning point for me.
"Before that, I couldn't really look at the side of me that is capable of violence," she continues. "I come more from the victim side, so I couldn't really look at that potential in myself. God knows what the circumstances would be to create that, but I'm sure I made that choice - and maybe did, on some other plane. And when I was working on the Pele stuff, I began to really see that there was a killer in me, and there was an abuser in me, and there was a line that could be crossed where I could become the berserker, or the madwoman. Not crazymad, but angry mad. Bloodthirsty mad."
Amos has yet to attack anyone with an axe, so it's relatively safe to assume that she's found a way to sublimate her killer instincts in her music. It certainly seems like that on choirgirl hotel, which - to borrow a phrase from another fearless female singer-pianist, Veda Hille - is both beautiful and fierce. There's a lot of naked emotion here:Amos suffered a miscarriage last year, and the physical and emotional trauma of that experience is reflected in both "Spark" and "Playboy Mommy". Other lyrics seem to address relationships ranging from the passionate to the perverse, and although Amos' oblique, imagistic words aren't exactly diary frank, they're obviously heartfelt.
Amos has also managed the difficult task of coming up with music that is both more complex than anything she has written before, and more organic. In part, that's because she's now working with a full-time band - drummer Matt Chamberlain and guitarist Steve Caton. But it's also because she's been brave enough to try another way of writing. In the past, most of her songs were based on her virtuosic, if occasionally over-ornate, piano, but many of the tunes on choirgirl hotel started out as little more than a vocal melody and a rhythmic pulse.
"I would just be playing the wood of the piano in rhythm, and it was very sketchy," she explains. "Obviously, when Matt Chamberlain walked in the room things started to shift in a wonderful way, but I wasn't tied to the piano as much as I have been in the past. She was there, but sometimes I would just tie my right hand behind my back.
"You have to create space sometimes," she adds. "And cutting live with a drummer was a huge thing, because you can't try and be [funk bass guitar star] Bootsy Collins and all. You have to create room for the other players, which was a new way of approaching it for me. Before, on all the other records, everything worked around the piano and vocal, which were cut live. Now, it was drums, programming, piano, and vocal, all cut live."
The result is a record with incredible presence, captivating tunes, and intriguing words. But best of all is that the songs possess a strange. Almost incantatory power: they awake in listeners a sense of their own emotional possibilities, of thier own hopes and fears.
"I'm glad you feel that," Amos says. "I always hope that it becomes that, because, as a writer, you really don't just want people to see you in it. You really want them to see themselves in it. That's when alchemy begins to happen."
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