home / interviews
Chicago Sun-Times (US)
Thursday, September 24, 1998
TORI AMOS: Soul Music
by Paul Freeman
This singer's art doesn't just imitate life. It is her life.
Though it might seem that way, Tori Amos can't conjure up transcendental songs at will. Rather, "the music always comes when I'm dealing with something emotional," Amos says.
Something very emotional, in the case of her latest album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" (Atlantic); the songs poured our after Amos' shattering miscarriage. But that type of musical inspiration isn't unusual for Amos. Since she began playing piano at 3, music has always served as a salve for her wounds.
"When you, the writer, integrate your own material in your psyche, it changes you forever," she says. "Some writers allow songs to come through them, but don't take it in, so they don't grow. If they don't let it bring up questions in their own beings, they're just translators."
On the new material, Amos grappled with painful questions. "I learned a lot. Loss is going to happen, whether it's a friend, parent, grandparent or child... Nothing you do can keep it away. It doesn't matter how many times you chant, go to church or help old ladies across the street.
"You'll go, 'This isn't fair. Why us?' Especially when you see parents hitting their kids in the shopping mall, you go, 'Why did we lose our baby? What kind of universal law is there?' I've heard people say, 'The angels were there for us and saved our child.' You go, 'But what happens when the angels don't save your child?'"
Through her songs, Amos explored the concept of letting go. "At the end of the day, I decided the angels have to go to the pub, go to a rave, go out on a Friday night. Sometimes they're just not around. This feeling that, if you're a good person, you won't have to experience tragedy, it's a false belief that gets perpetuated, especially in the Christian church."
That's something Amos knows a lot about as a daughter of a Methodist preacher. Over the years, she did her fair share of rebelling, including changing her name to Tori from Myra Ellen when she was 17, and getting thrown out of Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory at 11 because she was obsessed with Led Zeppelin and wouldn't adhere to the tenents of classical music. These days, Amos focuses more on the spiritual (rather than the religious) side of life.
But don't pigeonhole her. Despite musings on spirituality and mythology, this "Cornflake Girl" is no flake. "Half the crap that's written, I can understand why people wouldn't want to have a drink with me," she says. "Those who can't respect the spirit side of things have to degrade it. Spirituality, for me, is like brushing my teeth; [it's] just part of what I was brought up with."
Amos' spirituality and wide-raging emotions easily find their way into her work. On "Choirgirl" she created not only stirring ballads, such as "Northern Lad" and "Jackie's Strength," but also rock and techno-influenced numbers such as "Spark" and "Raspberry Swirl." Her notoriously loyal fans don't mind when she veers in different musical directions from one album to the next.
"If we make a work that is at least challenging, then they'll be open to it," she says. "I get really bored unless we're doing something we haven't done before."
Amos also varies the formats in which her music is presented. Before "Choirgirl," she had always toured solo. These days she's performing in arenas with a full band. "You can achieve a Dionysian frenzy that wouldn't be possible in a small theater. It's a matter of changing your goals. Trying to make an arena intimate, that's like trying to make an elephant fit into your purse," Amos says with a laugh.
In the midst of all this career hubbub, the 34-year-old fit in a wedding to sound engineer Mark Hawley. "Marriage changes your perception. It becomes a 'we,' not as a formality, but internally," she says. "Many people approach marriage without a reverence. I was never going to get married, so a commitment is very serious to me."
Amos' Cherokee grandfather led her to a higher plane. "He believed that there's no greater evil than hypocrisy. He taught, 'Walk your talk or you cut yourself off...from the true gifts of the great spirit.' When I was a little girl, he said to me, 'You can't hide form the demon in your own heart. It always knows, and you have to make peace with it.' That's how I live my life."
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos