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Illinois Entertainer (US)
Chicagoland's Music Monthly
Still Going Down... Honestly
By John Everson
Tori Amos is nursing a smoothie somewhere in Minneapolis. She's doing a rare day of interviews, back-to-back questions from prying minds at radio stations and newspapers about her latest album, From the Choirgirl Hotel. As it happens, Illinois Entertainer's slot falls in line on her list shortly after Chicago's Q101-FM.
She sounds tired. The road has been a near constant home since her short "preview" concert series that landed in Chicago at Park West in April. That show, a small-venue treat for those lucky enough to garner tickets, was simulcast around the world via the Internet. Since then, "Spark" from Choirgirl has garnered substantial radio play, Rolling Stone featured her in a fairyland cover shoot (June 25 issue), she's whipped through a 40-date tour in Europe and then returned to the states over the summer to pack larger venues like Rosemont Horizon in July.
It's quite a different life than the one an unknown singer-songwriter-pianist was living in 1991 when she stopped at Chicago's cozy Schuba's to promote her then-unknown debut solo album Little Earthquakes. Amos had hibernated for a couple years following the debacle of her hairspray-heavy synth-pop combo Y Kant Tori Read in 1988. Little Earthquakes was 180 degrees from that one-off album flop, but it was a coin toss whether the fickle public would care to hear the piano ramblings of soul poetry Amos had begun spinning any more than the paint-by-numbers pop songs of Y Kant Tori Read.
Well, Amos won that coin toss, but neither she nor her label guessed that in early 1991. In his Q101 interview just a few minutes before Amos talked to IE, Robert Chase recounted his DJ experience after first hearing the emotional powerhouse of Little Earthquakes and his call to Atlantic Records to tell them he was going to play it on the air.
"You're kidding!" was essentially her label's response.
Who, after all, was going to play a girl and a piano on the radio alongside Poison or Nirvana? That was the attitude Amos was up against all around the dial in the early '90s. Remember, at the time, there were no Jewels, Alanises or Natalie Imbruglias. And Sarah McLachlan was still Canada's best kept secret.
"When I was playing Schuba's, I really didn't know where it was all going," Amos admits. "After Y Kant Tori Read I had a huge dose of what it's like to be on the precipice and then Zola Budd comes and knocks you off. Bloody hell. I had no idea that Little Earthquakes would get heard. It was such a dose of humility."
That early humility is something Amos says she must continually remind herself of as her albums now rack up platinum sales and the audiences have risen from a humble 75 to sweaty crowds in the thousands.
"You're always having to check in with yourself because this business can be a real seductress," she says. "It can. And you have to remember why you're doing what you're doing."
Part of the reason Amos has succeeded as a girl-and-her-piano act is because of her Prince-like hybrid of the sacred and the profane. This is no Carole King. When she bucks and rocks atop her piano bench and drawls out a loaded line like "boy you best pray that I bleed real soon" from Little Earthquakes or "if you want inside her, well, boy you better make her raspberry swirl" from Choirgirl, she evokes erotic abandon as much as musical rapture. And how many other artists talk candidly about giving God a blowjob? But the first attraction to Amos was in the deeply personal struggles in her lyrics. She talked of rape and emotional betrayal with a raw honesty that compelled and attracted like a car wreck cranes heads. Ultimately, Little Earthquakes broke through because of its intense honesty.
"I think I'm honest on all the records," Amos offers. "I think that Little Earthquakes made such an impression because it was the first time you heard that from me -- it's like a virgin experience. It's like the first time that she goes down on you and you think 'Oh my god it's the most amazing thing.' And then she's still doing it two years later and you go 'oh yeah, that's my wife.'"
Certainly Amos has worked to stave off any public jading of her lyrical head. If her honesty hasn't changed, her musical direction has continually evolved. Under the Pink found her concentrating on the relationships of women and adding some real crunch ("God") to her repertoire. Her last disc, Boys for Pele, brought in harpsichords and trumpets in an attempt to expand her palette further. While the latter disc came off as muddled, From The Choirgirl Hotel at last stops dabbing a toe into the waters beyond the vocal-piano format and finds Amos jumping in full-time with a full rock band - the first time she's consistently collaborated in that format since Y Kant Tori Read. The result is her most energetic and accessible record to date.
"As I was writing the music, I knew that the songs were requiring that I cut them live and the engineers, Mark [Hawley] and Marcel [van Limbeek], convinced me to do that. They said 'you're never going to get the pocket you want unless you cut live. It's never going to happen.' So that changed the way I approached this record. For the most part, the other records were built around the piano and the piano-vocal performances because I didn't want the piano held hostage to a drummer...drummers have a lot of power, because they decide on the pulls and pushes of the tune."
As it turned out, former flame and early Amos producer Eric Rosse ended up turning her on to the drummer who would anchor the varied soundscapes of Choirgirl without dragging her and her piano down to drown.
"I talked with Eric and he said, 'Matt Chamberlin, I've just worked with him, I really believe the two of you will have a language all your own.' So Matt flew in and we played some of the material that I'd written last summer. I knew immediately that this was right."
As her April and July Chicago area shows proved, the resulting fleshed-out band atmosphere is a huge and welcome step forward for Amos' sometimes tenuous tunes.
"I am enjoying the interplay with the band," she admits, though she doesn't promise whether or not she'll keep it together after this current tour. "It's hard to know where anything's going. I could tell you that I think I know, but sitting here right now, what's today? Friday? I don't know. This tour is really where all our focus is, and we're recording it. So I might put out a live record because the people that come to the shows have been asking me to do this for a long time. They have a lot of shitty bootlegs out there. And I'm thinking of touring with it. I don't know if it's the right time."
Perhaps the most exciting about the band collaboration for Amos is the live reinterpretation of some of her older material in the new format.
"A lot of the old songs are shifting," Amos explains. "It's really groovy working on songs from the other records. Because this record, it's very clear what it is. The rhythm was built into the structure. We play the songs pretty much as they are on the record. With a lot of the other songs, the rhythm was not fleshed out on the albums. So there are a lot more surprises coming from the older material than from the new. With the new songs, it's more like, can we deliver what the record has? That's always the challenge of a night. Can we go beneath that little space in the back of the spine and just crawl inside there like a snake and ignite you?"
While there were reports that Amos' voice was tiring early on in the tour, she says that's under control now, thanks to a visit to the local herbalist.
"I got into Chinese medicine. I have these elixirs on the road that are pretty potent stuff. Loads of Echinacea, Golden Seal and Siberian Ginseng. They help my throat a lot. They do for you what prescription drugs can't."
She admits that some of her early vocal strain may have come from the unusual (for her) stress of belting over a band.
"It takes a lot of power to do it. It takes a lot of strength. But I think having done 40 shows in Europe that I've got a good pace now."
If Amos is in a stride today, it's due in large part to past pains. A song about her own rape by a fan in [before] the Y Kant Tori Read days launched her solo career, and following her breakup with Rosse, she got involved with her current studio maven, Mark Hawley. The loss of their child in a miscarriage at the end of the Boys for Pele tour and the subsequent deepening of their relationship (they married this year, though Amos steers away from talking about their private life) are the two can openers to the sometimes oblique lyrics of heartache and celebration in Choirgirl. And while Amos avoids talking about her marriage, she opened herself up to potentially difficult and constant questioning about the effects of the miscarriage at the outset of the Choirgirl tour. She says it was necessary as a writer and a performer to speak to the meaning behind her words.
"I think as a writer, if you're going to put work out that's based around something, for you not to say what it's based around is like... you know, are we playing telepathic mystery record? When I sing things like 'she's convinced she could hold back a glacier but she couldn't keep baby alive.' I think that's really clear. To not be honest about it...well, it would drive me insane to do hundreds of interviews and backpedal about it."
Amos says the pain of dealing with the miscarriage had its effect on her relationship with Hawley, as well as on the making of her record.
"We shared something..." she says, breaking off to think a moment. "They say something like that can push you away or make you feel like you really understand each other. I think the latter happened with us. I don't talk much about our relationship in public but...there was a sense of depth, a little place that we could go and make mudpies there and we didn't have tickets there before."
Ultimately, she says, learning to understand and live with sorrow is a part of life. A part that has shaped all of Amos' records.
"I really accepted my feelings on this. And they change, you know, sometimes. It's been a year and a half since I lost the baby. And the record isn't just about that, it's about how my views on the life force changed. I don't find this record depressing, really. There are moments of sadness for me on it. I really spent time with sorrow on this record and I said, I really realize that sorrow goes to raves every Friday night. And that she looks at life differently because she understands tears. But that doesn't mean that she doesn't have a dirty little laugh. She has all that. But she just sees life from a different angle. That's really what this record was all about."
The honesty that has led Amos to talk about her rape, to form a rape and incest survivors hotline (R.A.I.N.N.) and to sing about her lost child has drawn a fanatical devotion to the singer from her fans over the past seven years. When Amos played Park West last spring, she was nearly pelted to the floor with offerings of lip gloss from the audience when she couldn't find her own -- just one example of how intensely her fans know her. (When was the last time you went to a concert prepared with lip gloss because you knew the lead singer liked the stuff?)
"They always keep one lip gloss hidden now in the piano for me, so I don't do that again," she laughs. "That was dangerous, wasn't it? Jesus."
The "Chicago Lip Gloss" incident is just one indication of the worship level of her fans. A Washington Post article recently noted that there are more than 4,000 web sites devoted to things Amos. Some of them are updated more frequently and show more design innovations than Microsoft's or Netscape's. Tori has won a lot of hardcore fans.
"I don't have a computer, but people tell me about the web sites, yeah," she says, pointing out though that she plays for hardcore and newbie fans alike. "What I try to say is, tonight, we're playing to 5000 people in Minneapolis. Out of that there will probably be 100 hardcore people there. You know, for the most part, everybody has a few nutcases. But these kids are very intelligent. It's not like they're..." she pauses. "It's very tricky. I don't want to offend anybody else's fans, but for the most part I really find that these people, you can have an intelligent conversation with them. I think at my shows you'll find a serious art crowd. Sometimes there are people that might show up a lot. But the ones that show up for every show are not necessarily the weirdest ones, you know? They just jump on a leg for 10 shows. They all have friends and they connect and they know each other from the Internet. It's not a big deal. They'll [come after a show and] say 'hey Tori, just thought you'd want this today and they give you something like a book they thought you might like. It doesn't feel I'm being assaulted. At the shows, it just seems like a really into music crowd. Really into music."
If there were any complaints from those rabid fans at her recent shows, it was the distance the introduction of the full backing band created between their "saint" and themselves.
"It is a plugged show," she shrugs. "It's a completely different tone. You can't expect a monologue to be the same as a big theatre production. It's a totally different show. It's not just me up there playing. But hopefully you feel that Bachnalian, Dionesyian energy seeping through and that we're working everybody into this primal sort of place. That's what this show is really about. It's about that ancient kundalini energy where your body is moving and you're watching your hips do all these wonderful things and your heart doesn't feel so ashamed."
When Amos sings, shame is definitely not the emotion she's promoting. Honesty, yes. Free expression, yes. Finding -- and using -- your inner voice, yes.
Shame just doesn't belong in this girl's choir.
The Albums So Far
Y Kant Tori Read
Amos' debut disc is one of the most highly collectible pieces of vinyl on the market these days, but at the time of its release, it was largely ignored. A revisit finds that Amos' trademark breathy delivery was already in evidence and these slap-bass, synth-heavy bits of radio-ready drama are actually quite palatable, in a pop tarts sweet way.
Don't look for any lyrical depth here, but Amos proved early that she had a way with a hook, and if her sensitive-but-edgy singer-songwriter phase plays out, she can always get a job writing tasty fluff for Belinda Carlisle.
From the first notes of Little Earthquakes it was apparent that this was a fresh voice and major talent on the rise. With operatic vocal slide attacks, furious piano pounding, and breathy, whispery clutches of emotion, the demons are loosed and conquered on every song. "Crucify" leads it off with Amos' then-shocking but now-familiar thematic trend of wrestling with religion, and "Silent All These Years" soon follows, setting the standard for all future songs about personal growth and "finding one's voice." But for many the ultimate eye-opener was a song that also appeared a few months earlier on an EP -- "Me And A Gun," a harrowing a capella depiction of rape from the point of view of the victim.
Under The Pink
Amos sounds more confident and a little less confessional on her second solo disc, concentrating more on other people's relationships than on her own. "Pretty Good Year" is lifted from a fan letter and "God," with it's drunken guitar scratches and brazen lyrics ("God sometimes you just don't come through/do you need a woman to look after you?") proves that despite her usual piano, Amos can actually rock -- with bite. "Cornflake Girl" seconds that emotion with a spaghetti Western background whistle and a shuffling piano-drum interplay. "Baker Baker" still stands as one of her most poignant compositions, and "Icicle" is likely the only song in modern music that sensitively depicts a masturbatory experience upstairs while the Bible's being read downstairs.
Boys For Pele
Tori Amos' third solo album found the singer-songwriter at something of a crossroads, reaching out for new sonic maybe not enough of them. "Caught A Lite Sneeze" fits into the "Crucify," "God," "Cornflake Girl" songbook. On several songs, Amos trades in her Bosendorfer ivories for a harpsichord which makes "Blood Roses" sound like 19th century classical music. And "Professional Widow" uses the harpsichord for power chords, a decidedly daring and surprisingly successful, move. On several songs throughout the album, a horn or other orchestral instrument is brought in for background, but often, as on the otherwise perfect soliloquy "Father Lucifer," they seem more intrusive than fully integrated with Amos and her piano.
From The Choirgirl Hotel
Choirgirl leaves behind the "preciousness" of solo piano and voice compositions to feature a full band on nearly every track. The result is a 12-song tour de force of the singer-songwriter's top strengths: Amos delivers palpable emotion on a hotplate of piano, guitars and scintillating rhythm, tossing off intermingled religious and sexual references like parade confetti. While on Pele, some of the non-piano instrumentation sounded false - jewelry clipped onto her piano attacks after the fact - on Choirgirl Hotel the strings, guitars and percussion act as a unified whole (the harpsichords and trumpets are thankfully left behind). "Spark" melds a classical piano solo with powerchord fury, "Raspberry Swirl" centers the disc with an astounding burst of danceclub noise and "She's Your Cocaine" offers a distortion happy strip and strut bar grind. Two of Amos' finest ballads turn up here as well: "Jackie's Strength" is a mellifluous tapestry of tragedy, teenage memory and the warm buzz of orchestral strings and "Northern Lad" unfolds into a gorgeous bittersweet piece with the impact of Under the Pink's "Baker Baker."
[scans by Sakre Heinze]
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