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Tori, the queen of catharsis, issues a wake-up call From the Choirgirl Hotel
by Lauren Oliver
Monday night, Wilshire Theatre, Beverly Hills: The sidewalk outside this concert hall features a cast of hundreds, all fans of singer Tori Amos. Boasting an impressive inventory of hair color and expressive footwear, they squeeze like toothpaste through the tiny doors to see the singer in an intimate concert.
Two hours later, half the audience has abandoned their seats to sardine-pack around the stage. They greet each song with louder and louder whoops. Amos, 35, is bathed in blood-red and vanilla light as she lets the chorus of "Spark" rip on the electric keyboard. One girl, slumped in her seat, has been weeping during the entire show. So has her boyfriend. For her fans, Amos unleashes the opera within.
Thursday afternoon, Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills: Ignoring the lavish tray of catered Frisbee-size cookies, fruit and bottled beverages, an exhausted Amos sips from a cup filled with hot water and hunks of fresh ginger. "Not too much lemon, 'cause lemon can dry you out," she says. Los Angeles marks the end of Amos' demanding 12-city promotional tour of cozy, thousand seat theaters and radio station events. Driving all night in a bus with her band in tow, checking into another hotel, giving interviews, doing soundchecks and shows -- it's all taken a toll on Amos. "You're an athlete -- but it's musical," she says. Pointing to her throat, she adds with a smile, "This little muscle gets tired."
There's no sign of fatigue on her new album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, which rocketed onto the Billboard charts at number 5. Recorded in windswept, rocky Cornwall, England, where Amos lives with her husband, recording engineer Mark Hawley, Hotel has won the singer-songwriter critical acclaim for its lyrics and its utter Toriness.
By that we mean drama: Amos runs the gamut from anger to joy, betrayal to confrontation (Hotel's songs are also haunted by her post-Boys For Pele miscarriage). She conjures up sweeping emotions and sets them against surging musical crescendos that enable audiences to get lost in her music. "When I'm singing, you're not hearing the other person's side of the story," Amos says.
She always gets the last word, ecspecially when it comes to her music. "When I have to negotiate, I don't shrink away, because for some reason I can fight for my songs." Music has been the center of her life since she can remember. "It was my first language," she says. This isn't an exaggeration. A piano prodigy, Myra Ellen Amos (Tori's real name) was the youngest student to be accepted by the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore -- at age five. Then six years later, she was probably the youngest ever to be expelled -- for fighting for her music. She wanted to play her own songs, so the administration gave her the boot.
"I just always knew... It's scary. I knew since I was two and a half. I can't imagine a world without music."
Two and a half? Who was she -- Mozart reincarnated? Amos smiles knowingly. "I wanted to play so badly. I wanted the relationship with the instrument-and now I have one." She describes the piano as "something nobody can take away from me. It gives to you, and it doesn't talk back. Well, yes, it does, but it's not like a friend, where all of a sudden you're just going to say, 'You're not the friend I thought you were.' Instruments don't do that."
But people do.
Because Amos can captivate an audience with her incredibly personal songs, sometimes people think they know her. People that she obviously doesn't know. And they're not always friendly. "Sometimes somebody will come up to me and cross a boundary... They'll come up and put their hand out. But not in a caring, friendly way -- a slimy way. You know when you feel somebody just kind of slimed on you."
She's wary for a reason. Years ago Amos gave a guy a ride home after a performance ; en route he pulled a gun on her. The grim details of the ensuing sexual assault are all there in "Me and a Gun," track 11 on Little Earthquakes. Since then, she has helped start the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which works with more than 750 rape crisis centers nationwide and operates the only national toll-free crisis hotline (800-656-HOPE).
"I know how to protect myself now," Amos says. "That's a big thing: knowing that every person should have a sacred space." For her, that space is internal. "Unless you're invited and there's an intimacy happening, then you shouldn't intrude on that space."
Sacred-Amos' vocabulary comes from the church, which is not surprising when you learn she's the daughter of Ed Amos, a Methodist minister. Her father was a pivotal figure in Amos' early career. Before she was even 15, he was driving her to gigs at piano bars in Washington, D.C. She later moved to L.A. and sang with Y Kant Tori Read, a one-album band. After that dbut debacle, she flew to England and came back with her first solo effort, Little Earthquakes. It was probably the last thing folks at Atlantic Records expected -- ecspecially when the album went multiplatinum worldwide.
Millions of fans, dozens of Web sites and stacks of platinum CDs later, Amos' success has earned her the luxury of not having to try to be anybody else. She acknowledges that she really can't be lumped in with the Cole/Jewel/McLachlan dynasty, i.e., Lilith Fair. "Sarah's a sweetheart, and she came up with a great idea. But it's really a theater piece that I want to put on."
Amos knows that she is her own greatest creation. "The question is, How do you develop a style with taste and grace? Grace is just an emotional thing, your inner work. As a songwriter you hope to create a window for people to find their own story. It's a jumping-off point."
She also wants to talk to her audience about how they do -- and don't -- take care of one another. "A lot of thirteen year old girls turn on one another, and that's something that they have got to admit to. Girls are lucky to have one or two supportive girlfriends. You know a lot of times a girl says to her girlfriend, 'Hey, don't go into my purse.' Or, 'Why did you tell him this?' And instead of saying, 'Oh, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, I love you,' she turns on her friend. And it's like, 'Look: I'm not going to be your friend if you're gonna be like that.' You draw a boundary -- their boundaries get crossed all the time."
Tuesday morning, 7:30 A.M., Hollywood and Vine: Amos is onstage again-surrounded by shabby highrises and hundreds of early risers -- fielding questions and playing songs. The show is being broadcast by a local radio station. Amos leans into the microphone and says. "I'm sure there are a lot of you out there who are artists yourselves."
One girl in the crowd answers, "I hope to be one of your colleagues one day."
Amos speaks to the girl as if she's a friend, giving her the kind of encouragement that would send the average Amos fan over the moon. Later she reflects on the radio show: "It was really exciting hearing her say that. Obviously we're all students, but you need to think of yourself as a peer. Everybody has a uniqueness. It's how you apply it. You find your own tools, so that you start creating. Everybody can create something."
Shoe-shopper Amos shows up at the Four Seasons wearing an exquiz pair of open-toed, black Prada wedgies with a clear plastic top. She loves shoes. "A lot of times I make a statement with shoes," she says. It's always been this way. "I had a pair of white, leopard-like snakeskin go-go boots when I was nine. Then I had a black pair of lace-ups when I was nineteen-all the way up to the knee." Amos' painted toes are amazing. "I've been wearing hologram nail polish." She fishes out the bottle from her bag. There are little shreds of hologram images suspended in clear nail goo. "I think at about 25, I just realized I had to find my own style," Amos says. "And sometime I'm gonna read some magazine and get it all wrong, but that's not a bad thing... and magazines can be wrong."
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