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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (US)
Thursday, October 8, 1998

Faerie godmother

by Jennifer Christman

Some artists write from the heart. Tori Amos writes from the tummy. Correction: Her faeries write from the tummy; Amos earnestly and emphatically credits magical beings for spawning her music. Faeries and food.

"It is a major thing for everyone, even if you don't eat -- that's a different choice," Amos says in a soft, sandpapery tone into a phone receiver in Dallas before her Sunday show. "Intake is a huge common bond we have."

She is an eager hash-slinger, dishing out hearty helpings of herself, no matter how giddy, gritty or gory her morsels. Her special range from rape to Big Bird to dead babies to Russian royalty to ex-boyfriends. Sometimes she pours them gracefully with nondairy creamer. Sometimes she slops onto the plate a drippy glob, peppered with cigarette ashes.

Her latest album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, is somewhere in between and somewhere else entirely.

Featuring "the girl and the piano," this time the show includes boys with drums and electric guitars to shock some songs into techno-tinged urgency. Other tunes are as soothing as a mother's tender touch on an infant's back. A motley assortment of choirgirls takes a seat at Amos' familiar counter, but only long enough to grab a quick bite before they hitchhike to the rave.

Almost two years to the day after her first Little Rock appearance, Plugged '98 -- Amos' first tour with a full band -- will send its currents through Robinson Center Music Hall Friday.

This is a fun stretch of the tour for North Carolina-born Amos: "I love being in the South. I like the heat."

She's also fascinated by her Southern audiences.

"I think the kids that show up at my shows sometimes, I dunno, they crawl out of the corn," she says, referring to the liberal kids who come from conservative smaller Southern towns. "I don't know where they come from...which is good. You know in your head there is a subtext to every city that sometimes you don't take in on first look. They're hidden.

"There are things that are hidden and the kids find a way to survive."

She knows all about survival.

The nucleus of her 1992 album Little Earthquakes is "Me and a Gun," an a capella autobiographical account of being raped by an acquaintance when she was in her early 20s. The premise is chilling, but the tone is willful: "You can laugh/It's kind of funny/The things you think in times like these/Like I haven't seen Barbados/so I must get out of this."

The song earned her goddess status from rape survivors everywhere. In 1994 she founded the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (R.A.I.N.N.) telephone hotline, which recently had its 200,000th call.

Subsequent albums plunged into similar dark waters. Less overtly diary-driven, 1994's Under the Pink addressed the nastiness of female relationships. Her 1996's Boys for Pele captured the pain of separation after ending a seven-year partnership with her boyfriend and producer Eric Rosse.

From the Choirgirl Hotel was also born of suffering.

"I had just finished Boys for Pele and I was pregnant," she says in a slow, matter-of-fact manner. "It was going to be a whole downtime for me. I was really into having the experience as a mom. And we miscarried at about three months, and it was quite a shock for us. I think we got really attached to the spirit of the baby and when we lost -- when she passed away -- it was very difficult for us." The male part of "us" is Mark Hawley, Amos' longtime sound engineer whom she married in February.

After her miscarriage, the music began to come, beginning with "Pandora's Aquarium," the last song on the album. She says the unifying force was rhythm.

"I think I turned to the rhythm because as a woman I was having a hard time finding my place," she says. "It's hard to go back to being the person you were before you held life. People keep saying 'Motherhood changes you,' and for me, nonmotherhood changed me. So I learned a lot from this spirit who has never been in the physical form. And I'll never know her in that form. She might already be in physical form as somebody else's daughter and yet she has taught me so much that I can't even . . . "

Her voice trails off for a moment. "I've known people in the physical form who haven't taught me as much as she has."

PAST THE MISSION

Another theme in Amos' music is her contempt for Christianity.

Combined with her classical training and her rock leanings, it gives her a style that is like The Sound of Music meets a bordello.

Just when you thought blasphemy had been there and done that by the late 1980s, Amos arrived on the scene a few years later making Madonna's Material Mama antics--the rosary-wearing, cross-burning lot of them--look quaint, saintly even.

Amos is far less subtle. Positioning her Bosendorfer right in the Almighty's ears in a song called "God," she suggests that he'd be a lot cooler if he'd chill out and find a girlfriend.

Her new album includes similar anti-Christian catcalls. In "Spark," which speaks of her miscarriage, Amos hisses, "If the divine master plan is perfection, maybe next I'll give Judas a try." And on this tour, she's been known to pull out a vampy version of the Gap Band's "You Dropped the Bomb on Me" substituting "Baby" with "Jesus."

She gets away with all this.

At 35, she is hobbit-sized cute with naughty child impishness that softens her heretical musings. Like if she really did get under God's skin he'd be more likely to sentence her to a swift yank on her chemical-infused, flyaway red hair than eternal damnation.

EVERYBODY ELSE'S GIRL

Damnation was a weighty theme in Myra Ellen Amos' early life. Growing up the youngest daughter of a Methodist minister whose pet saying was "Gird your loins," she found sovereignty in music, starting to play the piano at age 2.

At 5, she became the youngest student ever accepted into the renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. It wasn't a good match. They wanted Beethoven; she wanted the Beatles. At age 11, she was kicked out -- for musical disobedience.

Not wanting his prodigy discouraged, Amos' father, wearing his preacher's suit, took his 13-year-old daughter to gigs at Washington, D.C.'s gay bars.

In 1984, she moved to Los Angeles to become famous. It didn't happen immediately.

As the sword wielding lead singer of the short-lived synth-metal band Y Kant Tori Read, Amos thrust herself into brief, bad brush with big-hair infamy in 1988 that earned her little but "bimbo" status in Billboard magazine. The young woman who had played piano concertos before she could form sentences had become the industry's lingerie-and-leather-clad laughingstock.

She's getting the last laugh now, with collectors paying hundreds of dollars for bootleg copies of the only album the band ever recorded.

Atlantic Records, which signed Y.K.T.R., gambled on Amos a second time. She combed out the hairspray and turned back to her piano. The profound outcome was Little Earthquakes -- an untimely success during a time when the playground of alternative rock was being bullied by flannel boys and grunge noise. Undaunted, she was plucky enough to offer an almost operatic version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as her first single. Underground success in London paved her way to worldwide acclaim.

"You have to really respect your path, or you will lose your mind," she says. "And I've really tried to understand that."

To that end, Amos says she listens to the forces present on a given concert night, making her set list right before the show -- sometimes changing it midact -- based on these variables. She still plays "Me and a Gun" sometimes, but it's not the staple it once was.

"When she wants to come, it's very clear," she says. "There is no question. She's not one of these interchangeable songs. It's very clear when she's ready to come."

That's another thing. Amos calls her songs children. Opinionated ones: "They're very vocal."

If an artist doesn't believe her art is alive, Amos says, "I think you're quite arrogant to think you're the sole creator, and usually you aren't a great one if you think that way. All the great writers that I've respected could acknowledge that there is some kind of muse. ... Obviously if we believe that it is a living force, it also can communicate with you if you're listening to it. So they let you know if they don't like the treatment you're giving them.

"It just starts haunting you."

UPSIDE DOWN

After two decades of solo touring, Amos offers a metaphor for the experience of playing with a band: "This is, like, come with your blankey and your hot chocolate."

Quotes like those, in addition to her faerie-speak and enigmatic lyrics, make some folks believe all Amos serves up is Froot Loops. While her main mantra to popularity was "I never was a cornflake girl," (she was once, however, a Kellogg's Just Right cereal girl in a commercial) Amos has a reputation for being corny and flaky.

Not that she has to fret about such things. Since she crowd-surfed onto alternative rock's pulse in 1992, no one has doubted Amos' ability to captivate an audience. But her success is a strange one. She sells out shows all over the world, but she can't get a Top 10 -- Top 40 is stretching it -- hit. Year after year, she gets passed over at the Heavy Rotation Coronation for artists like the Lilith Fair girls -- women for whom Amos helped clear the path. Instead, she joins PJ Harvey and Ani DiFranco in the pantheon of female artists who receive paltry radio play yet boast fiercely faithful followings.

"Radio is a very formatted medium," Amos says. "There is no FM radio anymore even though you still see those little letters. It's not like it was years and years and years ago. It's very much about fitting into what the advertisers are doing. ... That's why the Internet, the Web, is so huge because people are starving for different kinds of information that aren't so controlled."

Amos herself is somewhat of an Internet queen--even though she says she personally doesn't use a computer. Her supporters, often described as "cultic," turn to fan sites, notably A Dent in the Tori Net Universe and Really Deep Thoughts to keep up with her whereabouts. Between the two, her every move is well-chronicled. "I think it's best that I don't turn on a computer, because the last thing you need to hear is, 'She was a bit bloated last night,'" she says with a laugh. "You really don't want to know that. You have to expect that people will express themselves and they do. They really do.

"So I stay away from it because people come up to me and say, 'Are you pregnant?' I'm like, 'No, I just had Mexican food. Sorry.'"


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