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Music Monthly (US)
Baltimore, Washington and Beyond
Meeting the muse: Tori Amos
by Tommy Mullins (homepage)
From the beginning, Tori Amos has evoked the personification of duality among the worldwide music audience. For example, scores of her avid followers worship the musical ground she, often rather cryptically, unearths. Alongside this, many others continue to dismiss her styling as self-indulgent, flighty, 'not for everyone' or anti-commercial. Mostly what it comes down to is that Tori Amos is not at all against using her artistry to make you think for yourself. Often, this is enough to discourage those who prefer lighter topicality mixed in with their music. The Amos designed world is completely different. It always has and continues to challenge, engage or at least provoke ones' mind on many levels. Her new release Strange Little Girls (Atlantic Records) is indeed a mind full. I discovered in an exclusive interview that there is a message lurking below that surface. A message that is strewn throughout this collection of cover songs that interestingly are not only all written about women, but are also all written by men. In a single phrase, it is a concept album, yet not a blatant one. Within this message, there is a fascinating connection to our regional area and how Tori's experiences while living here came into play and helped shape the release. Here's a real quick history capsule, just so everyone knows ... literally, where Amos is coming from.
Tori's father was a minister at a church off Liberty Road and the Amos family was living in Baltimore, Maryland. Meanwhile, the six-year-old Tori (a.k.a Myra Ellen Amos) attended the Peabody Institute as the youngest accepted student. Tori comments, "I knew I was a musician before I knew I was a girl. You know if you are a musician because I think music chooses you in some way. It's very hard to say no to it - it just envelops you."
Hailed as a prodigy early on, Tori eventually confused the staunch teaching staff by playing by ear and insisting upon working up versions of John Lennon, Doors, and Led Zep songs (influences from her older brothers record collection) along side the required Baroque masterpieces. At age eleven, little Miss Amos was asked not to return to the Peabody. By then, her father had sought out a new church and moved the family to the Rockville, MD area where Tori finished high school and gained some valuable experience, that has since come in handy, performing standards and her own reworked version of then current and classic rock tunes at various Washington DC piano bars. Tori recalls, "You cut your teeth on exploring another composers sonic shape. You start to feel the corners, the secret hiding places within a song. This is what I grew up doing my whole life."
When she was twenty-one, during the wild 1980's, Amos split for Los Angeles in search of a recording deal. "I got sucked into retail slut, which I think was good for anyone in the 80's and I lost my vision for a while because people had told me that this 'girl and a piano thing' was just not going to happen."
However, she did land a deal. Y Kant Tori Read was a big hair, pop-rock band (with Amos as the lead vocalist in a push-up bra with, ummm ... a sword) that flopped almost before it started. In a rare insightful move, the record label heads (Doug Morris and Jason Flom) kept Amos' contract alive, but shipped her to London to assist with her insistence to go back to just the piano. It just so happened that early 1992 as the right time in London for Tori's unique style to catch hold. So now, add five consecutive over platinum albums, several Grammy nominations, worldwide success and sell-out tours, a marriage to her long time sound engineer Mark Hawley, one new daughter (Natasha), one new album of cover songs and we are fairly up to date.
Tori extended our interview well past the time set up before hand, as we dove into a massive multi-faceted conversation about how the new CD was born and what it all means to her. I can only really touch on the entirety here, it's a tad complex (go figure), but Tori felt there was an interesting tie to her time spent living here that was worth extrication. Performing all those piano bars in DC allowed Amos early exposure to provoking conversations about politics, different ethnic points of view and taught her (among other things like how to observe people) how to look at situations and life in general with more of a worldview. "When doing my research for this record, I didn't apply the cool art moves you'd find in New York or maybe London ... it was more scholastically based." Amos continues, "My DC connection taught me about covert activity, how to see all sides, how to gather information and to know your subject. DC is a very intellectual community, but not an artsy community. It can kill an artist being there, but it is really, really good for diagnosing things."
More importantly, when developing Strange Little Girls, Tori says that her time in the capital city region helped firmly plant a working meaning of the word power in her mind. Tori explains, "If I did not learn anything else in DC, I learned about the game of power and the definition of it. No other interview has really talked about the core of the record; it is the question of what is power."
"The reason that I had to do this record is because I was hearing a hatred from the heterosexual male community in the West that I had not picked up on since the days of Gloria Steinem, breaking through - back when the Feminist movement was taking root, the seeds were first being planted, and I was a little girl growing up back in Baltimore."
Amos strongly feels that in the past few years there has been a surge of rage or malice towards women and gay men that crossed all racial boundaries. This negative seed infiltrated the male conscientious and spread into many aspects of life and other cultures. It then began to manifest itself as a maligned dominance with guys all over bonding around this "power." Amos decided to turn the tables and by using the words of men, herself infiltrating, she makes a strong covert statement on Strange Little Girls. Amos states, "By taking the male seed, his words ... but planting it in the woman's voice, the consummation happens. This album is not a segregated work, it is integrated with the male and the woman ... Equal Power."
Apparently, this method can be very effective. Case and point is Amos' take of Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde." Amos' version tells the story in the voice of the dead mother in the trunk of the car. By doing so, she as the last word, thereby totally rearranging the emphasis and meaning of the song without changing a single lyric. There are many other examples of this type of reversal on Strange Little Girls, but none so chilling. Tori further edifies this point, "I tried to give a woman's perspective. Not all women, but one woman's perspective, and that to me is a gift for the male. For the male to go, 'So this is how she really heard what we said.'"
Tori elaborates on exactly what allowed her to clearly see this building power struggle, "What did it was becoming a mother and seeing that what turned me on in a man and in my husband, more then anything else, I mean he's got a great wit and all that, but it was having someone I could leave my daughter with and turn my back on for five minutes. So, a man that is a safe place is power. Not necessarily a provider, that's different. I'm an alpha female, I can provide, but can a male provide safety?"
Tori has gotten feedback from some implying she has walked on sacred ground by taking this kind of concept on. Amos counters by saying that those people are missing this 'gift' completely, and perhaps they are ones that don't really want to know what their respective sweethearts really hear when they are telling her things. Amos thoughtfully adds, "You can not control someone else's interpretation."
During her observation of other women, Tori stumbled upon something that surprised her, providing even more reason to follow through with the concept she was exploring. She found that some women themselves where playing a part in promoting male dominance. "The scary thing I found is that some of the women did not see the male as a safe place, but that the aphrodisiac of being dominated came into play. So, I walked away sometimes in tears, but going, we as women are also contributing to this definition. So, I wanted to create a record that had words that did the gamut, compassionate, compelling, scary, confrontational - everything."
Naturally, Amos likes the original version of the songs she covered on the new CD, but this is not why the songs were picked to be on the album. Instead, they were carefully filtered out because of their stories or specifically, what the songs were saying lyrically and the impact of the song in supporting her concept. Tori wanted to talk about men - how men see women, how men see themselves and how the perspective can shift when poised in a woman's voice. Amos went so far as to invent unique personalities for each of the songs on the CD, titles/original artists include "Time" (Tom Waits); "Raining Blood" (Slayer); "Enjoy The Silence" (Depeche Mode); "Real Men" (Joe Jackson); "I'm Not In Love" (10cc); "New Age" (The Velvet Underground); "I Don't Like Mondays" (The Boomtown Rats) among others. To reinforce the essence of each of the women (13 total), photographer Thomas Schenk photographed Amos styled as these strikingly different characters. Tori performs in the likeness of one of these characters each night while on tour, thereby bringing them to life, so to speak.
You can judge for yourself if Strange Little Girls makes its intended (albeit covert) point. Obviously, I learned a lot by peering into the world of Tori Amos. It is not always the easiest world to understand ... but it sure is busy in there. I've distilled and detailed the message Tori intended and the process she used to put it all together on this new release and subsequent solo world tour. Yet, there was still a large amount of information and insights that I simply can't fit in the space here. About the time I felt that I was becoming totally lost in her metaphor infested, emotional and multi-tiered thinking, not to mention running low on notepad paper, a personal moment of Zen was my little accolade, "This is like my favorite interview in the whole world!" Tori suddenly exclaimed. I guess I felt like I had (without knowing it) simply carried on the type of conversation Tori wanted to have, which is basically what I was after in the first place.
Strange Little Girls makes for a wonderful listen even if you decide not to put it all together and decode the messages. However, there is quite a bit therein to evoke the mind into action and plenty that awaits the further personal interpretation of the listener. Such as any real work of art should do.
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