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The Advertiser (Australia)
November 29, 2003
Personal experience has been a rich hunting ground for the girl with a conscience.
Story by Alexandra Economou
AS MYRA Ellen Amos grew up in North Carolina, her father had high hopes she would make a career writing religious songs. But while Amos, 40 - now known as Tori - has made her way as a singer/songwriter, the only religious elements in her music are lyrics touching on her upbringing as a Methodist minister's daughter.
"There are sort of picture frames of my life that I have revisited," she says.
"Nobody (growing up) could do any wrong walking in the path of Jesus Christ, I just change the names of the characters."
This is typical of the musings of Amos, once described as the "thinking man's Madonna" and renowned for her passionate stage performances and intensely personal lyrics. For instance, Crucify: "I've been raising up my hands, drive another nail in. Got enough guilt to start my own religion".
This is just one of the introspective songs that form part of Amos's new greatest hits release, Tales of a Librarian.
An expert pianist by the age of five, Amos attended the Peabody Conservatory but her heart didn't lie with classical music. The rumour is she was formally ejected after six years because she played songs by John Lennon and The Beatles "by ear". Amos tells a different story.
"The idea was to be a concert pianist," she says. "But if you don't have that passion it's never going to work. I was always more of a composer, it was just something I sensed."
Despite his initial hopes, her father came to terms with his daughter's direction. Most teens spend their days hanging out with friends. Amos spent hers playing in piano bars in Washington DC. It was these experiences, she says, that shaped her life.
"The bars were full of Congressmen doing their deals," she says. "There would be all kinds of hanger-ons, call-girls and rent-boys. It was important in terms of shaping my life and showing me how the American politic worked."
But her big break didn't come easily, as Tori continued to trawl clubs around the US and her father sent out dozens of rejected demo tapes.
It wasn't until she moved to Los Angeles in 1984 that Amos felt a real sense of freedom and found the time to develop her music the way she wanted to.
"That was a time when I found a lot of independence," she says. "I was living in East Hollywood on my own and even though it was a dump, I enjoyed it.
"After seven years of being rejected I started to try other things with my music."
When her provocative and challenging music fell into the hands of Atlantic records co-chairman Doug Morris in 1991, he didn't believe her songs were what the conservative American public was looking for.
So he urged her to head to London for a warmer reception.
There she released her debut EP Me and a Gun. In typical Amos style, she hit the listener between the eyes with her song about being raped by an armed fan as she drove him home after a gig. She says radio airplay was never her priority, instead that was the "icing on the cake". It arrived with her acclaimed debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992.
After her follow-up Under the Pink, audiences began to take notice of the flame-haired singer with the exotic looks - attributed to her Cherokee indian heritage. With Cornflake Girl riding high at No 4 on the UK charts, the promise she had shown as a five-year-old began to shine through. Amos was quickly grouped with the likes of Bjork and PJ Harvey as the new intelligent and literate force in rock.
She didn't shy away from the attention but remained focused on her main priority - songwriting and later her family, notably her baby Natashya. Now after more than 10 years of hits, she has taken time to reflect on her success with the greatest hits CD.
It was the "little moments" that attracted her when she looked back on the songs that shaped her career. "I had access to the original recordings and I wanted to come up with a narrative," she says.
For Amos, it was also a chance to reflect on her early mistakes. "Some people make big mistakes late in their career, I made mine with my early albums," she says. "I was very lucky to see what happens when you chase your dream."
Whatever happens now, Amos will continue to write her songs about religion, sex and politics - the ongoing themes in an extraordinary musical journey.
"Part of the songwriting skill is to be able to sit and observe, and be a storyteller," she says.
* Tales of a Librarian is released on Monday.
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