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The Plain Dealer (US)
Cleveland, Ohio, newspaper
Friday, August 26, 2005

Staying creative
Performer, and now author, feels she's maturing with her art


Gary Graff
Special to The Plain Dealer

Tori Amos is not short on ambition. Just look at the past year or so. The expatriate co-wrote a book and also recorded a new album. She knew it was a heavy load -- and those around her were quick to remind Amos of that -- but the piano-playing singer-songwriter says that doing the two projects at once turned out to be advantageous for all concerned.

"I told them that they don't need to worry that I'm writing a book; that doesn't mean I'm going to fluff off writing music," Amos recalls. "On the contrary, I think I appreciated being a musician more than I ever have, except when I played bars and people would spill gin and tonics all over my piano."

Indeed, Amos has emerged with two complementary projects that she says helped to make each other.

The book, "Piece By Piece," was co-written with music journalist Ann Powers over the course of two years of touring and discussions. It was conceived as a kind of chronicle about the making of Amos' ninth album, "The Beekeeper" -- which reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart -- but it turned into part biography, part dissertation on the music industry and a deeply insightful look into the mystical nature of creativity -- which is the part that Amos says appealed to her most.

"A conversation about process was far more intriguing than just some facts about somebody's life," says Amos, 42. "I'm fascinated by the discipline that other artists have to make their creation, and so is [Powers].

"Music comes from a very intangible place. It is my first language, not English, and I'm trying to explain in English about the ways of music and the muse as I understand it and as I participate in it as a co-creator, not as the sole creator."


It's a relationship that Amos has been wrapped up in since Myra Ellen Amos was a piano prodigy who started taking classes at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore when she was 5 years old. The minister's daughter was playing clubs around Maryland and in Washington, D.C., by age 13, and in 1984 her muse and her ambitions led her to Los Angeles, where she released a pop album with a band called Y Kant Tori Read before she began her own career with 1982's "Little Earthquakes." This was the first in a string of adventurous and introspective albums that made Amos a critic's darling and built an intensely devoted body of fans.

"I think the records have always been where I am as a songwriter, how I see things at that time," says Amos, who resides in Cornwall, England, with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, and their 4-year-old daughter Natashya. "Even if I'm writing about other people, I kind of embody the character and nobody really knows what's me and what's not."

Amos says she was in "a good space" when she started working on "The Beekeeper." She was pleased with the reception to her 2002 album "Scarlet's Walk," which was also her first for a new label, Epic, after 15 years with Atlantic Records.

Doing the book with Powers also vested Amos differently in her music-making process. "When I got tired of writing the book and a little fed up with it, I would run to the music," Amos says with a laugh. "The music was sort of my escape from this book, and I was so happy to do it . . ."

"The Beekeeper" -- whose title refers to the ancient rites of beekeeping in Cornwall and surrounding areas -- was also inspired by her "Scarlet's Walk" tour with the rhythm section of bassist Jon Evans and drummer Matt Chamberlain. "I was quite aware of their rhythmic desires and what they responded to," Amos notes. "I was imprinted with the way that they play, their very strong rhythmic sense.

"So as I started to compose, maybe without consciously thinking about it, it was in the back of my mind that they were going to be playing on it. And they love a challenge."


Amos responded to that by incorporating a greater variety of rhythms on the album's 19 tracks, exploring Latin and Afro-Cuban styles. "This is more of a global record," she explains.

She also brought in a guitarist (Mac Aladdin) and used the London Community Gospel Choir as a vocal "jury" on several songs. Singer Damien Rice joins her for a duet on "The Power of Orange Knickers."

The biggest change, however, is that Amos decided to supplement her piano with Hammond B3 organ, drawing back to soul music influences from her childhood.

Amos says the ultimate reward is that she was able to stretch herself -- to take her music in new directions and take herself into completely new creative territory with the book. "I kind of like the idea of being able to mature with your art," she says, "and not look like you're trying to chase youth.

"I think the tricky thing is you have to know that you have it. You might cock your head at me and say 'All artists think they have it,' but you can't just put an album out because your contract says you owe it. You have to catch up with yourself and force yourself to look at what you've done as a composer, as a performer, and then find a way to move forward rather than repeating it."


Graff is a free-lance writer in Beverly Hills, Mich.


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