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excerpt from Chapter 2: Little Earthquakes

Crawling Back

I wrote Little Earthquakes on and off over a couple of years. In the interim, I played Sheratons and Holiday Inns to pay the rent. When I wrote this record, I had to do it because it was really "do it or die." I was just writing so that I didn't go crazy. I didn't have to turn anything in, there were no demands, and nobody expected anything. I stripped away all these images, things that I wanted people to think I was, and I finally said, "Who am I really?" And these songs started coming out. It was my form of expression so that I didn't lose my mind completely. I wrote for me. And I didn't really think about where it was gonna go. I just had to write it.

First of all, the songs were written on the piano. I didn't even have a piano in the house. I didn't own one anymore. I'd trashed that before. I practically didn't touch a piano for like seven years (aside from paying the rent), because I thought there was no use. The music I wrote back then was completely different. I did all kinds of stuff and you wouldn't believe it was me.

I had another record out a few years ago called Y Kant Tori Read. It has its moments. I wasn't playing the piano on it. I mean, hey, I was experimenting. I think you gotta experiment. I think that you gotta try different things, and I was definitely into a hairspray phase, then. But I had a fabulous collection of hairspray. And I was just not going to write at the piano. That was just too close to home for me at the time.

So, I didn't write the songs on the piano, and I wasn't singing just because I wanted to sing my songs and felt I had something to say. I made a decision, kinda unconsciously: I wasn't gonna talk about the "Me and a Gun" experience, I wasn't gonna talk about the religious influences -- not too much. I touch on things, but if you open one door, about a thousand are gonna open. And I think I was completely terrified of having to look at myself and my monsters and all those fun things.

This new record is a reaction to that. I had to do these experiments to be able to go back home to the piano. I was a rock chick with Yeats under my arm and hairspray in my back pocket. When my album flopped, I decided to drastically change and to listen more to my inner voice.

Truly there are things I like about that record and there are things that I don't. But more of it's in my intention; why I did stuff, why I would write a certain line. A lot of times I would look outside of myself instead of going with my instinct on something. It's a real different kind of life when you live in the space of "What do you think? Well, what do you think? Well, what do you think?" Instead of "What do I think?" It was just that I was coming from a different place, so it's not that I treat it like an ugly stepchild. Other people treat it like an ugly stepchild. That record was bashed quite a bit.

But that record is the biggest gift in my life. The greatest thing that ever happened was that the record bombed. It was my bomb to blow up the world. Without it, I wouldn't be the person I am. I had to be publicly humiliated before I was willing to look. And talk. I had to crack before I was willing to strip. I could not have written Little Earthquakes without skinning my knees.

At the time, I just wanted to walk away from the whole experience. I didn't set out to make a record this time. But Doug Morris from Atlantic came to see me in my little place in Hollywood. He showed up at my door basically, and said, "What material do you have?" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Your next record." I said, "What next record?" He sat in my little one room apartment behind the Hollywood Methodist church. I was playing him stuff and he just said, "Go make a record doing what it is you do."

So, I went back to what I was doing, which is always playing the piano. I rented this old upright and just started to write what I was feeling. That was the Little Earthquakes album, and the beginning of where I am today. But it took Atlantic by surprise, obviously, when I turned in this music.

In order for Little Earthquakes to happen, I had to crawl back from where I'd been. And then I had to go find my musician soul. And then I had to decide what kind of writer I wanted to be. There was a time before all that, when I was on that path, and I strayed from that for all kinds of reasons. Nobody wanted to sign me doing that. I wasn't signed for that! I was signed more for a pop/rock thing. So once that crashed to the ground I begged Doug Morris to drop me and he said, "I'm not." So if you ever want to ever stay on a record label, beg them to drop you.

I tried to be everybody else. I'd tried to do a dance thing, I tried to do the rock thing, and at a certain point you go, "Well, what is my thing? Who am I? What am I all about?"

All that was left was me. This forced me to go back to my piano. I came to realize that everything I needed was inside myself. It's like, you don't think about how you drink water, you just do. It was the same way with music. I had been playing piano ever since I was in diapers. It wasn't an analytical thing.

I finally brought myself to my knees and said, "Wait a minute, when I was four years old, I didn't care what anybody thought." There were no doubts about, "Am I going to be successful?" I mean, I'd get my Shredded Wheat in the morning and play the piano and that was successful. I didn't think about people clapping. I didn't think about whether or not they liked it, and needing that from them. I trusted it. I know too many people who started off with these ideas but never followed them through because someone, at some point along the way, said, "That's worthless." There's a fine line between listening to everything and listening to nothing.

I had to completely shed my preconceptions about what kind of writer I was and what kind of musician I was and what I held dear and what I wanted to achieve. And it stopped being about success and became about truth and emotion and describing those feelings -- based on rejection. And part of that arduous process has gone into the art.

You write different stuff when you're thirteen than you do when you're twenty-eight. But I'll tell you, I was more on at thirteen than I sometimes was at twenty-one! I think I really got afraid of it, afraid of playing, afraid of showing my guts. I just kind of went somewhere else for a while. I was doing it for the wrong reasons at that point.

I'd just been told so many times that what I really wanted to do was never gonna happen and, "This girl and the piano thing, just forget about it." You know, I'm not saying that girls with bustiers and spiked hair -- I mean, obviously, some of them did really, really well. But I just couldn't pull it off. Some of it's awful. It wasn't really representative of what I do. So, I just decided to try and take the piano to a place, for me, in the best way I could. And that's how the songs started to come for Little Earthquakes.

I wasn't thinking about making a record. I knew that one had to come eventually, that's how things work if you're not dropped by your label. They do expect another one before you die. But, you see, I was working on the dying part, so making another record wasn't first and foremost on my mind.

Suicide really bores me; that's just too easy. I was working on becoming an emotional limp custard. I was just really numb, and I didn't know how I had gotten to that state. I didn't know how I had gotten from being five years old and really clever and happy and imaginative and open, to this sad and needy somebody.

I was so needy and yet I wasn't going into my music with my need like I did on the current record. I was going there to hide, that's what I did. I hid so that I didn't have to deal with stuff, like a lot of musicians that are needy. For example, Janis Joplin, very needy, she wanted to be loved, but she went into her music and was very honest, whereas I was avoiding stuff. That doesn't mean there aren't moments where what I was really feeling slipped through, yeah, because it did. It was just the way I was working personally in my life, it was everything from the outside and none from the inside, which was a painful place to be in.

Every place you land in life has a reason and a lesson. I think that period of time was, partially, a means of dealing with sexual repression I experienced when I was growing up. I have also come to believe that my insides were strengthened so that I would eventually be able to give birth to these newer songs.

It was like I was birthing myself. It was as if I was in a tunnel and I didn't know the end. It was the first time I really allowed myself to feel things, to really feel them as I was feeling them. Not cutting them off, not trying to censor them. Not trying to dilute anything, make excuses.

"Take to the Sky" was the first song that began Little Earthquakes. After Y Kant Tori Read was deep in the toilet, I began to see how the record industry really operated -- how it worked when you were successful and how it worked when you weren't. I saw the buddy system, and the networking, and I just said, "You know what? Fuck that. I'm going to take to the sky, and all I have to do is be true to the muses. That is all I'm going to do from now forward." I was living behind this church. I started to really get into the rhythms of it all, the Catholicism, but being Protestant, I must have been Catholic channeling. So, the song was my prayer, and my answer to the music industry.

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