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Keyboard Review (UK)
songs from the soul
Tori Amos is an American living in London who sings songs of love and hate, sex and religion... and plays a mean piano. Malcolm Harrison finds out more...
Tori Amos fixes me with her bright green eyes - just as she does her audience a few nights later at a London concert. And even though you know she can't see you through the glare of the spotlights, she seems to be looking into your soul, making sure the words and music strike home deep.
That's important because her songs come from the soul. As she says: "The best medium for me is 'live' because you're seeing and hearing, and you're getting an experiencec. You're getting much more of an intensity than you are on record."
Tori Amos is a piano-playing American singer/songwriter who's settled in this country and is now doing rather well. She had a CD EP - is that what you call them? - released at the end of last year, and now the complete album is out. Her songs are full of angst, wit, perception and beauty, and they come from life. Her piano playing is raunchy and direct - not what one would expect from a classical child prodigy. From an interviewer's point of view she's witty, erudite and flirtatious.
But she dismisses her selective image: "I've done my black fishnets bit and some girls do it really well. I'm a mixture of Daffy Duck meets Mary Poppins."
On stage she appears solo - with just a piano - and has had to experiment how to present herself. "I needed to find out how I was comfortable with myself. That keeps changing - but that's OK. The main thing about performing live solo is that you have a lot of time out there alone, and it's about claiming the stage - you have to claim your right to be there. Some people don't claim the stage - you know, they just want to sing their songs and get off. But I get up there and I really feel, 'look I'd rather be home reading a book than doing this if we don't correspond. I'm not doing this to practice my chops - maybe they need practice but I don't care - I'm doing it so we can cherish something.' Each show is different. There are a few when I've felt: 'What am I doing here? Where can I go? Where's that Malaysian restaurant down the street because this is just not happening.' There is no vibe, there is nothing."
And when you're playing bottom bill in some London dive you have to put up with the fact that many people are waiting for the headline band, they want to talk, get a drink - in fact, anything rather than listen to the music.
"I've been doing this since I came to London. I started playing at the Mean Fiddler in June last year and it's just been a constant battle. People would be actually leaning on the piano and yakking, having a conversation. I can tell you what one girl bought at the stores that day! I had to stop in the middle of my song just to say, 'hey, it's you or me because I can't even remember what I'm doing.'"
Thankfully things have changed, and following the successful Silent All These Years single, articles in the music press and appearances on such programmes as Jonathon Ross, people now come to hear her music. Which is just as well because playing live is the mainstay of Tori's life.
"If I couldn't play live I don't know if I'd do any of this. Live music is the most thrilling - period! You're doing this because you feel you have something to communicate. And it either gets received or it doesn't. But this is what you do because you love it. I live for that. You really hunger for it - it's either in your blood or it's not," says Tori who has sometimes had remind audiences that there's no drummer or backing band due to join her on stage.
Tori Amos was born in North Carolina, the daughter of a Methodist preacher and a part-Cherokee mother. Her home life was awash with music: Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Jimi Hendrix (via her brother) and the church choir. She started playing piano and writing songs at the age of four. As a child prodigy she was sent to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore when she was five.
But it didn't work out: "Just imagine being seven years old: you've been on school nearly two years where you thought these peope would understand you. You say to yourself, 'I've reached paradise here. This is exciting.' But you find out it isn't what you think it is. And you're just torn assunder as a kid because your trust gets completely broken. That's how you start getting hard and chucking out the window all those imaginative dreams you had. They just got you into trouble; they just made you hope.
"So by seven, I'm in this school; it's not what I thought it was. It wasn't about me developing what I really wanted to be. I used to carry around this picture of the Beatles. And my father asked me what I wanted to be. I showed him the picture, pointed to John and Paul, and said, 'that!' He just looked at me: 'That is not part of the plan, honey!'"
So plans for her to become a concert pianist were abandoned. "It's either you or it's not - and it's not a bad thing that it's not," she says philosophically.
By the age of 13 she was playing standards - Gershwin and the like - in bars and hotels around Baltimore and Washington, DC. In her late teens she moved to Los Angeles and vowed never to play piano again except to pay the rent - but it didn't work out like that. Now she's one of a select band of American singer/songwriters making their mark in England.
She readily admits that people like Gershwin have had an effect on her. "Great is great. You can't get around that. Whether it's rap, Gershwin or Judy Garland," says Tori who says that many influences have "seeped" their way into her brain. "You can't wonder where it comes from - you just keep your ears open. The more you listen to, the less of a tendency you'll have to copy."
There's no doubting the depth of feeling in Tori's songs but are people prepared to listen to lyrics that have a little more substance than "she loves you, yea, yea, yea"?
Tori laughs: "I kinda withed I'd written She Loves You but, yes, I think there are some people who are and some people who aren't - that's why there's all different kinds of music out there. There's a time for listening; I don't know if people want it with their salmon and hollandaise, but it's there if people want to take the journey."
Certainly the album, Little Earthquakes, is not an easy-listening trip, even though quite a few of the songs have a superficial "pretty melody" quality that's quite hummable. But listen to the passion and subject matter - so strong that certain songs couldn't be placed next to each other on the album. And it's that melodic quality of some of the tunes that masks the deeper and darker tones of the lyrics: the pretty chorus and bar room piano of Leather, the straight ahead pop of Crucify and the exuberant Happy Phantom. But you'll have no trouble pinpointing what the stark, unaccompanied Me and a Gun is all about - or for that matter the exorcistic Mother. Tori Amos continues the tradition of singer/songwriter who looks into the dark recesses of the soul for inspiration.
Tori starts talking about her next album even though at the time of out meeting the first one hasn't been released. However she's pleased that she's writing again and it looking forward to doing some things a bit differently. She isn't a disciplined writer, more an inspired one.
"It's really about story telling. Because I've read a lot of things I can form the words and get an energy from the story," explains Tori for whom some songs are close to mystical. "I love being swept up... it's almost like I'm not touching the ground. I'm involved in something like a dream where you don't know where it's going to go. Every pause, everything you do is part of that. You can tap into a source - that's what it's really about - and you just become a channel, and because of your perspectives and your vocabulary (musically and vocally) you put it down. But it's an energy that's really coming through. And you think, 'is this energy going to stop coming through?' You always wonder! I've been writing a long time; some of it isn't worth listening to and some of it just comes together, and I think it will always be like that."
As well as her songs, Tori is also working on some children's stories. In fact, she feels an affinity with children. She half jokes: "I want to do the 'nursery school tour.' I don't think they'd let me do it but kids love my stuff. My niece has just turned six and she knows all my songs. My nephew's two and he listens, too. They're into the songs and we talk about them - they did ask me who Charles Manson was - oh boy!"
As well as her own songs she also plays a few cover versions, although not what you'd expect from a lone female pianist.
"I do Angie by the Stones. I thought I'd better do covers of songs that people wouldn't think a girl piano player would do. I do Led Zeppelin's Thank You and I'm working on my Jimi Hendrix. I heard a woman singing Billie Holiday's Lover. The first question was 'why?'. The second question was 'why?', because if you're not going to try and do it as well as Billie, you're never going to do that - hardly anyone can. But if you give it a different perspective maybe you can make something exciting of it."
So how does she approach cover versions?
"I don't think about it. I just sit down and you know if it works. Usually I do songs by males. I don't do any women's covers because I don't think I can do them as well as the woman who first did it. Maybe I'll do a Judy Garland cover just because of what it could be or My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music but I really do a different rendition of it."
This almost brings us full circle because in the same way that her cover version turns the originals inside out, so the live performaces of her own songs are different to her recorded ones. "I love it because it's where the songs came from. The EP and the LP are from the same body of work. It was all written around the piano/vocal and recorded around that - that's the centre. If a song didn't work with the piano then it didn't get on the album because that was the whole point of doing it."
All her songs have been written on upright pianos. "I love uprights to compose on - old uprights because the sound is real edgy. I like that. I use a Yamaha CP80 electric grand live because it packs in boxes. If I could have a Yamaha acoustic up there I would. The CP80 has no edge. But at the same time it's consistent and I can't rely on someone getting me a piano that might have no action.
"Each piano is different. Some Bosendorfers are great; some work for one song but not for another. Pianos are like people; every piano has a completely different personality," explains Tori. Indeed, she's had some difficulty in getting pianos that have a good sustain. "That's half my sound. I use the sustain pedal like another instrument."
And she's quite dismissive of modern electronic pianos: "You can put people on the moon but you can't recreate a piano!"
However, she's not a luddite; she used Kurzweil synthesizers on her album and EP. "The songs that weren't orchestrated I played quite a bit on the sample strings. I played with the piano and I could keep up with myself. Most of it was free-style playing," says Tori who prefers the natural feeling created by a free tempo rather than the precision of working with a click track.
"Pauses/feeling... that's what we miss so much when the machines don't stop. On China, it was free style. My God did those strings have to keep up. China was just a piano/vocal live performance, and everything was built around that."
By now you'll have gathered that Tori Amos is her own woman with a distinctive style. However, writers and critics still want to pigeonhole her, likening her to Kate Bush (particularly the vocal style), Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell.
But she's not intimidated or angry. "I have great respect for the people I'm compared with, and I find it really fun. I love what Kate Bush does but we're very different people. I've been hearing comparisons with Kate for over 10 years - before I'd heard her work. But people don't say I sound like many guys and I've been influenced by more men than women. It's an energy - people are missing the energy. We all compare people to sonics instead of vibes. I don't get compared much to Elton John or Ray Charles," she laughs. "As a woman you do get compared to other women and I feel that's not the whole picture because I'm sure that a lot of women and men are inspired by the opposite sex."
In a musical world where passion in performance is not always seen as a virtue, Tori Amos pours out her soul to anyone willing to listen. It might not be easy but we all need to look inside occasionally to check that we're still alive. Tori Amos will make you feel alive.
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