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The Sacramento Bee (US)
August 30, 1992



by Gary Graff, Knight-Ridder Newspapers

It's a pop music archetype, an equation with a logical timeworn resolution: woman plus microphone plus piano equals gentle, confessional waif. She's neither threatening nor challenging, and her lot is to trill about the weight of the world on her shoulders in soft and pleasing tones.

Tori Amos has studied the equation and had it dictated to her. A few years ago, she was even willing to conform. But now, at 28, she declares with no small degree of self-satisfaction that "I like breaking concepts a lot."

"People have concepts of a girl at her piano,"
North Carolina-born Amos says by telephone from her London flat, where she's lived since last year. "They see you playing a piano alone and singing and they say, 'Oh, that's nice.'"

She laughs heartily. "I have a lot of fun turning them around," she says. "What is I do many things, but nice is not one of them."

With her recently released album, Little Earthquakes, Amos stands as an artist who's pushed aside prescribed roles to pursue an individual path. (She appears in concert Thursday evening at the Crest Theatre.) Earthquakes is a bald and raw record, an intense soul-baring session that eschews confessional vulnerability and righteous anger, the most common metiers of pop's female singer-songwriters.

Pragmatic frankness fills her music and results in songs that deal head-on with familial relationships (Winter, Mother), death (Happy Phantom), self doubts (Crucify) and, in Me and a Gun, a chilling a capella account of a rape.

With musical arrangements that don't follow standard compositional trails and a knack for the unpredictable -- a new single features versions of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, the Rolling Stones' Angie and Led Zeppelin's Thank You -- Amos is nothing if not challenging. And that, she says, is a frequent point of discussion with her record company.

"I think they wanted me to be a female Elton (John)," Amos says. "Doug Morris (Atlantic Records' president) always says to me, 'Why can't you write a proper chorus?' I say, 'What is a proper chorus? Who decided what's a proper chorus, and what's his name?"

Amos' attitude is steeped in ambivalence about a series of contradictions that marked her upbringing. Part Scottish and part Cherokee, she says her home was a haven for discipline and sexual repression, though the musical offerings ran from classical to Nat King Cole to Fats Waller to Jimi Hendrix. A prodigy, Amos sang in the church choir where her father was a preacher, and at age 5 she won a scholarship to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

A by-ear player, Amos rebelled against the Peabody faculty's attempts to teach her to read music, and she was kicked out of the school at 11.

When she began playing professionally, she sang Gershwin at gay nightclubs and anywhere else she could get a gig. "I could adapt so easily, which is a bit of a curse," she says. "I just kept trying everything." Even heavy metal through a group called Y Kant Tori Read, but when its debut album fizzled, Amos retreated and even abandoned the piano for awhile.

But now Amos' career is very much alive. A critics' fave in Britain and tagged as a hot newcomer in the United States, Amos says she's getting the most joy out of her concerts, in which she simply sings her songs, plays her piano and watches audiences trying to figure out what to make of her.

"This is what I've done since I was very wee," she says. "It's come full circle to just me and a piano. When I ditched it, I had to do it -- it was like leaving home. But now that I'm back doing it the way I want to, I can really spin a few heads."

Tori Amos

Appears in concert with E opening at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K St. Tickets are $12.50 advance, $15 day of show. 923-2277.

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