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The Sunday Times (UK)
January 16, 1994
photo by Jeremy Young
The Keys to Success
Tori Amos, the piano's Nigel Kennedy with a prettier face, has swapped America and her classical training for Britain and its pop. ROBERT SANDALL meets her.
In Britain, a classically trained child prodigy who eventually opts to play music more in the style of Hendrix than Haydn is called Nigel Kennedy. In America she is called Tori Amos, and, so far, it is this 30-year-old renegade virtuoso pianist with the henna-ed ginger hair and tie-dyed pullover, not our Nige, who is making the idiosyncratic pop records you really ought to listen to. Interestingly, though, she had to come and live over here to do it.
In 1991, when Amos's American record company, Atlantic, heard the demos of what was subsequently to become her Little Earthquakes album, they were bemused. "First it was like, let's take off the piano and add some guitars. Then they thought, let's send a tape to the guys in England and see if they get it." As a devoted fan of Kate Bush, Max Hole, the head of Atlantic's British sister company, "got it" immediately. Amos was duly flown in and, after a private candlelit performance in a room in west London had vastly impressed Hole with its faultless confidence, she signed to the eastwest label. In the three years since, Little Earthquakes has sold more than 1m copies worldwide -- half of them back in America -- and Amos has written and recorded a follow-up, Under The Pink, which, when it appears at the end of the month, should be the first indispensible pop album of 1994.
While Kate Bush provides an easy reference point, particularly where her histrrionically darting vocals are concerned, the Amos style is more direct and less cluttered with studio cleverness than Bush's. Her lyrics, particularly on Me And A Gun, a song about a sexual assault she suffered six years ago, can be disconcertingly personal. "If I can't have a cup of tea with the girl who's singing," Amos says, of her own recordings, "trash her. She gets erased. I'm pretty ruthless about that." Patti Smith and John Lennon are her favourite influences, though Gershwin, Fats Domino and Led Zeppelin all get regular mentions.
Listening to the fine pianistic detail that introduces tracks such as Icicle, from the new album, it is clear that Amos has learned a few tricks, too, from people she prefers now not to talk about: the "dead guys" whose lengthier compositions she never got along with as a child when she attended the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. While it took Nigel Kennedy 30-odd years to rebel against the straitjacket of a classical conservatory education, Myra Ellen Amos (she rechristened herself Tori) had fallen out with her teachers by the age of seven. "For me, playing the piano was like a primitive instinct, it was like a friend. I remember crawling up to it and thinking, 'I am safe here'. By the time I was four I was playing the scores of whole musicals. Anything I heard that I liked, I'd play by ear."
When Amos senior, a methodist minister in Washington DC, discovered that one of the records his daughter had rearranged for the family upright piano was her mother's copy of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, he sent her, on weekends, to the nearby Peabody. Here, she claims, it was downhill all the way. "Accepted at five, not doing so well at seven, scholarship revoked at 11. By then it was disgrace, but I knew it was all over at the Peabody as soon as they gave me a piece called Hot Cross Buns. I wanted to play Hoagy Carmichael! You don't take away a kid's ear with rubbish like Hot Cross Buns. They lost all respect in my eyes when they made me play that."
The final straw came after Amos performed a song she had written herself as her end-of-year concert assessment piece. From there, two years later, she made an unlikely transition, from reluctant prodigy to resident pianist in the gay bars of Washington DC. "It was Dad's idea. These were the only places that he would let his baby play! And we were a pair. Dad in his clerical collar at the back. Me in my sister's polyester pants, all made up, 13 trying to look 16 . . . But at least Dad didn't have to worry about lecherous guys trying to hit on me. Fact was, they were more interested in him."
Ten years later, Amos had hardly graduated at all, moving from gay bars to hotel lounges, playing the Marriott and Sheraton chains across America before she finally settled in LA. Alons the way, there were the usual rejection slips from record companies, and a few stiff talkings-to from hoteliers as well. "They got sick of my antics. I'd be doing Led Zeppelin tunes on the piano and the audience would be like, hey, we're trying to have dinner . . ."
While the British public has readily taken to her (160,000 albums sold), Amos has had a harder time with reviewers, who tend to interpret her typically West Coast openness about all things sexual and spiritual as evidence of her weirdness, or worse. This seems more than a little hard on the immensely funny and likable person washing down french fries with hot chocolate in a west London cafe. But Amos, a proud descendant of Cherokee indians on her mother's side, is philosophical, in both senses. "It's my belief that there is an inner world, which you can either choose to acknowledge or not. I'm sure all those journalists who called me nuts wouldn't dare call a Cherokee medicine man a space cadet."
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
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