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The Georgia Straight (Canada)
July 18-25, 1996

Tori Amos - Even when she's looking, she still steps in it

Tori Amos has both her fans and detractors, all of them reacting with almost religious fervour to her metaphorical wordplay, but she's worried about faeries. By Ken Eisner

A Margarita Fan, But No Martyr

A drink is fine, but Tori Amos draws the line at having her toes licked - or roasted

"You know when you're walking on a farm?" asks Tori Amos, calling from San Francisco (and far from any farmland). "You always know there are going to be cow pies, so it shouldn't be that difficult to miss them. The thing about me is, I'm staring at the ground but I still step in them."

The flame-haired singer, songwriter, and pianist is referring to some unspecified kerfuffle on the road -- there are people giggling in the background -- but she could also be talking about her lifelong propensity for getting into trouble with unguarded comments about sex and spirituality. It any event, it will pay to keep an ear tuned to her off-the-cuff remarks from the stage when she plays the Orpheum on Friday (July 19). Although Amos's previous Vancouver appearances have been solo performances, for this event she'll be aided by acoustic and electric guitarist Steve Caton, who has played on all three of her albums (as well as on her mid-'80s hard-rock release, Y Kant Tori Read).

"There isn't a moment when I regret not having a band," she says. "I never turn around and say, 'Hey, where's the drummer?' I really like the improvisational aspect, and it keeps it interesting for me. People sense when something's stale. That's why I change the show every night." Currently Amos keeps about four songs constant out of 18 or so. "Sometimes there are a few more," she muses. "Sometimes I can tell they're sleepy and want to go home to have a double brandy, so l let 'em go early."

Here, as in other towns, some lucky fans will go to a pre-show sound check. Amos says that's so they can see that she's just a working gal. "Honestly, though, I've never thought of it as a job. Of course, getting from one place to another and eating as much bran as you can--*that's* work. You can get a little loopy when you're never in one place. But it teaches you some amazing things when you meet all kinds of people.

"In the past, I was always a person who didn't speak up for myself; I didn't know how to say no to anyone. So then what would happen was that I would get pushed so far into the corner, I'd become a Doberman. Being on the road forces me to speak up. You find new personalities, meet new friends, make mistakes, and have some old ideas broken down."

She may be goin' through non-stop changes, but magazine writers have her pegged as some kind of smug new-age guru. "I try not to read my press. It makes you crazy! If one more person brings up the faeries, I don't know what I'm gonna do," she says, referring to the dwarfish protagonists of some songs from earlier in her career. "It goes back to studying mythology and really getting fascinated with a race of people who were driven underground. They were called faeries in later lore, but they've become this whole caricature. This is difficult to explain to people, when all they can think about is Tinkerbell."

Remember, now, she raised the issue. In fact, she says -- with a half-mocking tone -- that faeries show up at her better concerts. "Yeah, they come with their hobnail boots and tattoos and their bare chests and little wings; they're hovering there and you say, 'Can I have what you're having?'"

An inclination towards free association and psychosexual wordplay suffuses Amos's lyrics, and even those as abstruse as the ones on her most recent album, Boys for Pele, invite readings both sacred and profane. This has given her a huge, almost idolatrous following. (Some subscribe to the appropriately titled fanzine Really Deep Thoughts, and even more clog up the Net with ToriSpeak.) Many listeners light incense; others just get incensed.

"Some people think I need to be arrested," she says with no hint of irony. "In general, there are extreme responses to metaphorical works because there's so much room for interpretation. You know, I come from a heavy theological background, my father having his doctorate in theology and both his parents being ministers. Christianity is just one of many mythologies -- and it is one of the homecoming queens, let's face it -- so you'll find that within most of us. Whether it's commercials or Disney or whatever, people use mythology to get you to feel guilty or ashamed or strong or afraid. Because I work from that place, it stirs people's innate belief systems. Sometimes they hate me for it, because it's much easier to blame me than admit that they're a pig!"

And lo, they also come to worship. "They've been known to do that too. I figure that if you're an interesting writer you'll make people think -- that part is so one-plus-one, I don't even think about it that much. The extreme reactions, though, I don't really respond to. You can't. You become a ping-pong ball. If you're going to let yourself be worshipped, then you have to end up in the place where they rip every piece of epidermis off your body. It's important to have a sense of humour about it and to take responsibility for your beliefs; I do, completely! And yet I don't take responsibility for somebody else's reaction. That's their job. If you wanna come have a margarita with me, fine. We can hang out. But if you want to roast me over an open fire or lick my feet, I'm not into that."

But all this fuss is about words, not music. Amos has said she's merely a vessel for capturing whatever divine spirit moves her, but the inspirational component belies her technical accomplishment as a pianist. "In the music press," she says, winding up for the pitch, "people rarely talk about the actual music, because most journalists don't know anything about it, and that's just a fact." Indeed, out of all the arts, music is discussed least for its actual properties; in most hands, even its historical context are vague. Sure, any rock writer (or reader) can spot an early-'70s Joni Mitchell lick, but how many notice the densely chromatic, late-Romantic lyricism, a la Franz Liszt and Alexander Scriabin, that she weaves into her instrumental settings?

"People talk about lyrics, hair, attitude -- just plain commentary. But rarely is it about what's in the left hand, or about the juxtaposition between the words and the music, or what that brings up in you as a listener. In dance, they actually talk about dance, and in the visual arts, it isn't all about how 'the artist paints with his legs spread.' Finally, you have to figure that people don't talk about music because that isn't the focus of the music industry, which does kinda make you scratch your head."

Amidst all the hype, adulation, and controversy, it shouldn't be surprising that Amos herself sometimes forgets what she's doing. "Every once in a while I have to remind myself, 'Oh, yeah, right! I play the piano.' And then I kinda smile, and I start to feel better, and that thing in my stomach calms down a bit. I go find my Bosendorfer and I sit down and say, 'Okay, this makes sense.'"

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