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The Roanoke Times Online (www)
Roanoke, Virginia
Tuesday, October 8, 1996

When Tori Amos wants to escape the music business, she comes to her family's farm in the New River Valley.

by Richard Foster
Staff Writer

At first glance, it looks like any rural grandparents' farmhouse. There's a faded, framed picture of Jesus on the wood-paneled wall in the parlor. On the desk, there are old smiling photographs of their now-grown children wearing Brady Bunch-era clothing and haircuts. Nearby, a 25-year-old family Christmas card is tucked in front of a cross-stitched picture of a pheasant. And right next to that is a row of shiny new color pictures of the grandchildren. And then you see the gold CD on the wall. Presented to Ed and Mary Amos, it commemorates the sale of the first 100,000 copies of their daughter Tori's album, "Little Earthquakes."

Tori Amos, the flame-haired alternative musician who has made the piano a rock instrument for the 90s, will be playing the Roanoke Civic Center auditorium Friday night to support her newest album, "Boys For Pele." Her parents, The Rev. Ed Amos, a retired Methodist minister, and Mary Ellen Amos, live for much of the year in the 100-year-old farmhouse in Southwestern Virginia along the New River where Ed was born.

Tori and her parents spend a lot of time together. Mary Amos has shared dinner with Tori and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. Ed has met the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (They're nice boys, he says. "They've always had respect for me and Mary, and they've been very nice when we've met them. I really think at times they don't know what to do with clergy in their world.")

And Tori has come here, to this farm in the New River Valley when she wants to escape the music business. "This is a retreat center for her," said Ed Amos, who went to Ferrum College in the 1940s and remembers going to Virginia Tech football games. "She likes to see the birthing of the calves if she's here during that time. ... I like to put her on the tractor occasionally. She used to really like the tractor. She doesn't know about planting. That's not her thing. She can pick. She loves to harvest. She loves the fresh vegetables from the garden."

Her mother added: "She's really quite a good cook, and she does a lot of cooking when she's here. She's wonderful with fried chicken, and her homemade biscuits are just out of this world."

But during her time off, her parents say, Tori's still making music.

"She sings and plays all the time," Ed Amos said. "She sings in the fields, she sings when she's cooking, she sings in the shower."

She wrote the song "Girl" off her "Little Earthquakes" album on the piano in the parlor of the farmhouse, as a matter of fact. "On the honky-tonk piano, that's what she calls it," her mother said. "Because that's what it really sounds like -- an old honky-tonk piano. All the pianos she has have different personalities to them. And this one, she says she thinks it's been in the bars somewhere in the past because it loves honky-tonk music."

In a telephone interview, Tori, 33, said that when she's at the farm, she likes to "pick blackberries, take loads of walks [and] not talk on the telephone. ... The thing is, it's so different than the world I'm in most of the time, that everything just doesn't seem as important when you're there that seems important when you're in the cities. We sit on the porch and watch the moon, tell stories. It's a weird, different life."

Listening to some of Tori's songs, which cover everything from masturbation to a female Jesus, you might get the idea that Tori is rebelling against her parents, her faith, and her image as a minister's daughter.

But Tori hasn't forsaken her faith, her parents said. She's just trying to get people to expand their notions of God. "I think when people say that Tori is anti-religion, that's a misnomer," her father said. "I don't think Tori is anti-anything. Tori feels that in the traditional church, there's been an overwhelming [male] influence. .... She's just saying, 'Let's give women an opportunity to be equal with you males who have been in charge of the religious systems for thousands of years!'"

"I think the institutions teach you what to think, not how to think, and I'm a big believer in a person having a choice in how they express their belief," Tori said. "I run into Pentecostals all the time... a lot of them are my friends, and they say, 'Tori, I hope you'll find Jesus.' I say, 'How do you know I'm not having a Margarita with Jesus tonight at 10 o'clock?'"

Ed and Mary Amos listen to Tori's music all the time. They can both talk for hours, interpreting the theology and philosophy of Tori's music and its imagery, or praising her expert keyboard skills.

"She's a 21st century Mozart," her father said. "She is equivalent in talent and ability to Mozart. She really is a musical genius."

For most folks, that kind of statement would just be the hyperbole of a proud papa, but if Tori and Wolfgang Amadeus were to meet, you get the feeling they'd have some stuff to talk about.

Like Mozart, Tori was a child prodigy.

Born Myra Ellen Amos, Tori was playing entire songs by ear at age 2 after hearing her older brother and sister play.

"We weren't aware of it like the sun coming over the horizon, but we were noticing she would come in and play the piano right after they had finished and it would sound a little better than they," her father said. "But I think when we were astounded was when we took her to 'Oliver' or 'The Sound of Music.' I'm not sure which one it was, and then after seeing that, she came in and sat down, and it seemed to me she could play the whole score."

That was at age 4. The Amoses clearly had an unusual child on their hands, and so they took an unusual approach to raising her.

At the urging of friends, they auditioned Tori for the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where they were living at the time, and at age 5, Tori became the youngest student in the school's history.

Playing alongside college students, Tori spent difficult years with teachers who were determined to break her ear and train her to read and write classical music. At 11, influenced by bands like Led Zeppelin, she improvised with a rock music-style riff in her yearly audition to Peabody and lost her scholarship. It was the first of many disappointments in her long journey to musical fame.

"It's amazing that sometimes out of your greatest struggles come your greatest successes," her father said. "If there's any lesson to be learned out of Tori, it's that her failures have turned out to be marvelous."

To keep Tori interested in playing, Ed Amos took her to piano bars in the Georgetown section of Washington and got her jobs playing on the weekends. Wearing his minister's collar, Ed could be seen taking his 13-year-old daughter to all kinds of gigs, even in gay bars.

"That took a lot of guts," Tori said. "My father wanted me to become a pianist, and he didn't always agree with all these things I was interested in, but at a certain point, he said, 'I'm not doing my duty if I don't help you take this to the next step or encourage you.' And so, sometimes at the expense of people respecting him, [he was] chaperoning me in gay bars."

The music jobs served another purpose as well, her father said. When many of Tori's friends were getting involved with drugs, Tori didn't have time.

On Sunday mornings after her weekend nightclub gigs, Tori could be seen teaching the children's choir at church. She was the one in the red leather pants. ("She just loved to shock, even from the earliest of years," her mother said. "We've almost become shockproof with her.")

In college, Tori took virtually only music classes, and in two years, she had the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in music. Having graduated to playing hotel lounges by that time, she decided to try her luck in Hollywood, which began many hard years of playing lounges and auditioning for entertainment jobs. (She once beat out Sarah Jessica Parker for a role in a Kellogg's cereal commercial.)

"For 14 years, I played 'Feelings' so many times, I swear to God that guy should pay me," Tori said.

Tori's parents never gave up on her. They wrote to entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and sent tapes to dozens of record companies. Chances came and went.

In 1987, she finally got a record contract and made a pop rock album, "Y Kant Tori Read," with a band that included the future drummer of Guns N' Roses. The album flopped miserably.

"It is such a devastating event when your whole life is in this one product and it fails," her mother said. "She really went through a long period of depression. We wondered if she would ever come out of it. As parents, we really wondered if she would ever play again."

But after much introspection and a long visit to the farm, which her parents say has become a place of healing for her, Tori decided to be who she really is. So she returned to her roots as a pianist, which resulted in the stripped down personal sound of her hit album "Little Earthquakes."

That's a lesson that she tries to bring to her fans.

"She's trying to get young people who are dealing with a self-image that isn't similar to the TV to enjoy who they are," her father said. "I think that's one of the biggest struggles that she encounters a lot with her fans. They often want to be something other than what they really are."

Tori explained: "I tell people everybody has a uniqueness, and if that were really honored in our culture, we wouldn't feel like, 'Why does she have all this and I don't have anything?' A lot of times we don't look for our own diamonds, and we're not encouraged to look for or find our own diamonds. Sometimes, it's just a way that somebody knows how to make you feel comfortable or safe. ... All those things are diamonds, but they're not considered diamonds in our world."

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