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The New York Times (US)
April 23, 1998

At Lunch with Tori Amos

Disclosing Intimacies, Enjoying the Shock Value

by Jon Pareles
photos by Suzanne DeChillo

NEW YORK -- Tori Amos takes pains with her image. As she rehearsed for her appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" a few weeks ago, she had her keyboard and piano moved to improve the camera angle, then pondered just how high her microphone should be tilted. After she raised it and noted the exact level for the stage crew, a bystander asked whether lifting her head improved her vocals. "It's never about the music," she said with a laugh. "It's about the chin!"

Ms. Amos may be careful about her public face, but she isn't exactly inhibited. In her songs and her poses, control and abandon strike a fascinating, uneasy truce. For the cover of her album "Boys for Pele," Ms. Amos appeared mud-spattered and holding a gun and, in another photograph, nursing a piglet at her breast. The video clip for her new single, "Spark," shows her blindfolded, wrists tied behind her back, stumbling through an ominous countryside as she sings, "You say you don't want it again and again, but you don't really mean it."

On the three albums she has released since 1992, each selling at least a million copies, Ms. Amos has sung about God and about being raped, about masochism and murder, about callousness and transcendence. And in conversation over a lunch of mussels, french fries and red wine at Le Bilboquet on the Upper East Side, she was merrily unguarded about everything except the identity of her longtime boyfriend.

"The songs are really open," she said. "But there are things I'm really private about. People, I'm sure, will have a real chuckle about me saying that. Like, what is left?" Ms. Amos was in New York City for the final technical work on her new album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," due for release on May 5. She is to return for a performance Thursday night at Irving Plaza here, previewing the songs with her new band; the concert sold out almost instantly.

For lunch, she was dressed demurely, wearing a sweater over a dove-gray top and black pants. Around her neck was a small crucifix dotted with rubies, an odd accessory for a Methodist pastor's daughter who has bitterly rejected organized Christianity. "It's a rebellion against my rebellion," she said. "And it's really pretty, too. It's a great symbol, an ancient symbol. I love the blood. I love the passion."

From the beginning, Ms. Amos's songs have been wayward and volatile, full of mood swings and musical leaps. They are held together by her meticulous, classical piano technique, while her voice swoops from innocence to jaded sultriness, from bemusement to bitterness.

"I would change my clothes to be able to sing the songs on this album," she said. "Because you have to become the Sybil of songwriting.

"I've really been interested in allowing myself to be taken over by the characters in the songs,"
she said by way of explanation. "You have to change to allow the presence of the entities of these songs to come. For any songwriter to say they do it on their own, well, they must have a very lonely life. I have a very busy life because these girls are coming in and out all the time, since I was a little girl. I'm never really alone."

The songs are intimate, but Ms. Amos refuses to call them confessional. "I don't like that term, and I'll tell you why," she said. "When you confess, you're asking for absolution. And I'm not asking for anybody's approval."

Ms. Amos, 34, started playing the piano when she was 2 1/2. "I wanted to be a ballerina," she said. "But my thighs are as big as rhinoceroses and I have no time in my feet. All my time is in my hands."

She was accepted at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore at age 5 and was expelled six years later for improvising too much. As a teen-ager, she sang Gershwin songs, her father's favorites, at piano bars.

She worked in Los Angeles with a rock band that had the unfortunate name Y Kant Tori Read, which released an album in 1988 before breaking up. After she moved to England in 1990, she began recording her own songs as she heard them: with her piano at the center, moving from hymns to classical filigree to bluesy vamps. Her first album, "Little Earthquakes," spoke to young women coming of age and torn between shame and desire. In a tangle of religion and sexuality, her songs' narrators were sometimes victimized, sometimes triumphant. "Every day I crucify myself," she sang in the album's first song.

Loyal fans followed her increasingly free-associative songs on her next two albums, "Under the Pink" in 1994 and "Boys for Pele" in 1996. The Internet buzzes with interpretations of lines like "The weasel squeaks faster than a seven-day week"; Ms. Amos has such a widespread following in cyberspace that she is releasing one new song, "Merman," only as a computer download.

Ms. Amos said her first album was like a diary; her second, like a painting, and her third like "a woman's journey across her own River Styx." Her fourth is like a hotel; the girls staying there are songs.

"I saw the girls being like a singing group, because they're very independent, but they hang out together. They have their own solar systems, they have their own family trees, but I did see them having margaritas by the pool. Sometimes they let me sing with them."

Many of Ms. Amos's lyrics on the new album remain oblique, amid recurring images of surrender, addiction, lost babies and womanly power. One key to the songs, she said, is that she had a miscarriage near Christmas in 1996. "I didn't write the record until that happened, and it was quite a shock. The songs were a huge part of me understanding my feelings," she said. "I had never appreciated life like that before."

"The songs started to come," she said. "The music always comes in my darkest hour, and the music is always so giving. I have this picture of an endless well somewhere, I don't know where it is -- in the star systems out there. And the more that you're open to it the more that it keeps coming."

Ms. Amos made her new album in Cornwall, England, 10 miles from the ocean. The studio is a converted barn; the neighbors are a chicken farm on one side, a sheep farm on the other. "The farmers are cool," Ms. Amos said. "Their attitude is, 'If you turn it up, let's just hope we get more milk.'"

In fact, she did turn up the sound. Some of her new songs surround her piano with aggressive rhythms and electronic noise. "The effects are part of the psyche of each girl," she said. "I looked at the engineers and I said, 'All those funny knobs over there, do they do stuff?' They said, 'They do more stuff than you can imagine.' So I said, 'Let's do stuff.' It's sonic geometry."

Some of the new songs muse over loss and guilt and forgiveness; others flaunt an assertive sexuality. "There's a thread of my life running through the songs, but it's a tiny little thread," she said. "The songs never let me forget that. They let me know, as if they're saying, 'We live and breathe and exist, and you just happen to see us because of something that was happening in your life at the time.' They say, 'Tori, it's not just about you.' And humbly I say, 'Oh, thank you, you who is the song.'"

"You can be anybody or anything in a song," she said. "Nobody controls what your relationship is in a song or who you are in it. And nobody owns it. I'm a literary hooker. I will sit there and hang out with somebody just to see, OK, is there a reflection of them in me? Or are we adversaries? As a person, I don't like confronting people. I'll do anything to not confront a situation. But as a writer, I'll confront Mother Teresa if the songs are taking me there."

One song, "She's Your Cocaine," puzzles over a man's attraction to a woman who will destroy him. "I've seen myself become quite angry because somebody that I love has been dragged through the streets emotionally," Ms. Amos said. "A vicious narcissist is hard for me to take. But a yummy narcissist, are you kidding? You're talking to one."

As a photographer arrived to take Ms. Amos's picture for this story, a stylist materialized to touch up her foundation and lip liner and reshape her mane of red hair. No matter what her talk revealed, she would look impeccable.

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