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Time (US)
May 11, 1998

Tori, Tori, Tori!

Pop's platinum-selling cult figure returns
with a newly urgent sound

by Christopher John Farley/Miami

She tells you, "Put your head inside the piano." Now, truth be told, you don't really want to stick your head inside her piano. But this command, since it's being issued by pop-rock high priestess Tori Amos, comes with a certain amount of authority. You are standing in the living room of her comfortably airy Florida home (she also has a place in England). Her bookshelves are crammed with curiously eclectic, historically minded tomes, including Women of Classical Mythology and The 32nd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1910-'11. But the big black Bosendorfer grand piano--whose propped-open top looks like a dinosaur's maw--dominates the room. You poke your head inside, your nose nearly pressing against the strings. She begins to play, hands cascading down the keys. Her playing is florid, feral--and then it's over. Your skull throbs with her music. Is this how it feels to be inside Tori's head?

Amos, 34, has always been tough to figure. In 1992, when she entered the national music scene, her intensely personal style of piano rock was derided in some alternative-rock circles as precious. Today her brazen sexual persona seems a bit oversize to fit in with the Lilith Fair set ("I like a little testosterone," she says, explaining why she won't play the all-female Lilith scene). Still, she's found her own platinum niche. Her debut album, Little Earthquakes (1992), which features songs about sexual awakening, sold more than a million copies; her last, Boys for Pele (1996), which featured a photo inside of Amos breast-feeding a piglet ("My 'madonna and child'--my father always wanted me to do a Christmas card," she laughs), took its first bow at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

Amos' latest CD, From the Choirgirl Hotel, is the best and boldest of her career. Her previous CDs were often irritatingly ethereal; on Choirgirl, a full band underscores her piano, giving her music new urgency. Now, instead of being a spectator for Amos' passion, you are swept up in the force and energy of the music. "I had explored the girl-at-the-piano thing," she says. "It was time for new territory." Amos has long had some of the most fervid fans in rock--the numerous websites devoted to her portray her less as a rock star than as a religious experience in human form. Her new CD proves her worthy maybe not of abject devotion but certainly praise.

Amos likes to make her voice heard. In person she's a wisp--a mere 5 ft. 3 in. with pale strawberry hair--but she is given to big technicolor pronouncements, especially on the subject of Christianity: "At five I really believed Jesus and Mary [Magdalene] were in love, and there was this whole thing going on," and "When you really think about Christianity, it is a religion without a penis."

Clearly Amos has some issues. Much of the religious skepticism that pervades her thought as well as her music is a reaction to her strict upbringing (she was born in Newton, N.C., and her father was a Methodist minister). In addition, the sexual-assault theme in several of her earlier songs, including Me and a Gun, derives from an incident 13 years ago in which Amos was raped by a member of her audience whom she had offered to drive home. She is a co-founder of the Washington group RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

In 1996 Amos endured another tragedy: a miscarriage. She channeled her pain into creativity--many songs on Choirgirl, including the grabby first single, Spark, deal with the loss. "The album really started flowing after I started to pick myself up from my miscarriage," she says. "You realize, 'I can't create as a woman-mother right now, but I can create as a musician.'" She recently married her miscarried baby's father, Mark Hawley, who is also her sound engineer. They had been dating secretly. Says Amos: "The sound was so amazing [on the last tour], I looked up and said, 'Who's doing the sound?' And my heart was lost."

In her deepest despair after miscarrying, Amos says, she started listening to bodies of water, searching for "ancient women's rhythms" in the waves. Indeed, some of her new songs, most notably Liquid Diamonds, have a natural, primal groove that draws one in like gravity. This is excruciatingly private music, but it's not insular; it's inviting. No need to stick your head in the piano. Just listen.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

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