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The Chicago Tribune (US)
Sunday, May 17, 1998

On a musical limb

Extravagant? You bet. Voluptuous? And then some. But rock needs more of Tori Amos' grand gestures.

by Greg Kot
Tribune Rock Critic

Tori Amos is in a hotel suite off Michigan Avenue sipping a cup of soup, a few minutes away from dashing off to the Park West to rehearse with her band. She's elegantly appointed in a black pant suit and purple scarf, though there is nothing elegant about the subjects she addresses in conversation, let alone in her songs: rape, miscarriage, sacrilege, death.

These indelicate matters aren't what gets Amos blushing on this blustery spring afternoon, however. She chuckles with embarrassment only when acknowledging that, yes, she has performed certain pop songs that will never, ever see the light of day. Like cover versions of Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin," which she worked up one giddy evening in a British farmhouse while recording her latest album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" (Atlantic).

"My 'Like a Virgin' is absolutely vulgar -- it can't be played anywhere; it's not even for cable," she says with a laugh, fumbling the cup inches from her lips and dripping broth onto the hotel couch.

Like her songs, Amos' responses to an interviewer's questions sound as if they're taking shape in the moment, circling the topic before zooming in for the payoff. And like Madonna, Amos has been branded a button-pusher, an image manipulator and a shock-merchant by her detractors, who find it hard to warm to a singer who straddles her piano bench and rides it like a stallion, while using the 88 keys as a springboard for multi-octave vocal flights in which the sacred and the profane are as tangled as her unruly red hair.

Extravagant? You bet. Voluptuous? And then some. But rock needs more, not less, of such grand gestures: a siren-voiced woman on a musical limb with a saw in hand and a dare-me smile that is part seduction, part transgression. What makes it more than an act is that Amos' charisma isn't a cover-up for any musical deficiencies. It's an extension of her songs, the best of which are little passion plays lifted from her experience and transformed into epiphanies: Her 1991 song "Me and a Gun" was about her rape by a fan; "Boys for Pele," her 1996 album, was written in the ashes of a love affair; "Spark" and "iieee" from "Choirgirl Hotel" address a miscarriage she suffered a few months after the "Pele" tour ended.

Underlying the tales is a musicality that is as rhythmically bold as Prince's, as vocally daring as Sinead O'Connor's or Kate Bush's. Forget about the media image for a minute and listen to the locomotion of "Raspberry Swirl," the striking tempo shifts of "Hotel," the sumptuous yearning of "Northern Lad," the delicious phrasing on "Pandora's Aquarium" -- they make "From the Choirgirl Hotel" one of the year's most transfixing musical journeys.

Recently married, the 34-year-old Amos can sound earthy one minute, flaky the next. Her charm is in her ability to integrate the two sides, as she discusses the characteristics of the new songs she refers to as "my girls."

Q & A

Your albums remind me of the movie "Thelma and Louise": "Little Earthquakes" (1991) could have been dedicated to Geena Davis' naive Thelma, "Under the Pink" (1994) to Susan Sarandon's take-charge Louise, "Boys for Pele" (1996) was you driving the car over the cliff by simultaneously acting as your own producer for the first time and breaking free of a relationship with your one-time "soul mate." So what happens to you and the car in "Choirgirl Hotel"?

I think the car crashes, and these (songs) are the girls you meet at the car crash. Just because death happens doesn't mean stuff stops. I think that was sort of the thing that happened when I miscarried. I was still very much on the planet, very much alive, but feeling that loss and not being able to find out where this spirit goes when it leaves the planet. What I found is that I'm not interested in saying, "It's all for the best." I'm just not interested in that put-a-ribbon-on-it crap. I'm OK with skinning my knees.

Do you ever worry that if you aren't involved in some kind of personal crisis, your music will lose its edge?

I'm sure if I would have become a mother that it still would have been a valid record. A different record, but a valid one. And maybe some day I'll have that experience. I think what I write about happens to a lot of people: Somebody is devastated by the breakup of a marriage. They are on the brink and brought to their knees. People go through crises all the time -- the loss of a job, a friendship dissolves. I think life brings different losses. Some are turning points in your life, some go quietly in the night.

Ever had writer's block?

All the time. Right now. I have nothing to say, which is fine. I was at that stage at the end of the "Pele" tour. I was pregnant, and so excited about being a mom. It was a surprise, then embraced immediately, and then a shock when it didn't work out. I think as a writer, there is a wealth of stuff to write about. Sometimes you have to become a bit of an investigative reporter.

So after the miscarriage, you took some time off and then began working on your music with a drummer, Matt Chamberlain (who had worked with Fiona Apple), which was a switch from your solo piano approach. Why did you decide to work with a band?

The songs decided that. I was getting a bit antsy. It was my third world tour with the piano pretty much being the center. But because I hadn't really found a drummer that I could have a conversation with -- everything would be held hostage to the drums -- I was very nervous about it. Matt came after I started to get back on my feet again, and the songs started coming. I spent hours a day working on the music. It wasn't a chore. It was a lifeline. It was about finding passion again, and being creative again. Being creative in a way that I could be. Creating some kind of life.

It was necessary psychologically?

This is the thing with sorrow sometimes. You often don't realize you're hanging 10 with sorrow, on this big wave. And it's this amazing thing you can ride. With the video, "Spark" (the album's first single), this woman is blindfolded with her hands tied and she escapes. She doesn't know where she's going, but she's having to pull on something within her that maybe she didn't know she had. And with these different events that happen to us, we either treat it as a rite of passage and get through it or we don't make it through. It can't be like, "It'll be OK." Because sometimes it isn't. There aren't these little boxes of "happy life" and "horrible life." This record isn't depressing, it's about this life force and finding life forces in the rhythm. That's what I locked on to. As a woman not following through the motherhood cycle, having it abruptly amputated, so where do you go? No-man's land. There isn't a place for you to go. So I went to the water. I thought if I really want a mentor on this the Earth wasn't a bad one. Because she's always going through birth and death at the same time. It's all so integrated. That became a huge place for me to jump off on. So the rhythm became my way back to my womanhood. Independent of being someone's sister, somebody's daughter, mother, lover, friend. It was just some primal woman.

Your albums are full of dialogues with the divine. And every time God lets you down. Like on "Spark," you sing, "If the divine master plan is perfection/Maybe next I'll give Judas a try." If God were human, you would have dumped him a long time ago.

[Laughs] You're right. After I lost the baby it was really the final straw. In a sense I have a lot more compassion for the Christian deity, because he's off my altar. I don't have an altar anymore. But I see the sacredness in just the simple things in the day. Sometimes people are really cut off from wanting to look at their monsters, at their demons, at the divine in them. When I began to understand the Christian God is a fragment of the divine, that was the least arrogant with religion that I have ever been. I have a margarita regularly with him, and it feels much better. Because although we're only human beings, and I'm only a human woman, I think there are things the Christian God can learn from us. I wouldn't confront this hierarchy of humans and deities before, but when I lost the baby, there was nothing you could hold against me at that point. I had no fear in confronting any force. There's an incredible amount of anger on the planet and you can't purge it -- you have to integrate it.

But isn't it arduous for you bringing some of these experiences up night after night at your concerts?

You cross that line into what is true transmutation. Sorrow doesn't become this thing that you don't want to invite at your party. Happiness is not only about giggling. It can be true joy when you're not afraid to go to any emotional place. You have an all-access card. You can't sit here and tell me that you've never been on a side that now makes you go, 'Ooh, I wouldn't make that choice now.' I know I've done things that I wouldn't do now. I know in past lives I've murdered and murdered and I might have justified it every time. People murder and they rape, and I don't mean just in the physical sense. They devour one another emotionally. I've done it, I do it. None of us have clean hands here. But the point isn't that we do it, the point is realizing that none of us are on the good side all of the time, and none of us are on the bad side all of the time. We're all together. And the shows are really about that to me.

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