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Spin (US)
May 1998

The 20 most vital artists in music today...

1. Beck
2. Radiohead
3. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
4. Nine Inch Nails
5. Puff Daddy
6. Hole
7. Prodigy
8. The Fugees
9. Ani DiFranco
10. Marilyn Manson
11. Pearl Jam
12. Cornershop
13. Beastie Boys
14. PJ Harvey
15. The Chemical Brothers
16. Wu-Tang Clan
17. Tori Amos
18. Smashing Pumpkins
19. Tricky
20. Fiona Apple

17 Tori Amos

The Cornflake Girl grows up

by Kim France
photo by Hugh Hales Tooke

Toward the end of a lengthy and demanding international tour in support of her last album, Boys for Pele, Tori Amos discovered she was going to have a baby. She was thrilled. Her plan was not to worry about recording another album for a while, but to finish up the last shows, return to England, relax, and be a mom. "I played the KROQ Christmas show three months pregnant and I was just on cloud nine." she says. But back home, two days before Christmas, the cramping and bleeding started and Amos knew immediately what was wrong. "I was so freaked out that I didn't let my boyfriend drive the truck to the hospital," she says. "I drove, just because it was the only thing...." Long, long, really long pause. "You're just willing your body to keep this life, but it's like, Tori, it's over. You sit there and go, maybe it'll be okay. And you're one of those ones where it just wasn't okay."

In those horrible weeks after the miscarriage, the songs just started coming. "And they came from all corners," she says. "I'm calling this record From the Choirgirl Hotel because I felt like I didn't know if I was sending dispatches from it or if I'm part of their troupe and they let me sing alto with them sometimes. But [the choir girls] were incredibly comforting to me." What they told her, she says, was, "Look, you can't be a mother right now, but you can be a woman. Not a little girl anymore, or an adolescent, or a girl on the verge of womanhood."

Amos famously believes choir girls and Vikings and other assorted beings inhabit her head and guide her pen as she composes her songs. This is reason enough for some to dismiss her as a dippy ethereal fairy goddess piano lady a few tarot cards short of a fill deck. Which is not quite accurate, or fair. Here's a theory: From the age of three, Tori Amos was a child piano prodigy, banging out music with a grace and skill she was years away from truly comprehending. How does a prodigy cope with something so innate -- and yet so Other -- than by making the determination that something (or someone) else was occupying her head, making her make the music?

And besides, Amos is not a blinders-on seeker, looking for a quick supernatural salve -- these characters of hers just as often complicate things as resolve them. Unlike most New Agey song-birds, she doesn't conjure images of hugs and cute baby animals and gentle weeping. Instead, she writes songs about life's potential to turn out hideously wrong; of snot-dripping, puffy-eyed projectile sobbing; and of the perseverance that somehow impels people to keep plugging away for happiness. Her lyrics can be loopy and subjective or they can be straightforward and cut painfully to the quick, and From the Choirgirl Hotel has some killers: "She's convinced she could hold up a glacier," go the lyrics to "Spark," "but she couldn't keep baby alive."

One of the big lessons Amos took away from the experience of losing the baby was the importance of letting go. "To love so much that you surrendered, to say, 'Well, this isn't your time and you don't want to come now' -- that kind of not needing to control another life was a big step for me. Because I try not to be controlling, but everybody knows I'm Attila the Honey."

Because she hadn't planned on making another record right away, and because she was thinking about issues of letting go, Amos was caught just off-guard enough to make some interesting decisions about what the new album should be. For one thing, she wanted to shift the emphasis away from the girl writhing away on the piano. "I've done that," she says, and then laughs. "I mean, I have wruung that one dry!" She became fixated on the idea of being a player; of recording an album now the way solo artists usually do -- alone and sequestered, with the other stuff mixed in later -- but as more of a collaboration. "I wanted to have a marriage with the instruments in a way that I never really have," she says. She wasn't entirely sure she was up to the challenge. "I know I can sit down at a piano and do a bit of up and down and boogie to the left and boogie to the right," she remembers thinking, "but could I hold my own with real players?"

The album was recorded in a converted barn in Cornwall, England, and to further instill the collaborative spirit, she and drummer Matt Chamberlain were set up in separate rooms, equipped with TV monitors so they could watch each other play. "He's on the TV, as far away as you are from me," she says. "His face -- I can see him this close. And I'm playing and I'm looking at him... everything you're hearing is full takes. It was about a moment in time, and we played together for weeks to get those moments."

And it worked. From the Choirgirl Hotel is the sound of a risky artist taking even further risks. She seems to have given herself over in equal parts to her old idol Jimmy Page and her old pal Trent Reznor. Chamberlain's drums carry a dark undertow, and the snaky guitar endows the record with a languid, sexy mood. It's different enough from her old records to possibly attract a slightly wider audience, but esoteric and Tori-like enough for her devoted crew of obsessive fans.

Amos will turn 34 in August, and recently she's been thinking about the fact that she could very well be at the halfway point of her life. "That doesn't mean you have to go shopping at fucking Ralph Lauren," she says, "but it does mean that you are at a different stage. It's not good or bad. It's just it is." We've been sitting all this time in the lobby lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, Amos's New York home away from home and a place where she greets the doormen by name. In a couple of weeks, her marriage to sound engineer Mark Hawley will be announced. "It's a hard thing, growing up, and yet I think you can do it with grace," she says. "Whether I'm doing it or not, well, some days are better than others."

1997 ranking: 13

[transcribed by jason/yessaid]

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