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Between the Lines (US)
Michigan's Community News for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders and Friends
August 20, 1998

Tori Amos: Creme Puff with a Machete

by Jeffrey L. Newman

"I really enjoy having a giggle with a friend, but then someone crosses my line, then I don't really take it lightly. Some guy flipped me off recently in L.A. and I started chasing this group of Mexican guys down the road. I sometimes forget I'm not 7'2" and a Viking," said the 33-year-old singer.

"Part of my strength comes from my great, great, grandmother, who was part Cherokee. Pride and honor were very important. So if you go for the jugular and miss it, you better look for an exit sign fast," she added.

Amos defies catagorization. The versatile, and sometimes unorthodox, pianist and vocalist continues to amaze critics and win over new fans with her offbeat, somewhat intoxicating vocal style. Nearly eight years after breaking into the mainstream music scene, the often outspoken and zestful redhead is at the height of her career, having racked up a slew of gold and platinum records. She recently embarked on a major nation tour that will continue through Thanksgiving.

The newly married singer is also promoting her fourth solo album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," on Atlantic Records. It's her first new album since 1996s "Boys For Pele." The new album debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard Top 200-album chart in late May, and was certified gold within its first seven weeks, a rare feat for any artist.

Amos keeps herself loyal to the people who helped shape her into the person she is today.

"I only know what I grew up with, which was around a lot of gay people," Amos said. "When I first started I was working in the gay clubs. They taught me how to put a dress on, be confident, put lipstick on and most of all, to believe in myself. I was a tomboy. Shy. The only time I was confident was when I was at the piano. By being around the gays, I learned a lot about coming out of my shell. A lot of the ideas and concepts I hold today were given to me at an early age by gay people."

Born in North Carolina, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Amos had a somewhat regimented upbringing. She began playing the piano as a tot and composed her first musical score when she was only four years old. At age five, she was sent to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. But after six years of trying to conform to their way of doing things, Amos found herself expelled from the academy.

"They didn't think they'd get much out of me on any level. They were too regimented on how I felt a pianist should be. I mean, I'm not a great pianist, I'm an inventive one. I have good musical structure as a composer and that's really my strength," she said.

At age 13, having moved with her family to the Baltimore area, Amos took a job working in of all places, a gay bar - not the sort of place one would expect to find the teenage daughter of a Methodist minister. For the next few years, she perfected her craft by playing Gershwin tunes and the music of other popular composers at various gay clubs.

"I grew up in a very Victorian household where you were taught to be a virgin untin you were married. And then I began working in the gay clubs where I learned that not only didn't you have to be a virgin, but you didn't have to be a virgin with any one sex," she said. "It was a complete contradiction. My dad was a kind of Billy Graham. But, he also believed in being successful, no matter what the cost, as long as it didn't go against his beliefs. He wanted me to be successful and could therefore rationalize it. I guess you can justify anything if you want to. And he could justify letting me go to the clubs."

After an ill-fated pop attempt in the mid-80s called "Y Kant Tori Read" the singer took time off to dedicate time to writing solid, alternative pop music. The result of that effort became her stellar 1992 debut, "Little Earthquakes." With feminie venom, skewed humor and stark eroticism, the release became that year's sleeper hit and sold more than two million copies worldwide. The album spawned several hits, including "Crucify," "Silent All These Years," and "Winter."

Her follow up, "Under the Pink," also sold more than two million copies, but critics were harsher on Amos's release, balking at its stark, stripped- down, ethereal sound. Still it yielded two top-40 hits, "God" and "Cornflake Girl."

With "Boys for Pele," her third opus, which also sold millions of copies, the singer seemed more in control. Recorded in Ireland and Louisiana, it veered off center even further than "Under the Pink," and transcended the boundaries of any one genre, landing in a vast area of alternative pop.

During her two-year hiatus, which was partly fueled by a miscarriage she had during a Christmas show promoting "Boys," the singer decided she needed to let go of many things, including her writhing away on the piano. She decided she wanted to marry her voice and piano playing with other instruments and sounds, and gave it an edgier, rockier sound. And from that, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" was born.

The brilliant new set was recorded in England in a 200-year old barn converted into a studio. To add to the risk-element of the new sound, she and her drummer remained in separate rooms during the recording session, watching and listening to one another on TV monitors as they played. Still Amos-like esoteric, the CD has enough of a new cusp to give the singer a new sense of appeal.

"There's a deep love on this record," said Amos.

While Amos has never physically had sex with another woman, she said she has fallen in love with several of her women friends.

"I wouldn't say no, but I'd have to be drawn to that person. For me, it's about a taste and a smell, chemistry. And that taste and smell seems to want hairy legs. For some reason that smell of a male creature is just my preference. It's not like I couldn't see myself with a woman, but it's a choice I haven't made. Not that I couldn't." Amos said.

As for the gay boys, Amos can't get enough of them.

"I was just in Italy and these guys are all kissing and hugging. These Roman guys would like see each other and it would be, 'Hey, hello.' These guys are like rugged and look like football players, but they're all touchy and look at women like 'These chicks are just there to have the babies,'" she said with a devilish laugh.

Amos said surrounding herself with gay men is very important.

"Growing up I never felt badly treated, never felt invaded. They didn't want anything from me physically. I felt safe. Sometimes when I'm with my women friends, there can be that chemistry, but with gay men there's nothing physical," said Amos.

As for public misconceptions about her, Amos said the really big one is people think she is some far-out, hippie girl and don't really get her.

"My girlfriends will tell you, I'm really into hanging out with women friends and having a Margarita and being a good listener. If you went to the pub at the end of the world, you wouldn't expect me to be on the other side of the bar making Margaritas, but I would. That's what I'm like," she said.

"I've met a lot of performers, and trust me they're not fun. I'd rather have a drink with a senator than with some of those girls. I'd like people to think if we met up, and hung out, we'd have a good laugh. That irony and humor doesn't come across in interviews. Instead I'm painted as so 'hippie new age.' and that's so not me. And that's not my scene at all."

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