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Westword (US)
Denver, Colorado, free paper
August 27-September 2, 1998

Are You There, God? It's Me, Tori

Tori Amos on her relationship with higher powers.

By Amy Kiser

Earlier in their careers, Madonna, Liz Phair and Tori Amos routinely prescribed megadoses of overt female sexuality, and since their musical pills were alternately sugared with disco beats, indie minimalism and highfalutin piano classicism, large numbers of fans eagerly swallowed them. Recently, however, these high-profile women, each of whom came to prominence in part because she chose to publicly broadcast her gender's heretofore secret conflicts and predilections, stumbled simultaneously upon the inevitable threshold of such themes: fertility. This year heralds the release of Madonna's Ray of Light and Phair's whitechocolatespaceegg, a pair of postpartum labors of love that give passing nods to the vocalists' new roles as mothers, and Amos's from the choirgirl hotel, which likewise pivots on the subject of maternity. But since Amos miscarried three months into her pregnancy, her CD is filled not with joyful declarations, but with ardent and varied conversations about her truncated mission.

A libidinous former child prodigy raised in the Christian tradition, this minister's daughter has always displayed an interest in both the sacred and the profane; on her previous albums, including 1992's Little Earthquakes, 1994's Under the Pink and 1996's Boys for Pele, God and religion popped up as frequently as did sex and relationships. So when she lost her child two years ago after just one trimester of intrauterine life, it was only natural that the messages with which she was bombarded during her youth would resurface. "I was brought up with the belief that if you did X, Y and Z -- if you prayed and went to church and didn't do certain things -- that God would listen to your prayers," she says. "And the real truth is that the wolf will show up at your door sometime in your life no matter how compassionate you are or how loving you are."

The miscarriage left Amos empty and grieving -- a condition that most people wouldn't find conducive to creativity. But Amos's pain thrust her into fruitfulness, prompting a cascade of songs. Some of the compositions occupy the wistful, windy moors of earlier offerings, as expected, but many others take listeners on rakishly seductive forays into trip-hop and glam. At their best, the tunes sound Tricky-sinister; at their worst, they suggest Kate Bush in a low rider.

Given the lamentable event that inspired much of the album, choirgirl's sexual tenor initially seems an odd component in Amos's process. But on closer analysis, her refusal to tiptoe around the topic can be seen as a way of countering the puritanical belief that a female's essential goodness is dictated by her sexuality. In other words, Amos gives voice (and vibrating bass line) to a more complex image of femininity.

"I think there were a lot of guilty notions put across when I was growing up -- that if you became a certain type of woman, certain things would happen to you," she notes. "But I believe in the integration of the sexual and the spiritual life for all people. That's really what my goal is -- to have a balance, because it was really a polarity when I was brought up." For Amos, this split is embodied by two New Testament figures: prostitute Mary Magdalene and the queen mum herself. "In my own faith system, I've tried to marry the Marys together so that the Mother Mary's sexual being isn't circumcised from her anymore and Mary Magdalene's wisdom isn't circumcised from her. I've restored that in my own faith system, and that's how I see them now -- as a whole."

To put it mildly, such views are not shared by Amos's family, whose traditional Christian thinking and often pat notions of cause and effect tend to leave her intellectually dissatisfied. "My mother -- she's such a Christian woman and I love her dearly -- would tell me a story of people in a storm that were holed up in a church," she says. "They prayed, and they feel the angel saved them from death. And yet other people were killed in the storm. And their comment was, 'The angel saved us.' Well, what about those people who didn't get saved? What about the mother who loses her baby? What do you say to her? 'Your prayers weren't enough'? 'You didn't know the right things to say'? 'You weren't enough'? Then you're talking about a hierarchy that God has for saving certain people and not others."

Such conundrums have long troubled philosophers and lowbrows alike. But none has tried to plumb them in quite the way Amos has. "When I lost the baby, I guess I felt I had certain rights," Amos says. "There was a line crossed with me. They say that in fighting for your child -- even though it was unborn -- you'll do certain things that you wouldn't do in any other circumstance. I think it made me feel like I could approach any deity from any religion and ask questions. We don't know where souls go when they die. And nobody could give me that information." With that in mind, she adds, "I started to have weekly margarita sessions with the Christian god. And, you know, deities are deities. That's what they do, and obviously, they know things we don't. But as a human woman, I felt a loss that deities don't experience, and I needed to express what that loss felt like to those deities. So this record was really about me respecting the life force in a way that I hadn't, but also putting into perspective all the things I was taught and the untruths I was taught about the guarantees you are given."

The lyrics Amos uses to grapple with these motifs are often impressionistic; there are enough mysterious pronouns on choirgirl to keep her devoted fans poring over the print for days. Much of the music, meanwhile, is crafted around drum-and-bass sequences. "The rhythm started to come early on in the songs," she reveals. "It was a part of each one of the songs' structure. Although there's rhythm on the other records, I didn't write it as part of the structure. It came later."

Amos denies that the infusion of beats represents her capitulation to a beguiling trend. Rather, she says, the idea sprang from a more timeless source. "I remember spending time by the water trying to recover from the loss, and I would just study the water for hours and hours -- how this incredibly multilayered thing which was the sea could turn on a dime, could change from this calm persona to this tidal wave, this thunderous volatile character. There was nothing I could do to save this being's life, so I needed to draw on something to really find my strength as a woman again, because I couldn't go back to being the woman I was before I carried life -- and at the same time, I wasn't able to be a mother. So I studied the sea a lot and started to turn to this primal, primitive -- I guess you could say ancient -- womanness that had to do with rhythm, a woman's internal rhythm that was not dependent on whether she was a virgin or if she was sensual or if she was many times a lover to many, many men. No judgment on what her accomplishments were or weren't. I just felt we all had access to the earth's secrets, and the music started to come through this belief." As a result, the album mirrors not just the ocean's rhythms, but also its bombast and changeability. Effects sporadically drown the vocals and instrumentation. In places, the ornate compositions waver like underwater cathedrals.

In order to explore the deeper realms of the female existence on stage, Amos took an unconventional tack: She declined an invitation to join the roster of the Lilith Fair and assembled an all-male band to back her throughout an extensive tour. She insists that these decisions were based upon distinct artistic goals, not latent reservations about sisterhood. "These players are the best that I could find. It was about being great -- that's how I chose my band. And as far as the Lilith Fair, I'm doing my own show, and it's really a theater piece. What I'm doing, I couldn't do at the Lilith Fair. I would have to change it. I did quite a few festivals in Europe, and we had to shift it. It becomes more of a variety show, and there's nothing wrong with a variety show. We had good fun -- [Garbage's] Shirley Manson and I had a laugh, and Björk was on the bill and we get along very well. But the point is, I did have to shift it, and I really did want to create the show that you're going to see."

These days, an Amos concert reeks of rock-opera spectacle; awash in a grandiose light show, Amos goes wild on her seat, playing her black Bösendorfer grand piano and a Kurzweil MIDI keyboard while the boys rock the house. Such musical sensibilities can be traced to her Seventies-era adolescence. "I think a lot of strides were made then, and there was a sense of humor -- even though it was a dark sense of humor in some of it, like the Bowie stuff. But I liked that time. I felt people took a lot of chances, and now there aren't many subtexts to what I hear on the radio. There are not a lot of piss-takes. There's a lot of politically correct music, and the characters don't have paradoxes going on with them, which I don't find interesting."

The paradoxes that are so prevalent in Amos have been ironed flat by the mainstream press, which has tended to parody her as a kooky girl-child with a faerie fixation. In truth, she's an articulate lay student of many religions who's as interested in the stories of Jesuits or Native Americans as she is in the legend of the Grail. "For some reason, the press, when it was mentioned I was interested in Celtic mythology, mistook this for Tinkerbell. And Tinkerbell is really fun -- but I have a house in Ireland, and to really live there, I threw myself into Celtic mythology and the Tuatha De Danann and their history, and I began to really respect what the land of faerie represented to them. It was really the pagan symbology similar to angels and demons. It gets diluted, and I think it's a disrespect to their mythology. It's not about just the faeries; it's the spiritual world -- that which we cannot see." She adds a challenge: "Go to Ireland and go in a pub, and walk up to some of these huge, gargantuan guys who will headbutt you, and dis their mythology."

The singer is considerably less willing to defend other quasi-religions with which she's been incorrectly identified. "I'm into boat racing and Formula One," she says. "I'm not into crystal suppositories. I'm not a new-age person, and that gets mistaken. The new age, unfortunately, has a lot of bells and whistles, and people think that because they go and be with a shaman, they can do that for a week and then come back and be horrible to their employees. I see that a lot in the music business, where people wear their little red string around their wrist and then are horrible to each other. I call that 'doing spirituality' instead of what my Cherokee grandfather talked about -- walking your talk and taking responsibility for your crap." She hoped to pass on this wisdom to her child: "The one thing I talked about with the baby was that I made a promise to show her different faith systems and beliefs, so that she could make up her own mind. I wasn't given that opportunity. I was only taught the Christian way -- that their God is the only real God, which is really quite arrogant."

Unfortunately, Amos was unable to make good on this pledge. But even though she shared her body with the transient inhabitant of her womb for a too-brief span of time, she says she learned a great deal from her. "On this record, it was really about me trying to speak to the spirit of the baby. She had taught me so much about love, and even though I lost her in the physical, I don't feel like I've lost her influence."

Tori Amos. 8 p.m. Tuesday, September 1, Red Rocks, $24.50-$30, 830-TIXS.

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