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San Jose Mercury News (US)
Wednesday, September 9, 1998

Famous Amos

By Michael D. Clark

THERE'S A fine line between pleasure and pain, and pianist-vocalist Tori Amos knows just how to straddle it.

More to the point, Amos knows how to make her pain everybody else's pleasure. Fortunately, her ability to turn somber and complex feelings into verse and chorus ultimately has given her joy -- not to mention a resolution of some of the problems she faced.

"The music industry seems to be signing a lot of 'Moon in June' type artists these days," says Amos by phone, referring to songs with basic rhyme schemes. "My new CD is perfect if you're ready to jump off a bridge. It's either going to encourage you to get some wine and rethink that decision or dive into the water deeper."

Amos knows the emotional depths to which a listener might go after cueing up her current disc, "From the Choirgirl Hotel." She wrote the songs while recovering from a miscarriage in December 1996. Her moods range from maternal and nurturing to vulnerable to manipulative. The songs tell tales of many women in various stages of personal-relationship evolution.

The miscarriage was one of many private tragedies on which Amos has built her public career over the last six years. While moving from club act to college-radio phenom to pop songstress, she has perfected the art of communicating to gender-specific audiences. Her older songs of lost innocence speak to young women. Her more recent material, embodying an intellectual sexuality, attracts older males.

Touring with a band

Musically, there have been changes, too. Though usually a solo act, Amos is currently touring with a full backup band. She will play the Oakland Arena on Tuesday and the Event Center at San Jose State University on Sept. 19. She is so pleased about how the band has meshed with her music, that she's planning to record songs from future shows for her first live album, due for release next year.

"I made a commitment to the piano when I was a little girl, and for years I felt the need to explore the different ways to explain her," says Amos, referring to her baby grand as if it were a part of her family. "Now I'm ready to put her in a different character role on stage. I'm ready to let her surrender at times and let others step forward."

More than a family member, the instrument is a kind of mirror of Amos herself. It is the tool that led the North Carolina-raised natural girl to be named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" two years ago. And it sustained and soothed her during misfortune.

Classical beginning

Amos has spent a significant portion of her life on the piano bench since she was a toddler. The expectation was that she would become a classical concert artist, until her independent spirit started pushing Bach and Mozart to the background. At 11, she was expelled from Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory for repeatedly venturing into music that was not part of the curriculum. Her first pop-rock foray was an impersonal, mid-'80s, "Moon in June" band called Y Tori Kant Read, which disappeared faster than Katrina and the Waves or Cyndi Lauper.

She could always play, but it was after losing her innocence in an attack by a rapist that she found her singing voice. Four years after Y Tori Kant Read, Amos struck out on her own, writing songs that dealt primarily with her youthful experiences and sexual abuse. Coffee-house confessionals such as "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years" struck a chord with other young women and became underground and college-radio favorites.

At Amos' current concerts, you'll still find girls between 13 and 15 shouting for her to perform her earliest works just one more time before they fade from her playlist forever.

"I've reworked a lot of the old 'journey to the underworld' stuff, and it will be in the set at times," says Amos, who tries to strike a balance between old favorites and recent singles in each show. She changes the program daily but knows she can't please everyone.

"We try to make a beginning and an end to our story, and the middle is different nightly. . . . But sometimes you're just . . . out of luck, and you came to the wrong show," she adds with a laugh.

The old self-loathing turned to self-confidence on her 1994 album "Under the Pink." And a suspicion of men was also apparent; her first radio hits proudly declared her a "Cornflake Girl" who will not suffer pain from another man, not even "God."

Her subsequent album, written amid a breakup with a longtime boyfriend, sharpened her burn. Titled "Boys for Pele" (her suggestion about whom should be sacrificed to the Hawaiian volcano goddess), the disc moves from contempt in "Caught a Lite Sneeze" to the unfathomable magnetism of an abuser in "Putting the Damage On."

With "From the Choirgirl Hotel," Amos finally appears to be turning the page on animosity toward males. Maybe it's because she's now happily married to sound engineer Mark Hawley, or perhaps it's because her band is all-male. Whatever the reason, she seems to have moved on to themes of female empowerment. The songs examine the lives of many women, warts and all. Some of her characters are familiar; there's a tender ode to Jacqueline Kennedy (Onassis), "Jackie's Strength." Others, such as the fictional vamp in the haunting song "Cruel," you will never want to know.

Mini-symphonies on new disc

As a whole, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" sounds more robust than Amos' earlier disc. The guitar of Steve Caton and percussion of drummer Matt Chamberlin and bassist Jon Evans undulate through Amos' piano-led framework, adding texture to her mini-symphonies.

Though the project is still at the discussion stage, Amos hopes to put out a double CD by Christmas of 1999, with one disc of concert highlights and a second of B-side favorites. She got the idea for the live album after fans complained to her about the poor quality of bootlegs. She also realizes the crest she's riding may not last.

"It's a scary feeling, but I think I'm at my peak right now," says Amos. "You have to be honest with yourself, and as far as stamina, muscles and voice go, now is probably the time.

"I want to make a live album before I need an oxygen machine next to the piano."

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