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Willamette Week (US)
Portland, Oregon
September 9, 1998

Voices In Her Head

On her fourth album, Tori Amos plays her piano, unveils more enigmatic characters and channels choirgirls.

by Richard Martin

Tori Amos has offered up a thousand theories about how she writes her songs. She's said they come from voices, from Vikings, from her past struggling to escape. But nothing could have prepared her for the events that catalyzed the songwriting for her fourth and most recent album, From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic).

While touring extensively for 1996's Boys for Pele, her third consecutive platinum-selling record of dramatic piano and voice ruminations, Amos learned she would become a mother. Three months into her pregnancy, however, she miscarried, and soon the songs began pouring out. This time, choirgirls were here muse, gently shaping her innermost thoughts into music and escorting her further down the path she's pursued since becoming a child piano prodigy at age three.

"As a writer, you file everything," Amos says from a tour stop in St. Louis. "You start doing this as a little girl when you realize you want to write, and every experience can become a detail that can be used later on."

For a more straightforward musician, the tragic situation would translate into a pained, morbid song cycle about loss and emptiness. But Amos, who has been called everything from a kook to a brilliant free spirit, addresses her lot early and then moves on. In the album-opening "Spark," Amos redolently sings, "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn't keep baby alive." From there, Choirgirl splays across a rich lyrical terrain, incorporating real and fictional characters into a luminescent musical backdrop.

In "Jackie's Strength," Amos turns the Kennedy assassination into a lament for the widowed first lady, then follows the galloping guitar and piano figures into a playful childhood remembrance about mooning the David Cassidy image on a friend's lunchbox. "Playboy Mommy" alludes to a fallen child within the context of a mother expressing regret for her loose behavior. On some of the album's more striking musical compositions, such as the hauntingly melodic "Black Dove (January)" and the pulsating, psychedelic "Raspberry Swirl," female protagonists achieve varying levels of psychological independence from their past.

Amos broke free herself after unleashing the oddly affecting debut Little Earthquakes in 1992. Sexually forthright and jarringly explicit--particularly in the rape tale "Me and a Gun"--this reverend's daughter from North Carolina eschewed societal mores and musical conformity. On this and subsequent releases, Amos refined her stark stories while keeping the spotlight trained on the 88 keys and fragile soprano vocals that set her apart from her guitar-wielding, vocal-chord-shredding rock peers. On Choirgirl, however, the emphasis shifts slightly toward full-band interplay, particularly between her and drummer Matt Chamberlain, with whom she recorded many tracks live in the studio. "I knew that I wanted to work with rhythm," Amos says, "but it was a loose desire. It wasn't defined in any way."

This approach marks a change in the usual girl-and-piano aesthetic that prevails on her first three records and numerous EPs. "If you integrate your records into your life, then they become imprinted on you," Amos says. "You're not going to go to the same place again."

Amos, Chamberlain, guitarist Steve Caton and a couple of studio bassists--the Meters' George Porter Jr. and Beck's Justin Meldal-Johnsen--worked through the vagaries in Amos' vision to construct a consistently evocative album that more than ever accentuates her complex lyrical constructs.

To Amos, this determination (and mingling of talent) is central to her success, yet it troubles her that the market doesn't necessarily reward such a high-minded approach. "You can be a pop star and not play an instrument and not know how to sing," she says, launching into one of her trademark rants. "The biggest pop stories in this business right now can't play an instrument. You've got to find that funny because the biggest basketball players actually have to know how to play basketball. But this is the one industry--and possibly acting--where you don't have to know your craft. It's not about that. There was a time when it was. You couldn't be a jazz musician and not know how to play. Now, the culture is eating it up. Maybe the public wants something they know they could do better, that's not intimidating."

Along with instrumental proficiency, Amos considers songwriting a pivotal aspect of the musical art form. She says she crafts her lyrics while surrounded by books that contain everything from paintings to Greek mythology, the latter of which she recommends to anyone interested in character development.

And characters continue to take precedence over narrative in Amos' songs. On Choirgirl, the female-dominated cast lurks and frolics, exploring the world from all angles in a way that indicates the singer's search for fresh emotional territories.

"We all get only one diary, right?" Amos says. "Little Earthquakes was my diary. You can only write your biography once, so you have to start having new experiences. You have to constantly develop as a person and see sides to yourself that you might not want to see. Even if you're the observer in your work, you are in there, and if you don't keep finding out the different beasts that live inside, then you just become this stagnant character."

Tori Amos, The Devlins
Rose Garden Arena, 1401 N Wheeler Ave.,
224-8499 8 pm Saturday, Sept. 12

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