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Rolling Stone (Australia)
December 1999, #568

Jagged Little Earthquakes

Caption: "We want a shrubbery": Amos and Morissette plan their very own secret garden.

Two of pop's trickier divas find salvation in MP3 technology. But just don't ask them about their record company, OK? On The Road with Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette.

By Michael Dwyer

The grass is cool, the late afternoon sun is warm and the arena is strictly out of bounds during soundcheck. So sue me. On the stage of Holmdel, New Jersey's (nearly) empty PNC Arena, a flame-haired, piano-hammering nymph is teaching her band a new tune. The words "Jesus" and "disease" barrel out of the mayhem before the music disintegrates like some kind of unholy plane crash. "Oh shit, I fucked up," Tori Amos mutters. Wow.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one with goosebumps. In the bowels of the backstage labyrinth, Alanis Morissette is relaxing in a large, dimly-lit room festooned with Indian fabrics. The waft of incense and a tranquil trickle of water complete the bubble of virtual serenity. "The time really hits me when I'm talking to someone in my dressing room and I hear her (Amos) soundchecking," she says, with awe. "I have to think, 'OK, I'm not playing her CD, she's actually out there.' It's really beautiful."

It's week two of the 5 Weeks tour, one of the most inspired and - by virtue of its sponsorship deal with online music distributor - controversial double-headers on the US summer circuit. It's easy for the Alternative Press to dismiss the outing as "two former child actresses playing pissed-off vagina music", but these women combined box office muscle and bold alignment with the MP3 frontier makes to leave you wondering who's really wearing the trousers in this business.

"I wanted to pair with someone who I respected as an artist; I wasn't thinking of anyone's gender," Morissette says pointedly. "It was as simple as my wanting to play with Tori and wanting her to be able to do her full show. I was absolutely willing to cur mine shorter in order for her to have a longer set and I think that was one of the reasons she felt comfortable doing it. It was both of us being able to do our show without having to compromise."

Morissette recalls Amos' solo debut, Little Earthquakes, as a primary inspiration for Jagged Little Pill. "It was 1991 and I was just kinda figuring out who I was. I remember being very heartened by her courage. I had written so much music since I was nine years old, but I had never been able to summon up the courage to write in my songs what I wrote in my journal or in my poetry. When I heard her record it was an affirmation of sorts."

Ms Amos isn't speaking to the press today. But post-soundcheck, 14 women and three men wait backstage in orderly single file for a quick Polaroid moment. She stands at the head of the line like the Queen greeting the English cricket team, says a few soft words and sends them on their blessed way. The fans are here thanks for a competition on local alternative station WHTG, a format that wouldn't touch Morissette with a barge pole. Likewise, plenty of punters filling the arena out front will be hearing Amos for the first time tonight. Talk about your ingenious crossover marketing initiatives.

"Yeah, we're different," Morissette says simply. "Some people probably listen to both of us, some people are probably more avid about Tori or me, but what's great is the kind of people who come to both of our shows are really open. I think she has an element of feeling she's playing for my fans and I feel like I'm playing for hers but I do think it's pretty evenly split, which is perfect."

Yessir, come show time, it's neck and neck in the rapturous response sweepstakes. Amos' show is more challenging musically: her older tunes are fractured by wild dynamic shifts and songs from her new double CD, To Venus and Back, which tease and boggle the senses on first listen. Morissette is far more the smiling, whirling and twirling stadium entertainer, her music more accessible and her singalong potential greater. What they have in common is surprisingly gender-balanced and deeply passionate devotees, thousands of which will be clicking onto the MP3 links at as soon as they get home.

"It was an embracing of sorts," Morissette says f her deal with MP3, which entails exclusive live downloads available after each show. Although she and Amos are both signed to corporate giant Time Warner, early opponents of MP3 technology, she claims all concerned are now comfortable with the arrangement. It's been a question of "taking baby steps with (Warner), rather than against them," she says.

"The current system has to change. It's old. It's very much not in any sort of artistic development and I believe gone are the days where artists take the system for granted. Now when I hear musicians raging against the proverbial machine, I'm quick to notice 'Well, you were actually in the position to sign the contract or not'."

In August, Warner Atlantic made "Bliss", the first single from To Venus and Back, available for sale on the Internet by digital download. It was a pioneering move, sure, but it's kind of thrilling to realise that their hand was forced by a wave beyond their control, a wave lent overwhelming momentum and legitimacy by artist initiatives like 5 1/2 Weeks.

I finally met Amos later, in a dressing room much smaller than Morissette's - so small, in fact, that the radiant goddess energy emanating from her watery blue eyes makes me shake and sweat like a lapsed Catholic. We talk MP3s and set list highlights. She remembers a piano she played in Perth in 1992. I indelicately suggest that she's lucky Atlantic is allowing her to release a double album (one disc live, one disc brand new) only a year after her last. She narrows her eyes and purses her lips for a moment. "They don't tell me what to do," she explains curtly.

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Tori Puts Her Best Foot Forward

The Tori Amos Shoe

Look closely when Amos next plays here: she might just be sporting the new Tori Amos Shoe, the work of designer Steve Madden. All profits from the sale of this fashionable yet functional footwear will benefit RAINN, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. As Amos reports on her official website: "The good thing about it is you can actually work in it (the show). My work is, I play the piano. It's good to be able to play in them. I can't play if I don't have a heel on. This one that Steve designed is really comfortable, which is quite tricky sometimes, getting a comfortable and a glamour shoe, because a girl likes to feel a bit glamour, you know. Even if you are just going to the dentist, you need a bit of glamour. But you want to be comfortable because after all that novocaine and stuff. That is the good thing about the shoe Steve has designed. The flat shoes and tennis shoes, yeah they make a lot of sense, but sometimes you need a bit of that Bette Davis feeling."

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