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Pitchfork (US, www)
November 1, 2021

Tori Amos on the Music That Shaped Her Life

The alternative icon on the comforts of Carly Simon, the escape of Aphex Twin, and the life-giving power of Tracy Chapman

by Eric Torres

Tori Amos Graphic by Maddy Price, photo by Desmond Murray When Tori Amos was a teenager in the early '80s, gigging at hotel piano bars across Washington, D.C., she liked to occasionally pull the wool over her audience's eyes. Between her usual catalog -- pop standards, an original song here and there -- Amos would sneak in new-wave covers as surreptitiously as the "liquid handshakes" between Reagan-era lobbyists who frequented those happy hours. "You have to remember, I'm a preacher's daughter," Amos says over Zoom, perched in front of a makeshift green screen wearing sunglasses and a hat. "But I was also the cocktail piano bar player, and I would try and slip in a bit of Boy George." She smiles at the memory. "It just made me so happy."

Whether it's androgynous new-wavers, classic pop songwriters, or brain-scrambling electronic musicians, Amos has always sought out artists who shift the way she perceives the world around her. Over the past 30 years, the North Carolina-born musician has married her extraordinary piano skills and singularly powerful voice to address crises of faith, feminism, and politics with keen insight. Amos' music, from her 1992 solo debut Little Earthquakes onward, has flitted from chamber pop to alt-rock to poetic ballads but always kept its incisive impact, inspiring a legion of dedicated fans and songwriters in her wake.

Her just-released 16th album, Ocean to Ocean, shudders with new, roiling tension. Accompanied by sumptuous orchestration and her trusted piano, Amos digs into both everyday worries and larger anxieties, with the tremors of climate change and political upheaval fresh on her mind. Inspired in part by the frustration she felt witnessing the January riots in Washington and recorded as she quarantined in Cornwall, England, Ocean to Ocean came together after Amos scrapped an entire album's worth of material at the onset of the pandemic. "I think all of us were shocked by those 18 months," she says, a hint of ruefulness in her voice. "The hope I had was that there would be a sonic elixir that came out of it." On the album's centerpiece, "Metal Water Wood," a rhythmic ode to shattered dreams, she sings in a flinty voice, turning her troubles into fuel: "You found me burning, burning in despair/You said then, I know, dear/It has been a brutal year."

Here, the 58-year-old singer-songwriter runs down the songs and albums that form the contours of her life, five years at a time.

Mary Hopkin: "Those Were the Days"

Tori Amos: I first heard this song on the radio. At 5, I was accepted into the Peabody Conservatory, and my father would drive me there for prep on Saturdays. My senses were very heightened to music -- I would rehearse all week with repertoire that I would then play for my teacher and go to theory class and do all those things. It was about a 35- to 40-minute drive, and my father, who was a preacher, would allow me to have the radio on. Looking back, although he was puritanical in some ways, it's pretty cool that he did that.

I remember hearing "Those Were the Days" as a child and thinking it was the most beautiful, whimsical thing. Even the idea that somebody's singing, "Those were the days, my friend." I was just a kid, but music was my world from morning until night, and I thought this one was very, very special. I was also a huge Beatles fan, and Paul McCartney produced this track. It's one of my favorites.

Gilbert O'Sullivan: "Alone Again (Naturally)"

At 10, I had just come through a traumatic time when my grandfather died. He worked in the hosiery mills in North Carolina, and my mom was not well after she gave birth to me. So he'd come in from the night shift and rock me and sing these spirituals in a beautiful tenor voice, which was my first exposure to music. He was my best friend until he died when I was 9-and-a-half, so I was really grieving in 1973. This song, "Alone Again (Naturally)," became my theme tune in honor of my grandfather. I would go to his gravesite in North Carolina and take whatever I could from the house and have a little picnic and sit next to his grave, just hoping he would talk back to me. "Alone Again" is a sad song in some ways, but it's a magical song because it really touches your heart when you lose somebody who you really, really loved and who really, really loved you. It was such a void, and this song expressed that feeling of deep loss.

Carly Simon: "Boys in the Trees"

I had been a fan of Carly for quite a while, but this song really spoke to me. It expressed how I felt when you're starting out and guys are playing sports, and you're inside playing piano or whatever it is, and you feel very much like there are two tracks of existence happening. In 1978, where I was in the suburbs and as a minister's daughter, there were these projections that were put on that were much more, you know, "act like a young lady." It's more liberal in some places today, how we talk about gender, but this song expressed how I had felt for years about the segregation of being a girl and being a guy.

[Simon] definitely influenced my work. I was able to meet her in 1995 when we did an awards thing together. It was incredible being in her presence; she was so kind and lovely. Later, when she heard I was pregnant, she sent me a lovely gift of congratulations. So it's a full-circle kind of thing.

Eurythmics: "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"

When I heard "Sweet Dreams" and I heard that voice from that siren Annie Lennox, I didn't know what to do with myself. It was the way she utilized her instrument and how she told the story with the visuals. MTV had such a powerful influence over how we saw videos. I couldn't believe it, watching her walk in this pasture, dressed as this androgynous goddess-god. It floored me and showed me the possibility of performance and storytelling. It wasn't just about the song itself, but how you told the song's story, how you framed it, and then what choices you would make visually. I know certain artists have been very visual; Joni Mitchell has been a great painter as well as a great musician and would marry the two in how we could experience her art on both those levels. But this new medium was fascinating. Culture Club, Boy George -- I had never seen anybody like that in my life.

Tracy Chapman: "Fast Car"

I'd heard about Tracy Chapman because her name was being spoken of as this powerful singer-songwriter. At the time, we were sharing an executive producer, David Kershenbaum, so she was recording this album while I was across town in another studio [recording 1988's Y Kant Tori Read]. After listening to "Fast Car" and the album, which was so brilliant and powerful, it really changed my whole outlook. It woke me up and took me back to my 5-year-old self, who was creating from a pure place of intention of music being magic, as a place where we could walk into and feel many different things. I'd lost my way after sending so much music out to so many record labels, and after years of rejection, I just said, "OK, whatever needs to be done, I will fill that slot at the label if they're looking for that slot." I honestly lost my soul, and "Fast Car" really reminded me what my calling was.

I had to have a real reckoning with myself, my intentions, why I was doing what I was doing. Don't ask me how I so missed the boat on my visual presentation, but I have to hold my hand up and take responsibility for that car crash of an album cover for Y Kant Tori Read. What I've realized over the years is if your intentions are clear, the public feels that. I made a commitment to the Muses then that even if no one ever listened to my music again, if I had to play the piano bar till I was an old granny in granny boots, then I would, if that's what I needed to do to pay my rent. But I would only write songs that I felt were genuine.

The Cranberries: "Linger"

I was touring a lot in the '90s, so I didn't take in as much music. But I'll never forget when I heard the Cranberries and Dolores O'Riordan. That voice and passion combined with the sound of the band -- I found it mercurial. There was something there, like liquid metal, that you couldn't hold in your hands. I had been to Ireland and then did a record in County Wicklow [1996's Boys for Pele], and the Irish experience is something that I really treasure. You can go to any town in Ireland and there will be people playing either their own music or traditional music in some pub. In every little village, there will be a good Irish band. It's almost as if the music is in them. So when I heard the Cranberries, I thought, Okay, there she is. There's that Irish magic.

Radiohead: OK Computer

When OK Computer came out... now, that was something really different. It was this explosion that changed the terrain sonically and got invoked in other people's work. It's hard to define, but it's one of the most influential records for artists from all genres. It really influenced a record I did called From the Choirgirl Hotel. Things changed from Boys for Pele, which was the harpsichord punk record of mine but acoustic-driven, and this was more an electric-driven record. Matt Chamberlain came and played drums for the first time on my records; we had a bunch of musicians coming in and out. That's when things started to change in our world in a big way. [Choirgirl Hotel] was a very different type of record for me, and that came from listening to OK Computer. I didn't know half the time what Thom [Yorke] was talking about, but it didn't matter. Maybe it was way over my head -- a lot of things are -- but I felt it.

The Chicks: "Landslide"

I picked this for a few reasons. "Landslide" has affected so many songwriters across the board. It's one of the greatest songs ever written in my opinion, and a lot of us covered this before 2003 because, you know, it's the mothership, for heaven's sake. But the Chicks' cover, with their style and those harmonies, was beautiful. And while this beauty is happening, then there's this ugly story that they lived. A lot of other people had made comments about the American administration and questioned their integrity in the war and the why of it all. And yet they became the pariah of the right-wing and the government. Watching it happen in real time was absolutely shocking. It's a testament to them to have come out on the other side, to be the Chicks and have this amazing career and to have found a new fan base. Not a lot of people can achieve that.

Adele: "Chasing Pavements"

I was watching a TV show where Adele sang "Chasing Pavements," and I thought, Oh, my goodness. What is that? It was like a meteor had crashed in through the atmosphere. I had just seen something very powerful and wonderful and unique. When these things happen, it just makes you happy that you're alive to witness it. I wondered what it's been like over the last 50, 60 years when people hear this or that crooner, a vocal instrument with this kind of power and passion. You know, what did people feel like when they heard Dusty Springfield for the first time? I think it's exciting that she's very much a part of the canon now, and that she's carved out a place in music history for herself.

Ed Sheeran: "The A Team"

When I'm listening to music, I'm listening to whether it has that thing, that magic. To me, this is one of the best songs ever written. I don't mean by him -- I mean, one of the best songs ever written. When I heard it, I just had to stop and think, What have I just heard? The structure, the storytelling, the vulnerability, the commentary -- everything about that song and what it contains, in these few minutes. It's up there with "A Day in the Life" to me.

Aphex Twin: "T69 Collapse"

During this lockdown, my daughter Tash and her boyfriend Oliver, who's a bass player studying jazz, were coming down to Cornwall from London. It was for two or three weeks, or what we thought would be two or three weeks. Five months later, they were still here, and we started what we called "Oliver's Tracks." Almost every night, Oliver would play stuff for us. This guy eats, drinks, and sleeps music, so he would play things I'd never heard of, stuff people were recording in their bedroom. Of course, Aphex Twin being from Cornwall, he seemed to see a connection there, so I also discovered Aphex Twin during this timeframe. I had heard about the music in the '90s because some people I worked with were really, really into it. But I began to embrace it during the last 18 months.

It's coming from a brain that thinks differently than the rest of us, and I really value that. I love the rhythm sense and the sounds that he chooses. I feel like I can just walk into these escapes. I know it's an unlikely combination, a piano player really loving Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada, but I do.


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