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The Line of Best Fit
November 5, 2021
As a songwriter and interpreter, Tori Amos has built an incredible legacy on the power of connection and compassion. She talks to Alan Pedder about her fascination with songs that can transport and empower.
by Alan Pedder
Tori Amos knows songcraft upside down and inside out. The Cornwall-based singer/songwriter had barely learned to walk when she first sat at the piano, and before the age of three she could pick up melodies by ear and play them back to awestruck adults.
Famously, at five, she became the youngest person ever to be admitted to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute; infamously, aged 11, she was asked to leave. An aberrant interest in popular music put an end to her schooling, and her future as a concert pianist looked to be in ruins. Undeterred, she taught herself a couple of hundred songs and, under the watchful eye of her father Edison, started playing showtunes and other requests at a gay bar in Washington DC.
At 13 years old, she could only play for tips. But her confidence grew, her repertoire expanded, and at 15 she moved on to paid stints in hotel bars and at congressional parties around the Capitol - an eye-opening experience she describes in detail in her 2020 memoir, Resistance - before moving to Los Angeles in 1984 on her way to becoming the trailblazing creative force the music world would, eventually, embrace.
After a false start with the Pat Benatar-indebted (and slightly unfairly maligned) Y Kant Tori Read project, Amos established herself in the early '90s as not only an uncommonly fearless songwriter but an equally fearless interpreter too. All those years of happy hours and after-hours had given her the skill and the moxie to take, for instance, a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and recast it as a bristling, sinister ballad.
It's a habit she has no intention of breaking, often including a 'piano bar' segment on tours where she will pull out anything from a-ha to U2. Strange Little Girls, her sole covers album to date, still sounds as bold and boundary-smashing as it did on release in 2001, wrenching pathos out of a misogynistic Eminem rap and turning Slayer's metal classic "Raining Blood" into an expressionistic vision of female retribution for the brutality of men. No song, it seems, is out of her reach.
Few artists from the time of Amos's 1992 breakthrough with Little Earthquakes have gone on to produce such a generous body of work. Her latest release, Ocean To Ocean, is her sixteenth studio album in 29 years, and her first since 2017's emotionally charged Native Invader. Amos had originally planned a swifter follow-up, but the ongoing pandemic and a seismic shift in the US political landscape led her to scrap the album she had written and start afresh. Having managed to stay busy and relatively buoyant during the first two nationwide lockdowns Amos crumbled at the third hurdle, in the bleakest of midwinters.
Unable to perform or to travel, Amos was forced to confront her grief head on. The loss of her livelihood and freedom was one thing, but more brutal still was being unable to lean on two of the most important women in her life. By cruel coincidence, her mother Mary and best friend Nancy 'Beenie' Shanks passed away only two days apart, in the spring of 2019. Without her guiding lights, Amos felt lost like never before. She knew she had to scrap the album, but had no idea what to write in its place.
Eventually the answer came: the songs needed to speak from a place of compassion. To reach other people mired in grief, the songs had to be willing to go in at ground level and hold space for them there. "It's not about a pill, or a double shot of tequila," says Amos. "It's about sitting in the muck together."
Given its genesis, perhaps the most surprising thing about Ocean To Ocean is how hopeful - even vital - it feels. Amos has reignited her creative partnership with the best rhythm section she's ever had, with drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans back in the fold. The result is perhaps her best work since 2002's epic travelogue Scarlet's Walk, though at once more concise and stylistically varied than that record. The more playful songs like "Spies" and the supple "Metal Water Wood" cover the most new ground, but nothing here feels like a simple retread of Amos's earlier work. "29 Years" obliquely references the rape that Amos so memorably sang about in the unshakeable "Me & A Gun", but ultimately - as with many of her Nine Songs selections here - it's a song about healing.
The loss of her mother is most powerfully felt on "Speaking With Trees", in which Amos sings of hiding her ashes, unable to deal with the emptiness of her absence, while the gorgeous "Flowers Burn To Gold" imagines Mary living on, her kind eyes recognisable but somewhere out of reach.
Nearly 30 years on from Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos still sounds like no one else. She has arguably received too little credit for her influence on the current musical landscape, but perhaps the tide is finally turning in her favour. St. Vincent namechecked Amos in recent single "The Melting Of The Sun"; Nadine Shah credits Little Earthquakes for helping her through a difficult time; Emily Wells titled a song after a line in Amos's "Hey Jupiter"; while Emma Ruth Rundle routinely names Boys For Pele among her favourite records and cites it as an inspiration for her own On Dark Horses.
To mark the release of Ocean To Ocean, we got Amos on the phone to talk about her own inspirations and the songs that mean a lot to her. But where to start when you're a human song sponge with an enormous depth of knowledge? Well, about last night...
"Mama Said" by Carleen Anderson
"I went out to dinner last night with some builders who had come up from Cornwall and Devon to fix something in the London place. These guys... I swear they are from another planet. The night before they were doing egg-and-spoon races up and down Brick Lane, with people coming out of their apartments and joining in.
"It must have been quite something to see, because they are not all spring chickens, but that's just how Cornish and Devonshire builders roll. They bring so much joy and benevolence, hanging out with them can feel like the best thing ever. It's a bit like when you go to a dog park - that feeling of being among the friendliest creatures alive.
"Anyway, we were talking about music and I was asking them about songs that really mattered to them. I was curious what motivated them and one of the songs they mentioned was "Mama Said" by Carleen Anderson [from her 1994 solo debut, True Spirit]. This is a woman that I think hasn't been talked about as much as she deserves. I think she inspired a lot of women in soul - Amy Winehouse cited her as an influence - and she's still going.
"I get excited when people are moved by artists that you wouldn't necessarily connect them with. I wouldn't have put the builders and Carleen Anderson together. But they love her, and I just love that kind of story. Besides, I think that anything that inspires an egg-and-spoon race up and down Brick Lane at nine o'clock at night on a Sunday deserves a shout out!"
"In God's Country" by U2
"Have you ever been to Joshua Tree? I would often take trips out there with friends when I lived in L.A. That would have been from the mid to late '80s through to 1990, before I came to England. When the album The Joshua Tree came out in 1987, going there became almost like a pilgrimage for us.
"My friend Beenie and I would take some vegetable soup and loaves of bread and an ice chest with some drinks and just head out into the desert for some days. We loved being out there under the stars in sleeping bags and communing with the rocks and the land. This song, "In God's Country", reflects those journeys that we took. They were almost like spiritual quests.
"I think that being in the desert speaks to certain people. For me, it brings a clarity of thought. I've had so many revelations out there. I've made commitments out there to myself. I haven't been back to Joshua Tree in over 20 years so I'm not sure how populated it has become these days - pandemic aside. At the time it was a bit off the beaten track. We could be out there on our own and not see a single other person."
"Fight It Out" by Pat Benatar
"I was a big Pat Benatar fan in the early '80s. This particular song reminds me very clearly of a situation I found myself in. I had been flown down to North Florida to play a conference at a place that felt a bit like it was in the middle of nowhere. One of those places where you are out walking and you kind of think. "Okay, phone a friend.'Like, you just didn't know what kind of strange world you'd walked into, and it seemed a bit scary. I hadn't really asked too much about what the conference was for. I knew it was a business conference and they paid half the fee upfront, so, you know, it seemed legitimate.
"At the conference, things started to get a little strange. Everybody was in their suit jackets and shirts - ties were not happening - and I think there was some golfing going on, but the people just seemed a little bit off to me. I couldn't quite figure it out.
"And then some guy confronted me, asking if I was aware that one of the businessmen involved had feelings for me, and how did I feel about that? Like, did I feel like I had an obligation? It's a little fuzzy to me now exactly what happened, because it all got kind of swept under the carpet. I probably called my parents, thinking that I needed to leave.
"What I do remember clearly is that I went out of the room and listened a lot to this song by Pat Benatar. Listening to her singing "You gotta fight it out, my friend" in that amazing voice made me feel empowered to not be intimidated. So instead of blaming myself, thinking "I'm sure I misunderstood this conversation" and running back to DC,
"I marched back into the conference and confronted the situation. They ended up backing off and I said to myself, "by the grace of the goddess go I on this one." But here's the awful thing - these incidents happened and still happen to women all the time."
"Send In The Clowns" by Stephen Sondheim
"I learned a lot in my years playing piano bars and having songs requested that I might not have chosen to play myself. One of the songs that got requested all the time was "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music.
"Almost every night someone would come over and ask for it. I mention it here because the song would take on its own life, depending on at which point in the evening I played it. If I played it during happy hour, I would play it with a little bit more of a lilt. It was more whimsical and detached from everybody. The clowns couldn't possibly be any of us.
"But something funny would happen when happy hour would turn into late night. The atmosphere would change, and somewhere in those moments - when people would retreat a bit into their loneliness, or just be taking stock of the day - the song would take on a whole new meaning. By the end of the night, everybody was the protagonist, and tragically so. We all became the clowns. We were all Judi Dench, singing that song.
"If you've never seen Judi Dench singing "Send In The Clowns", you have got to watch it. She's not trying to sing it, really. It's more of a talking thing. But that's how powerful this song is. You don't have to be a good singer to perform it. I think when a song is written really, really well and lends itself to storytelling then it can just as well be acted rather than sung. I would sing it when I played it, but the fact that it can be done in this conversational way is wonderful."
"Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen
"Certain songs are so integral to the films that they're connected with, and for me "Streets Of Philadelphia" is one of those. It's a very strong association. Philadelphia is a tearjerker, so you have to kind of be in the right frame of mind to watch it, but I think it's an important, unbelievably good film. I can't detach the song from the story. It's just a perfect marriage.
"I've covered this song quite a bit, just because I always find something new in it. Not necessarily just in the song, it might be that I find something new in the film and the characters. So, I keep taking it out on tour with me. It's so powerful, I find I'm always compelled to do a rendition of it. It's so cliché but I almost always do the song when I am in Philly.
"My daughter Tash and I have had this conversation a couple of times where she's said, 'Really mom, you've got to mix this stuff up. Just because you're in Boston it doesn't mean you need to sing the song about Boston. Come on, share the love...'"
"Diamonds & Rust" by Joan Baez
"The fact that Joan Baez wrote this song about Bob Dylan and their relationship, and how public it all was, is just amazing to me. She's an incredible writer and artist in her own right, but I think there were probably times when she felt as though she was in his shadow; the light being shone on Dylan was so bright.
"For me, this song is one of the great, great narratives, and the way she performed it was so powerful. I remember hearing it for the first time and being completely floored by the emotions and the poetry. The last line of the song when she sings, "If you're offering me diamonds and rust, I've already paid"... wow. It's just a perfect song about heartache.
"I have covered this song, but not as often as "Streets Of Philadelphia" and others. I think I need to explore it again, if I can find a new way to approach it. Maybe it will be different than those times I used to play it in piano bars. Maybe with more experience the words might mean something different than they did 30 or so years ago. It's the type of song that I think can hold many different readings."
"Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder
"This song came out in 1973 and just exploded. I had never heard anything like it and it shook me to the core. The passion behind it felt almost like a fiery sermon. Stevie tells the story of an African American family from Mississippi, describing what their life was like on a daily basis. It was such a powerful statement. It really blew my mind and woke me up when I was 9 or 10 years old.
"Not only does the song explain the family's daily struggles, but it also tells of their commitment to each other. At the beginning of the song, the children seem to have hope for a better future. But it ends with injustice and tragedy. This song showed me how songs can challenge society and hold people in positions of power to account for their contributions to an unequal system.
"It was a lot to take in as a kid, and I couldn't define what it made me feel at the time. I didn't have the words yet. But it made me care and want to learn more about injustice in America."
"On Saturday Afternoons In 1963" by Rickie Lee Jones
"I think this is one of most beautiful songs ever written. The whole Rickie Lee Jones album is extraordinary, and I think it has stood the test of time. I heard it when it first came out in 1979 - I guess I was in my mid-teens - and I really loved it. Nothing sounded like this album. It's almost like it came from another planet, and it definitely went on to influence a lot of people.
"It's hard to pick just one song, because I love it all. I knew every word of this album, from beginning to end. But "On Saturday Afternoons In 1963" tapped into something that I didn't quite understand yet at that age, in that it expresses a longing for a time that has passed. A time she sees as lost, or at least it seemed to me anyway. I see it almost like a black and white film that was once lived in and that was colourised later on. I happen to have been born in 1963 so I don't remember it, and maybe that's one reason why the song struck me in such a way.
"I honestly don't know how she created this song. It's like a painting or a sonic photograph you can walk into, or like a time machine back to before the world we know now, before we had computers in our homes and so on. However she did it, the result just feels so visceral and I find it very beautiful."
"Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles
"We had the Revolver record in the house when I was a kid - my older brother had gotten it - and there was something about the song "Eleanor Rigby" that seemed to somehow define the choices that my mom had made. I would sometimes catch her staring out the window after my father had left for church. I never knew what she was thinking about, but I would kind of wonder if being a minister's wife was all it was cracked up to be.
"Mary loved like no one else. She loved her family, she loved my dad. I don't know how crazy she was about some of the church people... I think she cared about some of them, but I think she saw the hypocrisy too. There was a sadness there and, I think, a loneliness - like Eleanor's loneliness in the song.
"I was very fortunate that she was my claimant, and that I got her because she gave up her career - or intentions of a career - to be a minister's wife. She had been studying English literature, so maybe she would have worked in a publishing house. She could have been an editor, or a writer. She could have chosen education and become a professor. She was that type of person. She was really very clever, but very, very humble and quiet.
"The main goal of Mary's parents - and I'm sorry to say this - was for her to not just become somebody's wife, and to sort of break the cycle of previous generations. Of course, some women in her generation were able to do that, while others got pulled back into the pattern of being a wife and a mother. And she was a really great wife and mother - a straight A student at that - but I do believe that she carried a sense of loss of what could have been.
"This song always affected her. Or perhaps it more affected me, watching her staring out the window and trying to understand her sacrifice."
Ocean to Ocean is out now via Decca Records
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