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May 12, 2022
Guided by her fans and her muses, Tori Amos reflects on a 40-plus-year career
The groundbreaking singer-songwriter brings her "Ocean to Ocean" tour to Toronto May 19.
by Elio Iannacci
Tori Amos believes there are gods among us. Greek and Roman gods to be exact.
On the phone from her home in Cornwall, England, days before embarking on a North American tour, Amos is stumbling to explain her connection to Mount Olympus. According to her, Greco-Roman deities show up at the most irregular times, arriving as inconsistently as a package from Amazon. She swears she's "been at the mercy of them" and their mythic supply chains for years.
"The muses," she says, "are inconsistent, relentless and perplexing. But they ultimately know what the deal is when it comes to looking at art and what is going on today."
A Google search reveals that the 58-year-old singer-songwriter has been both pestered and blessed by these celestial voices -- a band of characters with more cast changes than "Grey's Anatomy." In interviews ranging from the New York Times to Rolling Stone magazine, Amos credits her divine team for co-creating songs that span her entire catalogue.
In other words, Amos aficionados should thank their lucky star signs that tunes such as "Pandora's Aquarium," "Siren," "Hey Jupiter" and "Devils and Gods" exist.
Fans such as Efrain Schunior, who co-hosts the podcast "Drive All Night: The Songs of Tori Amos," have spent half a lifetime tracking more supernatural Easter eggs in Amos' lyrics than you can find in the entire Marvel Universe. Trolling through her 30-plus-year career in music, Schunior chronicles how Amos has Athena, Artemis and Aphrodite make cameo appearances over her 16 albums, disseminating how the myths have helped make the music.
In Episode 414, Schunior exhaustively spends two hours and 26 minutes diving into an Amos B-side called "Merman," breaking down its many appearances as demos and remixes on bootleg and official albums, mining the parallels between it and songs from Amos' "Little Earthquakes" debut in 1992 and alluding to what was to come on 2021's "Ocean to Ocean."
In the track "29 Years" from "Ocean to Ocean" -- which will, no doubt, be covered on a future podcast by Schunior -- Amos further illustrates her mythic odyssey via the legendary figure of Medusa.
"I see so many Medusas in celebrity culture and on Twitter getting persecuted every day," she said. "The real truth of the myth was that Medusa was far from evil, she was vilified, raped and then turned into a Gorgon. And we're still dealing with the aftermath of that archetype."
When Madonna fell onstage at the Brit Awards in 2015, Amos was one of the first to come to her defence when critics attacked her for not acting her age. Amos swiftly saw the Medusa effect happening to the pop icon, telling the Guardian newspaper shortly thereafter: "She's making choices, and she's able to do things physically that a lot of people 25 years younger can't … people want her to be shamed into a role that they find acceptable for her age."
Amos insists checking in with her muses also helped guide her through highly unsavoury early career moments during her big break in the early 1990s, specifically on "Little Earthquakes." According to her, a group of misogynist, cash-hungry and narrow-minded music label execs foolishly gave the classically trained pianist a very stupid piece of advice after listening to the disc: "Replace all the pianos with guitars."
Amos ignored them but listened to her divine life coaches who told her to remain loyal to her keyboard-driven sound -- one that went on to sell more than 12 million records and earn her eight Grammy nominations.
Onstage, fans expect her magnum opuses to be played on her preferred instrument of choice, an Austrian Bösendorfer piano. Currently she's dealing with the logistics of lugging it around for two upcoming Canadian performances during her "Ocean to Ocean" tour. It stops at Toronto's Meridian Hall on May 19 and the Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver on June 8.
Relaying more than 30 years of being on the road, Amos' bestselling memoir "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage" provides readers with some intel on the North Carolina-born talent's Zeus-inspired musical labour.
Structured like a song map of sorts, led of course by her muses -- mentioned more than 50 times in the tome -- the book begins by outlining how Amos' career was ignited at the tender age of 11, after being expelled from Baltimore's Peabody Institute for "musical insubordination."
Two years later, when Amos turned 13, her father, a Methodist minister who understood his daughter's need to take centre stage, arranged to have her perform at Mr. Henry's, a popular gay bar in Washington, D.C.
"He got a lot of pushback and negativity from the church," Amos recalled. "People were really critical that he was taking me down to the gay clubs and chaperoning me while I played in them. But he said -- and this is absolutely one of the truest things he's ever said in his time -- 'There's no safer place for a 13-year-old girl than in a gay bar.'"
Later, Amos took a job piano playing at a Hilton Hotel Lounge near the White House, which fired the first embers of her activism. It was here that she recalls how government officials and lobbyists, "men who were supposed to be respectable were constantly leering at her," as she played Elton John and Joni Mitchell hits, knowing full well she was only 16. In contrast, Amos remembers her prior gig at Mr. Henry's as one of most challenging and comforting places to perform -- likening it to a musical boot camp of sorts as the fickle crowd demanded that the fledgling performer tackle Billboard pop songs and Broadway show tunes.
Amos credits this early LGBTQ audience with leading her to a lifelong exploration of emotional extremes in her music. For instance, the strongest track off "Ocean to Ocean" is "Devil's Bain," a song that tackles puritanism, faith and the misogyny of the church. The chorus has Amos echoing a very "Game of Thrones"-ian mantra, as it includes the lyrics "Shame, shame on your Jezebel breed."
"That song explores how shame is something that has so many edges to it," she said. "It can cut you, even if you think you're not at the sword end of it, and it brings on so much self-loathing that's so debilitating.
"On the other hand, rage, I've found out, can be dangerous energy because the goal is never to spread more anger even though I think to be fired up, then to write something about it, is to provide a voice to those who don't necessarily have one. It's tricky working with rage because it can be poisonous, and it can backfire on you and it can be toxic."
Amos hasn't revisited themes like these since 2002's "Scarlet's Walk" album, which contains a rare gem called "Taxi Ride." Dedicated to the late makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who died in 2002, "Taxi Ride" was born from memories culled from Amos' and Aucoin's joint magnum opus. It's an album of cover songs released in 2001, called "Strange Little Girls," for which Aucoin and Amos worked together on the images and esthetics.
For the project, the pair created various personas for Amos seen on multiple versions of the album sleeve, like chic collectible trading cards. Long before the term "gender fluid" entered the popular vernacular, Aucoin and Amos remixed male and female norms with their combined vision on "Strange Little Girls."
"We were having deep discussions about the characters he envisioned me as, and spent nine months talking about the cast of women I would be and what songs on the album were written by men," she said, explaining that Aucoin helped her expand her ideas about identities outside of the gender binary.
"He and I wondered about how, in this new world we were making, men were the mothers of the songs. Kevyn was brilliant in bringing the pictures of these non-traditional women to life through me as if they were the anima, the female side of the story of the narrative. From wig development to eyelash length, everything was methodical and meticulous," she said.
"I look at those photos now and think of how ahead of the times they are."
It wouldn't be the first time the singer-songwriter was considered a groundbreaker. In 1994, she became the first spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a non-profit American organization created to support survivors of assault. Amos' "Me and a Gun," a single off her debut, was written after the singer-songwriter was raped at knifepoint after a show.
With news regarding the recent leak of a U.S. legal document that suggests the Supreme Court is poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across America, it is likely Amos fans will urge her to add "Me and a Gun" -- a song she hasn't brought to the stage since 2011 -- to her new performances.
As with her muses, Amos not only listens to her fans, she considers them collaborators.
Through fan mail and social media, her admirers have helped Amos realize that tracks such as "Juárez" should be unearthed again while on the road. This cut, off her 1999 album "To Venus and Back," was written to address the murders of hundreds of women in Juárez, Mexico, who were caught in the crossfire of drug-related gang battles. The song's sonic sister, "Russia," from Amos' 2017 disc "Native Invader," is a plea for peace amid the former Soviet Union's violent legacy.
These two songs, plucked from Amos' vault of more than 200 studio recordings over her 40-plus-year career, have, as Amos explains, become "two main first-song contenders" for her Canadian concert dates.
The tracks are not nearly as well-known as songs such as "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years" off "Little Earthquakes"; "Cornflake Girl" off 1994's "Under the Pink"; "Professional Widow" from 1996's "Boys For Pele"; "Jackie's Strength" off 1998's "From the Choirgirl Hotel" and, most recently, "Spies" from "Ocean to Ocean." And they were recorded well before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
However, "Juárez" and "Russia" have found their way back to Amos' mic, speaking to the catastrophic effects of war and the threat of history repeating itself in lyrics that name-drop Russian dictator Josef Stalin and allude to the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people.
"Sometimes what some of these older tracks foretold are not always obvious," said Amos. "That's what playing live challenges me to do since audiences make me aware of things happening around the globe that are right there in the lyrics."
Calling her crowds "the boots on the ground that fuel my decisions," Amos said she prizes the connections in the same way she prizes her muses. Which is probably why she lets her crowd choose the wild card moment in her live show: the performance of an obscure or famous hit -- ranging from '90s era rock classics like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to super-ladies-of-the-'80s anthems such as "Total Eclipse of The Heart" by Bonnie Tyler.
This just adds to the fact that the all-over-the-place autobiographical and socio-political origins of Amos' body of work are as binge-worthy as a Netflix series just waiting to be written. Amos says author Neil Gaiman -- who, appropriately, wrote 2017's TV fantasy drama series "American Gods" -- might already be on the case.
"Neil keeps threatening to write a film adaptation," she said, commenting on her long friendship with the author. If fans are lucky, Gaiman will make good on his threat as Amos says he has an idea where all the bodies are buried.
"He always says the same thing when we get together: that my life is stranger than any fiction he's written."
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