Essential Music #15

Listening to a recent interview with Tori Amos on Studio 360, I was reminded of (a) what a good interview she makes, (b) this 1994 album, and (c) how many of her songs pose musical questions:

Why do we crucify ourselves?

Don’t you want more than my sex?

God, sometimes You just don’t come through
Do You need a woman to look after You?

For Amos, who was 31 years old when Under the Pink was released, the creative process represented as much an act of confession as it did an act of discovery. “Without the songs I wouldn’t know that I feel what I feel,” she told me in a telephone interview. “Let me tell you,” she confided in a wispy voice, “sometimes I can go, ‘I hate that motherfucker,’ and I’ll rip up his picture. Right? Then I’ll start writing this song, this most beautiful” Catching herself, she laughed and said to herself, “Oh god, you’re just a sap.”

And a successful one, at that. Her 1992 debut solo album for Atlantic Records, Little Earthquakes, revealed a bent for idiosyncratic lyrics, loopy melodies, and neoclassical keyboard work. It went gold in the US and sold more than a million copies worldwide. The follow-up album, Under the Pink, made its maiden landing at number twelve on the Billboard charts.

Born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina, her life from that point onward was atypical at best. A child prodigy who won a piano scholarship to Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory when she was five, she grew up listening to the music of Nat King Cole and Fats Waller and Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. She was expelled when she was eleven. Her father, a strict Methodist preacher who believed you either support or lose your child, didn’t stand in her way when, at the age of thirteen, she hit the piano bar circuit. At the Marriott, they made her play “Send in the Clowns” seven times a night. At Mr. Henry’s, a popular gay bar in Washington, DC, the waiters used a cucumber to teach her how to give head.

All these daffily disparate ingredients combined with the sad truth that somewhere along the way she was raped and lived to sing about it on her own fruitcaky terms without reducing herself to martyrdom (“Yes, I wore a slinky red thing/Does that mean I should spread/for you, your friends, your father, Mr. Ed?”) converge to create songs that are not about blame, but about taking responsibility.

Amos refused to take responsibility, however, for Womanhood or the feminist movement at large, an agenda that many critics (music and social) famously tried to foist upon her.

“I guess I’m kind of boring because I just go about my biz trying to work on myself. When I’m working and listening to my real feelings about things, and trusting them, then I just have to allow that to be enough. Whether I say something that offends somebody or gives somebody a giggle” She paused. “You have to let go of the responsibility of people’s responses. Sometimes I’ll say things that I might not have said if I would have had more sleep. But, at the same time, that’s real, too.”

Between her first two solo albums, she released a hushed and breathtaking cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When I asked if she felt any sort of psychic connection with Kurt Cobain (who had just committed suicide a few months earlier), she replied, “Totally.” In the silence that followed, she whispered the word twice more.

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