Listening to a recent interview with Tori Amos on NPR’s 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, Fats Waller,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.
â€œI think it couldâ€™ve gone either way for a while,â€ she commented on another singer/songwriterâ€™s theory that, if left alone to deal with his demons away from the limelight, Cobain might still be alive. â€œIf he wouldâ€™ve been on medication for the depression. Put all the emotional stuff aside — itâ€™s hard enough waking up every morning — itâ€™s just that youâ€™re a depressive and you have a chemical imbalance.â€
Aware of lifeâ€™s little imbalances, Amos found it difficult to take her fame too seriously. She knew from experience that there were worse alternatives. â€œLike, we have no idea what itâ€™s like to live in Belfast with those people killing each other,â€ she said. When she had toured there recently, she’d done so with the reality of bomb scares and a guard at her dressing room door. Because of her name, in the demented minds of some of the more radical Irish there existed a connection between her and the Tories and their principles. â€œAnd my whole religious position,” she said wearily, “blah, blah, blah. In Ireland, I always get a bit of a stink because I tell them that the Virgin Mary swallowed, and they don’t like that shit.”
She stopped reading reviews of her work. “It didn’t make me feel good. You read the great ones, you’ve got to read the shitty ones. If you’re going to walk into the ‘opinion world,’ then you have to listen to them from all sides. And I’m just not in the mood. I know when I suck and I know when I’m great. Grade me that all the elements came together, and it didn’t overcook and it didn’t undercook. You know, I got the baby out of the oven just in time.”
Speaking of bad reviews, I mentioned the heavy-metal band that Amos fronted when she came to Hollywood in the late Eighties, called Y Kant Tori Read? While she could no longer worm her way into the plastic snakeskin pants that, along with thigh-high boots and big hair, that had contributed to her mode of dress at the time — and contrary to most of what had been written about this period in her career (most likely because it wasn’t something her more ardent feminist fans wanted to hear) — she giggled and admitted, “Hey, I enjoyed some of it. I had great hair spray. Looking back, I was coming out of my skin as a person.” Before the band, “I was so miserable. My jaw was in a constant clinch mode.”
It was also a learning experience. “I have no illusions about this business. Not one. That’s why I think I’m doing so well. When I say ‘doing well,’ I mean I don’t cancel shows, I’m not jumping out of windows. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes wear on me and I want to crawl into the corner with a friend.”
Though she had no trouble getting down to brass tacks when it came to the business side of her music, the act of songwriting remained something of a magical mystery to her. Despite her professionalism, it wasn’t something she could force to happen. “If the songs don’t show up knocking on my door, bringing a bottle of chardonnay or a box of shoes, I can’t even think about it. It’s like they already exist, and I get a whiff of their perfume and I get inside of their essence and what they’re trying to tell me. They show up, showing me who they are, and then I’m trying to translate their feelings. Sometimes I don’t do a very good job, and they come back and harass me until I do.”