I’ve been entranced by Tori Amos since I found her in the early ‘90s. Tori’s song, “Cornflake Girl,” was in rotation on VH1 and I fell in love with this tiny, redheaded dynamo who let the world know that not only was she a musical prodigy with a style unlike anyone else’s who was willing to spill her truth in all its glory and horror, but that she was also cool with elementals, like fairies and mermaids. Who admits that?
Tori never tried to be anyone other than who she was and because of this, she came to be adored by the oddest group of fans ever, many of whom spend their lives and whatever money they make, traveling around the world to see all of Tori’s concerts. Some of these fans are young millennials; others are older – Gen Jonesers, Gen Xers, some are straight, many are gay, and they all show up with different colored skin and hair!
Ann Powers talks about Tori being unique in her article “Why Tori Amos Connects.” Powers came to know Tori well, as they worked together on the book, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. Powers says, “I’d see her invoke the four elements many nights before her band would take the stage. This was a focusing ritual, taken up to remind everyone that the process of making music is, metaphorically, part solid, skillful Earth; part responsive, adaptive Water; part imaginative Air; and part passionate Fire. Amos thinks in such deep structural terms, always considering how her compositions and performances come together from the underlying layers outward.”
Independent, the British online newspaper, tells how Tori learned early that she had to create music her way, sing it her way, and mold her career the way she wanted it to be. She is quoted as saying that she had to “fight my artistic corner. But did I make some enemies in this business? Oh yeah, absolutely. But that’s because the boys’ club didn’t get to come in and take over as my producer. I was not going to answer to some… some man that was twice my age was not going to be writing my songs. I wasn’t gonna have it.”
Four years ago, STEREOGUM put out a listing of Tori’s ten best songs, and said of her work: “The early ’90s brought a wealth of change to pop music, and while the spoils of the dynamic shifts may have gone to the flannel-clad misanthropes of Seattle, the longevity and distinction of Tori Amos’ influence is a story almost as unique as her lyrics. Much of the criticism directed at Amos has concerned the very topic of her lyrics and the fantastical whimsy unabashedly embraced by the singer/songwriter since her solo debut, 1992’s Little Earthquakes. And though it’s been argued among fans and critics alike that the ’00s were not especially compelling in terms of Amos’ creative output, the whole of her career has offered much more in the way of what can be accomplished when an artist or musician is able to distance themselves from distraction. Eccentricity is a tricky thing, especially when placed in the context of a culture that prides itself on that very attribute. When everything is quirky, nothing is.”
How did Tori become the unique artist that she is? Born Myra Ellen Amos, Tori was classically trained as a pianist and a singer; although, she started playing, without help, when she was two. Some say that she is a musical prodigy, as she was composing for the piano before age 5. At this age, she won a full scholarship to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins (youngest entrant ever), but was kicked out at age 11, for “musical insubordination,” having rebelled against the curriculum, demanding that modern composers, such as The Beatles, be studied, as well as the classical musicians.
Tori was raised by Rev. Amos and his wife, Mary Ellen. Tori never reconciled with her parent’s strict Christian beliefs and found herself gravitating to the teachings of her maternal grandfather, a descendant of the Eastern Cherokee Nation. Her grandfather, Calvin Copeland, taught her a more pantheistic view of religion, where all of life is considered to be divine and where no one god is worshipped, but instead, everything in the material world is given the same respect as one would offer a god.
Despite his conservative Christian beliefs, when Tori was 13, her father agreed to accompany her to a gay bar in Washington, D.C., to see if she could land a job. He was furious that she’d gotten kicked out of the Peabody Institute and demanded that she get a job. So, she got a job in a gay club, where she played popular hits and a lot of show tunes. Whether or not her father was uncomfortable with the close relationships she garnered while working in this bar is not known; but, to Mr. Amos’ credit, he did provide his daughter an avenue to grow her talent in a place that he might not have agreed with, but in a place that he felt would be respectful to his daughter. And, he did this even those he caught more than a little retribution from the people in the congregation where he preached.
In her early 20s, Tori headed out to Los Angeles and tried to put together a band, but after their first album bombed and Tori was largely written off as a subpar rock-chick-bimbo type, she started doing things exactly as she wanted, instead of trying to follow a mainstream path. Because she still had a record deal with Atlantic, Tori found the right people with whom to create a unique sound and in 1992, released her first album, Little Earthquakes.
Earthquakes spoke of Tori’s religious upbringing, her sexual awakening, her struggle to find and establish her identity, and the sexual assault she had survived. Upon first listen, the head honchos at Atlantic were not impressed with Little Earthquakes and demanded that the piano be replaced with guitars. Tori absolutely refused and fought successfully to see Little Earthquakes released with the piano intact. The album was a hit and Tori became a darling of the 90s alternative music scene. To date, she has released a total of fourteen studio albums, all of which remain true to her vision as a musical artist. In 2012, Tori formed her own label, Transmission Galactic, which she plans to use not only for herself, but for other talent as well.
As if she hadn’t accomplished enough, Tori wrote the music for George MacDonald’s, The Light Princess, which premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre in late 2013, where both the musical and its lead actress were nominated for Best Musical and Best Musical Performance at the Evening Standard Award, with the Best Musical Performance going to the show’s lead actress, Rosalie Craig.
In 2006, Tori released A Piano: The Collection, which is an anthology of her work. For those not familiar with Tori Amos’ work, I would suggest buying the collection first and finding out which songs resonate with you the most. Then, you can figure out which albums hold your favs and either purchase or download the entire album, or download a few songs from different albums.
In the booklet that accompanies A Piano: The Collection, you will find out how Tori actually erased the strings on her song, “Yes, Anastasia.” As recounted:
“I’ll never forget the day after we completed a four song session with a 50-piece orchestra at Ocean Way Studios, I went and erased all 50 pieces on all four tracks without telling the record company. I was working with a string arrangement I hadn’t heard before because I was told this was the way the string arranger created, and I would just have to trust. Now I went along with it because of certain advisors on the project and the reputation of the string arranger. This is where I’ve learned to trust my instinct. After the session was over I went next door to the Columbia Bar and Grill. Eric Rosse and the engineer on the string session, John Beverly Jones, were there, and I remember it as clear as the day it happened. They both looked at me, over weak margaritas with extra salt, and asked if I really wanted this, if I really wanted to erase the equivalent of what a medium-sized house in Pomona would cost. Without a doubt, after another lick of salt, I got up, walked next door, and pushed the erase button. It was the most liberating feeling to get rid of something that I felt compromised the songs. I knew if I was willing to do that, I would be okay in life.”
Tori Amos is full-frontal honest in her writing and interviews. She writes lyrics that speak her truth, while also being a no-holds-barred kind of gal when being interviewed. Tori sings about menstruation, sexual assault, religion – both mainstream and otherworldly – queerphobia, sex, death, abuse, war, self-discovery, ageing, all the while finding ways to inject humor or pathos, or just some plain ol’ rock ‘n roll fun! Tori includes historical figures in her songs, using them as catalysts, guardians, inspiration. She’s not afraid to include metaphysical creatures in her work, like selkies, nor is she afraid to add classical touches to her songs, or include sounds of chimes, or electronica, or go full-on piano ballad, where it’s just her and the pianos (yes, plural) she’s straddling!
Also, Tori has figured out how to be both successful and true to who she is and the music she creates. Not only did she erase the strings for “Yes, Anastasia,” but when she got into an argument with Atlantic about how much control she would have over her Under the Pink album, Tori let it be known that she’d burn the tapes if she wasn’t given the control she wanted.
No one messes with Tori.
On January 23, 1997, about a month after her first miscarriage (following a few more miscarriages, Tori later gave birth to a little girl), Tori Amos gave a performance that Lifetime aired, sponsored by an organization she founded, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Of course, my daughter and I were in front of the TV, mesmerized. About fifteen minutes into the performance, I felt the muse teasing me and I grabbed some paper and a pen and started writing. I had no idea what I would write. I just gave myself the freedom to let the words take me where they would, not truly expecting to write a poem that included Jesus, a mermaid, and the Angel Gabriel. But, this is the kind of spell Tori Amos weaves.
Are you a Tori Amos fan?