AFTER SPENDING years in classical piano training, then experimenting with the Los Angeles rock scene, Tori Amos attracted a popular music audience with her pure talent and honest expression of emotion. Though Amos’s debut album, Little Earthquakes, received only a smattering of college radio airplay, press coverage, and video exposure – MTV could never quite decide whether she belonged on Alternative Nation or VH1– it quietly insinuated itself into 600,000 American homes and earned a gold record. Her sophomore effort, Under the Pink, repeated this trajectory in the spring of 1994, vaulting into the Top Ten and going gold.
Amos was born Myra Ellen Amos on August 22, 1963, in Newton, North Carolina, the youngest of the three children of the Reverend Edison Amos and his wife, Mary Ellen. Amos grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father had transplanted his Methodist ministry from its orginial base in Washington, D.C. Her older brother and sister were taking piano lessons, but Amos didn’t seem to need them. From the time she could reach the keys, she could play. When she was two, she could reproduce pieces of music she’d only heard once, and by age three she was composing her own songs.
At five she became the youngest student ever admitted to Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory, where for the next six years she did her best to be the dutiful child prodigy. Amos and the conservatory had a mutual parting of the ways when she was 11. “They know nothing about any other world than their own,” she told an interviewer years later. “How can you teach musicians to be all they can be when all they’re getting is guys that have been eaten by the worms? Hey, Bartok is amazing stuff; learning that has given me a foundation. But so did Jimmy Page. So did John Lennon. So did Joni Mitchell. So did Patti Smith. To really be a musician is to keep expanding.”
With her father’s encouragement, Amos began playing clubs in the Georgetwon section of Washington, D.C. It must have been an odd sight, the 13-year-old girl and the Methodist minister showing up at mostly gay bars. But the audiences were tolerant, and as long as she played enough of what they wanted to hear, they were receptive to occasionally being serenaded by her personal song experiments as well.
By the time Amos was 17 she’d amassed a stock of homemade demo tapes that her father would send to record companies, producers, and anybody else who might be able to help his daughter. Producer Narada Michael Walden responded favorably, and they actually cut some tracks together, but none were released. Eventually Atlantic Records responded to one of the tapes, and when A&R man Jason Flom flew to Baltimore to audition her in person, the label was convinced: Amos was signed to Atlantic.
Then, in a move Creem magazine would later characterize as “a creative running away from home of sorts,” Amos decided to reinvent herself as a Los Angeles “rock chick,” as she deemed her persona of that time. She formed a band called Y Kant Tori Read that included future Cult and Guns n’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum. When the group’s self-titled album sank without a trace in 1988, Amos was crushed and withdrew from the music business and even her own songwriting. While visiting a friend some months later, however, Amos sat down at the piano and watched in amazement as unconscious music poured out of her for the next five hours. What she reconnected with that night was a sense of musical self and an inner voice that she could not deny.
Atlantic executive John Carter teamed her with producer Davitt Sigerson (the Bangles, David & David) in 1990, and the six tracks they cut in Los Angeles became the basis for her debut solo album. The emotional power of this new material was undeniable, the intensity of its confessional tone occasionally even discomforting. But Atlantic, not seeing a natural slot for this material in the fragmented American radio market, suggested that Amos move to England.
Amos’s cross-Atlantic move was the turning point for her success. European audiences in the past had been willing to give eccentric American originals – from Joesphine Baker to Jimi Hendrix – a sympathetic ear. They were no less receptive to the offbeat charms of Amos. Her solo piano performances gained her a cult following that had spread so organically that when Little Earthquakes was released in January of 1992 it entered the British charts at Number 15.
The album’s most celebrated song was ‘Me and a Gun’, Amos’s unvarnished account of the kidnapping and rape she had endured in Los Angeles a few years before. The writing of the song was not only a brave act, but an essential one. “Yes, it was painful to go through,” she told Paul Zollo of Musician. “But it’s about passing through to the other side. Sometimes writing songs is the only sense I can make out of anything. … This particular issue was something I had buried for six years. While writing it, I was caught up in the trauma and the euphoria. I was finally able to cry about it. When you’re walking around tripping over your intestines you’ve got to do something, and writing songs is it for me.”
Little Earthquakes was released in America in February of 1992 and slowly but steadily began to attract listeners. It was helped along by a breathtaking video for the single ‘Silent All These Years’, though the power of her words and music was such that it created its own visuals. Brook Hersey, writing in Glamour, pinpointed the appeal of Amos’s music: “People don’t just discover Tori Amos, they become obsessed. … Listeners who’ve felt unimportant or powerless, who’ve gone through the emotional struggle for self-worth, seem to feel she is telling their long-overdue story.” Amos had created her own audience, with Little Earthquakes selling a million and a half copies worldwide.
Under the Pink, Amos’s follow-up album, released early in 1994, was also well received and enjoyed quick commercial success as well, with the first single, ‘God’, selling over a million copies within months of hitting the shelves. Amos told Bill DeMain in Performing Songwriter, “When I wrote [‘God’] I was having a complete conversation with the concept of what God is. … To me, it’s the root of all problems, that song right there. For me, [it is] one of the most important things I’ve ever done. You can call it my prayer if you want.” Greg Sandow of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Measured simply by her raw ability, Tori Amos is a phenomenal talent. Few pop artists ever offer such variety of such richness of musical detail.” Marie Elsie St. Leger of Rolling Stone noted: “The album is focused, the lyrics quirky and personable, the melodies eccentric enough to entice and simple enough to be catchy. Those qualities–and her emotional fearlessness–make Tori Amos a musical find to treasure.”
Amos cherishes her audience as much as they do her. “Some of the most interesting, growing conversations I’ve had,” she told an interviewer, “and some of the most incredible wisdom I’ve gotten, has been backstage from the people who come to see me play. They all have a story to tell. And most of them are really working on consciousness; there is a commitment to the idea that the earth is going to the next stage of development. I just try to strip myself, peel myself like an onion. At different layers I discover stuff. I do it publicly, and if it helps to inspire somebody else, which inspires somebody else, which inspires somebody else … then we’re talking about a really exciting world here.”
© Ben Edmonds, Contemporary Musicians, September 1994