Tori Amos Finds Herself

“IT ALL COMES from the centre,” she says, pointing to her navel. Tori Amos is explaining where her songs are conceived. “It’s like a constant birthing process all the time. One kid drops and then another one fills up the belly and you wonder, ‘When can I get into that bikini?'” 

Tori has been going through this birthing process for four years to make her album Little Earthquakes, and it’s produced an array of distinctive children: There’s ‘Crucify’, about religious repression, ‘Me and a Gun’, an a cappella excursion into the mind of a woman being raped, and ‘Happy Phantom’, about fearlessly embracing death. The centrepiece, though, is ‘Silent All These Years’, a song about an artist finding her voice after keeping it buried.

“This is about self-expression,” Tori says in a sunny Venice, California loft, wearing shoes that resemble ruby slippers. “I realized that there’s a lot of power in the simple truth. People respond to things that are truthful, and they can detect when it comes from the deepest part of you. So I put away the tar and feathers and started writing these songs.” The songs that emerged, some in a tiny apartment behind a church in Hollywood, some during an English exile, confronted issues Tori had been evading for many of her 28 years. A song like ‘Me and a Gun’ makes the listener wonder if some subjects aren’t simply too painful to deal with in words and music.

“Yes,” Tori answers softly. “It was painful to go through 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.”

Born in North Carolina, she says she started composing melodies at the age of three, before she could complete a sentence. When her parents heard her playing piano renditions of Rodgers and Hart by ear, they sent her to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory to be trained as a classical pianist. It was a shock to her system. “I was playing the scores of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, and suddenly they’re trying to teach me to read music by playing ‘Hot Cross Buns’. I was bored out of my mind.” She tolerated the classes for a few years, but her passion was saved for the songs she continued to write in secret. “It wasn’t safe for the puppy to come out. You know that little pet you keep in your room? I had to keep him hid.”

The Beatles convinced her that she’d rather be a Lennon or McCartney than a Horowitz, a decision which entirely bewildered her parents. “It didn’t take a genius to see that they felt they had a failed prodigy on their hands. But I knew that a classical musician has three choices: compete and perform, teach, or become the church organist. I chose none of the above. It’s one thing to listen to Bartok and be excited by it. It’s another thing to devote 12 hours a day to playing it better than anyone else in the world.”

Tori’s studies, both at home and at school, resulted in a songwriter who writes in movements more than verses and choruses, structuring songs like orchestral suites. Her bridges are consistently remarkable counterpoints of voices in every audible octave, with a Lennon-like blend of fantastic imagery: “…limitations dreams with the flying pigs turbid blue and the drugstores too….”

“Bridges are my strength because I have so much material that doesn’t make it into other songs, so it gets thrown into my bridges! The bridge is the moment in a song that can take you someplace new, so that when you return to the chorus for the third time, you’ll never hear it like you heard it the first time.

“The songs make certain demands. And they take on their own personalities. It’s like I’m creating monsters, like making The Thing! They follow me around. I have some that hang around for years.”

‘Silent All These Years’ hung around for six years, starting with a solo piano pattern Tori calls “that little bumble-bee thing” that led her into the heart of the song. “These songs demanded to be written. They are what they wanted to be. I wouldn’t allow fear to get in the way. Because it’s fear, after all, that kills us.”

What triggered Tori’s desire to face her fear and end this silence of the heart? “Mostly is was reaction to the last album,” she answered, referring to a group project called Y Kant Tori Read? in which she played synth and concentrated more on surface than soul. “I was afraid to confront a lot of things and I was not going to expose myself. So I got out the hairspray. And I had some good hairspray.”

She quickly tired of people responding more to her hair than her songs, and eventually returned to the instrument where she first discovered her musical soul, the acoustic piano. “When I started playing piano again, it was like I remembered who I was. I found myself again.”

© Paul ZolloMusician, May 1992

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