Tori Amos: I Wanna Sell You A Tori

Six months ago she was nobody, today TORI AMOS is well on the way to becoming a household name. The former LA ‘rock chick’ has been reinvented as an introspective singer/songwriter in the great tradition of Joni Mitchell or Suzanne Vega. A corporate makeover by a major label? Probably. TERRY STAUNTON wonders where it all went right.

A LITTLE less than six months ago a handful of journalists from the NME accepted an unusual lunch invitation. Before breaking bread with staff of East-West Records, we were to pop round the corner to a Kensington flat to listen to a young singer/songwriter play material from her then unrecorded new album.

While her boyfriend made us herbal tea, the slightly odd songstress sat cross-legged on a piano stool and hammered out a string of passionate, personal and profoundly disturbing images in song. One minute paranoia took hold as the anti-Christ yelled at her from her kitchen, the next she was reliving an attempted rape in the back seat of her car. A most unsettling hors d’oeuvre.

Over the next few months the singer cropped up on the bottom of the bill at various London clubs, howling in the faces of unsuspecting and confused punters who’d foolishly thought they were in for a casual evening’s music with no commitment. Her label ensured that the capital’s music writers got a look at the new discovery by running up a courier car account of hundreds of pounds ferrying journalists to and from the shows, distance apparently no object.

Nine times out of ten this kind of corporate hard-sell cuts no ice whatsoever, but in the case of Tori Amos it worked beautifully. Last week her album Little Earthquakes was sitting pretty in the Top 20, her debut headlining tour opened with two sell-out London shows and an assured performance on Wogan should catapult the single ‘China’ into the pop charts.

Every major label has a masterplan for their acts; if they’ve blown a huge wad on an artist, rest assured they’ll do everything in their power to recoup that investment. If Plan A falters, there is invariably the safety nets of Plans B or C to consider – and no doubt there are some nervous hopefuls out there who are on to Plan F or G. What makes Tori Amos something special is that for the first time in years Plan A worked.

Or did it? Ms Amos has been presented to us as a surprising discovery who’s come out of nowhere. A kooky, unhinged Kate Bush character who’s been coping with her psychosis behind closed doors in smalltown America. Very little has been made of her immediate musical past…

In 1988, East-West’s parent company Atlantic released a self-titled album by a new band called Y Kant Tori Read, ten tracks of tired pop metal tailored for MTV. Taking their lead from the AOR-by-numbers approach of Pat Benatar or Jon Jett, the band featured drummer Matt Sorum before he joined The Cult and Guns N’ Roses – and a 24-year-old singer/songwriter called Tori Amos.

The sleeve featured Tori with teased, permed hair high above her head, a colossal cosmetic pout, wearing a push-up “Wonderbra” under a leather waistcoat and holding a sword above her head – a far cry from the genteel Bohemia of her current wardrobe.

Musically, it’s best forgottten, although the album’s opening track ‘The Big Picture’ contains a telling verse: “Why do I feel so threatened/That someone else will take what’s mine?/Babe, it’s only rented/No one really owns the merchandise.”

After the failure of Y Kant Tori Read, it was decided that Ms Amos should switch operations from Los Angeles to London. Perhaps a corporate makeover in the UK could succeed where the Americans had failed.

It’s what some cynics call the Tracy Chapman Syndrome. The record company finds no favour with the American public, so the act is relocated to a smaller marketplace where in theory it should be easier to make waves.

Without a doubt it’s worked like a dream. The advance badgering of journalists and radio producers was nothing short of a masterstroke, the media felt they were intimately involved with something from grass roots level, as if Tori (no need for surnames now, we’re all such close friends) belonged to us as much she did to her record label.

Shooting the Little Earthquakes album sleeve at the same time as the ‘Silent All These Years’ video helped create an identity for the product, establishing the image of the new Tori of pastel shades and hippy hair.

By encouraging their charge to be as intense and personal as she liked in her songwriting (noticeably absent from the metal chick days), East-West unleashed a rich seam of creativity which has brought about the emergence of a possible major star of the’90s, certainly more satisfying than the majority of mainstream female songstresses of recent years (Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Tanita Tikaram).

Tori herself is obviously much happier with her new persona, having felt slightly uncomfortable with the leather lovely glam angle. She told one magazine: “Don’t ask me about that album. It’s horrible. The cover is a good dartboard for pinning the tail on at a bachelor party. There was a part of me that really wanted to walk around feeling like a bad girl, to be in snake pants, but now my insides are strong and I don’t need my hair sprayed out ten inches and my bra showing through.”

It could be argued that the selling of the ’90s Tori has been just as cynical as the efforts of the LA metal album team, if not more so. But let’s not forget that the business of a record company is to flog records, not create some lasting cultural treasure with limited appeal. It just so happens that with Tori Amos, East-West are on the verge of achieving both.

© Terry StauntonNew Musical Express, 8 February 1992

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