Mystic Pieces

Tori Amos unloads ethereal baggage at Choirgirl Hotel

"The shocking thing about Oklahoma [is] it was the only thing I was allowed to play when I was little," Tori Amos says from Omaha, Nebraska.

She's at a stop in her tour supporting her latest musical exploration into the human psyche, From the Choirgirl Hotel, and the prairie city seems to have inspired her to bring up the 1943 Broadway musical.

"I had all of this religious music I was learning, so I learned the soundtrack at a very young age. But I was watching it last night with one of my British friends, and I never realized . . . the S&M references, the feminist references. It's very overt."

She begins singing, her mind perhaps shuttling back to her childhood in North Carolina and later Maryland as Myra Ellen Amos, the piano prodigy daughter of a Methodist-minister father and a part-Cherokee mother.

"Okay, here it is," she finally says, after singing a few bars. "'Never have I asked the August sky where has last July gone; never will I.' It's in poetry form, but it's very clear that she will not crawl for a man on any level--she will not break for him, she will not be there just to serve him."

Such a feminist deconstruction of a campy musical tune is not surprising coming from a woman who once sang, "So you can make me come, it doesn't make you Jesus" to a gloating lover. That was on "Precious Things" from her 1992 solo debut Little Earthquakes. While Kurt Cobain lyrically prepared the world for his self-inflicted demise and Eddie Vedder whined about the fame he willingly sought for years, Amos put her own demons to classical piano pop, with not a crunchy guitar in sight. One song--a first-person account of Amos' own date rape--even dared to go a cappella.

Grunge and Amos did have another thing in common, besides breaking at roughly the same time--personal angst, and lots of it. "Little Earthquakes was my diary," Amos says of that striking first record, a far cry from a failed attempt to be a classically trained Lita Ford with Y Kant Tori Read.

She attributes that first foray into popular music--glam metal that somehow compelled her to brandish a saber on the album cover--to frustration.

"I had been sending out my tapes since I was 13--for seven years," she says. "You have to understand seven years. That was almost half my life. So I'd gotten serious rejection, hundreds of rejections. They just kept saying the girl and her piano thing was over, [that] Carole King was the last."

She eventually proved them wrong, but not before she compromised prodigious talent, squandered years of training and, even worse, she says, let self-doubt navigate her professional life.

"I started to believe them, that maybe I was on the wrong path," she remembers. "That's where I just started to say, 'Well, what do I need to do to get signed, because I can't play clubs for too much longer.'

"I thought, 'Let me see if I can write in another medium.' And I really couldn't. Other people can, because if something comes from your personality and is a really truthful side of your persona, no matter how wacky it is, people buy that. . . . I was trying to wear someone else's clothes."

Fortunately, Amos shed her corset and carved out her own niche. After Earthquakes, there was Under the Pink in 1994. Though the lyric material remained confessional, Pink's songs were more dramatically orchestrated in a funky, groove-friendly way, and landed her Top 40 hits with the radio-friendly, albeit weird, singles "Cornflake Girl" and "God."

On the latter, Amos actualized something she'd only flirted with on Earthquakes: bringing revisionist myth to the pop song. Lashing out against phallocentric fundamentalism, Amos mused on radios around the country that perhaps God "needs a woman to look after" Him, thus giving female voice to the Big Guy a couple of years before Joan Osborne envisioned Him puking up a hangover on the bus seat next to you.

Then came 1996's Boys for Pele, Amos' breakup album. She'd just split with partner and co-producer Eric Rosse, and retreated to a church in Ireland to nurse her wounds, something that, from the looks of the record's inset, required her to breast-feed a pig.

But her relationship postmortem also produced her most effective work to date: a haunting collection of nightmares and love songs that delves into traditional myth and retreats even further into the subconscious.

Pele, like Earthquakes, also had songs most conducive to Amos' live shtick: sexily straddling a piano bench with just her fingers and voice to carry her. For Amos, it was an effective way to perform since, having attended a conservatory at the tender age of 5, she was most comfortable at a piano. Despite Amos' often indecipherable monologues between songs about her imaginary life, audiences and critics alike loved it. With her wild red hair and passionate writhing, Amos reincarnated the piano as a viable commercial option, and probably caused much consternation among the music execs who'd previously denied her a deal.

Like Pele, Amos' latest effort, From the Choirgirl Hotel, also was borne of an acutely painful personal loss. Toward the end of a rigorous tour for Pele, Amos discovered she was expecting a child with Mark Howley, her sound engineer whom she's since married.

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