"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.
"It was a surprise, but we were really thrilled," Amos says of the news. She decided to take some time off from music to be a mother.
Unfortunately, she didn't get the chance. "Around three months, I lost the baby," she says quietly, her voice cracking a bit. "I thought I was out of the woods and everything, so it was a really painful thing. She was a little girl, and I was really connected to her. I had to deal with understanding that I'd never hold her in a physical form."
As any artist will attest, creativity feeds on personal angst, and Amos' muse took advantage of the crisis of what she calls "being in no man's land."
She explains in characteristically mystical terms. "In a sense, it's almost as if I was walking with the walking dead. I say that because she [the baby] was very much alive for me, but my contact with her was always cerebral, almost intangible. And yet it was so real.
"She taught me things that many people in physical form haven't taught me, [such as] surrendering," she continues. Choirgirl Hotel "came out of the loss of her and [out of the feeling] that you can't be the woman you were before you held life in your body."
The new record clutches to the pain of Amos' miscarriage like a lifeboat, and it's evident the ship's going down even from the first tune, "Spark," on which she laments, "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier, but she couldn't keep a baby alive." From there the lyrics once again evoke myth, the masochism of relationships, addiction and even Jackie Kennedy on the day JFK was killed--not your typical pop fare, but for Amos it's a walk in the park.
Musically, Amos reinvents herself yet again. Tori the Piano Princess has become Tori the Goth Goddess, ditching her singer/songwriter gig for synths and a live drummer. If it wasn't for the signature voice, piano pretzelings and occasional sparse ballad, Choirgirl Hotel might be mistaken for a languorous Nine Inch Nails record.
Amos said she spent a great deal of time "on the water" in South Florida before writing songs for Choirgirl, and the push and pull of tides is certainly evident in her preoccupation with rhythm, which she also says was inspired by a studio first.
"We cut the album live with a drummer, which I've never done," Amos explains. "Normally I cut live piano/vocals, and everything then is built around that performance, whereas Choirgirl was about piano/vocal/synth in one room cut live with the drummer in the other room."
And that drummer wasn't just any old session guy. It was Matt Chamberlain, most recently of Critters Buggin', and formerly drummer for the spacey, neo-hippie outfit Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Having created her rhythms with "the piano, and the push and pull of the breath" for so long, Amos says the decision to play with Chamberlain wasn't made lightly.
Ironically, it was Amos' former partner Rosse who brought the two together. "After the miscarriage when I'd begun writing, I put it out there to Eric, 'I'm kind of open to a drummer,' and he said, 'Well, I've found him.'
"And Matt came out and within five minutes of us playing together we just started giggling hysterically, going 'This is fun!'" she remembers with a laugh. "If you have the wrong drummer, the whole thing fails. Most drummers can't keep time, but he was always really aware of what the keyboards were doing because he felt the songs know that medium so well, because that's what I've been doing for 32 and a half years of my life, so that's how I define everything."
Despite the instant synergy, Amos says recording Choirgirl Hotel didn't always go smoothly.
"We would wait for days sometimes for the Muse to show up, just going, 'She's not here,' there's just no passion in the room," she says with dead seriousness. "We would all know, you just feel it. You know when the high heels walk through the room, you go, 'Whooh.' You just see the leg, you see this ethereal leg stick itself in the studio and everyone goes, 'Oop, red light.'"
Such a discourse makes talking to Amos like trying to converse with lines from a book. Her sentences are stories with beginning, middle and end.
Which isn't that unlike how Amos says she wants people to view her work. It's why, she says, she's not afraid to reveal so much of herself and use such private pain--like rape, personal defilement and losing a baby--for public consumption.
"I really want to explore what's hidden behind the heart, whether it's my heart or my friend's heart or just observing people at a bus stop--trying to get what's hidden because that's what's so fascinating," she says. "That's where the magic is, and the secret that's the treasure.
"Even if it's stuff that we find, ugh, projectile vomit, I don't want to look at that side of myself," she continues. "That's our power. Always, the shadow-work is our power."
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As strange as what comes of out Amos' mouth may sometimes sound, her moments of clarity are dead on. In a goofy way, it's her bizarre juggling of two worlds--an inner one that produces her belief that her creative force "exists outside of me and it comes to visit me" and an outer one that's genuinely nice and talks freely about earthy things like laxatives and musical theater--that makes her confessions so familiar.
"Well, I always hope that people take my music away and see their own friends and their own faces and their own characters, that it doesn't become about my life anymore," she says, offering a practical definition for "good" art. "At the end of the day, I really hope people start to see themselves in it."
Tori Amos is scheduled to perform on Sunday, September 27, at America West Arena, with the Devlins. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.