The other day I heard an advertisement for Tori Amos concert tickets and I thought, time out of mind! It had been almost 31 years since her official debut album, Little Earthquakes, was released, and it appealed to me in a way that musically gifted singer-songwriters usually don't. Not just the confident piano playing, but smart lyrics that straddled confessional and the serious-but-whimsical. She seemed really smart and brave, with songs that touched the heart.
There had been a self-titled album previously by a synth-pop band in 1988 called Y Kant Tory Read, in which Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses was the drummer: Not a match made in rock and roll heaven. She doesn't disavow it, but said, "it's like inviting the ex-boyfriend to the wedding." The oblique title had to do with Amos, a child piano prodigy, being asked to leave the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore because she refused to learn to read music.
Atlantic Records stuck with her, though, and following a series of living room solo concerts in Los Angeles, the U.K. division brought her to London, where for once, a major label strategy paid off: a long residency at an intimate club allowed her music and audience to grow.
In early 1992, the label held a small showcase for Amos, who was still living in London, in New York. Like Laura Nyro, she was a mezzo soprano with a (near) three octave range. Amos, with flaming red hair, had a distinctive way of performing at the piano: She could maintain eye contact with the audience while playing, even if it meant craning her neck around the microphone. Little Earthquakes had just been released, and though it wasn't an immediate hit, it was one of six platinum albums Amos released during the 1990s alone.
There was one biographical element made vivid in the song "Me and a Gun." It's about the artist being raped when she was 21 by a psycho with a knife in Los Angeles. She performed it, as she always does, acapella: Think of "Tom's Diner" describing hours of torment and terror. And yet even here, Amos' sense of dark whimsy was never far away. It was a pivotal cultural moment: the potent feminist revenge movie Thelma and Louise had been released the previous year (1991), and the 1990s decade of the woman singer-songwriter-in-command was accelerating. Deadly serious as some topics are, Tori had such a clever, open presence in the interview that each question and answer were forms of banter. It's hard to explain, it happens so rarely, but I strived to enter her "zone," and my memories of our encounter have always been enjoyable. The Q&A below has been edited for length, cohesiveness, and clarity.
Tori seeks and attains Nirvana
WR: WAS THERE EVER A TIME THAT "ME AND A GUN" HAD MUSIC?
TORI: Never. Never. I wrote it last August (1991). It was written in one sitting and refined in another. I performed it the night I wrote it. All in one day, I saw Thelma & Louise, took the Bakerloo Line [London Underground] up to North London to the Mean Fiddler, where I had a residency playing every week. I wrote it in the parking lot outside, sitting in this old beat-up sofa. Then I refined it the next day, and it was very clear to me that it was finished. That song demanded to come on the album; it became the title of my first EP that came out in England.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE THE FIRST TIME YOU PLAYED IT?
Amos: Chilling, for me. I've sung it quite a lot now, and each time I try to go to a place where I can sing it with the intention that I wrote it. And it’s what you have on the record, it was recorded just a week after I wrote it.
THERE WERE SO MANY CLAMORING PHOTOGRAPHERS AT THE PRESS EVENT THE OTHER NIGHT. DID THAT IMPINGE ON YOUR PERFORMANCE?
Amos: Well, you have to be really present when performing, which is when I think I'm most alive, that's why I enjoy it. Most of the rest of the time, I'm kind of brain-dead. . . But there are always energies in a room, stuff going on, and even if you can't see it with your naked eye, you have to see it with your stomach. I see with my tummy. I know this [distraction] is happening when I'm singing. So you have to be there, and yet go to that magical place where you can try on these different coats, so these different girls can come out and express themselves.
IF YOU SEE WITH YOUR STOMACH, DO YOU EVER FEEL IT NEEDS GLASSES?
Amos: Contact lenses maybe, just because of the shape of my stomach. But my stomach is right on, and it's clear. It doesn't have an opinion. [It says] I feel intimidated. Or, over there is where I need to address this, this is the weakest energy spot in the room. I don't analyze while I'm playing, but thought-forms are very real, what people are thinking and feeling. You just have to sense them.
ARE YOU AS SENSITIVE TO THOSE THINGS WHEN YOU'RE NOT ONSTAGE, OR IS THAT PART OF BEING "BRAIN DEAD," SO YOU CAN FUNCTION WITHOUT BEING BOMBARDED BY AN INSANE ENERGY OVERLOAD?
Amos: I am as sensitive, but I don't deal with it as well. Because it's not my place. When people come to hear me sing, I have that right. People come to see me expecting something, not knowing necessarily what. People say [to themselves] I've chosen to walk through that door, so I'm going to take the trip. But I can't do the work for them. So I have to set up imaginary windows that I paint. And people can choose to go through them, or not . . . I know I do that sometimes, for whatever reason, I'm not willing to go with this concept, this movie, this book, this performer. With others, I'm there!
Amos: Billy Connolly! Any window you want, I'll climb through, because I want to go where you're going.
BILLY CONNOLLY, THE SCOTTISH COMEDIAN? IS HE A TASTE YOU ACQUIRED LIVING IN LONDON?
Amos: (laughs) Yes. Yeah. I have Scots in my blood, so maybe that's it. It goes beyond words. (sighs). That is one reason so many people in the clubs are taking ecstasy, they all want to break down some kind of barrier, tear some kind of wall down. I try to do it with sound. By situations that come up every day, like feeling incredibly angry but not knowing where it comes from, exploring where it comes from. It comes from different places for everybody. With some of the drugs out today, a person has to be clear about what their intention is, or they become dependent on them. They become a victim of what they're trying to use as a doorway, they become chained to the door and never go beyond that. If you ask people about me growing up, they'll tell you I was the straight girl who hung out with all different kinds. I was straight, but I was talking to fairies.
IT SEEMS THAT DRUGS WOULD BE REDUNDANT FOR YOU.
Really. I was bored with the whole concept. . . I did try to take my perception to different planes with the help of different plants. It was a very sacred thing for me to do. When I say sacred, I say that with respect for what it is, as in Native American cultures, you take a journey, it is your intention to follow a ritual.
YOUR FATHER IS A MINISTER?
Yes, I love the fact that I'm a minister's daughter. Come on, what would I be writing about? My father says, "you're so lucky, what if I was a doctor? What would you be writing about, cardiac arrests?"
SO ASIDE FROM A SPIRITUAL ANGLE IN YOUR SONGS, THERE'S ALSO THIS SENSE OF WATER, FLOATING, STREAMS. ARE YOU AWARE OF THAT?
Well, I like to have little sharks in the water, little minnows, a few little mermaids, some jellyfish. I look at it like I can fill out this space of time, four-five minutes long, and there have been times with a song when I would let a line slide because I just wanted to be finished and done with it all. But those combinations of words and music make up molecules, make up thought-forms, they're real things. It got to the point where every word and every melody wanted to be there. Arrangements are open to change, but the songs sometimes would have to go through many different rewrites, until they were ready to say, 'I'm finished now.' And they really let me know when they're done. I feel like I'm having constant period cramps when they're not finished.
[Newsday photographer Bruce Gilbert had been setting up his lights and camera in another room.]
OK, TORI, WOULD YOU LIKE TO STEP INTO THE OTHER ROOM TO TAKE SOME PICTURES?
Amos: Sure. You sound like my gynecologist.
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You’ve made me wanna go back and listen to a little Tori Amos today.