From Donna Freydkin Special to CNN Interactive
ATLANTA (CNN) -- 1998 is a
year of musical firsts for Tori Amos.
After more than seven years as an
accomplished solo artist, she is
playing with a full stage band for the
first time during her inaugural arena
tour, Plugged '98.
"There's something about the first time for anything," says Amos as she
relaxes in her dressing room a few hours before the Atlanta show. "The
newness of being with the band -- now is the time to put it out there."
Journeying across the country in support of her fourth album, "From the
Choir Girl Hotel," Amos is focused on fusing her vocals and piano-playing
with the rest of the band.
Amos and her piano are inseparable. Imagining her without it would be
tantamount to picturing Steven Tyler without those lips or Wynton Marsalis
minus the trumpet. But the girl and her piano are ready for bigger and better.
Adding a new vigor to Amos' wrenchingly emotional and tight performance,
the band rounds it out for the larger venues of her North American tour.
When seeing Amos in smaller venues or clubs, alone with her piano, you felt
privy to an intrinsically visceral performance. Inevitably, in a stadium-like
setting, her set loses some of the intimacy, but the accompanying band adds
a new dimension to her music.
On stage, Amos is electric. Exhilaratingly passionate, she pounds on her
piano, arching her back, hugging herself and alternately howling and crooning
hymns crammed with cryptically religious and vividly sexual imagery. She is
uninhibited, loose and supple. Who else could dub the Supreme Being the
"Ice Cream Man" or make "Father Lucifer" tingle with emotion?
The Methodist minister's daughter demonstrated her musical talent at an
early age. Born Myra Ellen Amos, she began playing piano at
two-and-a-half. At four she was singing and performing in the church choir,
and by the ripe age of five she was invited to study piano at the Peabody
Conservatory in Baltimore.
"If you're going to play with other musicians, it can't be a gratuitous
studio thing. It has to really be about where the players are up in the mix."
Amos playing live in Seattle on the Plugged '98 tour
Expelled from the conservatory at the age of 11, Amos left classical music
for the world of rock, moving to Los Angeles as a teen-ager in search of
musical success. The singer released her disappointing first album "Y Kan't
Tori Read," in 1988, but emerged as a solo artist in 1991 with the acclaimed
"Little Earthquakes." Two celebrated albums -- "Under the Pink" and "Boys
for Pele" -- later, Amos is hitting the road in her most ambitious tour to date.
Several weeks into it, Amos compares playing with a band to being part
"relay team, switching a baton."
"I was used to holding down the rhythm section with the piano," says Amos.
"This time there is a rhythm section so you don't have to try to be George
Clinton and everybody else. You have to approach your instrument
differently when other people are taking their space."
"If you're going to play with other musicians, it can't be a gratuitous
thing," she adds. "It has to really about where the players are up in the mix."
Transition not always seamless
Amos has had a smooth adjustment to
be being one of the band, but is the
first to admit that not every night is
seamless. Few performers who remain
in their seats throughout their entire
show could sway throngs of people
with their voices alone, but Amos
manages just fine. She eschews aimless
crowd chatter for pounding songs that
left many of her most devout fans in tears.
Indeed, Amos' fan base is almost
frightening in its ardor and devotion to
her. Perhaps that's because when it
comes to her music, it's
no-holds-barred. Amos takes all those
ugly, messy thoughts spinning around in
our heads and transforms them into disconcertingly candid songs packed
with abstract sexual and religious imagery. After covering both her rape and
miscarriage in her songs, Amos says she does not regret baring so much of
herself through her music.
"I talk to a lot of strangers through my music," says Amos, "But it's not
sit down with everybody and have spaghetti afterwards."
Much has been written of Amos' 1996 miscarriage and how the anguish and
guilt surrounding it fed the songs that ultimately appeared on "From the Choir
Girl Hotel." Lyrics such as "she's convinced she could hold back a
glacier/ but she couldn't keep Baby alive" speak to her emotional duress,
but it seems to have taken a creative toll. Amos describes herself as drained.
"I think I'm going to do a live record next," she says. "After 'From the
Girl Hotel' I'm not really in a place to pillage myself again. I've done that now
and you just can't keep doing that without the circumstances to do that. I'm
sort of a dry well right now."
Religious imagery dominates Amos' music
If you had to pinpoint the one prevailing theme in her music, it would
religion. Amos is unafraid of challenging entrenched beliefs, wondering
whether God might need a woman to look after him, questioning why we
crucify ourselves each day or asking her friend Muhammad to teach her
"how to love my brothers." If she wasn't a singer, she says, she would study
the mythologies of various cultures.
"I am fascinated by belief systems and separating how the institutions
manipulated these theologies," says Amos. "I find that being a minister's
daughter was a great gift because I saw the dark side of Christianity."
"Sexuality and spirituality were so severed that it comes out strange ways
and ways that are incredibly damaging. I find that when people are so
sexually repressed you can't talk about boundaries because they pretend that
it doesn't exist anyway," Amos adds.
She attributes her artistic independence and the longevity of her career
loyalty of her fans. Her listeners, she says, give her artistic freedom.
"Not loads of artists find that each time you put out a work do you have
'fan base' that will say we can't promise to stay with you, but we'll give it a
go," says Amos. "You can't really ask for more than that, in that way I'm
fortunate because I don't have to bend to the will of what the fad is. If radio
doesn't play me, I still have a career."
Internet is the 'final frontier'
Nowhere is the enormity of her fan base
more evident than on the Internet.
Literally thousands of sites claim to be
definitive sources on everything Amos.
The diminutive singer is aware of her
following, but stays away from the Web.
"I don't have a computer," she says. "I
stay away [from the Internet] mainly
because I don't want to know what color underwear I was wearing during
sound-check. I just don't want to know."
Comparing the Internet to the bygone, more radical days of FM radio, she
says it's more dangerous, more risky and less beholden to advertisers than
other forms of media.
"The Internet, as of now, is your final frontier into all sorts of stuff
going to get where you have a sponsor saying I won't support your station if
you play this kind of crap," she says. "The Internet is not based on ratings
and advertisers, as of yet."
Amos may not know a computer mouse from a rodent, but she certainly
recognizes the commercial and artistic potential of the Internet. Her own
official home page features a selection of video and sound clips, a daily
photo of her from her tour, chat rooms and newsgroups.
She also recently participated in much-touted deal with Tower Records that
enabled fans who pre-ordered her latest CD from the store to receive an
access code they could use to download a song from her official web site.
Amos also previewed material from her album during a live Webcast in
April, and is releasing an enhanced (CD-ROM) single for "Jackie's Strength,
featuring two new B-sides, "Never Seen Blue" and "Beulah Land."
Longevity through fan relationships
And Amos joined Best Buy Online for an upcoming action of a pair of
tickets for three shows to raise money for organization RAINN (Rape,
Abuse & Incest National Network), which she cofounded in 1994 to help
survivors of sexual assault.
In an industry glutted with new artists and record labels, Amos understands
that relationships with her fans will mean her own longevity.
"It's really tough to stay around right now. If you notice, a lot of people
hear them for one album and then they're gone. It's not because they're not
creating anymore, it's because there is no loyalty with radio, like there used
to be," she says.
But for now, Amos is focused on getting this tour right. You can only truly
be a bride once, she says, and this is her turn to stroll down the figurative
aisle, except that her red carpet is a concert stage, and her organ the piano.
"This time will never exist again as far as our little tiny world because
the first time I've ever toured live with a band," she says.
The woman who once sang about clearly being in the wrong band seems to
finally have found the right one.