In the nineties, the piano has not received the respect it deserves—at least from pop artists. But Tori Amos makes the piano central to her overall presentation, both onstage and in the studio. Over the course of three albums and two EPs, she has established herself as both a critical and commercial success. She's a fine singer, a terrific pianist, a captivating performer, and an intriguing songwriter who addresses relationships from a candid, sometimes brutal perspective. What sets her apart from her peer group of young female singer-songwriters is her ability to wrap her painful experiences within mythic metaphors. At the same time, Amos's musical expertise enables her to bounce stylistically from sophisticated, heart-tugging ballads to whimsical, somewhat jazzy excursions. Her fan base is one of the most devoted in rock; not surprisingly, there are close to seventy-five Web sites devoted to her music, thoughts, and personal minutiae.
Tori Amos had a jump on the world of music from the very beginning. She was born Myra Ellen Amos in Newton, North Carolina, August 22, 1963, and moved with her parents to suburban Maryland a year later. By age three, she was already demonstrating a startling aptitude for the piano; by four she was composing musical scores; and at six she became the youngest student ever to attend the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Apparently, the idea was to train the young Amos for a career as a classical concert pianist. But she had other ideas in mind, and after composing a piece at age eleven that was deemed too radical by the faculty, she was shown the door.
She briefly gave up playing, but soon returned to the keyboard, performing jazz standards in piano bars in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. At seventeen, she wrote a song with her brother Michael for the then-World Series-bound Orioles called "Baltimore." Around the same time, she changed her name from Ellen (apparently, she never really called herself Myra) to Tori. Although there are several stories explaining the decision, the most believable seems to be that a friend of a friend heard her perform and simply said that she looked more like a Tori than an Ellen.
Tori Amos graduated her Rockville, Maryland, high school in 1981 after being named homecoming queen and voted most likely to succeed. All the necessary elements of success seemed to be in place, but the always-rebellious Amos became a bit of a punk, and, at twenty-one, she moved to Los Angeles to seek her fame and fortune. In time, she became the lead singer of a hard-rock band called Y Kant Tori Read, looking something like a more metallic Pat Benatar. Other band members included drummer Matt Sorum, who later played in Guns 'N Roses, and guitarist Steve Farris, who had been with Mr. Mister during its glory year. The band signed to Atlantic, but their debut album was a tremendous flop—could it have been the awful name?—both commercially and critically, though copies of the CD now fetch over one hundred dollars apiece from collectors. Curiously, Amos performed solo at some promotional appearances in support of the album, revealing to a select few that some genuine talent lay beneath all that hair.
Emotionally upset and in need of a new perspective on life, she moved to London and began working on richly hued, piano-based songs that eventually landed her a solo deal. Her first album, Little Earthquakes, was released in early 1992. Featuring the poignant first single, "Silent All These Years," the compelling ballads "Crucify" and "Winter," plus the teasing, cabaret-like "Leather," her debut sold two million copies and placed Amos firmly on the musical map. It is an album that tackles a number of strong subjects, especially on the startling "Me and a Gun," an a cappella tale of her escape from a would-be rapist. Based on a real-life experience, the song proved so effective at conveying the feelings of a woman under attack that it became something of an anthem for rape-prevention groups around the nation. (A group close to her heart; in January of 1997, Amos headlined a New York City benefit concert in support of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.) Later in 1992, Amos released the Crucify E.P., which featured a surprisingly moving solo-piano version of Nirvana's raucous "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that found her still more legions of fans.
In a sense, that cover version offered a hint of what was to come on her second album, 1994's Under the Pink. The leadoff single, "God," was Amos's most daring piece of work to date, highlighted by an oddly metered rhythm, and ushered in with an unexpectedly squealing guitar lead. Other key tracks on the album include the bouncy, offbeat "Cornflake Girl" and the warm "Past the Mission." Amos's breakup with longtime boyfriend Eric Rosse (who co-produced her first two albums) led to the harsher themes explored on her third album, 1996's Boys for Pele. Although the breathy "Caught a Lite Sneeze" received plenty of airplay, the album's artwork, especially a photo of Amos holding a piglet to her breast, ultimately got more attention than the demanding and somewhat inaccessible music.
Following the end of the Pele tour, Tori discovered she was pregnant and was, in her words, "over the moon about it." Sadly, she miscarried after three months. In an interview with Wall of Sound, Tori discussed the tragic event, and how it influenced her latest album, the spring 1998 release from the choirgirl hotel.
"The songs started coming not long after I miscarried. The strange thing is, the love doesn't go away for this being that you've carried. You can't go back to being the person you were before you carried life. And yet you're not a mother, either, and you still are connected to a force, a being. And I was trying to find ways to keep that communication going. Along the way on the search, sort of walking with the undead, I would run into these songs. The one thing they kept saying to me was I had to find a deep woman's rhythmaYou begin to create where you can. If you can't create physical life, you find a life force. If that's in music, that's in music. I started to find this deep, primitive rhythm, and I started to move to it. And I held hands with sorrow, and I danced with her, and we giggled a bit. And this record really became about being alive enough to feel things, no matter what that is."
The album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard album chart.
In happier news, in March 1998, she married British sound engineer Mark Hawley, at whose Cornwall, England, studio she recorded choirgirl. The pair wed at a medieval castle in the U.K.
For the choirgirl album and tour, Tori "plugged" in for the first time, opting for electric instrumentation over her usual acoustic. In April and early May 1998 she staged a mini-practice tour to acclimate herself to the new style, playing sold out shows for fans only in smaller venues. She undertook a full-scale tour of Europe that kicked off in London on May 19 that ended July 5 in Belgium. And with hardly enough time to catch her breath, on July 28 she embarked upon a full tour of North America where she played at larger arenas. She started out in New York City's Madison Square Garden and made her way across the country to the America West Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., at the end of September.
After touring nonstop since the release of from the choirgirl hotel, Amos decided, after five records and four world tours, to take a brief respite from recording original material. Instead, Amos is contemplating the release of a live and B-sides compilation. According to the singer, "There will be nine or 10 years of material represented in one kind or another" on the album, which isn't scheduled for release until Christmas 1999.