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Tori Amos

Lost in wonderland

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By Gary Graff  
artist

The world had heard nothing quite like Tori Amos when she emerged as a solo artist with Little Earthquakes in 1992. Her music was introspective and adventurous, jagged but still melodic, and drawn from a cavernous range of influences that included her own Cherokee heritage, the Christian teachings of her childhood (her father is a minister), free jazz and classic rock. She reminded many of a cross between Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, but at the same time seemed like a completely independent, and even iconoclastic artist.

It's a path that Myra Ellen Amos, born in North Carolina and raised in Maryland, has been exploring since childhood, when she was a piano prodigy who started taking classes at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore when she was just five years old. By age thirteen she was playing clubs in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and in 1984 her muse and ambition led her to Los Angeles, where she released a pop album with a band called Y Kant Tori Read before going solo with Little Earthquakes.

From romantic travails to explicit and frank accounts of rape and miscarriage, Amos -- who lives in Cornwall, England, with her husband, sound engineer Mark Hawley, and their four-year-old daughter Natashya -- has plowed a singularly brave and creative path. Her music has always been centered around her piano; but she's embraced other elements as well. She's often credited her inspiration to "fairies" that bring her song ideas, but in 2005 Amos revealed that there was much more to the process in Piece By Piece, a book written by her in collaboration with journalist Ann Powers.

Q: You share a lot of insights about the creative process in your book, Piece By Piece. But did you actually gain a new perspective yourself by actually writing them down?

Amos: I did. I'm fascinated by the discipline that other artists have in order to make their creation, and so is (Powers). I talk about how the songs emerge as seedlings in the beginning. I don't really explain the songs, because I've never done that. But I try to explain the rhythm of creativity. It's a very mystical process. Music comes, as you know, from a very intangible place. It is my first language, not English, and I'm trying to explain in English about the ways of music and the muse as I understand them, and as I participate in the process as a co-creator, not as the sole creator. The sonic world can be traversed. I know we don't have maps to do it, but there are ways to do it. You have to hunt for sound frequencies. That's what I am, really, a sonic hunter.

Q: Which artists have provided a model for the kind of creative career you emulate?

Amos: We'll go to musicians in a second, but Georgia O'Keefe was one of those people that at eighty or how ever old she was, was still exploring and creating, and didn't seem like she wanted to be twenty-six. I looked up to her because I like the idea of women who are able to mature with their art and not look like they're trying to chase youth. Those have been the women that I've been clocking, because it's a tough thing to do. It's easier to do it in the visual arts world than in rock and roll.

Q: Who are some of the musical models?

Amos: I think Tina Turner, as a performer and as a woman. With songwriters you get into the Neil Youngs, the Bruce Springsteens, the Peter Gabriels, the ones who are still vital at fifty and beyond. David Bowie, too. The reason I mention them is because, especially the Bruce Springsteens of the world and the Neil Youngs of the world, they generate material very regularly it seems. They seem to be quite prolific.

Q: Can you envision yourself as an artist at fifty?

Amos: Absolutely, even if you have to prop me up and give me an I-V, I'm gonna give it a try! That's tricky, though. It's tricky to do. That's why every facet of it is important, the performing side as well as the composing side, and still being a good player. You have to keep practicing. You have to play and you have to compose. I think I went through my phase where I was just dealing with my life for awhile. That doesn't mean I didn't write music to reflect it. I did. But then once I had Natashya, it kind of upped my game as a songwriter and gave me a new kind of inspiration and muse.

Q: How do you straddle the line between writing autobiographically, and writing through characters?

Amos: I think the records have always been where I am as a songwriter, which is usually kind of how I see things at that time. So even if I'm writing about other people, I kind of embody that character, but nobody really knows what's me and what's not, and that's part of it, right? Let's face it, with each record you're in a certain phase, whether you're in love, whether you're at war with somebody, whether you've lost somebody that you care about or whether you're just in a discovery period. I think to be able to pull songs from all these different phases is really what you're about as an artist.

Q: On your album The Beekeeper, you added a Hammond B-3 organ to the mix. Where did that come from?

Amos: I guess all those old Stevie Wonder albums that my brother played me when I was little, the structures were imprinted on my brain a long time ago. But you can recall them as a musician, so maybe that's what happened. I studied the pipe organ when I was nine, too. My dad was really pushing for me to be a composer of religious music. I've told him in a way that I am. I'm preaching more the gospel of the agnostic Christ, the Christ consciousness, than the one that's been acquired -- Jesus' teachings as they've been used to control the masses. And he'll just look at me and say 'We're not going to have this conversation right now, are we?' So I guess in a way, learning pipe organ came in handy, too.

Q: Religion has fueled quite a bit of your writing. What's your perspective on it, both as a creative topic, and as a part of your life?

Amos: There are right-wing Christians all the time, telling me that Jesus still loves me. I say 'I love him too, honey.' Like it or not, I'm a daughter of the church. But I was brought up in mind-control and dogma. I was a feminist and got smart by the time I was five, and that all factors into it, too. But I also got over being a feminist. I want to be inclusive.

Q: Do you feel that your beliefs have kept any listeners away over the years?

Amos: Maybe. Some artists have a difficult time because what they believe in is very different from what they're pushing. I'm not a hitmaking machine here, but I sing about what I believe in. If that's not up your street, then you don't have to agree with me. But you're still always welcome at the concert.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.