Tori Amos: Putting the Damage On

August 01st, 1996 | Category: Essays, Interviews

Legendary science fiction author Harlan Ellison has explored, in many of his stories, the concept of a new pantheon of gods. Gods for the modern world: The God of Smog, the God of Freudian Guilt, the Machine God, etc. According to Harlan, in order for a god to exist, it must have worshippers. “When belief in a god dies, the god dies,” he writes.

Whether you believe that or not, Tori Amos is a certified goddess, a mythological, musical deity with worshippers around the world. She brings them words of wisdom and scriptures of therapy record after record (four so far: 1988’s little-heard, abortive attempt at metal, Y Kan’t Tori Read?, 1992’s breakthrough Little Earthquakes, 1994’s frail Under the Pink, and her fiery recent record Boys for Pele).

With minimal airplay, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink have both gone double-platinum (a feat Boys for Pele has yet to accomplish, but surely will) and her latest Dew Drop Inn tour continues to sell out city after city. This is all thanks to her throngs of faithful followers, and in the absence of any major radio hits.

“At a certain point, I would’ve done anything to have a hit on the radio,” Tori admits. “And when that didn’t happen, and I hated what I was doing — the reasons I was doing it, I should say — I remember back to a time when I was really, really young and I loved playing. I played because I liked to play, and people seemed to like it when i liked it, because I played better.”

Since Y Kan’t Tori Read?, Amos has held on to this philosophy of doing what she loves despite the outcome. “If you like driving fast, get off the 101 and go into car racing,” she illustrates. “They’ll give you these really fast cars and all you have to do is go really, really fast, and people will come because they like to see really, really fast cars and sometimes they like to see you crash and burn up, too. Once I understood that, I said, ‘Well, hopefully I won’t crash and burn up.'”

No need to worry: On Boys for Pele, Tori is the burner, not the burnee. Though the tales are poignant, they’re just as therapeutic as they are painful.

“I was living this as I wrote it,” she says of the record. “With Under the Pink, I knew I had to make a second record, and I knew a lot of people would say Little Earthquakes was a fluke, and a part of me kind of grabbed at the chance to make more music. I made it in such a way that I talked about things that I knew I could talk about at the time, and yet there were a lot if things that I was hiding from at the time, and that’s one reason I called it Under the Pink. Because I couldn’t talk about certain things that I talked about on Pele.”

These “things” were the crumbling pieces of her seven-year relationship with Eric Rosse (co-producer of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink). “We were very close. That separtaion was like half of me walked out the door. It wasn’t like this was my boyfriend or my lover — he was all of those things of course — but this was like half of me. When we separated, I had to learn how to walk out the door again and remember the keys. Obviously I found a side of myself that I hadn’t even let come out, maybe my whole life. So that’s what this record became about.

“I had to write this record just to be able to not go running back to him saying, ‘I don’t know how to survive without you,'” she continues. “Because the truth is I do know how to survive without him, and he knows how to survive without me, be he did do things I couldn’t do and I did things he couldn’t do, and therefore the record is a kind of descent. From top to tail, it’s a story of this woman trying to find fragments of herself, but she happens to find her own fire. that’s why I called it Boys for Pele, after the fire goddess.”

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of destruction and creation, was worshipped with sacrificial boys who were thrown into her volcano. As Tori puts it, The ‘boys’ meaning the men that brought me to a place where I had to find my won fire, whether they meant to or not.”

Tori learned to play the harpsichord specifically for Pele. This, along with the obvious emotional release, and its long running time (over seventy minutes), give the record textures heretofore not present in the Tori Amos canon. She also produced this one herself.

Like her past three records, however, Pele is full of sounds that unfold over time with repeated listens yet still retains an overall thematic cohesion. She credits this to the different instruments she uses from record to record. “When I go back to the instruments,” Tori explains, “I have a better sense of ‘What do I want to create? What kind of music can I play more than once and not get bored?’ My favorite records are always records where every time I listen, there’s something else for me to hear — whether it’s the Zepplin box set, or whether it’s Mozart’s recordings, or whether it’s West Side Story, which I absolutely love. I mean, I can sing that ‘Jets’ thing over and over again…”

Tori Amos (born Myra Ellen Amos — she changed her name at age seventeen) may be completing the transformation into sacrificial fore goddess in the minds of her minions, but years ago she was just a rebellious student at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She was expelled at age eleven for defying the standards of classical musicianship and continued to hone her unique piano style until Atlantic records took notice in 1986. though she says they’re much better to her now, the personnel there haven’t necessary been the most faithful of the converted. For instance, when it came time to make the video for “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” Tori was counting on director Mike Lipsicombe’s vision, based on his less-than-visionary hand-sketched storyboards, complete with stick-figures, and the executives at Atlantic were wary to say the least.

“I’ll be real honest with you, I’m a lioness,” Tori says of her relationship with her label. “When I say I really want to work with this person, and this is my instinct, they give me a lot of room. Although a lot of times they’re rolling their eyes going, ‘Jesus Christ, can’t somebody give her a lobotomy?!'”

Oh ye of little faith.

[Originally published in the August, 1996 issue of Pandemonium! magazine]

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