Part Eighteen: Tori Amos
WITH only two more features after this…
PHOTO CREDIT: Miller Mobley
it has been interesting and revealing featuring iconic female artists. I have learned a lot and got to dig deeper into their lives; what drives them and what makes them stand out. Many people debate whether certain artists should be seen as icons. The definition is subjective but, if you look at the seventeen artists I have already featured, there is no denying their importance and legacy. Before arriving at the final two instalments, I want to include an artist who has inspired a lot of modern artists; whether in terms of being bolder with their lyrics or more experimental – everyone from Lady Gaga and Joanna Newsom, in some form, owe a small nod of thanks to Tori Amos. There are some out there who would also note how Tori Amos herself owes a little debt to another female icon, Kate Bush. For sure, there are similarities but one icon can inspire another. I think there are a lot of differences between Kate Bush and Tori Amos. I think Amos’ lyrics are definitely her own: there is no way one can easily compare the confessional and emotional offerings from Amos to Kate Bush. Like all the other Female Icons features, I will end with a career-spanning playlist but, to start, it is worth going back to the beginning. I often wonder why artists like Tori Amos are not played more on radio. In fact, there are a lot of inspiring female artists who do not get their music aired enough; a slight that needs to be corrected by radio stations.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I digress but, to be fair, maybe Tori Amos’ music is a little raw and challenging for a lot of the more commercial and conventional stations. When one does hear a Tori Amos tune on the radio, more often than not, it is Cornflake Girl – sometimes Crucify gets a play but there are many other tracks that deserve some respect. I think artists like Amos have had a definite influence on modern-day songwriters who stray away from cliché subjects of love and are much braver with their lyrical content. We shall come to that. Tori Amos was born on 22nd August, 1963 and, from an early age, it was clear music was her passion. There is no doubt Amos was born for music and that was her path. She bonded with the piano as a child and began composing her own pieces very young; she won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute at the age of five – making her the youngest person ever to be admitted. There is debate as to why she was expelled at the age of eleven but, apparently, there was some ‘musical insubordination’ – perhaps Amos was too confined and frustrated by the rigidity. Although Amos is a solo artist, she did spend a brief time as the lead of the 1980s band, Y Kant Tori Read. Despite the cool name and the fact the band covered topics like feminism and politics in their music, the band shone briefly but brightly.
It was a definite bridge from Amos’ childhood teaching and her debut solo album. With her father’s help, Tori Amos’ demo tapes accrued as a teenager were sent to record labels. Atlantic Records took a shine to Amos and signed her. Even though there was a deal on the table, Amos knew she needed to move to L.A. to pursue her dreams and get the recognition she desired. The opportunities of the city called and Amos responded. Amos moved to L.A. by 1984 and there was a period of transition where Amos was finding her feet and readying for her debut. She signed a six-album deal with Atlantic Records. There was disappointing regarding Y Kant Tori Read (the band’s eponymous album) and there was a bit of a hurdle regarding the recordings that followed. The label was itching for a new record by 1990 and the early recordings sent to the label were met with rejection. With the help of the likes of Steve Canton and Dan Nebenzal (among others), Little Earthquakes took shape. Maybe Little Earthquakes’ cover did suggest some illusion to Kate Bush – a similar pose and look – but the subject matter on the debut was deeply personal and moving. Personal struggles, sexual alienation and sexual assault were the subject of songs. It is a record that has darkness but there is undeniable beauty and transcendence. One cannot listen to Little Earthquakes without being affected and moved.
From the stark and brutal Me and a Gun to the gorgeous Winter, there are few debut albums as compelling and moving as Little Earthquakes. The album was a commercial breakthrough and performed well in the U.K. charts. The progress of Little Earthquakes was a bit slower in the U.S. – a nation that were not used to artists as unique and unconventional as Tori Amos -, but songs like Silent All These Years helped her progress. It is a remarkable album and one that was acclaimed and praised on its debut. I have selected a couple of reviews that illuminate the depths and diversity of Tori Amos’ debut. In this review, AllMusic made some excellent observations:
“But Little Earthquakes is no mere style-setter or feminine stereotype -- its intimacy is uncompromising, intense, and often far from comforting. Amos' musings on major personal issues -- religion, relationships, gender, childhood -- were just as likely to encompass rage, sarcasm, and defiant independence as pain or tenderness; sometimes, it all happened in the same song. The apex of that intimacy is the harrowing "Me and a Gun," where Amos strips away all the music, save for her own voice, and confronts the listener with the story of her own real-life rape; the free-associative lyrics come off as a heart-wrenching attempt to block out the ordeal. Little Earthquakes isn't always so stomach-churning, but it never seems less than deeply cathartic; it's the sound of a young woman (like the protagonist of "Silent All These Years") finally learning to use her own voice -- sort of the musical equivalent of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia.
That's why Amos draws strength from her relentless vulnerability, and that's why the constantly shifting emotions of the material never seem illogical -- Amos simply delights in the frankness of her own responses, whatever they might be. Though her subsequent albums were often very strong, Amos would never bare her soul quite so directly (or comprehensibly) as she did here, nor with such consistently focused results. Little Earthquakes is the most accessible work in Amos' catalog, and it's also the most influential and rewarding”.
Pitchfork covered Little Earthquakes in 2015:
“Amos’ solo debut, though it was rarely talked about this way, was similarly radical—an alternately flirty and harrowing work that juxtaposed barbed truths against symphonic flights of fancy. It was lyrically nuanced and harmonically sophisticated exactly when grunge moved rock in a raw and brutish direction, which made her achievement even more striking. Amos was early Queen, early Elton John, and early Kate Bush with Rachmaninoff chops. Decades after prog-rock’s peak, her technical perfection was particularly shocking in the virtuoso-renouncing '90s: Not even Elton could tear into a song both vocally and instrumentally while staring down attendees with a Cheshire Cat grin.
For the outsider women and gay men who initially propelled Amos’ success, this hard-won message served as a clarion call, and they embraced her as if uncovering the challenging and most vulnerable parts of themselves. Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang, Sinéad O'Connor, and the Indigo Girls had already begun to reach the same flock, but Amos—by virtue of her sexual intensity and subject matter—instantly commanded a bond only rivaled by Madonna, whose eroticism peaked just as Amos arrived”.
I will not cover all of her albums but I wanted to highlight a few more that warrant examination. Little Earthquakes arrived at a time when Nirvana were ruling music; it would have been strange going up against them for chart glory. By 1994, the landscape had changed and Amos’ career was about to rise. There were some who were unkind about Under the Pink but, for those listening hard enough, the differences were noted. Amos sounded more confident and her music was bolder; the production was different and there was more in the way of accessibility. Cornflake Girl is the big hit from the album and a breezier, more hummable song than we were used to – even if the subject matter talked about female genital mutilation. Pretty Good Year and God are as fine as anything on her debut but, on her second outing, there is more diversity and range. Amos was bringing in new influences and sounds – there is a touch of Reggae on Cornflake Girl – and the lyrics, to me, are more nuanced and powerful. In this review, Pop Matters noted the changes:
“Far from Little Earthquakes II, Under the Pink sounds fresher and fuller than its predecessor these days: more artful in its arrangements, more assured in production, hinting at Amos’s wilder experiments to come. And yet for all its modernist flourishes -- the twitchy electric guitar-work in “God”, the jazz and reggae-influenced gait of the immortal “Cornflake Girl”, the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year” -- Amos’s second album feels like her most classical work, pre-Night of Hunters, at least. Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches the abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images of her writing.
Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal are to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink”, Amos emerges with haunting tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle’s" paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress", the refrain of which “I believe in peace, bitch” sums up the album’s riveting ambivalences. The most extraordinary track, though, remains the closing “Yes, Anastasia", a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at a coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” Amos sneers: a challenge to herself and to the listener”.
1996’s Boys for Pele found Amos producing solo for the first time. The album contains expanded instrumentation and the lyrics are denser and more poetic. That did divide some critics but showed Amos was unwilling to settle and was finding fresh inspiration. The lyrics, as you’d expect, were extremely personal but the album is not as heavy as you’d expect. Amos did receive some flak regarding the lyrics and her taking production control. She responded by claiming the music had so much subtext and critics were being unfair. You can see her point. Maybe Boys for Pele was a little different to what was happening in music in 1996, but you listen to Boys for Pele now and it really stands up. It is actually one of her most rewarding and challenging works that, it seems, critics did not give enough time and attention to. I want to bring in a review from AllMusic; written in 2015, it seems time has allowed the album to breathe and resonate:
“Boys for Pele is the harshest and most challenging work in Tori Amos' catalog. However, it also stands as the most cathartic, nourishing, and artistically thrilling of her career. Birthed in the wake of a devastating breakup, Pele is a sprawling ode to the feminine, conjured in a whirlwind of pain that forced Amos to embark on a quest into the dark unknown to find the fire within that had been snuffed out by the men in her life.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
After her breakthrough confessional Little Earthquakes and the delicate impressions of Under the Pink, Amos struck out on her own for the first time, unfettered and uncompromised. Pele would be her debut at the helm as sole producer, a control she would maintain for the rest of her career. With that power, Amos was free to exorcize the demons as she saw fit. She did so with new additions to her arsenal: a harpsichord, brass flourishes, a choir, labyrinthine lyrics, and a pantheon of spirits summoned in the Louisiana bayou and the Irish countryside. It was a jarring shift”.
I love Boys for Pele because it contains the exceptional Professional Widow. The eponymous heroine, many say, refers to Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994) and the song was given extra punch when it received remixes from Armand van Helden and MK. If one or two of Tori Amos’ 1990s albums divided critics, one listens to those records and marvels. 2001’s Strange Little Girls saw Amos covering songs written by men; given them a female perspective. 2017’s Native Invaders is her most recent album and one that received positive reviews. I wonder whether there is another album coming from Tori Amos soon because, over twenty-five years since her debut album, Amos remains essential and utterly engrossing.
Not only is her music inspiring and original but Amos is someone who provides wonderful interviews. I will bring in a couple before rounding things off. Amos spoke with Stereogum when promoting Native Invaders in 2017. Timely now as it was then, Amos was asked about the environmental themes on the album:
“STEREOGUM: I know this record has an environmental theme. It’s a very important topic. But it can be a dry topic. How do you turn that into songs that people will actually enjoy listening to, and will resonate with them, and not just, “The icebergs are falling, people, pay attention!”
AMOS: Well, exactly. Nobody wants to be preached at. I’m a preacher’s daughter and the granddaughter of a missionary teacher, my father’s mother. Nobody wants to be preached at. I think that’s always the struggle. Sometimes there are songs that are written for every album that you think are, to steal your line, “dry.” Or it doesn’t have the right story.
STEREOGUM: So you have to figure out how to make it work?
AMOS: It sounds simple. It is that basic: trying to track it down and make it work. Hunting for those things can lead you down many dead ends.
STEREOGUM: There was a story in New York Magazine a couple months ago that said, “We are very close to Earth being uninhabitable if we don’t change our ways.” As a person studying the environment, do you get overcome with despair or do you feel any hope, at all, for humanity still? Big question.
AMOS: Really big question. I have a lot of faith in Mother Earth. I don’t know if we’re going to make it. I think she will make it. I don’t know. Dinosaurs. They did pretty well.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, they had a good run”.
The second interview I want to source from is with Vulture. Amos talked about her relationship with the audience and the artists who inspire her:
“How has your relationship with your audience changed over time? You have famously obsessive fans.
I know that right now, in a cultural moment of great trauma, people are ready for songs that talk about in-depth emotions and issues. Let’s put it this way: There’s always going to be pop music, but in times of tragedy people turn to certain songwriters who have layers to their work.
PHOTO CREDIT: Paulina Otylie
Who have those songwriters been for you?
Leonard Cohen — a big one. Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. Joni Mitchell.
Do you draw different things from the men and women who’ve influenced you?
The fact is, like I said, that there are not a lot of women singer-songwriters having the level of success that the men are. The guys are endless. The women are not. I know that’s not a direct answer to your question, but it’s a subject I really started wrapping my head around four years ago when I was making Unrepentant Geraldines.After making three classical-influenced, experimental albums between 2009 and 2012, on 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos returned to her ’90s style of more-stripped-down instrumentation — primarily vocals and piano. That’s when I was underwater in the depths of menopause. I realized that I had to pull on some serious energy from deep within my being and also from the earth itself; by sheer will I had to become a force of nature.
Tina Turner was a force of nature in her early 50s. So was Nina Simone. Our industry, though, doesn’t value women songwriters that are 50 and over. There’s ageism, and certainly men aren’t going to write the stories my generation needs to hear. Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and Cher — they’re not a parallel with alternative-pop singer-songwriters. They’re amazingly talented entertainers and actresses, but they’re different than what I’m talking about. Country music seems to be open to having mature women tell their stories. You’ve got Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire and others. But in the alternative-music field where I came from, there aren’t many of us. Patti Smith is out there. We’ve got Stevie Nicks. There are some, but not many, and it’s not a coincidence.
For anyone who doubts Amos’ importance and influence, there are articles that discuss her magic. She is a phenomenal artist and one who I hope will create music for many years to come. It is artists like Amos who have paved a way for women and have pushed music forward. In terms of songwriting, you can feel artists who have taken her to heart but there is still nobody as striking as Amos when it comes to subject matter. Her voice intoxicates and her compositions envelop you and bring you into the music. Who knows what lies ahead for Amos but one thing is clear: the music she has already given the world is among the most personal, spectacular and memorable of all time. Many might dismiss that notion but have a listen back through her albums and you will be stirred and affected. Tori Amos is an icon for sure and an artist who deserves a lot more radioplay than she gets. She came into the music world with Little Earthquakes and, before long, this beguiling songwriter was creating…