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Tori Amos: Clearly in the right band

Web posted on: Thursday, August 27, 1998 9:48:47 AM

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 of a "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 studio thing," she adds. "It has to really about where the players are up in the mix."

Listen to a clip of "Spark" from Amos' latest album

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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 like I 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 Choir 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 be 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 have 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 to the 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 this '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."

Song clips from Amos' Web site

"Raspberry Swirl"
Real Audio: 28k or 56k

"Jackie's Strength"
Real Audio: 28k or 56k

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 you're not 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 you 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 this is 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.

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