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A Tori Amos Primer

An Introduction To The Songwriter’s Storied Career

On January 24, 2018

When artists talk about “the muses” they're rarely referring to actual embodiments of inspiration, tangible forces complete with different characters. But then again not all artists are quite like Tori Amos. Activist, child prodigy, mezzo-soprano singer and lover of fairies and folklore, Amos is a singular talent. With a spectacular run of albums in the ’90s, she tore down any preconceptions on what female musicians were “supposed” to sing about, instead opting to tackle love, loss and sexuality in an upfront manner rarely seen before.

Playing music ever since she could reach a piano, this fiery-headed minister’s daughter was already experimenting with composition at age three, a process aided by the fact she saw song structure as kaleidoscopic light—a symptom commonly associated with sound-to-color synesthesia. Before long she was shipped off to Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, a relationship not destined to last. With Amos’ love of rock and pop proving no match for such conservative surroundings, the fledgeling musician’s teen years were spent honing her skills in various gay bars and piano joints before moving to L.A. to chase her dreams.

Despite quickly securing a six-album deal with Atlantic Records, it was not an easy ride to alt-rock stardom, a best-forgotten project titled Y Kant Tori Read doing little to hint at the raw and empowering material to follow. With her synthpop effort wowing neither the public nor her label, it was back to drawing board for Amos. What followed was a series of releases that simultaneously slotted in with the exploding alternative rock movement while also clashing against its apathetic nature.

By openly mining her religious upbringing, struggle for identity and sexual awakening for inspiration, Amos bravely sought to explore the human experience through gender-politics, memory and a good dash of mysticism. Ferociously following her own instincts, she cut a distinctive path in an industry overcrowded with angry men brandishing guitars. Her detractors called her a Kate Bush knockoff, others complained that her lyrics and persona weren’t accessible enough, but this did little to stop the songwriter amassing an army of “Toriphiles,” eight Grammy nods and a handful of peculiar hit singles. In essence, she became the no-nonsense middle finger to toxic masculinity that disenfranchised teens needed.

To this day she stands as a fiercely independent artist only a fool would second-guess. With 15 studio albums under her belt, there are plenty of moods and tones to explore. Here’s a good starting point.

Little Earthquakes (1992)

With her previous band truly dead and buried it took Amos over a year of tinkering to sway Atlantic into backing her solo effort—it was time well spent. By taking all the bad, all the missteps and all the hypocrisy of the previous few years, Amos tapped into something raw and unignorable. Haunting piano work and impassioned vocals accompany lyrics filled with biblical imagery, empty sex and a desire to feel happy in one's skin. From the playful tinkering on “Silent All These Years” to the harrowing biographical tale “Me and a Gun,” the album's 12 tracks never feel anything less than gut-wrenchingly honest.

At 28, Amos had finally found her voice and in doing so became a bona fide cult star in the UK, cracking the Top 20 charts, and received rapturous reviews stateside. As she told Rolling Stone in 2009: “This was a real turning point in claiming what kind of life I wanted to live. It was a real beginning.” It was a uniquely personal release that helped wash away the excess of the ’80s and open the door for the female songwriters that soon followed.

Under The Pink (1994)

Fan base now firmly secured, Amos retreated to New Mexico to create the acoustically led Under The Pink. While clearly embracing her classical beginnings, Amos bravely opted to inject some Grunge era attitude into a sophomore effort filled with hushed melodies and sweeping strings. Single “Pretty Good Year” utilized the Pixies’ trademark loud-quiet-loud dynamic to great effect, while the swaggering “God” takes clear aim at the Almighty—suggesting perhaps our creator might need a woman’s help. Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor even makes a guest appearance, adding understated backing vocals to fan favourite “Past The Mission.”

The album’s real center point, however, is “Cornflake Girl,” Amos’ most well-known song that is still as fresh sounding as when it was recorded. Gospel, baroque pop and good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll merge to create one of most distinctive tracks to ever trouble the top of the charts. Despite nearly half the songs passing the five-minute mark, Under The Pink shifted over 2 million units worldwide and solidified Amos as one of the era's most original writers—a self-assured statement from an artist now fully aware of her powers.

Boys For Pele (1996)

Featuring volcano gods, the breastfeeding of piglets and Lucifer himself, it’s fair to say Boys For Pele is the work of a psyche pissed with the status quo. Disintegrating relationships and men generally being assholes forced Amos to rethink the patriarchy, and in the process her own craft. The results were her most unrelenting and exciting record. Her first self-produced release, Amos’ third album boldly throws in harpsichord, jazz licks and even some industrial beats over an 18-track odyssey like no other.

Hard to grasp for some fans at the time, the record’s daring nature and feminist influence have only begun to be truly appreciated recently, a 33⅓ series essay dedicated to the seminal release currently in the works. With track numbers referencing Egyptian mythology and psychedelic drugs aiding the writing process, there is plenty to unpack. It’s an arresting listen, as Amos told the Daily News at the time: “Sometimes the fury of it would make me step back, I began to live these songs as we separated. The vampire in me came out.” It’s her wildest artistic statement in a career filled with big ideas.

Scarlet’s Walk (2002)

In her first collection of new material this century, Amos proved her fate was not tied to that of her contemporaries nor her former label, opting to release a concept album exploring post-9/11 America. An audio road trip of sorts, Amos seventh studio release sees her take on the persona of the titular Scarlet as she explores her native land. There’s glamour, Native American history, eroticism, planes, cabs and a healthy mix of the sacred and the damned.

Over a decade now spent touring the world, Amos took this opportunity to explore the varied history of the U.S. and its characters in a manner that’s equally biographical and fantastical. Marking a new phase of her career, it’s a noticeably more relaxed listen compared to her past work, but one that rewards the audience with repeat spins. The fire of old had been replaced with a sense of nostalgia and over time Scarlet’s journey becomes your own.

Night of Hunters (2011)

Christmas albums, orchestral reworking’s and musicals have all filled Amos’ schedule over the past decade. Her passion for experimentation has never wavered, with Night of Hunters perhaps standing as her most singular release of the past 15 years. Taking inspiration from original compositions by Chopin, Bach, Schubert and more, Amos reworked some of their most iconic pieces and added her own trademark themes of motherhood and mythology. Hand picking her favourite musicians from the likes of the Berlin Philharmoniker, Amos’ 12th release is a grandiose listen, one that captures the mysterious power of nature with ease.

Her first album to truly drop any modern flourishes, its 14 acoustic tracks only highlight what an incredible pianist the icon is. Three decades into a career that could be fairly described as classical crossover, the brooding Night of Hunters finds the songwriter truly embracing the label for the first time. At times soaring, at others tear-inducing—Amos once more proves that no matter the guise, her ability for an emotional connection with her audience is rarely matched.

Profile Picture of Sam Walker-Smart
Sam Walker-Smart

Sam Walker-Smart is a Barcelona based journalist. His writing has appeared in CLASH, Little White Lies and El Huffington Post. He enjoys fine beer and fine company.

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