Her first serious foray into the world of rock as frontwoman of synth-pop/glitz metal band Y Kant Tori Read was not a success. The eponymous album, released by Atlantic in 1988, was universally panned – an experience Amos now credits for returning her to her beloved piano.
“It was a real fight to get people to have a different image of what the piano was,” says Tori of that time, “and somebody had to fight that fight. While I was fighting it, I didn’t realise that I happened to be that person, because when it’s happening you don’t see it in a historical context. I started to get… well, it became a mission of mine; I guess I became a vigilante, because I refused to see how the piano had been boxed in to this definition of passive – passive and non-confrontational, and I decided you could be confrontational and powerful – and the screaming had to be in the content, not necessarily in what your voice was doing.”
Little Earthquakes was rejected – in its first incarnation – by the label. Tori explains: “Doug Morris, who ran Atlantic Records at that time in America, made a deal with me that if I turned in four more songs that weren’t just centred around the piano, but were more band-based, that we would move forward… But I have to acknowledge, after I turned in the other songs and, after he really listened to it, that he got it. Doug Morris got it and he got behind it. And by then those four songs, which were ‘Girl’, ‘Tear in Your Hand’, ‘Precious Things’ and ‘Little Earthquakes’, kind of made the record a whole.”
Tori had a lot to scream about. In raw, confessional songs that reimagined the piano as sensual and provocative, Little Earthquakes marked Amos’s commercial and artistic breakthrough. Tracks such as ‘Silent All These Years’, ‘China’ and ‘Winter’ were UK hit singles and also saw the album eventually scale the charts in the US. The album tackled powerful subjects, such as Tori’s religious upbringing, misogyny and traumatic sexual assault that took place during her Y Kant Tori Read days, which is documented in the haunting a cappella song ‘Me And A Gun’. In 1994 Tori helped found RAINN (Rape, Abuse And Incest National Network) and became the first national spokesperson for the organisation.
If Tori equates Little Earthquakes with a diary, she compares her second, 1994’s Under The Pink, with a painting. “Once your stories have gone out to the world and the people have responded, it’s never the same again for you as a writer,” she says. “What’s key is Little Earthquakes was written kind of alone in a tiny room, behind a church in Hollywood, when I was still playing piano bar to pay my rent. Under The Pink was written while I realised my life had changed, but still grappling with some of those subjects and exploring others that I hadn’t really talked about.”
Tori and Eric Rosse – her producer and long-term partner – headed to New Mexico to record Under The Pink, where they set up in an old hacienda. The resulting album, released in January 1994, reached the top of the British charts (No.12 in the US) on the back of the hit single ‘Cornflake Girl’. Opener ‘Pretty Good Year’ was her second Top 10 hit in Britain, while other tracks such as ‘Past The Mission’ and ‘God’ explored, again, her relationship with the religion of her childhood.
Boys For Pele, the album that followed in 1996, was created in the aftermath of Tori’s painful break up with Rosse. A longer, more experimental work than the preceding two, it is Amos’ most successful transatlantic release, narrowly missing the top spot in the album charts in both Britain and the US. Featuring a eclectic range of sounds – the harpsichord, harmonium and clavichord among the keyboard instruments, as well as a gospel choir, Caribbean percussionists, Louisiana brass brands and bagpipes, the album was largely recorded in an Irish church and yielded hit singles ‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’, ‘Talula’ and double-A-side ‘Hey Jupiter’/‘Professional Widow’ (the latter, said to be written about the death of Kurt Cobain, whose ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Tori had covered in 1992, was later remixed as a successful hit by dance music producer Armand van Helden in 1997).
As well as marking a turning point creatively, Pele seems to have brought Tori closure on her relationship with Rosse and saw the beginnings of a new relationship with British sound engineer Mark Hawley, who had worked on her last two albums and whom she went on to marry in 1998. However, a miscarriage just before Christmas 1996 left the pair reeling, and Tori’s sense of loss resonates throughout her subsequent 1998 album, From The Choirgirl Hotel, in songs such as ‘Playboy Mommy’ and single ‘Spark’. Choirgirl also saw the beginning of a long-term collaboration with percussionist Matt Chamberlain, and was the first of her albums to be recorded in a converted barn in Cornwall, which came to be known as Martian Engineering.
Tori’s next album, To Venus And Back, released in 1999, fused live gems with new studio material, while her first project of the new millennium was inspired by new motherhood to a baby girl, Natashya. For Strange Little Girls (2001) Tori covered songs written exclusively by male artists, from Tom Waits to Eminem. Her version of the latter’s ‘’97 Bonnie And Clyde’, the most controversial track on the album, Tori argued, gave the woman murdered in the song’s narrative a voice. In each song, Tori reimagined a female perspective in this way, and the accompanying artwork featured Amos photographed as a number of different characters.
Strange Little Girls marked the end of what had become an unhappy relationship with Atlantic. In late 2001, Amos signed to Epic and, that year, on 11 September, happened to be in New York City when tragedy struck. Scarlet’s Walk, which came out in October 2002, is a love letter to her homeland, which Tori wrote with her Native American heritage very much in mind: it’s a road trip across America, perhaps best encapsulated by bittersweet opener ‘A Sorta Fairytale’. Arguably its British counterpart, 2005’s The Beekeeper, with its bucolic imagery and songs such as ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘Ribbons Undone’, a touching song about Natashya growing up, focuses on Amos’ home in Cornwall. Beekeeper debuted at No.5 on the Billboard 200, placing Amos in an elite group of female artists who have secured five or more US Top 10 album debuts.
Like its predecessor, American Doll Posse, released in 2007, also debuted at No.5 on the Billboard 200, though it makes for very different listening. Much more rock-orientated and confrontational, with the fury and fight of Tori’s early works, American Doll Posse is a concept album in which Tori performs as five different characters of the “doll posse” – Isabel, Clyde, Pip, Santa and Tori – who are based on characters from Greek mythology. Themes include familiar ones such as misogyny, female empowerment and sexuality, as well as opposition to the Iraq war, which is addressed in ‘Yo George’ (“Is this just the Madness of King George?”). It was her last album for Epic.
In December 2008, an encounter with Doug Morris, who had worked with Tori on Little Earthquakes, and was then chairman of Universal Music Group, led to Amos signing a “joint venture” deal with Universal Republic Records. The first album to follow was Abnormally Attracted To Sin, which takes its title from a line spoken in Guys & Dolls by Sarah Brown, a woman whose religious convictions are being put to the test. The album, peopled by women on the edge, from the struggling mother on the cusp of ending it all in ‘Maybe California’ to tragic heroine in ‘Ophelia’, sees Tori on slick and simmering form, as ever with a mind for giving the disenfranchised a voice.
Midwinter Graces, which followed the same year in time for Christmas, saw Tori reworking traditional carols, such as ‘Nowell’ and ‘Star Of Wonder’, as well as developing some of her own seasonal tracks (‘Pink & Glitter’, ‘Our New Year’) with the backing of a big band and orchestra. For those listening closely, a nine-year-old Natashya can be heard echoing her mother in ‘Holly, Ivy, & Rose’.
Taking her return to her classical roots one step further, in September 2011 Amos released her first classical music album, Night Of Hunters, mining melodies from the classical canon, by composers ranging from Bach and Schubert to Granados and Satie, creating her own “21st century song cycle” about the end of a relationship. While Tori takes centre stage with her beloved Bösendorfer, she is joined by, among others, young Polish string quartet Apollon Musagète, and Berlin Philharmonic principal clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer, in string and woodwind arrangements by John Philip Shenale.
In 2013, Tori marked the 25th anniversary of Little Earthquake with the release of Gold Dust, which revisited songs from her first album – ‘Winter’, ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Precious Things’ – as well as more recent tracks (‘Flavor’ and ‘Star Of Wonder’), in new arrangements for piano and orchestra recorded with the Metropole Orchestra and Jules Buckley, again released by classical record label Deutsche Grammophon.
A reference to “chamber pop” in the press blurb for Unrepentant Geraldines suggests that Tori’s classical roots will continue to linger as an influence. Released not long after Amos turned 50, Unrepentant Geraldines, her 14th studio album, takes its name from an etching of a penitent woman called Geraldine, by Daniel Maclise, a 19th Century Irish artist. The title track is an early Tori-style anthem (“I’m gonna heal myself from your religion”) that wouldn’t have been out of place on Little Earthquakes, but the rest of the album is mellower, gentler, though exploring familiar Amos ideas of politics, religion and the plight of women, as well as the theme of paintings and artists, with songs such as ‘16 Shades Of Blue’, named after Cezanne’s varied palette.
Another cyclical return to the musical heritage of childhood is reflected in Tori’s foray into the world of musicals. The Light Princess, a collaboration with playwright Samuel Adamson and director Marianne Elliott, premiered at London’s National Theatre in October 2013 and tells the story of Princess Althea, who, unable at cry at the loss of her mother, becomes so light with grief she starts to float and has to be locked away. When released as a standalone original cast recording, The Light Princess included, in addition to the original cast performances, includes two songs from the musical (‘Highness In The Sky’ and ‘Darkest Hour’) performed by Tori Amos. As with Tori’s foray into classical music, it sees Tori expanding her palette and writing music for the stage, suggesting that her next project may be one of her most ambitious yet.
Words: Nicola Rayner
Tori Amos'second full-length solo effort has often been considered a transitional album, a building on the success of Little Earthquakes that enabled her to pursue increasingly more adventurous releases in later years. As such, it has been unfairly neglected when in fact it has as good a claim as any to be one of the strongest, and maybe even the strongest, record she has put out. Able to appeal to a mass audience without being shoehorned into the incipient "adult album alternative" format that sprang to life in the mid-1990s, Amos combines some of her strongest melodies and lyrics with especially haunting and powerful arrangements to create an artistic success that stands on its own two feet. The best-known tracks are the two contemporaneous singles "God," a wicked critique of the deity armed with a stiff, heavy funk-rock arrangement, and "Cornflake Girl," a waltz-paced number with an unnerving whistle and stuttering vocal hook. While both memorable, they're actually among the weaker tracks when compared to some of the great numbers elsewhere on Under the Pink (other numbers that more openly misfire are "The Waitress," a strident and slightly bizarre rant at such a figure, and "Yes, Anastasia," which starts off nicely but runs a little too long). Opening number "Pretty Good Year" captures nostalgia and drama perfectly, a simple piano with light strings suddenly exploding into full orchestration before calming again. "Bells for Her" and "Icicle" both showcase what Amos can do with prepared piano, and "Past the Mission," with Trent Reznor guesting on gentle, affecting backing vocals, shifts between loping country and a beautifully arranged chorus. The secret winner, though, would have to be "Baker Baker," just Amos and piano, detailing the story of a departed love and working its cooking metaphor in just the right way.
Words: Ned Raggett
She may be the daughter of a reverend, but Tori Amos never seemed the likeliest candidate for a Christmas album; she might sing about "God", but her music always seemed secular and never seasonal, but in a year that brought holiday albums by Bob Dylan and Sting, it makes perfect sense that Tori should deliver one, too. Amos' entry, Midwinter Graces, may be as unlikely as Dylan's, but it's closer in tenor to Sting's: it captures the wintriness of the season. Tori reworks many familiar carols, tweaking lyrics and pushing them together into a medley, so they sound quite similar to the newly written tunes that comprise the rest of the record. Thanks to some familiar melodies, it can sometimes seem seasonally appropriate, but it always seems purely Tori.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After the high conceptualism that lorded over 2005's The Beekeeper and 2007's American Doll Posse, singer and songwriter Tori Amos has decided to return to the relatively simple songs-as-songs approach on Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Those recordings, fine though they may have been, stretched the artist's reputation and the patience of her fans to the breaking point; based on her record sales, she whittled them down to simply the Tori cult (not a derogatory term, since many of her fans are proud to refer to themselves that way). The scope of this set in comparison with the previous two offerings seems more like a retrenchment than anything else. Not that there's anything at all wrong with that. There are songs on Abnormally Attracted to Sin that are as strong as anything she's written. Certainly the opener "Give," with its trip-hop rhythmic landscape and shifting backing vocals, slippery synth bass, and acoustic piano is beautifully constructed with a melody line that glides along a minor-key slant with a Middle Eastern tinge, and its lyric is both poignant and provocative. But then there is the single, "Welcome to England," whose 4/4 loop, drifting piano, and blend of guitars (electric and acoustic), strings, and ambient sounds is rudimentary Amos at best, and boring at worst. The refrain creates a bit of a hook, at least enough to catch the ear, but that's all. "Strong Black Vine," with its echoes of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" in the intro, tosses Amos back into her Jerry Lee Lewis dilemma: she loves and hates religious faith, and is both ensnared by it and saved by it. It's a rocker as far as her songs go, and works beautifully. "Maybe California" is a simple, straightforward modern pop ballad. It's beautifully composed and delivered. The track listing goes on, and on, and on, and on. And if there is a problem with Abnormally Attracted to Sin, this is it: it's 73 minutes long. At the dawn of the CD era, it made sense on some level to be this "generous" with listeners. But for any artist to sustain the kind of consistency necessary to keep a listener's attention for this length of time is extraordinary. By the album's second half, one has to play and replay certain tracks because they seem to go by in a blur. And to be honest, this set would have fared better for some real pruning. Whereas cuts like "Fire to Your Plain," with its country overtones and in-the-gut melody fare quite well here, another country-ish experiment, "Not Dyin' Today," could have been deleted because it feels like a tossed off idea more than a fully realized one. The title track is an eerie abstract exercise in ambience and atmospherics and its fragmented (and provocative) lyric is the perfect strategy to anchor it without losing its dreaminess. "500 Miles" (not the Proclaimers song) has a beautiful lyric, but musically it feels lifeless and lazy. The faux cabaret of "That Guy" feels like it updates Brecht and Weill in the 21st century, just as the jazzy intimacy of "Mary Jane" does the Parisian Saravah jazz scene of the late 50s and early '60s. What it all boils down to is, well, boiling it down. Amos doesn't record as much as most artists, and it must be tempting to give fans everything she can, but in this case, it's hurt her a bit. Still there, are many tracks here worth adding to one's Amos shelf.
Words: Thom Jurek
Unrepentant Geraldines -- its title so knowingly Tori it verges on parody -- finds Tori Amos delivering original songs, which isn't a common occurrence for her in the new millennium. Following on the heels of the interpretive 2012 set Gold Dust, it's the first collection of original material since 2011's Night of the Hunters, but it seems as if its roots stretch back even farther, as it is a bright, open collection, sometimes suggesting her early-'90s heyday but never pandering toward the past. There's a nice tension on this record, as Amos gives her hardcore fans what they want -- left turns tempered with introspection -- while also wooing the skeptics with melody and color, giving the record a bright, open feel that stands in contrast to the handsome solipsism that characterized many of her new millennial records. Strictly speaking, there's not much here that signifies as "pop" -- there are hooks, both melodic and rhythmic, but they seem almost incidental to feel, as the record flits between meditation and extroversion, its warmest moments also being its most intimate. Amos operates like a veteran liberated by her dedicated audience; she never once assumes she'll lose her audience, so she taunts them, sometimes seducing but often teasing, operating just outside of the parameters of what is expected or acceptable for Tori. That's the real pleasure of Unrepentant Geraldines: it's lush and melodic but also barbed, sometimes seeming dissonant but often consoling, its soothing qualities eventually turning disturbing. This has long been Amos' calling card, this shimmering space between comfort and pain, but Unrepentant Geraldines trumps its predecessors by accentuating its polarity; it either seduces with its sweetness or it provokes with its pain, and either extreme is compelling.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Tori Amos has attempted conceptual recordings as far back as Boys for Pele in 1996. It worked beautifully there, and on Scarlet's Walk, less so on The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse. Night of Hunters was created because of a commission by Deutsche Grammophon, to create a 21st century song cycle that took into account classical works from the last 400 years. She built it around 14 songs from variations on Bach, Debussy, Granados, Alkan, Satie, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, and Gregorian chant. Its themes reflect the journey of a woman who finds herself in distress as a relationship dies, and must find inner strength to transcend her circumstances. Amos joined her voice and Bosendorfer piano with reeds, winds, and strings, arranged by John Philip Shenale. While her narrative can be frustratingly complex and her lyrics obscure, the work ultimately succeeds because she restrains herself from all excesses and employs her finest vocal and playing skills; the latter are, at this juncture, formidable. Shenale's arrangements take Amos' rhythmic playing into account in his charts; he complements them and never over-orchestrates. On "The Shattering Sea," based on an Alkan's "Madwoman on the Sea-Shore," strings by the Apollon Musagete Quartet pulse just behind her piano, creating drama underscored by reeds and winds. When she pronounces emphatically, "That is not my blood on the on the bedroom floor," the tension becomes unbearable. In "Snowblind" (based on a song by Granados), her character refuses to accept blame for the end of the relationship. Amos creates a mythical guide/Muse as balance: the fine vocals of her 11-year-old daughter Natasha as Anabelle the Fox make their initial appearance. "Battle of Tree," based on Satie's "Gnossienne No. 1," will demand attention from the listener who will be seduced by the interplay between voice, strings, reeds, and winds. "Cactus Practice," despite its ridiculous title, is one of the more beautiful pieces here; it's another vocal duet with Natasha, based on a Chopin nocturne. Likewise, their duet in "Job's Coffin," inspired by Mendelssohn's "Nautical Twilight." "Seven Sisters," the instrumental pairing of her piano and Andreas Ottensamer's clarinet -- inspired by a Bach prelude -- precedes "Carry," the most powerful (and accessible) cut. It's also the closer and is based on a prelude by Debussy. Night of Hunters is not a pop record and therefore claims a different place in her oeuvre. It contains the power and dynamics and splendor of her very best material, but because it is a work of classical crossover, any expectation of pop hooks or singalong choruses will be met with disappointment; consequently, its sophistication, elegance, and poetry will reward anyone who takes the proper time to absorb it.
Words: Thom Jurek
The release of Gold Dust was inevitable, and was recorded to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Little Earthquakes, the album that established Tori Amos as one of the premier -- if not the premier -- singer/songwriters of her generation. Here she revisits songs from her catalog backed by the famed Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jules Buckley. Amos recorded live with the orchestra in the Netherlands, making it a greatest-hits comp with a twist. It works. The songs keep their inherent melodies and basic arrangements, and the Metropole Orchestra underscores the inherent drama in them without overwhelming them (no easy feat). While everyone will have her favorites -- or be disappointed about those that have been left out -- the arc of the album works quite well. Songs like "Marianne" and "Yes Anastasia" are as direct and compelling as ever. The title track, with its elegiac intro, is more elaborate, yet never gives in to excess. "Precious Things" is, if anything, more militant, even as it proclaims "let these precious things be." The gospel feel in the chords that introduce "Snow Cherries from France" are quickly supplanted by a near-theatrical feel. The set closes with "Girl Disappearing" from American Doll Posse. In this arrangement, subtler shades of meaning are coaxed from the lyric by the orchestra and by more elaborate piano flourishes from Amos. Gold Dust is another of Amos' dreams realized -- to record live with an orchestra -- and it is most certainly for her dedicated fans, who will no doubt find elements in these new versions to enjoy.
Words: Thom Jurek
With her haunting solo debut Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos carved the template for the female singer/songwriter movement of the '90s. Amos' delicate, prog rock piano work and confessional, poetically quirky lyrics invited close emotional connection, giving her a fanatical cult following and setting the stage for the Lilith Fair legions. 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.
Words: Steve Huey
Released in conjunction with Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, a memoir presented as a think piece co-written with music journalist Ann Powers, Tori Amos' eighth studio album, The Beekeeper, is also loosely autobiographical, a song cycle that chronicles emotional journeys through metaphorical gardens all tended by the beekeeper protagonist of the title. Good thing that this concept was sketched out in the pre-release publicity, since The Beekeeper offers nothing close to a discernible concept in the album itself. At first, songs appear to spill forward in some sort of narrative, but the liner notes divide the 19 songs into six different groups -- "gardens," if you will -- that have nothing to do with how they're presented on the album, nor do they seem to have many sonic ties, and their lyrical connections are either tenuous or obtuse. Coming after 2002's Scarlet's Walk, whose title and songs clearly communicated its concept, this willful obtuseness might seem to hearken back to Tori's obstinately difficult albums of the mid-'90s, but The Beekeeper is miles away from the clanging darkness of Boys for Pele and From the Choirgirl Hotel. This is a bright, gleaming album that retains its sunny disposition even when the tempos grow slow and the melodies turn moody. Amos even occasionally punctuates her trademark elliptical piano ballads with organ-driven lite-funk -- a move that may alienate longtime fans, who may also balk at the album's highly polished sheen, but one that nevertheless fits well into the general feel of the record, lending it some genuine momentum. If the story line or concepts of the album aren't readily apparent, individual songs make their specific points well, and the record does flow with the grace and purpose of a song suite. As a cohesive work, The Beekeeper holds together better than nearly any of Tori's more ambitious albums, but there's a certain artsy distance that keeps this from being as emotionally immediate or as memorable as her first two records. But if Little Earthquakes was an album Amos could only have made in her twenties, The Beekeeper is a record perfectly suited for the singer/songwriter in her forties -- a little studied and deliberate, perhaps a shade too classy and consciously literary for its own good, but it's an ambitious, restless work that builds on her past work without resting on her laurels.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Highly ambitious, challenging, idiosyncratic, and confounding, Boys for Pele expands on the more experimental and progressive tendencies of Under the Pink. Amos frequently discards traditional song structures and employs wide-ranging, eclectic instrumentation in her music, while her lyrics seem to grow even more obscure, giving the album a very impressionistic feel. While there are certainly worthwhile moments, her experiments don't always work; some of the songs fail to stick, and it takes a few plays before many start to sink in. Ultimately, Boys for Pele is polarizing: Some Amos fans will only admire her more for taking the risks she does, while others may find to their disappointment that the intimacy and personal connection that helped Amos build her fan base are too difficult to detect.
Words: Steve Huey