I've got a confession to make. Back in the early '90s, during the worldwide tremor of Little Earthquakes, I used Tori Amos's debut album to pick up chicks.
I would bring them home to my Ocean Drive hotel room and play them the LP, hoping to, er, make a good impression. On one hand, I wanted to gauge how the dames reacted to the album — if they didn't get it, I knew I'd probably not get them. But on the other hand, I wanted to show that, thug as I was, I also had a sensitive side. And that I wasn't afraid to show it either.
Of course, I dug the record, immensely — its beautiful hurt, the courageous reveal, its grand and nuanced sweep. I especially dug "Precious Things," and I'd sit down the girl-of-the-night with the lyric sheet and point out, line by line, how brilliant it was. But even now, after all these years, I somehow feel as if I betrayed a confidence by using the record as a tool to win women's hearts, whether or not my intentions were nefarious.
Tori Amos: With One EskimO. Wednesday, July 29. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $24.75 to $63; livenation.com
So after the obligatory thanks for taking time out to talk to me, that's the first thing I tell Tori Amos when her Girlie Action publicist connects us by phone. That the record worked, and that I am deeply grateful.
"Oh, good," she says.
And the world is round again.
After that initial awkwardness, we fall into the kind of chat you might have with a friend you've never met before. I ask her about this tour's round of covers, among which reportedly are songs from both Britney and Fleetwood Mac. "Yes, that's right. And Joni Mitchell's 'River' too," she says.
"I've done three shows, and I did a cover each night," she continues. "There's a section called the Lizard Lounge, in the middle of the show, when the band pops off to get a beer. And I have a couple songs with the audience. And then the band comes back and we build slowly out of it. That's when my B3 comes out — the Hammond — and we go into hyperdrive."
But what is it about a song that makes it worth covering? "I have to be able to give a perspective that isn't exactly like the song," she says. "Meaning, if I don't think I can give something to it, then I just play it for myself as a hobby and try not to torment anybody else."
We touch upon her living in the British seaside town of Cornwall, a place known to be rather bleak. "Yeah, it's a little bleak, but I don't know if that's the right word. I would say that it's stunning and magical, but it rains," she says. "It's English countryside, and it's one of the most beautiful places in the world."
Then my new friend tells me she has "a place... in South Florida." Or rather, "up near Jupiter anyway," and that she's had it since 1995. But when I try to imagine Tori Amos getting stuck in traffic on I-95, I just can't. Chan Marshall on South Beach I can picture. Tori Amos in Jupiter? No way.
Now, if the town were called Juno, it might be a little easier for me to see. I mean, goddesses are certainly a subject where she scans more clearly. Her 1996 album, Boys for Pele, was devoted to the same-named Hawaiian volcano goddess. And I swear I see goddesses hidden in the stills that accompanied 2001's Strange Little Girls. They're lurking, too, in the background of the 16 "visualettes" (like music videos) she and Christian Lamb have created for her latest album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin.
In fact, she says she identifies with many goddesses, including "Ma'at, the Egyptian goddess of justice, [and] Sekhmet, the lioness goddess [of war]." But when I ask Amos if she identifies with any superheroes, she explains she's "more the goddess type. They're the original superheroes."
And then she turns the question right back on me, and I explain that as the leader of a gang called the Consequences, I'm working on becoming my own superhero. "Think Death Wish meets Swingers," I tell her.
"That's kinda cool," she replies. And thank Batman that she couldn't see through my phone, because she would've seen me swoon. But I snap out of it and get back to the matter at hand. Besides picking goddesses over superheroes, Amos would, she says, choose Marlene Dietrich over Mae West, Lauren Bacall over Hedy Lamarr, Eartha Kitt over Nina Simone, Mary Tyler Moore over Maude, and definitely Catwoman over Batgirl. On the subject of the Gabors, however, she'll take both Zsa Zsa and Eva.
But she'd really rather not have to choose between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe. "I can't decide. I take both. If I had to choose, I'd take Georgia O'Keeffe because she's my mentor," she says.
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And I think of O'Keeffe, the grand dame of American painting. I think of the way the woman, who spent much of her life on her own, showed a courage few women would summon, especially in the early 20th Century. And I can see how Tori Amos would be so inspired. There is also the influence of artist Kiki Smith, particularly her darkening of the "Little Red Riding Hood" myth, and of the photographer Cindy Sherman, in the way Amos chooses to reveal herself. So I ask her about both, and she readily expounds on her appreciation of Sherman.
"I discovered her work, I think, 20 years ago," she says, "and I began to think about how artwork in the music industry is usually just about glamorizing celebrities instead of telling a story. And so I've tried to work with photographers who were more geared up to that kind of vision."
It's a vision that's perfectly realized in those "visualettes" that accompany the deluxe version of Sin. There are the images of the open road, very much like O'Keeffe's, in "Not Dying Tomorrow," the red-light district in "That Guy," and the ancient church in the album's title track.
Then I remember a note in the clip for "Curtain Call:" "Clowns and clergy will be added in later." I laugh and mention it to Tori. She laughs too, reveling in the notion that she's using some of the most sacred and profane images ever to adorn a story, and that she's doing so in order to better tell it like it is. It's just as she's done for almost two decades, in ten albums, elucidating the most beautiful and painful truths we can know.