Tori Amos: In the Studio

Tori Amos: In the Studio

by Jake Brown

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Featuring exclusive interviews with people who worked alongside Tori Amos in the studio — one of her producers, sound engineers, and backing band members — as well as in–depth research into the singer herself, Tori Amos: In the Studio explores this groundbreaking artist’s career album by album. From a child prodigy pianist to her first band, her breakthrough album as a solo artist to her prolific years of recording and touring, Tori Amos has refused to play by the rules of the recording industry and instead fearlessly forged her own path and musical identity.

Amos achieved note early in her career by being one of the few alternative rock performers to use a piano for a primary instrument. Known for her emotionally intense songs that cover a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religion, and personal tragedy, Amos has sold over 12 million albums worldwide, and seven of her studio albums have debuted in the top ten on Billboard’s Top 200 chart. In this book, Jake Brown goes behind the music to reveal Tori Amos’s artistic process of creating 11 studio albums — from Little Earthquakes to Midwinter Graces — beloved by her devoted fan base and praised by music critics.

This is the third title in ECW’s In the Studio series by music journalist Jake Brown. Other subjects of the series include Heart and producer Rick Rubin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781554909704
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 05/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Nashville-based music biographer Jake Brown has published twenty books, including Prince: In the Studio, Rick Rubin: In the Studio, Dr. Dre: In the Studio, Suge Knight: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Death Row Records, 50 Cent: No Holds Barred, Biggie Smalls: Ready to Die, Tupac: In the Studio (authorized by the estate), as well as titles on Kanye West, R. Kelly, Jay Z, the Black Eyed Peas, and non-hip hop titles including Heart: In the Studio (authorized), Red Hot Chili Peppers: In the Studio, Motley Crue: In the Studio, Alice in Chains: In the Studio (fall 2009), and the Behind the Boards Rock Producers Anthology Series. Brown was also a featured author in Rick James’ recently published autobiography, Memoirs of Rick James: Confessions of a Super Freak, and in February 2008, appeared as the official biographer of record on Fuse TV's Live Through This: Nikki Sixx TV special. Brown has received additional press in national publications including USA TODAY,, Vibe, NPR, and Publishers Weekly. Brown is also owner of the hard rock label Versailles Records, distributed nationally by Big Daddy Music/MVD Distribution and celebrating its 10th anniversary in business this year.

Read an Excerpt

Tori Amos

In the Studio

By Jake Brown, Crissy Boylan


Copyright © 2011 Jake Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-970-4


Those Formative Years

"All the church hymns were coming through one ear, and The Beatles were coming through the other. I thought that if these are my two choices in life, then I definitely want what's behind door number two." — Tori Amos (Time Out, 1994)

According to the Reverend Dr. Edison Amos, Methodist minister and father to the woman now known by millions of music enthusiasts as just "Tori," at five years old Myra Ellen Amos was already well on her way to becoming "a twenty-first century Mozart." Born August 22, 1963, to the Reverend Dr. and Mary Ellen Amos in the small city of Newton, North Carolina, little Myra didn't take long to reveal her gift for music. "[My mother] says I played music before I could talk," said Tori Amos, who lived with her family in Washington state and later the Baltimore, Maryland, area.

The former child prodigy — who calls music her first language, not English — shared some of her earliest impressions of the instrument that would come to be such an integral part of her life and career with Performing Songwriter in 2006: "In my dad's study, where he would write his sermon, there was a big black upright [piano] that somebody in the church had given my family. I remember crawling up onto this windy stool — you could wind it and it would get taller — and I would barely reach the keys. I remember feeling that this was my antenna to the galaxy, that I could cross dimensions through sound and hear back from the outer reaches of the universe.... The songs were alive to me, as alive as the human beings around me that weren't making a whole lot of sense. But the songs were making sense."

Her childhood perspective on the piano was that of friendship and love, and she told Rolling Stone in 2002, "I knew I was a musician before I was potty-trained. I just always remember playing the piano." From the age of two-and-a-half, Tori was playing the piano and considered it her "best friend in the world. That was the only thing that understood me and that I understood.... When you're young, you're being told what to think. But I'd go to the piano and that's where I was comforted. It was my protector, the protector of my thoughts." In music, Tori found a sanctuary of sorts as well as an identity: "I knew I was a musician before I knew I was a girl. You know if you are a musician because I think music chooses you in some way. It's very hard to say no to it — it just envelops you."

Her mother, Mary Ellen, saw the connection her daughter had to music. In an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine, Mary Ellen recalled, "Before Tori could even talk, she hummed. By the time she was two-and-a-half, she would walk over to the piano and copy exactly what her brother or sister had just been practicing. She used to get up in the morning before anyone else and play. The piano was her playmate, and she could reproduce anything she heard by ear, songs on the radio or even entire scores." Tori was known as the little girl who played the piano; her innate musical ability shaped her identity as people always asked her to play for them. Her father said he wasn't "aware of [her talent] like the sun coming over the horizon, but we were noticing she would come in and play the piano right after [her brother and sister] had finished and it would sound a little better than them. But I think when we were astounded was when we took her to Oliver! or The Sound of Music. I'm not sure which one it was, and then after seeing that, she came in and sat down, and it seemed to me she could play the whole score."

Musical scores were among the first non-religious music Tori was exposed to. As she told the Phoenix New Times in 1998, "The shocking thing about Oklahoma! [is] it was the only thing I was allowed to play when I was little ... I had all of this religious music I was learning, so I learned the soundtrack at a very young age." As if playing entire musical scores by ear wasn't enough, young Tori also began composing her own music and developing her vocal ability, singing what she wanted to communicate instead of simply talking. Still, while Amos's talent as a pianist evolved rapidly, she explained that, by contrast, her voice "came with age. I was no Shirley Temple. It took years and years to develop. Like you know how some little kids have great voices at first but get worse later? Well, I was the opposite. I vocally developed much later." Speaking to iGuide in 1996, Amos recalled an incident from school when she was just shy of 10 years old: "I was a really good piano player, but the teacher would have other girls sing while I played. When I tried to sing, I remember this one boy, Kevin Craig, wrote a note to a girl named Peggy and he said Ellen — which is what they called me — sings like a frog. The teacher read it in class in front of everybody, and I was never going to sing again. I had to develop my voice and I worked really, really hard developing it. The playing came easier at first."

From her earliest years, Tori spent her summers down in Newton, North Carolina, with her maternal grandparents, Calvin and Bertie Copeland. (It was on a trip back home to visit her family that Tori's mother gave birth to her; falling ill while there, her doctor advised Mary Ellen not to travel for the remainder of her pregnancy.) Tori's mother felt it was important that her daughter know about her Cherokee heritage and about the line of strong women she descended from. Amos's time spent with her grandparents shaped her, particularly by connecting her to her Eastern Cherokee heritage, an influence that would surface later in her music. Tales of her great-grandmother, Margaret Little, who "escaped the Trail of Tears and ran off into the Smoky Mountains in 1839" and who "married a plantation owner where she was a surrogate slave," and stories about the life of her people had been passed to Tori's grandfather, and he sang them to her. Michael, Amos's older brother, told the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer in 1996 that "Tori really was the apple of my grandfather's eye. She was his last grandchild and came along after he had retired, so he spent a lot of time with her. I think she does get some of her musical ability from him."

Though her grandfather died when she was nine-and-a-half years old, his influence on her was lifelong. "I would sit on the porch with him," Amos told Buffalo News in 2003. "He'd smoke the sacred tobacco and tell me these stories. I don't think I realized at the time how profoundly he was changing me." The tradition of oral storytelling was passed down to the future songwriter by her grandfather who spent "a lot of time with me as a little kid, trying to explain to me about not needing to change another person to fit my own needs, and how that was breaking a deep spiritual law." Said Tori, "My grandfather made these memories come alive by telling me stories of his people. I felt an amazing sense of compassion toward what had happened to them, and I'm convinced that before he died, my grandfather hid a remember-the-stories chip underneath my skin."

In addition to fostering a love of storytelling, music, and creativity, Tori believes her grandfather "instilled in me [the idea] that spirit is in all things. I've always believed that.... It was a real natural way of looking at life." Speaking with Newsday in 2001, Tori explained, "He would try to teach me how to be a container for a different frequency that didn't seem to be your own. He would get frustrated with me because I would just want to watch Scooby-Doo, but he really had a huge impact on my life. Everything he tried to teach me, I didn't necessarily achieve it all, but he is like a tape recorder. I do remember. Sometimes I can hear him clear as a bell." On long walks together, Tori's grandfather would challenge her to look past the obvious: "He would ask me what I saw and usually I would describe whatever was right in front of me. And then he would make me ask questions: he would say, 'Well you're only looking at the surface of this.' He taught me how to study people, to listen to what they weren't saying. He really did want me to try and listen. He was my greatest teacher."

Her love and admiration for her maternal grandparents stands in sharp contrast to the influence her father's parents had on her. Tori once quipped that should she meet her paternal grandmother, Addie Allen, "at the River Styx, I don't know if I'd give her a ride in my boat." Living deep in the Appalachian Mountains ("The Waltons looked like luxury compared to them"), both Addie and her husband were ordained ministers, which granted them authority in their community and a degree of power that, even from a young age, Tori felt was misused. "She was educated — it was almost unheard of in the 1920s for a woman to go to university — and she was very Christianized. I call her The Puritanical, The Shame Inducer. I was brought up in the city, outside Washington, but she lived six hours south, in the mountains. Have you seen the movie Deliverance? I knew those guys! I knew the pig!" Tori unabashedly told She in 1998: "From the age of five, I hated my grandmother. [She] believed that a young woman should turn her body over to her husband, who then owns it. Until then, she said, you should remain untouched. She told me that if I didn't love Jesus there would be no money for me in the Christmas kitty." While the rest of the family felt Addie was a "saint," young Tori felt she was the enemy. "She was an evil thing, no question. I'm sure I could have been the youngest child in jail for murdering my grandmother. At five, I wanted to take the butter knife and slit her throat," she said to High Life in 2001. "She and I were definitely on different peaks. She was full of self-righteousness and guilt and finger-pointing. It was very hard for my grandmother to claim the dark side of her femininity."

The dynamic within Amos's immediate family was less troubled. To Seventeen magazine, Tori related, "I had a great relationship with my sister. I have an older brother who is almost ten years older. My sister was seven years older. When I was seventeen, she was in medical school. She's just one of these people — I am just glad I got to know her as a sister, 'cause doctors can be very intimidating, but there's a really soft loving person there. She is brilliant medically, and because of that, she has helped to guide me." She describes her father as looking like James Dean, her mother as "very stylish" and as someone who had two distinct sides to her: "My mother's a southern lady, a sweetheart. She's definitely the minister's wife on one hand and then on the other she's a witch." Tori explains that her mother's non-traditional side is "a spirituality that goes beyond [Christianity]. She has premonitions and dreams, but she keeps her esoteric side to herself." Tori cites her mother's fortitude and compassion as qualities she hopes she inherited from her. Her life, in what she describes as a lower middle class family, was "a normal upbringing, in that way that I was the daughter of a Methodist minister and all the kids had to learn to play instruments at a very young age. I have never been sexually or in other physical ways abused. Sunday lunches after church. Going on vacation with the whole family. I've never been beaten. I don't have those kind of stories. I grew up and wanted to please everyone. Especially my dad. I wanted him to appreciate me and I was always wondering if I was doing my best, [working] hard enough."

While Tori's upbringing was nothing like the extreme stories of some child prodigies — the infamous tale of Beethoven's father beating him into deafness, for example — the Reverend Dr. Amos was "quite the disciplinarian when I was growing up," says the singer. As she explained to Veronica in 1994, "I could play the piano at three, and my father wanted me to go and play classical concerts, preferably all my life with the same orchestra." Her father began bringing the young pianist to weddings and funerals to perform; as she says, "I was cheaper than the organist." Tori tired of playing the same songs at every wedding and preferred funerals for the wider song selection.

"The one thing with being a child prodigy is you get so much attention," said Tori in 1994, "And when you're doing mini-recitals, you start to get addicted to approval. As a kid, I loved this restaurant [called] the Buttery, and when I did well, we'd go there. And when I did okay, we'd end up at Bob's Big Boy. Every time I played I knew it was about reward or not reward. That's kind of rough when you're six." Because of her extraordinary gift and perspective on the world, her childhood was far from ordinary, which was sometimes isolating. "I would get lonely sometimes when other children didn't want to come and play with me. I had millions of friends from the other [imaginary] world. As a little girl, you play with who you can, and if they're not in human form, they're still very real to you."

While she performed at church events where her father presided as reverend, Tori did not accept what she was being taught: "I was told what I was going to believe in rather than being told to develop my own belief system." For his part, Reverend Dr. Amos said in 1998, "I'd like to correct the misperception that Tori was reared in some sort of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist tradition. We preach grace, mercy, and love. Tori was raised to be tolerant." (In other interviews, Tori has proudly mentioned that Reverend Amos marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., and was "very much part" of the civil rights movement.) Her mother, Mary Ellen, explained her perspective on Tori and her religious upbringing to the Sunday Times Magazine: "Tori questioned it all from the start, and we didn't really know how to answer her. She felt women were cheated in the church. I think she's wrong but I accept that God speaks to us all differently. Tori had an inquiring mind and was very outspoken, which got her into trouble. She spent a lot of time at school standing in the corner. Most of the time the congregation loved her, although she did some outlandish things. She was a wonderful choir director [when she was in her teens], but she used to come into church in red leather pants. She loved to shock and she still does. The young people in the choir would do anything for her, but some of the mothers didn't think too much of her. They made sarcastic remarks, which she hid from me. She'd come home and be wiping away the tears, and I didn't understand how cruel people were being."

While music in church (she was in the choir by age four) and scores to musicals were the earliest music Tori was exposed to, a broad range of music could be found in the Amos household as she grew up. "My brother had been plying me with all his records from the mid- to late-'60s, and my mother was trying to throw in her favorites from the '30s and '40s — Hoagy Carmichael and all that. I was being trained in the classics — Bartók, Debussy and the like." From Julie Andrews to Fats Waller to Gershwin to The Rolling Stones, Tori "would imitate everything." Her talent was developing too quickly for local music instructors, so her parents took up the church choir director's suggestion that they try the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory, in Baltimore. Mary Ellen recalled Tori's audition: "She played a selection from Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Then she played a classical piece and they started listening. They'd never taken anyone under nine, but they made an exception, and when they realized that on a clergyman's salary we couldn't afford it, they gave her a scholarship. The principal put her hand on my arm and said, 'God has given you the responsibility of raising this very rare child, and she has to be given every opportunity!'" From the perspective of young Tori, her parents' decision that she attend the Peabody was a little differently motivated, as she told Q in 1992: "When I was five, there was this Beatles album around the house, Sgt. Pepper's, and I was walking around with it, and my father said, 'What are you doing with it?' And I said, 'This is what I'm going to do.' My father went back to his paper with a look that said, 'She's out of her mind; she's going to the Peabody.'"


Excerpted from Tori Amos by Jake Brown, Crissy Boylan. Copyright © 2011 Jake Brown. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Those Formative Years 3

Chapter 2 Y Kant Tori Read 23

Chapter 3 Little Earthquakes 37

Chapter 4 Under the Pink 53

Chapter 5 Boys for Pele 71

Chapter 6 From the Choirgirl Hotel 89

Chapter 7 To Venus and Back 105

Chapter 8 Strange Little Girls 117

Chapter 9 Scarlet's Walk 129

Chapter 10 The Beekeeper 143

Chapter 11 American Doll Posse 155

Chapter 12 Abnormally Attracted to Sin and Midwinter Graces 167

Conclusion 179

Sources 181

Acknowledgments 197

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