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Playing on a 'Human Level' : Pianist and Singer Tori Amos Gets Down to Basics With Her Emotionally Direct Lyrics

September 03, 1992|ERIK HAMILTON

Apologizing profusely for being tardy for an interview, Tori Amos explained that she's been feeling a bit run down lately. "It's been a bit grueling," the 29-year-old North Carolina native said, referring to the 60-date concert tour she's been on since last October. "From a physical level, I'm beaten. But I'll shake it off. And by show time, I'll be pumping."

Without resorting to stage gimmickry or studio flash, Amos has been steadily gaining a following since her debut album, "Little Earthquakes," was released in 1991. Instead, she's been drawing listeners with emotionally direct lyrics framed by the accompaniment of her own acoustic piano work.

"I write from my own experiences," Amos said recently by phone from her record company's office in Los Angeles. "My voice and piano are my only ways of translating these feelings. And if these experiences can relate to my audience, then I've done something very special." Amos' lyrics, delivered in a dream-like voice that can recall Kate Bush, chronicle her experiences with such evergreen subjects as love, hate, alienation, intolerance, self-doubt and sexuality.

"I attempt to peel away at the issues or problems and get at the root," she said. "I want to bring it down to a human level."

What she's found on her one-woman tour, which stops at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Friday and Saturday, is that "my audience is across the board. They are mothers and fathers, bankers and doctors, metal heads, punks, young and old," she said.

This may partially reflect her own varied musical tastes.

"I was exposed to a lot of different music when I was young. My mother listened to Fats Waller and Nat King Cole," she said. "It seemed I was playing the piano since I was old enough to walk. The piano was an important part of my life."

At the age of 4, Amos was playing piano scores and writing her own songs. At 5, she won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. There, she discovered the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other rock acts.

She also discovered the freedom of writing her own music. But the pressures of academic life started to infringe on her creativity. She recalls repeated lectures about how she should pursue a career in music. Amos found herself hating the path she was on and at 11, because she started playing by ear, she was dismissed from the conservatory.

"That had a big impact on my life. I was full of self-doubt and pain," Amos said. "In fact, many of the things I write about today, seem connected to that period of my life."

After leaving the conservatory, Amos began performing in bars and hotels in Washington and Baltimore, singing pop standards, accompanied by her Methodist-preacher father. When she turned 15, Amos became a solo act, encouraged by her father, who felt it was time for her to do things on her own. "I suppose it was kind of weird, going to junior high school in the day and playing bars at night. But I learned a lot from that."

At 18, Amos moved to Los Angeles. She vividly recalls a point in her life when she abandoned the piano because she blamed the instrument for the troubles she was feeling in her personal and professional life. But a couple of years later, she rediscovered the excitement and passion she had for the instrument while fooling around with one at a friend's house. It was at that time, she started coming to grips with her past and putting it all down in music.

Besides singing her own songs, Amos displays a penchant for handling other performers' material. Her latest EP release, "Crucify," includes cover versions of the Rolling Stones' "Angie," Led Zeppelin's "Thank You," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

She hasn't heard what the members of Nirvana think about her treatment: "I mean here is this woman singing and playing the piano. . . ."

On the other hand, she said Keith Richards and Jimmy Page have let her know how much they enjoyed what she's done with their songs.

"I'm not trying to pretend I can do 'Angie' better than the Stones," Amos said. "I just think that song is incredibly moving."

* Tori Amos plays Friday and Saturday at the Coach House 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. SOLD OUT. (714) 496-8930.

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