POP MUSIC: ROCK, COUNTRY, R&B;, RAP, LATIN, JAZZ : Lady Macbeth Had Nothing on Her : From worshiping men to burning them, Tori Amos taps into some volcanic emotions with her new album ‘Boys for Pele.’
You would probably expect a woman who lists Mary Magdalene and Lady Macbeth among her role models to harbor some serious femme fatale fantasies. And if that woman is as intense as Tori Amos, you would expect her to relate those fantasies in a colorful fashion.
Discussing her new Atlantic Records album, “Boys for Pele,” over dinner in a mid-town Manhattan restaurant, Amos doesn’t disappoint.
“If we’re talking about warfare in a relationship, we have to bring in some Agent Orange,” Amos begins, her knife poised ominously over a tuna steak.
“When you’re pushed to the limit of crime . . . I think you’ve got to be willing to admit that part of you has no problem with encouraging a man to kill himself. And these new songs have given me those parts of myself, parts I wasn’t willing to claim as a woman. . . . The Lady Macbeth in me. The side that’s like, ‘Well, he looks really nice standing by that cliff, but maybe he would look better 50 feet down.’ ”
Taking a bite of her fish, the petite, flame-haired singer smiles impishly. “Guys can smell it when they walk in the room. They know I’m nailing ‘em.”
Amos does have that reputation--her best-known song, “Me and a Gun,” from her album “Little Earthquakes,” is a shattering account of a rape, based on a personal experience. But Amos is quick to add: “I’ve been nailing myself too. It takes two to be obsessed like that. And I hope that men will make the journey through this album, because they inspired the work.”
Indeed, the songs on “Boys for Pele"--the title refers to the goddess of the volcano, not the soccer star--embrace and celebrate men even as they show how women can be oppressed by their male lovers and mentors (see review, Page 76). Amos describes the album as a journey that she made out of necessity.
“I’ve had a lot of men surrounding me creatively for a very long time, including friends and many people that I work with,” she says. “And I’d walked into this world, this twilight zone if you will, where I couldn’t believe how much I had looked to all these men for approval.”
Prominent among them was musician Eric Rosse, Amos’ longtime boyfriend and her co-producer on 1994’s “Under the Pink,” the singer’s second collection of dramatic, piano-based ballads and postmodern torch songs.
“Pink,” the album that made her a star, debuted at No. 1 in England and sold more than900,000 copies in the United States, vastly expanding the loyal cult of college-rock and adult-alternative fans that Amos had begun cultivating with 1992’s “Little Earthquakes.”
But when her relationship with Rosse fell apart about 18 months ago, her sweet success took on a bitter edge.
“I was in a state of shock,” Amos recalls. “There was nothing left in my being that saved me any strength, except when I took the stage. . . . I could not analytically dissect my behavior. I was appalled by it.”
Eventually, Amos began the painful, cathartic process of converting her emotions into fuel for songwriting, gradually piecing together a song cycle that she likens to a turbulent plane ride.
To take this trip, Amos had to use a new palette of colors.
“I needed to describe what it felt like to be crawling on your knees at 4 in the morning, waiting for a phone call, and then walking out in front of 5,000 people feeling not only vulnerable but completely free,” she says, speaking with the same kind of dramatic flair she puts into her songs. “But then the minute you leave the stage, you feel the clamps and the shackles again. Jail. Life. Boys.
“Each song became a fragment, a part of this woman that I really needed to get to know. Each song demanded what order it should be in. So the album became the story that it wanted to be. A mother does not dictate to her baby what it’s gonna be; the baby dictates to the mother. And this album came out of me kicking and screaming.”
‘Pele” was by no means Amos’ first difficult delivery. The 32-year-old performer has a history of testing her own creative and emotional limits. She was born Myra Ellen Amos, the youngest of three children, in Newton, N.C. Her father and paternal grandparents were Methodist preachers, her mother a part-Cherokee who Amos believes has long had psychic abilities.
It’s not surprising, then, that exploring spirituality and mysticism came naturally to Amos from an early age. So did playing the piano.
Amos began before she was 3 and was soon banging out her own melodies, inspired by the rock and pop standards that her parents listened to. At 5 she was admitted to study music and composition at Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Conservatory
Amos’ career as a classical prodigy was abruptly cut short six years later, though, when a piece she had written for Peabody’s examination board was judged too radical, leading to her dismissal from the school.
The minister’s daughter rebounded by finding work in her early teens in the Washington area, where she entertained through her teens. At 21, Amos moved to Los Angeles and formed the band Y Kant Tori Read, whose 1988 hard-rock album on Atlantic proved a critical and commercial dud.
Humbled but still determined, and with Atlantic still behind her, Amos returned to her piano bench and reemerged a few years later with “Little Earthquakes,” a starkly confessional solo debut that drew comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush.
In “Under the Pink,” Amos dealt unflinchingly with the ways that society endorses the torture of women and the ways that women betray each other--ranging from rivalry between girlfriends to certain cultures’ ritual mutilations.
Like her friend PJ Harvey, though, Amos tends to be unabashedly sexual as a performer, even as she is singing about how sexuality can be distorted and abused. In fact, some critics have described Amos’ highly sensuous, emotive performance style as distasteful or overwrought and have had trouble reconciling it with the sobering themes in her music. Amos has pointed out that much of this naysaying comes from women.
“I feel like a lot of women have lost touch with their ability to be vulnerable,” Amos explains. “Whereas vulnerability is my greatest friend; I’d become a maniac if I were to lose her. So when I turn that stone over, I sense that I get resentment from some women.”
Of course, Amos has a small army of fans for whom her passionate displays of, er, vulnerability are much more of an asset than a liability. When the issue of such admiration is raised, the singer grows pensive again.
“I must tell you that every boyfriend I ever got, I got at the piano. Every word of love ever whispered to me came from a man being with the musician, you know?”
Amos laughs suddenly. “Somebody once asked me what would happen to me if I couldn’t play anymore. And my best friend told me that she’d still be my best friend--because she’d still want to shop with me. She said that my taste in shoes is impeccable and she couldn’t shop with anybody else.”
Although Amos has been living in England on and off for the past five years, the singer happily describes herself as a “road dog.” She is particularly looking forward to her upcoming tour, because the “Pele” songs feature some of her most quirkily sophisticated arrangements to date, employing such instruments as bagpipes and harpsichord.
“I’m taking the harpsichord on tour with me,” Amos says. “It’s an important part of the album because of what it represents. The harpsichord is the bloodline of the piano--just like Mary Magdalene is the bloodline for women in Christianity, even though the stigma of whore has been attached to her. The Virgin Mary’s a different bloodline, one that I honor. But Magdalene’s the bloodline for woman--woman as passionate, compassionate, wise. The high priestess. Magdalene is all over this album.”