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On her new album, Tori Amos seeks solace from life's many upheavals.

By Alan Sculley

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Her third cd, Boys for Pele, was written on the heels of her breakup with a boyfriend of six years, and its songs found her struggling with issues of self-worth and her feelings toward men. Even on her 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes, Amos unflinchingly sang about being raped in the song "Me and a Gun." So it should be no surprise that she feels a certain amount of upheaval can help songwriters to connect with their deepest emotions and bring those feelings into play in order to create vital, passionate music.

"I think that when the rug's pulled out from under you and you find your knees on the ground, sometimes you have to look at parts of yourself that are hard to look at when things are going your way," Amos said. "Certain events really test your mettle and show you a depth of feeling you didn't know you had. And depth of anger you didn't know you had. That's when as a writer, you know, you have textures that you might not have had when you were just riding around in your truck eating ice cream cones."

In the case of From the Choirgirl Hotel, Amos' recently released fourth solo album, the event that tested Amos and triggered the creative process this time around was her miscarriage in December 1996. The loss left Amos so shaken that she returned to Florida - and her parents, Methodist minister Edison Amos and homemaker Mary Ellen Amos. On many days, she could muster only enough energy to walk out on her parents' dock, where she would try to connect with her emotions - and with God - hoping to make sense of her tragedy.

"Well, some people say motherhood changes you, and for me non-motherhood really changed me because when you lose a baby there's a line that's been crossed by the deities and you start to really question everything about how the universe [works]," she said. "I felt very comfortable running into God on a Friday night and having a margarita and going, 'You know, I really don't think much of you this week.' "

"It was very liberating for me. And I felt like I had that right. Not because of just you with you, but you not being able to do the most natural thing in the world, that supposedly God has bequeathed us to do as women. So there were obviously a lot of questions that I asked and I didn't get most of the answers."

Lyrically, From the Choirgirl Hotel may be Amos' most introspective work. The miscarriage provides a context, but the cd is largely about dealing with the depths of depression, questioning every feeling and searching for some sort of redemption, while experiencing the anger, sadness and helplessness that lead to renewed hope. So once again, Amos has found fuel for a set of songs through her own tragedy. What's also interesting, however, is that her feelings in the aftermath of the miscarriage also triggered a major shift in her music.

Amos has always toured solo, playing piano and singing and has, on her albums, only sparingly used other instruments to augment her sound. From the Choirgirl Hotel finds her playing with a full band. The desire to expand her sound came in the weeks after her miscarriage and her return to her home north of London, England.

"I'm right on the river (Thames). And I started to watch the rhythm of the water," Amos said, "I think I was really trying to find something to identify with, as a woman, because I didn't feel very confident at that point. It's a pretty helpless thing to lose a baby. ... But as I started to see the rhythms, I knew I had to find some primal feminine place within myself that goes beyond anything that anybody can tell you about loss."

"And as I started to just try and feel all the rhythms that the earth produces, I started to sort of see rhythm in a way that I really hadn't before," she continued. "And as I went to the piano, I knew that it was structural now, the rhythm, it wasn't something that would be put on the songs later. It had to be written and built in with the structure."

For Amos, it also took trust in her musicians and confidence in her own playing to open the musical process to other players. She also had to learn how to get the performances and the passion she wanted from the musicians on the cd.

"When you're in a studio, for example, and you've got a bunch of musicians and nobody's inspired and nobody's getting it right, you have to give them an anchor, things that give them some kind of point of view on who they are at that minute, who their instrument is in the song at that minute," she said. "That's where I think you have to read other peoples' hidden personalities because a lot of times, you're sitting there talking to a very passive musician and yet you know they're not connecting with the piece, because they won't allow themselves to bring out that personality who could do it because they don't even want to look at the fact that they have this side to themselves. So a lot of times you're trying to get people to find things in themselves."

Amos sounds like she took her musicians where they needed to go on Choirgirl Hotel. Where Boys for Pele was often murky, the music on the new record is immediately inviting - be it in the curdling tones of "Cruel," the spiky rock of "Raspberry Swirl" or the sweet melody of the ballad "Jackie's Strength."

Despite the bigger sound, the new music is still immediately identifiable as that of Tori Amos. As in the past, it blends elements of folk (along the lines of Joni Mitchell), epic rock (such as Led Zeppelin) and doses of baroque and classical music. Those elements make sense for Amos, a child prodigy on piano who could play a Mozart concerto at age 4 but who later developed a strong taste for rock.

Looking back at the experiences that produced Choirgirl Hotel, Amos is pleased to say she feels the record produced some light from her pain and confusion. And indeed, she's found some new light in her own life since her time of trouble, marrying the man, Mark Hawley, who fathered the child she lost.

"When I listen to the record it's not depressing for me," Amos observed, "because it was really, I appreciated life in a way that I really hadn't thought of [before]."


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