A 'Choirgirl' with charisma

CATCHING UP WITH ... TORI AMOS

May 24, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun pop music critic

CHICAGO - It's definitely an eye-catching cover.

There's Tori Amos on the front of the British music magazine Q. She's wearing just a half-smile and a coat of gold paint. A few tendrils of flame-red hair spill across her face. Her green eyes sparkle.

Arresting as the image may be, it's nothing compared to the quote accompanying it. "How can I be a sacred being and a hot [mama]?" Tori is saying. Except that she's using a considerably earthier word than "mama."

It was a cover line that got everybody's attention - including Tori's.

"Oh, God," she says, when asked about the cover. At the moment, she's in the sitting room of a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, looking nothing like the vixen who stares out from the cover of Q. Instead of gold paint, she's dressed demurely in a jacket and jeans, a sequined "disco scarf" protecting her throat.

Amos, 33, is in Chicago as part of a brief club tour and will that evening introduce her new album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," to millions via the Internet. She wants her voice to be in prime condition and so is trying to keep it warm and cozy with the scarf and ginger tea.

When she saw the magazine cover, however, a different protective instinct kicked in. "My first concern was my mother-in-law," she says. On Feb. 22, Amos married sound engineer Mark Hawley, who recorded the "Choirgirl" album.

"I had only been married three weeks when that hit the stands," Amos says. "I called my husband, and I said, 'Oh my God, keep your mother away from the news agent's.'

"He said, 'What do you mean? She's got it. She walked in there and got it, and loves it!' " Weeks later, Amos' relief remains palpable.

Still, you'd think she'd be used to the vicissitudes of the music press by now. The former Baltimorean (and Peabody Prep drop-out) is a big star - her last three albums have all gone platinum - and about to get bigger.

It's hard to say whether this increase in audience is because her current, drum-and-synth-driven sound is more commercial than the quiet intensity of her previous alterna-hits like her solo-piano rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or simply because Amos is riding the same wave as female pianists Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and Paula Cole. Nonetheless, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" entered the charts at No. 5, selling 153,000 copies in its first week.

That's a third more than her last album, "Boys for Pele," sold in its first week and just 4,000 units less than the week's No. 4 album, LeAnn Rimes' "Sittin' on Top of the World." Moreover, with a single, "Spark," working its way up the modern rock charts and an arena tour in the works for the summer and fall (including a planned Aug. 11 date at the MCI Arena in Washington), the buzz is that Amos' "Choirgirl" has barely begun to sing.

Obviously, a lot of people get what Tori Amos does. Yet much of the music press insists on seeing her as a rock wacko, a woman who believes in fairies, talks about her songs as if they were people, and regularly makes quotably outlandish statements.

Because she has lived in Britain long enough to be familiar with the British press, she's more amused than annoyed with the Q cover. "The shocking part for the Brits, of course, was the 'sacred being' part," she says with a knowing laugh.

Besides, she says, the quote makes perfect sense in context. Amos had been talking about her grandmother, a woman whose Calvinist upbringing made her view the world - granddaughter included - through a lens of self-righteousness and guilt. As Amos told Q, it was hard for women like her grandmother "to claim the dark side of their femininity. They couldn't say, 'Jesus, how can I be a sacred being and a hot [mama]?' "

For her part, Amos feels more at ease with womanhood than ever. Like a lot of young musicians, Amos was eager to please at first, and in 1988 presented herself as a spandex-clad rocker on "Y Kant Tori Read," in part because that was what she thought the record business wanted. She made her first steps toward becoming herself with her second album, the 1992 release "Little Earthquakes." In it, Amos shook off the expectations that had shaped her career since her preteen years as a piano prodigy and finally started singing of and for herself.

"Little Earthquakes" was a revelation for thousands of pop fans who appreciated her feminine strength and honest emotionality. "Under the Pink," in 1994, consolidated that breakthrough, swelling Amos' cult-level following to pop-star proportions.

By rights, her 1996 release, "Boys for Pele," should have &L catapulted her to the coliseum level. But the songs on "Boys" were dark and difficult, with Amos more intent on reconciling her inner conflicts than conquering the charts.

"I've been seeing it as my own descent," she says of the album. "Like Inanna going in to see her dark sister, Ereshkigal. What is that, in that old Sumerian mythology?"

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