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Friday, October 5, 2012

Little Earthquakes: the arrival of Tori Amos

This week Tori Amos released Gold Dust, a lush orchestral reworking of selections from her back catalogue designed to mark twenty years since the release of her first solo album, the remarkable Little Earthquakes. While not Tori's first release (there was the album with the now never mentioned pop band Y Kant Tori Read), Little Earthquakes is effectively Tori's debut as the artist she always wanted to be, rather than the cookie cutter poppette the record company envisioned. So confused were Atlantic, her label, when Tori presented Little Earthquakes to them, they initially rejected it. Tori not only saved her record and turned it into one of the seminal albums in pop, she launched herself as one of our most unique singer-songwriters with a truly devoted following only a few special artists achieve. Here's how she did it.

Nothing I do is good enough for you...

Part of the record company's problem with Tori was her musical style. Tori was a prodigy pianist, winning a place at the renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music at age five, where she was classically trained. However, her inability to sight read (she plays by ear) and burgeoning interest in rock music led to her departure six years later. In the early nineties all the cool kids in the music industry were into grunge and Tori's piano-centric compositions and arrangements seemed completely out of step with current trends. When Tori bravely refused to replace the piano parts on Little Earthquakes with guitars (she was two albums in to a six-album deal with no sales to show), she found an outside buyer for the album who would take it as it stood. Rather than risk someone else being right, Atlantic caved and Tori was allowed to proceed on the basis she would write some new songs to bolster the album. When she released her retrospective box set A Piano: The Collection in 2006 she revealed the album tracklisting that Atlantic rejected. Fans were astonished that even at this point it contained some of Tori's most beloved songs, proving without doubt that she had faced a real uphill struggle to maintain her vision for the album against executive interference. Eventually Tori provided a tracklisting the label accepted, but they were still uncertain how to market her. Tori had relocated in this period from LA to London to finish work on the album and the record company thought that a British audience might be initially more receptive to such a kooky artist. In fact it might be posited that either Tori or the label took inspiration from another singular female artist for the imagery and buzz created to promote Little Earthquakes.

Excuse me, but can I be you for a while...

It is pop lore that a young Kate Bush fought with EMI to ensure that Wuthering Heights was released as her debut single, while the record company wanted a more conventional song. Kate prevailed and the rest is, of course, history. Ever since any female singer-songwriter who fails to fit into a neat box has been lazily dubbed "the new Kate Bush" by music hacks, creating a categorisation where none could exist. It seems that either Tori or her record company decided to take this inevitable comparison by the horns and create a direct resonance with images of Kate, signalling to the audience that here was another original, slightly quirky, piano-playing female artist, so if you like Kate this could be your cup of tea. Don't believe me, then I submit the following exhibits for your consideration.

Before the hate mail starts I want to be clear about something; I am not suggesting that Tori ripped Kate off, in fact I think any musical similarities between them are superficial at best. What I believe is that faced with a tricky sell, Tori and/or her record company deliberately echoed Kate's imagery to signal to record buyers that if they liked Kate, then they should give Tori a try. Anyone around at the time will be able to attest that the Kate/Tori debate loomed large for a time, not least over the fact that Tori played live, something deprived Kate fans could only dream about. Having attended Tori's early concerts I can attest that a large proportion of the audience were Kate fans who saw in Tori a kindred spirit, a unique talent and an artist they could see and even touch, unlike the increasingly reclusive Kate. This strategy succeeded in launching Tori in the UK and after an initial stumble with her first single, Tori became a regular fixture on the UK top 40 during 1992.

She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own... 

Putting aside the record company battles and the marketing campaigns, what about the actual music Tori created on Little Earthquakes? The song most people heard first was the confessional Silent All These Years, a track Tori originally began writing for folk singer Al Stewart before her producer Eric Rosse convinced her not to give such a great song away. It is a song of great complexity and lyrical ingenuity that is hooky enough to grab you on the first listen, but requires repeated attention to uncover all its layers. It is the song of a woman breaking free from mundanity and social restraints and finally finding her own voice and in that way it is a metaphor for Tori's own struggles to find her true artistic expression. Tori has revisited the song on Gold Dust, barely meddling with the original arrangement, so well executed was the original. It is a defining moment in Tori's career and still stands as one of her most successful compositions.

Little Earthquakes is without question one of the boldest assertions of female sexuality ever committed to record and subsequently it has been adopted as a feminist totem. There is one track in particular that commands attention, Me And A Gun, an a capella where Tori recounts the true life story of being raped. It is hard to listen to and certainly uncomfortable to consider as entertainment, but the power of this song has given strength to many other victims and would eventually lead Tori to co-found RAINN, an anti-sexual assault organisation, which provides a helpline. A quite remarkable piece of music.

The album is truly an embarrassment of riches and picking out individual songs for particular praise seems churlish when together they form such a coherent piece. However there are two other classics on the album, both of which Tori has included on Gold DustPrecious Things erupts with all the pent up frustration of adolescent sexuality, the insistent piano backing holds the tension throughout proving that Tori was right to fight for the retention of her chosen instrument. The lyrics are biting and provocative, ripping apart the pretence of social niceties and laying bare the sordid and often uncomfortable truth of early sexual encounters between boys and girls. Of all Tori's songs this is the one I love to hear her perform live, as she really commits to every syllable and note, wringing every drip of emotion out of the song.

Then there is my personal favourite Tori song, the stunning Winter. It is a tale of memory, parental love and the pain of unavoidable change. It also has one of the prettiest melodies I have ever heard, which only further underscores the heartache at the song's conclusion. Tori's vocal is unbelievably great, especially as her voice almost cracks under the pain of the final chorus. It reminds me a little of early Joni Mitchell, who for me is a much better comparison for those wanting to find a lineage for Tori's compositions. The new version on Gold Dust makes the most of the full orchestra to create a subtle soundscape allowing the song full room to breathe and captivate the listener once again.

So twenty years on and Little Earthquakes has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It remains a touchstone album, as original and special today as it was on first hearing. Having found her voice at last Tori would go on to forge a unique path, putting to rest for all time any suggestions that she was derivative. I have been mesmerised by her talent for two decades, both by her deliciously difficult songs and her electrifying stagecraft, but I will never forget the thrill of excitement and astonishment that I felt when I first discovered her all those years ago.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Gold Dust is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. Little Earthquakes is available on Atlantic.

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