Tori Amos: I Remember

Simon Button 9 March 2022

Singer-songwriter Tori Amos, 58, reflects on her early days performing in bars, the lessons she’s learned along the way and building a life in Cornwall

My poppa would smoke a pipe while he sang. He was a Methodist minister and I remember him singing on the porch in North Carolina. I was born and lived there until I was ten, and we relocated 
to Maryland when his ministry moved.

My mother was sunshine. She was the warmest sunshine ever—never raised her voice, always encouraging, always looking for the good things in people.

She used to say: “It’s too easy to find the negative, look for the good. There’s good in everybody.”

Nobody taught me how to play the piano. It’s just something I was able to do from a young age. Somehow I sat at the keyboard and I was playing it, without knowing why or how.

People would act surprised, like, “What’s happening?,” but when you’re a child and you can do something you don’t think, How did that happen? I must have been two-and-a-half when I started and I never questioned it. I wrote my first song when I was three. I can’t recall what it was called or what it was about but writing and playing were like breathing to me. 

I attended the Peabody Institute from age five. I was studying classical piano at the institute, which was part of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and I really liked my piano teacher.

A lot of the other students were teenagers and they were really affected by the music coming out of the radio more than the music we were being taught. They were obsessed with and energised by the music of the late 1960s, they were protesting the Vietnam war, there were all kinds of things going on, but I was just a little girl.

Tori began playing the piano at a very young age

When I was 13 I began playing in piano bars and gay bars and the gay bars were especially welcoming to me and my dad, who chaperoned me. The clientele would come over and ask my dad: “What’s the plan? What’s the career trajectory?”

It’s not like today, where you have the internet; we were just figuring out how to negotiate the music business and they’d give us advice like, “Make sure your repertoire is vast and you have all the genres covered for when you take requests.”

They put a brandy snifter on top of the piano and put a couple of dollars in it, just to get me started.

I was going to change my name to Sammy J [after Heather Locklear’s character on Dynasty]. I was around 17 and it was just before I began sending demos out to record companies.

Then, a friend of mine brought along some guy she was dating to see me perform and he said, “You’re a Tori’.” I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” Then someone in the bar said that it was either a pine tree or a political party in England and I went, “I’m going with the pine tree!”.

So I was no longer Myra Amos, I was Tori Amos. 

Amos playing in a piano bar in 1983

After moving to Los Angeles in 1984 I formed a band called Y Kant Tori Read and made an album that wasn’t very good and wasn’t a success. But I toiled away and everything changed when my first solo album Little Earthquakes came out in 1992.

All of a sudden I didn’t have to play piano bars and people were buying tickets to see me in concert, not spilling beer and talking loudly over the music. I’m grateful that I had that time in the clubs and bars, though.

I didn’t go from the bedroom or the garage to the recording studio and stage; I went from bar to bar, from East Coast to West Coast. People call it “paying your dues” but I see it more as gaining awareness.

Neil Gaiman was given a tape of Little Earthquakes before it came out by an artist friend of mine and Neil gave me some really good advice [Laughs]. He said, “I hope you pursue this as a career.”

We became friends after that and he’s a wonderful human being. He has time for people and one of his great qualities is how encouraging he is towards up-and-coming writers.

Making the follow-up album, there was a lot of pressure. I recorded Under The Pink in New Mexico and there was always the possibility it wouldn’t do well but I was very focused on not trying to become something I wasn’t just to please people, but rather to write songs that I felt were good.

And it really paid off because it was an even bigger hit both in the US and the UK.

I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan so when I got to work with Robert Plant in the early 1990s that was really special. I’d grown up listening to their music and I learned a lot from him about how he ran a recording session—how he treated his band and everybody involved. It was just really respectful.

On the 1994 Under The Pink Tour my sound guy [Mark Hawley] was the guy I eventually married and we could not agree which side of the river to live on.

He was South London and I was living in North London. He said, “We can’t decide, so let’s move to Cornwall” and I went, “OK, fine.” So we got a place in Bude and we now divide our time between there and Florida.

Amos on her 1994 Under The Pink Tour

Meeting Mark was love at first sight for me, but for him it wasn’t because I was the boss and there’s a culture among the crew that goes, “Keep your hands off the turn.” I was a grower for him and we worked together for many months before we had our first date.

Losing my mum was really painful. [She died in 2019]. She’d had a severe stroke where she was partially paralysed and she was suffering. It seemed to affect her mental state as well but there were moments when she was with us. It was a tough time and it was cruel to want to keep her around but when we lost her I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss her.

"I didn’t go from the bedroom or the garage to the recording studio and stage; I went from bar to bar, from East Coast to West Coast"

Our daughter was the missing piece for me. Natashya was born in 2000 and it was like stepping into a different role. My mum always told me, “You will not understand how much I love you until you have a child” and she was right. I didn’t understand how your priorities change. Parenthood affects people differently and there isn’t a handbook. People give you advice but you’re learning all the time.

I learned so much from working on the musical The Light Princess at the Royal National Theatre in 2013. I wrote the music and lyrics and I loved collaborating with all the different departments, seeing how they looked at it as a whole, from the set design to the lighting.

I enjoyed working with the actors, with Samuel Adamson who was the playwright and the director Marianne Elliott—to see how she saw things and what she could pull out of an actor, but also, what she couldn’t.

I began to respect and value what a good actor brings to the table. Before that I just thought, Yeah, they’re all overpaid. 

Amos receiving the Peabody Medal of Honour in 2019

Working with [my daughter] Natashya in the studio was great.  We recorded a song called “Promise” together in 2014, when she was just 13 years old, and she really knew what she wanted. She still does.

She has her own ideas about things, and she sang on three songs on my new record—including as the choir on “Devil’s Bane”, so I jokingly call her The Devil’s Choir. It’s funny because she’s not a wild child; as she’ll tell you, she was born as an 80-year-old because she’s not a party animal. She has friends and a boyfriend but you’re not gonna see Tash at a rave.

Recording an album in Cornwall was a blessing. It was during lockdown and we had a state-of-the-art recording studio. Before the pandemic I was a good traveller and I’d jump on a plane 
and go visit people.

Mark would say, “Go away so I can miss you.” Then suddenly it wasn’t possible, but that makes you reevaluate everything. 

I had to find a chair instead and “travel,” like I did when I was five, in my head. 

Ocean To Ocean is out now on CD and vinyl. Tori tours the UK from March 11, with tickets available here

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