Tori Amos on Love Affair With the Piano

PHOTO Tori Amos gives traditional carols a modern twist on her new seasonal album, "Midwinter Graces."

It should come as no surprise that when masterful pianist Tori Amos recalls her earliest musical memory, it involves what she calls that "huge, black, gorgeous creature" -- her family's piano.

"I was 2½ so says my mother when I started playing," Amos recalled as she sat down recently with "Nightline" at Le Poisson Rouge in downtown Manhattan.

"It had a swivel stool. I would try and reach the keys, but I couldn't quite reach them," she said, "So I would grab a phone book and somehow crawl up and sit. And my mom said she would find me there, just happy as a clam, playing that piano."

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More than 40 years later Amos' muse is still inspiring her to create new compositions. Her most recent collection is a seasonal album called "Midwinter Graces." Amos was fascinated with the history of Christmas carols.

"A lot of the carols were not as you hear them now," Amos said. "They were sea shanties, or drinking songs. Hundreds of years ago they could have been a hit folk song of the time."

Amos decided to reinvent some of the carols we hear every December, but from a new perspective. "I said, 'Well why don't I become a part of that tradition? And bring a little 21st century perspective?'"

While many holiday songs tell the story of the magical birth of a baby boy, Amos flipped the script on her album with the song "Pink and Glitter," which is about a couple welcoming the birth of a baby girl.

"That is the joy of this couple, that's the gold. Not the motor toys or the presents, but that this little bundle of pink and glitter has just transformed their lives," she said.

Amos was not always playing her own songs on the piano. When she was a little girl she often played whatever her mother brought home from work.

"She worked in a record store," said Amos. "Thank heavens, or I don't know what would have happened. I really don't."

Her mother adored musical theater, so Myra Ellen (long before she would take on the name "Tori") banged out "The Sound of Music" and "Oklahoma!" on the piano. And at age 5, when Amos auditioned at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, it was her performance of the score to "Oliver!" that helped land her the distinction of being the youngest student ever admitted to the school.

During her tenure at Peabody, Amos' musical tastes broadened while listening to the records her older brother Michael brought home.

"My brother would start bringing in the Beatles and all kinds of things, the Stones," she remembers. "And it really grew from there. Everything: Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor...everything."

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She began playing pop music on the piano, and found that practicing Stevie Wonder's songs helped her become a stronger pianist.

"I would train my left hand over and over," she explained. "I would have my right hand back behind my back, just to get the articulation in my left hand, so that I wouldn't have a white girl left hand. And I pushed myself for hours a day to try and make that happen. And I am a much better left hand piano player than I am with my right hand, because, I think, of training myself on Stevie Wonder."

But while her brother lauded her new found musical inspiration, not everyone in the Amos household approved. Amos would often have to change her tune at a moment's notice.

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