Tori Amos on Love Affair With the Piano

Artist reinvents traditional carols on new seasonal album "Midwinter Graces."

December 18, 2009, 10:23 AM

Dec. 18, 2009— -- 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."

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."

Growing Up, Amos Slammed for Bohemian Style

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.

"When my dad would come in I would kind of make it into Holy, Holy, Holy or a church song because we weren't supposed to do too much pop music," she said.

Like her father, who was a reverend, the teachers at Peabody were less than pleased with Amos' bohemian stylings.

"Certain composers like Lennon and McCartney, they were the next generation of great music," said Amos. "I was suggesting that they teach their work in composition class."

Amos believes this is part of why, when she auditioned for her sixth year at Peabody, her scholarship was not renewed. While her teachers may have given up on her, the Reverend Amos' faith never faltered; he pushed his daughter to continue with her music.

"So the first job that I got -- my father got it for me --- he had his clerical collar on, was a gay bar in D.C., it was Mr. Henry's of Georgetown," Amos recalled. "My father had knocked at other doors and said, 'Excuse me, my daughter is really talented,' and he had his bible in his hand, and was trying to I think, appear legitimate, but most people just thought we were nuts. And so it was the gay community that opened their door to the reverend and his daughter."

Roberta Flack had played at the same club years before, so Amos said she would often play "Killing Me Softly" in her honor. Her mother's records also came in handy for the musical theater sing-alongs that took place at the piano bar.

If given the choice, Tori says her ideal sing-along buddy would be Bette Midler, who starred in "The Rose" in 1979 and sang the legendary song of the same name.

"How great to have a sing-along with her?" Amos asked. "She always was to me, just a performer, you just wanted to go wherever she was going. And, that's the thing about great entertainers."

In her teens, Amos became obsessed with another famous Bette -- Bette Davis. Amos tried out acting in high school, and years later edged out an unknown Sarah Jessica Parker in a Kellogg's Just Right cereal commercial.

But it was her music career that took off, and seven years later her solo debut "Little Earthquakes" was released to critical acclaim and success. By the time she released "Under the Pink" in 1994 she had become a force in the music world.

"There's this jungle called 'Women in Music,' and the women that come before you they have their machetes and they clear a path," says Amos. "Joni Mitchell cleared a lot of brush away with her machete in the '60s to make room for so many who have come after her."

The limited second disc to "Under the Pink" called "More Pink" included a cover of Mitchell's "A Case of You," a song Amos says she wishes she had written herself.

"Joni Mitchell influenced bands of that time. It wasn't as if she had to be as loud as the band she inspired. They understood. It was about how powerful her content was."

As the metaphorical machete changes hands over the years, at her core, Tori Amos will remain the girl with her "huge, black, gorgeous creature."

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