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13 January 2022

How Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes confounded the music press of the 1990s

Her debut album, released 30 years ago, is a simmering ball of explosive confessional material.

By Kate Mossman

I wasn’t a fan, but my friend was, and I was rather scared of my friend. We took the National Express to the Ipswich Regent in 1994 to see Tori Amos, where I found myself in an audience of girls with bright red hair. Amos sang her biggest hit “Cornflake Girl”, which terrified me, because it seemed to be about bullying between young women.

She wove her way through my 1990s and into the next decade: my first experiences of love, lying on a university room floor, took place with “Northern Lad” playing on repeat in the background (he was a northern lad, turned on to Tori by his gay best friend). I still think it’s one of her most beautiful songs, though it is shot through with dread (“but I feel the west in you”). There is something Amos did – thumped the piano, then threw out a descending, wavering long vowel; a “here” or “feel” or “see” – which still sends me rushing down a time-tunnel to the loneliness and fear of young adulthood. She set exquisitely pretty musical phrases alongside lyrics that were full of threat, as in “Winter”, about her relationship with her father: “When you gonna make up your mind/Cos things are gonna change so fast…” She once described herself as “a magnet for people who want to be alone with themselves”.  

She was brought to the UK by her record label, Atlantic, which thought that eccentric women artists had a better chance of making it in the land of Kate Bush. At the centre of her debut album, Little Earthquakes, released 30 years ago, is “Me and a Gun”, an a cappella song about a rape so brutal that were Amos emerging now, the experience would define her entire public identity. In a few of her earliest interviews, her rape is edited out, passed over as “a frightful event”, though she had clearly spent part of the interview talking about it. Who knows whether it scared the male-dominated music press of the 1990s; whether it contributed to the way Tori Amos was seen – as someone both away with the fairies and too raw and physical to be comfortable with. An NME review of Little Earthquakes described it as “a sprawling, confusing journey through the gunk of a woman’s soul”. Her brand of sexuality was a challenge for straight men, as she humped her piano, or suckled a pig in images for her third album, Boys For Pele. She was no Kate Bush after all. Asked once who would play her in a film, she replied: Tonya Harding.  

Little Earthquakes is a simmering ball of explosive material cooled by the music of winter landscapes. Amos was a piano prodigy at five, kicked out of music school because she preferred to play by ear: by 13 she was earning money in the Washington, DC piano bars frequented by political lobbyists, dropped off and picked up by her Methodist preacher father. Perhaps because of her close physical relationship with her instrument, she is one of those musicians who has created an entire soundworld – her music, which hasn’t changed much over the years, is a mental stage-set full of tone colours and word-painting. “Silent All These Years” was inspired by The Little Mermaid, written for Al Stewart to sing – then later used in a campaign for rape awareness. The phrasing of “China” soars into Broadway territory. “Leather” is cabaret: “Look I’m standing naked before you/Don’t you want more than my sex?” If Little Earthquakes were a picture – which it kind of is – it would be snow spotted with blood; wild horses; a crucifix, and the first time your wore your boyfriend’s clothes.   

The hits would come later – Amos preserved her emotional clout, those little musical moments that made your stomach drop like a marionette on slack strings. But she gradually moved away from confessional songwriting, and these days inhabits a law-unto-itself lyrical world where she’ll cover climate change, native American rights, the Democrat party and her mother’s death all in one album. No one, these days, would call that a confusing journey through the gunk of a woman’s soul.

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party