It’s been kind of a tough past two weeks for me. In the midst of all the craziness surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, I ended up having three exhausting tests done in search of my “mystery illness”, tried to keep up with my work (I still feel like I’m not doing enough because my bills are so extensive.), got my feelings hurt pretty deeply when someone I thought was my friend chose to “de-friend” me on Facebook (a week or two before, he’d put me on “limited profile”), with the explanation that it’s not personal (of course it is.), and participated in the ritual Thanksgiving dinner and Black Friday shopping at a good friend’s house…an event made more exhausting by the presence of an almost-two-year-old and five dogs.
And, in the middle of it, we found time to go and see Tori Amos kick off her U.S. tour here in Atlanta last night.
For those who don’t know me, I fell in love with Tori Amos in my high school and college years; once I bought the CD of “Little Earthquakes”, I was totally hooked. “Songs From The Choirgirl Hotel” just sort of took my musical admiration of her to the next level. I’ll talk more about why I love her earlier work a bit later, for those who care. For those who don’t, I’ll just tell you about the awesome concert we saw!;)
After I moved to Atlanta, I began to like Tori’s music less and less. I think it reflected changes in her own life; she was moving in a personal and artistic direction that didn’t reflect my own experiences, that wasn’t about my phase of life. Albums like “Scarlet’s Walk” left me uninspired, and the best-selling Tori song on iTunes, “A Sorta Fairytale”, is one of my least favourites, ever. Even though she started playing around more with Gothic and ethereal tones—an aesthetic that virtually always appeals to me—things like “Midwinter Graces” did nothing for me.
Now, all of the sudden, she’s back. She’s reclaimed her old style on “Night Of Hunters”, examining broken relationships and difficult times between people who love one another. The lyrics are raw, honest, emotional, and, at least in performance, the music inspired by intense classical composers such as Bach, Chopin, and Schubert, and more ethereal voices such as Debussy. The pieces from her new album were backed by a strong European string quartet, consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello. Even though they were accompaniment, they never held back; rather, it was like they were driving Tori to keep pace with their intensity. The use of crescendo and decrescendo was flawless, and it’s as if they were really one unit consisting of 6 instruments and a voice, creating a fantasy designed to draw the listener in. The lighting design, similarly, was impeccably done. There were no props; everything was accomplished through the use of lighting and gels, as if to point out the world of illusion being created that could just as easily disappear (as is often the situation in broken relationships, the theme of her album.) Whenever she’d perform pieces from her new album, the lighting became either intense and Gothic in tone, or resembling a scene from “Midsummer’s Night Dream”, with an elegant redhead sitting at a piano and a keyboard in the middle of some fantastical scene. Even the staging was art.
Of course, she also performed some of her most popular numbers, including “Crucify”, “Spark”, “Silent All These Years”, “A Sorta Fairytale”, “Hey Jupiter” (one of the few arrangements to include the quartet that I disliked.) and a different-but-still-enjoyable version of one of my favourite, lesser-known Tori songs, “Siren”. (from “Great Expectations”, with Gwyneth Paltrow.) She kept the crowd going with upbeat renditions of “Leather”, and an jazzy ode to her aging piano, which almost didn’t make it to Atlanta. As per usual, she included a few of her favourite covers, and while I was disappointed she didn’t use the quartet to arrange an interesting version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”", she did perform “Landslide” and “I Wish I Had A River”, both of which show off the delicate vibrato in her upper register, an ethereal sound that gets lost in her tendency to make the most of her lower, more dramatic notes. Her version of “Precious Things” was impeccable; one of the best I’ve heard, ever.
Many have criticized Tori’s live concerts in the past 5-7 years as relying on too much amplification and reverb to fill out her voice, particularly on her older stuff. This is a typical trick used by performers to make their voices sound larger and younger; like everything else, the voice ages, and for many singers, isn’t as strong as it used to be. Sadly, there are many singers, popular and classical, that can no longer perform after the age of 50. Tori isn’t one of them; her voice is still strong, and like artists like Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone, has crossed the line into “diva” territory. I think she’s diminishing herself by relying on the reverb and the over-amplification (yes, I have an ear disorder, but the acoustics in that theatre are wonderful, and for a space built to house an opera company with no more than 3,000 seats, everything was over-amplified. Even my water bottle was vibrating.). It worked, but at some point, I think I’d love to see a more toned-down, acoustic Tori performance. Not a single person in that audience cares if she can’t hit her top notes in full voice like she used to.
As for me, and my personal 15 year love affair with Tori Amos and her music: like many, I think I loved her stuff not just because the music and the lyrics were fantastic–they are—but because I could identify with her. Like me, she is a petite and quirky redhead, one with a classical background that shines through, no matter how unconventional she gets with her sound and her voice. She wrote songs about things I had experienced in my life, but unlike me, wasn’t afraid to put everything out there via her art.
Mostly, she was the first non-Broadway/non-classical singer I’d seen that made me feel that I didn’t have to be afraid to be an artist. I started performing at the age of 6, and singing, dancing, acting…all those things had been a major part of my life. Yet, I so often felt like I wasn’t good enough, like I was just pursuing a childish hobby without any real talented. I felt inferior because I was never “pretty”, not in the conventional, delicate sense that women are taught to aspire toward, but I always attracted attention because I looked odd. The pale skin, red hair, dark eyes, petite stature, curvy figure,high cheekbones, pointed nose…they’re all things common enough in people, but when assembled all together..not so much. I grew up not looking like a single person in my family, but more than that, not looking like anyone else around me, either. On a certain level, I knew I was booking jobs partially because I looked a little weird, but it didn’t make me feel any greater sense of self-confidence or belonging.
For those of you who know me from my performing days, you can attest, even my voice is weird. Before I trained as a coloratura (a specific vocal type in opera characterized by certain facets of the voice), I felt held back by the fact that I had a voice with a natural vibrato, one I couldn’t turn off even if I tried. It didn’t matter if people told me my voice was beautiful; I felt it would never be strong enough, pure enough. I almost got ejected from my college a-cappella group for my inability to tone it down and “blend”. Later, I found I am indeed an abnormality. I have a natural vibrato and vocal flexibility that most people train to develop, and a voice teacher told me was found in about one out of every 200,000 people. While highly desirable in certain periods of opera (even operatic composers when through periods where vibrato was highly unfashionable.), it’s actually a handicap in other types of music if you don’t know how to use it. Tori Amos does; she’s able to conceal it fairly well in her belt voice, and use it to her advantage in higher-voiced acoustic pieces. (Interestingly enough, while studying in college, I was introduced the work of Kristen Chenoweth, who shares both my vocal range and natural vibrato, as well as a tendency toward quirky, comic characters. She speaks in a high-pitched voice that is very strong, but almost childlike, and stands about 4’11″. She’s done quite well for herself, both on Broadway and television. I am reminded of her everyone someone makes fun of my speaking voice, and remember that other people bothered by my voice (there have been about 5 rude enough to tell me so here in ATL, including the mother of The Guy I Am Currently Dating) can just suck it. )
Anyhow, it was easy for me to not only identify with Tori Amos, but to accept this idea that being “weird” and “intense” was not only a desirable part of being an artist, it is often the basis for both art and personality. (I suppose it’s very similar to the way Lady Gaga and her theatricality appeal to today’s future, up-and-coming performers.) Her music got a certain message across to me: namely, that you could use your pain in its most raw, unedited form to create art that was real,heart-rending, and spoke to people. That changed my life, in numerous ways, since I’d always going through life attempting to hide emotions I felt were negative so that people would like me, and would write intense poems and stories that I’d never published because I didn’t want people to think I was a freak. Somehow, starting with my love of “Little Earthquakes”, I realised that being different, odd, freaky, weird, talented, tortured, intense, and full of emotional baggage could make you a pretty damned interesting human being, and an artist rather than a performer, a writer rather than someone who scribbled down amusing anecdotes.
I’m so glad to see that’s what she’s back to doing with her music; exploring the complex, intense facets of human nature, and using the full range of artistic tools at her disposal to draw you into that world. It was truly an amazing evening, and I’m so glad I could be there to see it. Now, if only they’d used a few less strobe lights……