After spending her youth studying classical piano, child prodigy Tori Amos made her first foray into rock with the late-1980s hair-metal band Y Kant Tori Read. The group's career was mercifully short, and it was a return to her beloved piano and the development of an intimate, and sometimes indulgent, style of pop songwriting that brought Amos widespread success.
The youngest of three children of a Methodist minister father and homemaker mother, Amos showed signs of being a gifted musician when she began tinkering on the piano at age two and a half. At five, she began studying classical piano at the prestigious Peabody Institute at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. After she insisted on playing her own pop compositions for the school's examination board, her scholarship wasn't renewed. By the time she was 13, Amos was performing her songs at clubs in Washington, DC.
In 1984 Amos moved to L.A. to pursue her dream of becoming a rock star; she also began calling herself Tori. Three years later she signed a deal with Atlantic Records, and in 1988 her band Y Kant Tori Read, which included future Guns n' Roses drummer Matt Sorum, released one self-titled album. Adorned with teased hair and sporting a low-cut corset, Amos appeared on the LP's cover brandishing a saber.
The album's quick failure resulted in many of the extremely personal songs that eventually appeared on Amos's solo debut, Little Earthquakes. The most revealing, "Me and a Gun," detailed Amos' experience of being raped by an acquaintance.
With her record company's encouragement, Amos moved to London to perform in that city's small clubs - and to help break her album in a smaller market. By the end of 1992 Little Earthquakes had gone gold in Britain; a year later, it went gold in the U.S. as well. Crucify, an EP of mostly covers, included a soft, understated "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
With her more ornate platinum followup, Under the Pink (Number 12, 1994), Amos continued to embrace songs about the female experience: "God" questions male authority; "Cornflake Girl" explores what happens when one woman betrays another. 1994 also saw Amos cofounding RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which operates a free 24-hour hotline and works with more than 600 crisis centers across the country.
Boys for Pele debuted in 1996 at Number Two and quickly went platinum, despite being her least accessible album to date. Amos collapsed during a grueling world tour in support of the record. In 1998 she married Mark Hawley, an engineer working on her album From the Choirgirl Hotel (Number Five, 1998). That album departed from Amos' "girl with a piano" image with fuller instrumentation and dance-music twiddles, and it included "Jackie's Strength," a ballad in which she compares Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding day with her own. The two-disc set To Venus and Back (Number 12, 1999) comprises one disc of new studio tracks and one disc of live recordings from her 1998 tour.
Amos released a collection of covers interpreted from a female perspective in 2001. Strange Little Girls revealed the pianist's renditions of everything from the Beatles' "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" to Slayer's "Raining Blood." It also officially drew Amos' contract with Atlantic to a close. She soon signed with Sony/Epic.
For the expansive Scarlett's Walk (2002), Amos adopted the role of "Scarlet," and it was through her eyes that many of the album's topical issues were addressed. For the ensuing tour, Amos stripped her band back to include just a drummer and a bass player, giving the material a starker, more personal feel. It was soon accompanied by the thematically related Welcome To Sunny Florida, a collection of live footage released on DVD in 2004.
Amos explored a more diverse, R& B driven musical range on The Beekeeper (2005), frequently playing a Hammond B3 while continuing to explore lyric themes of femininity and personal transcendence. The album continued Amos's penchant for conceptual structures: it was composed of six "gardens of song," inspired by the six sides of a honeycomb. Despite its length and heady ideas, The Beekeeper was Amos's fifth Top Ten album. It arrived at a time when Amos's public profile was particularly high: her autobiography, Piece by Piece, was published simultaneously in February 2005. Recordings of many of the live shows she performed in support of The Beekeper were made available for purchase, mirroring Pearl Jam's approach to releasing concert recordings. The following year Amos released the sprawling five-disc set A Piano, which compiled classics, alternate mixes, outtakes and rarities.
2007's America Doll Posse found Amos continuing to play with a variety of alter egos and structural devices, creating elaborate celebrations of the female persona and dissecting the rigidity of what she considers the modern dichotomy of woman as a either "mother or whore." For the album and ensuing tour, Amos adopted five distinct personalities: Pip, Santa, Isabel, Clyde and Tori. For the ensuing tour, Amos would come out dressed as one of those characters for the "opening act" before "Tori" would take the stage for the remainder of the show. The album found Amos branching out sonically as well, seemingly recalling her early metal years in the song "You Can Bring Your Dog." As she had done with The Beekeper, Amos recorded all of the dates on this tour for digital release to her fans.
In June of 2008 she left Epic Records under cloudy circumstances; in a statement, she encouraged fellow artists to abandon a major label system that "has become undependable." Rather than involve herself in another traditional record contract, Amos opted instead to sign a distribution deal with the Universal Republic label for her 2009 album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. After a string of elaborate, concept-heavy works, Sin found Amos settling down and delivering a relatively simple collection of songs rather than an elaborate album-length narrative. To promote the record, Amos headlined her new label's South By Southwest showcase, and also gradually released a series of video clips called "visualettes"—one for each of the album's 16 songs—to blogs in the weeks leading up to the album's release. Upon its release, Sin became Amos's seventh Top Ten album.
She ended the year with a collection of what she termed "solstice music" called Midwinter Graces, which found her reworking popular Christmas carols.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). J. Edward Keyes contributed to this article.