Wednesday 29 May 2013

Dispatches & Polaroids 1998-2013: From the Choirgirl Hotel 15 Years On

from the choirgirl hotel, by Tori Amos

Sorrow goes to raves

“There are moments of sadness … on this record,” Tori Amos told John Everson in an interview about from the choirgirl hotel, which was released fifteen years ago this month. “But I really realized that Sorrow goes to raves every Friday night. She looks at life differently because she understands tears. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a dirty little laugh. She has all that. But she just sees life from a different angle.”

El hotel de las chicas del coro

I first heard from the choirgirl hotel in public: on headphones in Richmond’s Our Price record store. (Remember Our Price? Aw. Well, these days Richmond has no record store at all.) Why I didn’t just dash to the counter to buy the album rather than listening to it in the shop is a bit of a mystery to me. Was there a chance that I didn’t think I’d purchase it? A more likely reason is that I didn’t want to have to wait to get the album home to hear it. Anyhow, that’s the way I first encountered all these songs. It was May 1998, and I’d been listening to Amos’s music for just a few months then, having discovered Little Earthquakes in January of that year, then progressed - how orderly I was at the time! - to Under the Pink and Boys for Pele. I was 18-years-old, studying for A Levels (Eng Lit, Film, Spanish), and feeling overwhelmed by the impact that these songs were having, amazed by the space they’d taken up in my life. I was a fairly unmoody kind of teenager, not especially rebellious – or, at least, not on the surface. Still, Tori’s songs – with their complexity, their quirks, their humour, their eruptions into anger – stirred something deep. It was a busy, focused, quite intense time. The first relationship that really meant something to me was still ongoing, but there were warning signs already that something was up. I don’t think I knew what the Internet was; I certainly hadn’t ever been “on” it. But that period seems so full of exciting discoveries as I look back now: reading and writing about A Streetcar Named Desire and Hamlet; seeing Godard and Cassavetes movies for the first time; translating articles and reviews from El Pais. Tori’s songs were one of those discoveries, of course. They twine around that time, more than its soundtrack, but a space that really opened up the world for me, giving so much inspiration and strength, challenging me to move forward with more courage and honesty, changing forever the part that music would play in my life.
     In my 1998 diary I find that I wrote, of choirgirl: “It’s not Little Earthquakes. But it’s fascinating.”

 The piano gets laid

In the overview that I wrote on Tori's work a couple of years ago, I listed choirgirl as one of Tori's "Essential" albums: a record that even those who aren't  dedicated Toriphiles should own. The placement stands, not only because of the jaw-dropping quality of choirgirl's songs, but also because the album  feels very much like a transitional work for Amos, a significant turning point. It’s the first record that she made at Martian, her home studio in Cornwall, for one, as well as the first with drummer Matt Chamberlain on board, a collaboration that’s nourished both her live and recorded music ever since. At the time, of course, it was regarded as quite a bold and potentially polarising departure from her early style, with her keyboards no longer the main focus but rather featured as one part of an ensemble. From the vantage-point of fifteen years, though, I’d say that choirgirl looks less like a radical departure and more like a natural progression for Tori, one that emerges organically from her singular history - piano prodigy, rock chick, singer-songwriter poet - as much as from her desire to experiment. In her book Women and Popular Music, Sheila Whitely notes that Amos’s “thoughtful approach to composition is matched by her ability to draw on a diversity of styles which develop the feel and direction of the lyrics … More importantly there is a sense of musical growth, where she actively stretches her sound by incorporating a broader approach to instrumentation.” That’s what’s going on on from the choigirl hotel. Amos had got loud at times on her earlier albums, of course, but recording live with a full band for the first time, she sounds fired up, energised, challenged, inspired to reach out for new territory, to use rhythm in a different way, to explore in new genres, be it rock, jazz, techno or dance. In inimitable Tori-terms: “The piano was excited. She didn’t have to masturbate for the first time in a long time.”

Movements. Moods.

Fury and delicacy. Anguish and calm. Confrontation and repose. Playfulness and intensity. Withering put-downs and the tenderest of declarations. The sacred and profane. The cosmic and the interior. The oblique and the direct. Yeah, choirgirl has “all that.” I’ve said before that what’s always captivated me most about Tori’s music is its contradictory qualities, the way it encompasses all aspects of human personality, the speed with which it moves through diverse moods. Amos can do this without any assistance from other musicians, of course; in fact, many would argue that it’s solo that she’s at her very best. But it seems to me that choirgirl’s “broader approach to instrumentation” – the bolder, louder sound that it sustains - enables Tori to shift through emotional registers with particular exhilaration and exultation. Based around the premise that the songs this time were “independent” – "girls who hang out together," singing-group members occupying the same "hotel" - choirgirl is a staggeringly diverse album stylistically. Yet it’s remarkably cohesive too: a Gesamtkunstwerk (atchoo) in which all the elements – vocals, lyrics, music, art-work – feel integrated and aligned. A major part of Amos’s genius as an artist, in my opinion, is the attention she gives to the arc of an album. choirgirl isn’t my favourite of her records structurally (that would be one of the longer works Boys for Pele, Scarlet’s Walk, American Doll Posse, Night of Hunters, or maybe even Strange Little Girls). But still I love its shape, its flow, the way in which the songs bump up against each other. The orgasmic clamour of “Raspberry Swirl” giving way to the pristine piano and sweeping strings of “Jackie’s Strength.” The soothing, jazzy groove of “Liquid Diamonds” arriving to pick up the pieces after “iieee”’s wail of despair. The cock-rock crunch of “She’s Your Cocaine” segueing into the swooning croon of “Northern Lad” segueing into the squelchy synthesizer turbulence of “Hotel.” These transitions tell. They present human experience in its infinite variety. They show us that we have stronger sides that can help more vulnerable sides out. More than that, they make us question what strength is, what vulnerability is. (Sorrow goes to raves, after all.) In interviews at the time Tori talked about "allowing herself to be taken over by the characters" in these tracks and said that she would "change clothes to be able to sing the songs on this album." American Doll Posse, clearly, is a twinkle in from the choirgirl hotel’s eye.

The Map

Get high on Lowe Road. Find yourself in Mr. Grumpy's maze. Win big at the Nautical Nuns Casino. Climb the Wannabe Rockies and jump off "Oh Jeez" Tower. Make a purchase at the Cocaine Lip Gloss sale stand. Take a slow saunter through Beene’s Field and a brisk walk down Toodles Pass. Stand by the Standing Stone. Lose something yourself at the ‘Has anyone seen anything that belongs to Marcel’ Brothel. Wander around endlessly shoeless with the Ballerinas.
     See, this is the kind of stuff a digital download won’t give you.

Dispatches and Polaroids

choirgirl boasts a subtitle - “Dispatches and Polaroids 1963 – 1998” - the significant dates indicating that the album is "reportage," presenting "snapshots" of Amos's life up to this point. As the media at the time didn’t fail to point out, two personal experiences inform the record: Tori's marriage and miscarriage, the latter event dubbed “Tori’s Latest Trauma” by some typically sensitive sections of the music press. Yet the suggestion that choirgirl should be read as a raw slice of autobiography seems exceedingly misleading now.  Of Sylvia Plath’s poetry Judith Kroll, in Chapters in a Mythology, notes: “personal experience provides the starting-point. But only after it has been worked over and metamorphosed into myth does the material become poetically acceptable.” That’s how Tori’s operated too, increasingly. One of the things I love about her songwriting is its flexibility of perspective, its ability to place the listener inside and outside of an experience, to shift from direct address to interior monologue. Commenting more recently about “Spark,” for example, she described the track not in relation to her miscarriage but rather as being about “finding those wires that you have to connect in yourself so you can face things in your life.” It’s an interpretation that allows the song to resonate far beyond the specific experience that inspired it. Matt Mazur, in a terrific PopMatters piece, credits Tori with creating “a language all her own, a musical language, a vocal language, and a written mythology deep and nuanced and brimming with feeling.” Right on.


The vicious grungy guitar that ushers in the second verse of “iieee”. The marimba bridge break in “Cruel.” The "I'm still alive" refrain in "Hotel" and the fairground-melody coda that follows it. The buzzy chattering in “Raspberry Swirl.” Tori’s exalted “Hey!” as the band crash in around her piano attack on “Black-Dove (January).”  The way she intones “Surrender – then start you engines” at the beginning of “Liquid Diamonds.” The spoken command at the end of “She’s Your Cocaine.” The verse-to-chorus transitions in “Spark.” On some records, though, every moment's a favourite moment, really. choirgirl is one such record for me.

Subversions (A Lip Gloss Boost)   

Though less obviously "political" than Strange Little Girls or Scarlet's Walk, say, choirgirl remains a  deeply subversive  album especially – no surprises here - in relation to gender. Ever alert to the culture’s questionable depictions of women, Tori wastes no time in settling some scores, offering a gleeful Sapphic retort to Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” with “Raspberry Swirl” (and switching the oral sex metaphor of “Professional Widow” from fellatio to cunnilingus in the process), and telling the guy in “She’s Your Cocaine” to “bring your sister if you can’t handle it.” The most provocative moment is “Playboy Mommy,” though, and its good-time-gal’s not-quite-apology to the daughter she’s neglected and who’s ended up dead. The mix of pride, remorse, self-justification,  and – yes – love in the narrator’s address rewrites a whole heap of prejudices about neglectful mothers, leading to a redemptive yet wrenching climax that blindsides the listener. It's a rather more straightfoward narrative than is usual in Tori's song-writing where you seldom get  the story A-to-Z. Generally, in ToriLand, you contribute to the song's making, filling in the gaps with your own ideas and images, your own experience.


David Bowie. Carole King. Beethoven. Led Zeppelin. Carly Simon. Elton John. The Stooges. Neil Young. Nina Simone. Prodigy. Portishead. Debussy. The Doors. Janis Joplin. Rickie Lee Jones. A title that nods to Grateful Dead. You wouldn’t mistake from the choirgirl hotel for an album by anyone other than Amos. Yet these are some of the artists whose spirits I hear on this record, passing through.


I have a couple of favourite reviews of from the choirgirl hotel. The first is Glenn McDonald’s great piece – one of many that Glenn wrote for his wonderful column The War Against Silence – which you can savour here. Glenn can get over-effusive at times, and be stubbornly dismissive at others, but, still, he's the finest writer on music that I know. The other review I cherish is James Hunter’s in Rolling Stone. It’s not an exceedingly lengthy piece, but in it Hunter seems to me to encapsulate certain key aspects of Tori’s work with particular insight and elegance. I love the way he describes her as “the girl whose background in European piano literature encouraged her to hear the unforgiving structures of the Baroque era, the vast spiritual and melodic vistas of the Romantic period and the knotty imperatives of twentieth century experimentalism as one ongoing compositional story - not a bad basis, thank you, for art rock with guts.” I love his classification of “Jackie’s Strength” as “a perfect memory of pop energy past.” I love his summary of the component parts of “iieee”: “suspended piano landscapes, straightforward rock 4/4 beats, gnarled industrial wastelands and a symphonic soundtrack from a film that has opened only in Amos’s head.” I love his summation of the record: “What the album is so unfailingly good at … is capturing the exact geography of one woman’s imagination.” And, mostly, I love his description of Amos’s singing: “like the coloratura president of Robert Plant’s fanclub.”

Words and sounds

Few singers phrase more meaningfully than Amos, in my book, but her vocals on from the choirgirl hotel do seem to reach an apex of sumptuous expressiveness. The brittle, metallic enunciation on “Cruel,” the scatting and soaring on “Liquid Diamonds,” the sneers and shrieks in “She’s Your Cocaine,” the percussive gasps in “Raspberry Swirl,” the sultry sadness of “Northern Lad,” the odd curveballs thrown on “Pandora’s Aquarium,” the Southern twists throughout. It’s some of the sexiest, most sensual singing she’s done, but sexiness inflected, variously, with wit, with anger, with jubilance, with desolation. “Her singing style becomes an interpreter of sorts,” writes Matt Mazur. “Her vocal interpretation of [the] lyrics, the way she endows each syllable with palpable emotion, is precisely what makes her a master storyteller. Simply put, how the words are delivered has become one of the most important aspects of Tori’s music.”

He's absolutely right, but choirgirl’s lyrics also read beautifully. You could teach a course on Amos and assonance. “A Bouvier till her wedding day/Shots rang out the police came/Mama laid me on the front lawn/And prayed for Jackie’s strength...My bridesmaid’s getting laid/I pray for Jackie’s strength.”

“Jackie’s Strength”

All of Amos’s albums are about empowering the listener. Informed by loss it might be, but choirgirl is an affirmative record, passionate for experience, for understanding, for the life-force itself. It’s real subject, I'd say,  is the bewilderment, the guilt and the joy of survival - survival after a devastating experience, survival after loss. It's a theme that's scattered all over the album but, for me, it reaches its most complex expression on “Jackie’s Strength.” This song has fierce competition but I think it's the finest, deepest ballad that Tori’s written, in its seamless interweaving of autobiography and US history, the iconic and the intimate. If Boys for Pele had found Tori running to a dazzling array of prophets, demons and icons of history and popular culture (everyone from Lucifer, Moses and Mohammad to Anne Boylen, Angie Dickinson, Big Bird and Mr. Sulu) in an effort to make sense of her experiences here she focuses her attention on one historical figure: Jackie Kennedy. Opening on the day of the JFK assassination, sketching a vivid portrait of a 60s/70s suburban childhood ("Stickers licked on lunchboxes, worshipping David Cassidy"), and ending with Tori's narrator getting suggestively "lost" on her wedding day, the song coheres into an affirmation of the strength required to survive a variety of experiences, from adolesence to marriage to the aftermath of assassination.  But even as the song celebrates Jackie as an icon of endurance in adversity, it scrupulously avoids nostalgia or sentimentality (the reference to those “lie[s] … in Camelot”), while the sheer irreverence of some of the lyrics ensure that the listener finds themselves laughing aloud as often as wiping tears. That’s the thing: for all the pain in which it deals choirgirl exhibits, in spades, the most overlooked quality of Tori’s music: a great big sense of humour. I still crack up every time at the “my bridesmaid’s getting laid” line and at Tori’s cutting observation that “you’re only popular with anorexia.” Sometimes the album’s humour skirts obscenity. It's very druggy, too, throughout. Pot, Ecstasy, Cocaine, "coming down." I think it’s fair to speculate that Amos was continuing to experiment with substances other than her new keyboards while she composed this record.


While I’ve a fondness for Cindy Palmano’s small-scale productions for the Little Earthquakes singles, choirgirl boasts Tori’s best, most cinematic set of videos, with “Spark’s” pursuit through the woods the finest of the bunch. The album’s singles also feature an outstanding set of B-Sides that include some of Tori's strongest compositions. "Purple People (Christmas in Space)" - possibly my all-time favourite Tori B-Side - is a gorgeously elegant, late-night barroom croon on which brushed drums, wheezy keyboards and wintery piano accompany prime Amosian musings on identity, envy, self-worth and self-sabotage. “Bachelorette” (and who didn’t expect a Bjork cover when they saw this one listed?) is its own bewildering, beguiling, lurching thing, its woozy stop-start rhythm, clattering percussion and scatty, mumbled vocal, adding up  to an indelible portrait of a marvellously self-sufficient heroine. Then there's the celestial "Cooling" and the spiritual-from space, "Beulah Land." I can’t envisage any of those tracks on the album exactly (and "Beulah Land," for one, seems more Pele-approriate)  but they’re all a part of its wider story. Let's picture these songs in the Hotel’s annexe. Self-catering.

Coda (Checking in)

I wish from the choirgirl hotel had been a more influential album than it has been - in the sense that it would be great to see more mainstream artists today doing work at this level, and making music that’s so deep and complex on the one hand yet so open, so accessible and so emotional on the other. Here’s the good news, though: Tori’s still out there doing it. Always prolific and protean she’s moved in many, many directions since from the choirgirl hotel: subverting iconic men’s songs, making the best album about America that anyone’s ever likely to make, performing – thrillingly - in character, undertaking a superb classical collaboration, and touring, touring, touring. (The closest she’s come to choirgirl, stylistically, is 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin, but that record was too diffuse, and had too much mediocre material, to have a comparable impact.) Next up, it's to the National Theatre for the long-awaited The Light Princess, a show destined, so sneaky advance word has it, to be "brilliant - and nuts." Meantime, though, the choirgirl hotel is still open to all-comers. Tori hasn’t lost contact with these tracks (witness the bitchin' reinvention of “Cruel” on the Night of Hunters tour), and neither should we. The songs on this album haven’t aged, in fact; they’re still leaping off the speakers, fresh, seductive, a bit dangerous, still concealing their mysteries and disclosing them. Which is why, fifteen years after that diary entry, I’m still fascinated by from the choirgirl hotel. And why I'll likely find myself putting the record on again today. Turning it up. And checking in.


  1. But Alex, you're reminding me that 15 YEARS HAVE PASSED since the release of this album. ;)

  2. ach...15...
    as always, thoughtful, and relatable piece. this album is my favourite, for a myriad of reasons. and a desert island disc, for sure.

  3. Thanks Craig. It was fun to write. And yes: Choirgirl forever! :-)

  4. Reminds me how much I love the artwork of Choirgirl. Wish she would go back to that instead of the rampant photoshopping.