When Tori Amos seemingly burst out of nowhere to release her debut album Little Earthquakes she already had a lifetime of experiences. She had trauma to sing through – and the way she did that (Me And A Gun, Silent All These Years) would not only go on to inspire people but create movements.
Nothing comes from nowhere.
When Little Earthquakes made its first rumble, Amos had been in a band (Y Kant Tori Read) and had performed piano-bar music to audiences that could care less for pay checks that seemed to crumble as soon as they were handled.
Overnight success takes years.
When I first heard Little Earthquakes, I was a teenager. I loved grunge. And was totally caught up in the male-dominated rock of the era. But I was a strange kid when it came to music, if not many other things as well. So, on my schoolbag and pencil-case I had graffitied names like ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Pearl Jam’, ‘Metallica’ and ‘The Black Crowes’. But I also had written The Beatles and Rolling Stones, Santana, The Kinks, Split Enz and Schnell-Fenster…
I had an ear on what was happening then and there – sure, but I was as interested in Miles Davis and John Coltrane as I was by The Lemonheads and P.M. Dawn. When Prince played Gett Off at the MTV Music Awards it blew my mind, seemed lifechanging. But hearing The Velvet Underground’s first album around the same time had a similar impact, maybe bigger. It was never a contest anyway, I know that.
But Little Earthquakes was certainly one of the life-changers. I had been a Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper fan as kid – I loved The Bangles and Madonna and Grace Jones too. I never thought about choosing female artists to even things up, I just liked what I liked. Lots of music made an impression. And in the early 1990s there was all this male-focussed grunge and metal but there was a whole new wave of female solo artists and female-driven bands.
Sinead O’Connor and Throwing Muses, L7 and Bjork, Natalie Merchant and Babes in Toyland. PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield…
So many more. But one of the first to make a major impact was Tori Amos.
And the album Little Earthquakes was something I listened to like it was a book or a movie. The world just closed off for nearly an hour and I sat with my jaw near the ground listening to Winter and China, amazed by the playfulness of Happy Phantom and the intensity (and hooky catchiness) of Crucify.
The quiet kink of Leather was something that could almost make you red-faced if the parents walked in. They wouldn’t understand it quite like you did of course! And my mum had a way of shaming me – or trying to – about any song called Mother. (Around this time I was as captivated as I’d ever been by Pink Floyd’s The Wall).
Tear In Your Hand felt like the sophisticated version of something like Roxette.
But then everything stopped. And Me And A Gun started. Just Tori Amos’ voice. The singer/songwriter putting her primary instrument away to sing from her core. To sing out her fear and to reclaim herself.
I was a teenaged, sport-obsessed boy growing up in safe and conservative Havelock North. I went to a co-ed school and wasn’t – as far as I was concerned – a jerk. I mean, I probably was of course. But I wasn’t actively trying to alienate myself or anyone else. I wasn’t cool with the girls at school, but they had no reason beyond their own biases and preferences to be put off me.
As soon as I heard Me And A Gun I understood the power imbalance of the world. The repeated line about the man being on her back. The strength, the physical dominance a male person could lash out with. It’s never not startling to hear that song. And it felt like one of the very best pieces of education I could be armed with at 14 or 15.
And ever since.
When the title track follows and the album draws to a close, you could breathe again. Tori could too.
Little Earthquakes is now 30 years old. Which is one of those things where I immediately say no, that can’t be the case and also well, of course it is, that makes sense. Meaning that it doesn’t really make any sense at all, since time never has. It stretches, folds in on itself and deceives us all. Never more so than now as we continue to only ever hurtle. And to figure that because we have machines in our pocket that allow us to dial back to memories, we’re going to be okay. We don’t often think about how giving over to that was some start of some end.
But listening to Little Earthquakes always feels like a beginning. The way it does with debut albums.
And it is the starting point for Tori Amos, solo artist.
She would follow it up with albums that you might love more. That might mean more to some people. Some of them have nearly meant more to me at various times. And most certainly her first three or four albums always feel perfect to me.
But nothing eclipses Little Earthquakes.
It’s the Tori Amos album I think everyone knows. Fans and otherwise. We all hang on this – many of us have hung onto it. (For a while there it was the only Amos album in my collection).
I’ve owned most of her records, sold some of them, bought others back. I’ve never seen her live. Always wished I had.
There’s been times when I’ve felt almost like I’ve moved on completely. And then I’ve been drawn back. It’s almost always because of Little Earthquakes.
But there were times when I felt like one of her biggest fans – until the internet exploded and I truly learned about fandom. Still, when I left home, a couple of years after first hearing Little Earthquakes, the first poster I put up on the wall in my new place was a giant shot of Tori at her piano. I was starting new, and obviously I wanted people to know I was a fan. I was a fan of so much music – always have been – but back then I chose Tori to broadcast to the world.
Sometime after that, my world got messy, lazy, and confusing. And the Tori Amos poster was one of many things I just seemed to leave behind somewhere.
In recent years I’ve loved her memoir, which arrived right when I was preparing a radio feature about some of her material that most made an impact on me. I’ve also loved her latest album more than I have with some of the others.
A couple of years ago I went right back through the catalogue. Caught up on albums I’d missed or far-too-quickly dismissed. I found almost everything to be to my liking.
It made more sense with that deceptive passage of time.
But of all of them it was Little Earthquakes that was exactly as I found it. So pure. So focussed. So true. So good.
Happy 30th Birthday Little Earthquakes!