“I could not have written Little Earthquakes
without skinning my knees … at a certain point you go, ‘Well, what is my thing? Who am I? What am I all about?’” Those were the questions Tori Amos had to ask herself before she could release a second album for Atlantic. After the sting of failure with Y Kant Tori Read
, she retreated from music. It was a friend of hers, Cindy Marble, then singer of a band called The Rugburns, who helped her find her sound. Cindy asked Tori to play piano for her — and Tori played and played for hours. Tori recalls the advice Cindy gave her: “You play your piano and you sing your songs. That’s what you do. And you’ve been trying to get away from it and be Lita Ford or somebody for the past five years, but this is what you do
. Doesn’t matter if it’s hip or cool or not.” Despite the fear of failing again — and this time truly exposing her artistic self — Tori decided that she would take down the walls, be herself, and write music that was true to her own vision, and not in imitation of anyone else’s style.
The process of writing songs began with literally reintroducing her instrument into her home. “I didn’t even have a piano in the house,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I’d trashed that before. So I rented this old upright and just started to write what I was feeling.” The songs that would eventually become Little Earthquakes were not originally conceived as material for her next album. “I was just writing so that I didn’t go crazy. I wrote for me. I wasn’t thinking about making a record: I knew that one had to come eventually, that’s how things work if you’re not dropped by your label. They do expect another one before you die … But, you see, I was working on the dying part, so making another record wasn’t first and foremost on my mind.” With her realization that she “had to do music for the mere expression of it,” Tori learned “to not be afraid of exposing myself. And if people wanted to piss all over it, then I’d just let it drip off the tape.” After a lifetime of trying to please others, Tori had finally decided to put her own artistic vision at the forefront.
The songs that formed Little Earthquakes acted as a sort of diary of feeling and experience that Tori was finally giving expression to. “It was like I was birthing myself. It was as if I was in a tunnel and I didn’t know the end. It was the first time I really allowed myself to feel things, to really feel them as I was feeling them. Not cutting them off, not trying to censor them. Not trying to dilute anything, make excuses.” Her mandate was not to compromise lyrically or musically in the composition of these songs. As she put it to Performing Songwriter in 1994, Tori felt strongly about the role of the songwriter: “Our job is to get in touch with ourselves. If we’re not in touch with ourselves, how can we possibly give something to the people out there?” The songs were centered on the piano and vocal — and that meant many hours spent at her instrument crafting these songs. Said Tori, “[A] good song speaks first to your soul, your heart, and when your heart isn’t in the composing and you only work with your brain, then what comes out of it is dead and cold. To compose from the heart you have to give it the chance to open up and react. When you do that, then the piano answers back. That’s a dialogue you can’t force… . When you don’t have the patience to explore it, then it’s the most boring instrument in the world, but if you spend a lot of time with it, you’ll always be discovering something new.” Songwriting is a process of exploration, of creating and recreating, fueled by a willingness to let go what isn’t working. Explains Tori, “I’ll go, ‘I’m going to write four different bridges for this song and we’ll see who wins the prize.’ And then it’s like, ‘What if I change this chorus? What if I just cut it in half?’ That all happens sometimes. You can’t be afraid — and I used to be — of experimenting.”