When I was a 13-year-old girl completely oblivious to the immense power of femininity, Tori Amos’ “God” struck something within me. “God sometimes you just don’t come through / Do you need a woman to look after you?,” she trills with a mix of steeliness and sass. Perhaps it’s the blatant heresy she so coolly savors, but that line continues to sting so good, as long as religion and patriarchies continue to dominate our existence. Over two decades and some 15 albums later, we expect nothing less from Amos, who keeps writing, recording, and touring relentlessly; slipping in and out of personas; and crafting her art on cosmic concepts that intricately break down life here on Earth in all its bliss and terror.
Amos is a carefully constructed contradiction: a classically trained musician and provocative pop star; a minister’s daughter with an angelic voice and a wildly wicked sense of humor; an independent woman who respects tradition as much as she subverts it. For this Family Tree feature, we honor her musical lineage, whose roots stretch back to Lennon and Led Zeppelin, then branch out to Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey, and continue to flourish through artists like St. Vincent and Lorde.
At the ripe ol’ age of two, Tori started playing piano. Soon, she was on scholarship at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. But she found her greatest muses in the rock records her older brother would sneak into the house. Led Zeppelin’s sticky, swampy pagan rock would leave an impression, especially those Robert Plant wails that effortlessly ooze with sex. So would the fabulous flamboyancy of Freddie Mercury—you can see his histrionics channeling through her when she works two pianos at once in concert. In fact, she’s even claimed Mercury wrote her To Venus and Back track “Sugar” from beyond the grave. She’s said the same about John Lennon, whose ghost may or may not have helped write the Boys for Pele song “Hey Jupiter,” whose chords mirror another rock god: Prince.
Of course, there are plenty of rock goddesses tangled among Amos’ roots as well. Her most ethereal proclivities bring on constant comparisons to art-pop auteur Kate Bush, who can draw sensuality out of the steeliest synths. Stevie Nicks is another one of her spirit animals, and Tori covers her Rumours material often. But perhaps her most striking trait—her raw, vulnerable songwriting—draws from the beautifully raging poetry of Joni Mitchell and punk priestess Patti Smith.
Tori Amos released her debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992. At first blush, her flowery, flowy piano rock seemed a far cry from the testosterone-fueled grunge blowing in from the Pacific Northwest. But her songwriting and delivery, stripped bare of pretense and posturing, shared much with that genre’s tortured confessionals. At the same time, her music felt like an antidote to all that muscular angst, even though anger and pain very much powered her own cathartic cries. This potent femininity would quickly seep its way into the alternative-rock consciousness through prolific artists like PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, and Ani DiFranco.
Songs like “Silent All These Years” would help give voice to equally strong, immensely gifted women armed with a piano or guitar and a helluva lot of thick skin. On “Sullen Girl,” Fiona Apple channels her own trauma as a rape victim into one of pop music’s most hauntingly elegant depictions of the terror, depression, and isolation that comes with such hell. And, like Tori, her words flow so eloquently, so naturally, with every little waver in her voice holding infinite emotion. But it wasn’t just women who felt her allure. Trent Reznor was also a fan, and the two were often linked. Tori’s “Caught a Lite Sneeze” references Pretty Hate Machine, while “Past the Mission” features Mr. Self Destruct himself on backing vocals.
Twenty-five years after her solo debut, Tori continues to reinvent herself as she navigates a contemporary landscape rife with musicians influenced by her. These artists capture her passion, her freakiness, and her luminous grace in their own lucid tales that often shift and warp modern ideals of love, sex, power, and gender. The weird, snarling dance mix of Tori’s “Raspberry Swirl” could work as a rough template for St. Vincent’s wacky, whimsical compositions. Traces of her most mystical odysseys weave through the dark, eerie dream-pop of Bat For Lashes and Zola Jesus. Provocative piano women like Amanda Palmer take a bit of Tori’s unapologetic fire and let it loose themselves, too—heck, Palmer is even married to author Neil Gaiman, the subject in a few of Tori’s songs. And even some of pop’s biggest stars embrace Tori’s insatiable need to articulate the immensity of being a powerful woman. Just take it from Lorde: “I’m 19 and I’m on fire.”