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The daughter of a Methodist preacher, Amos was born in North Carolina but raised in Maryland. She began singing and playing piano in the church choir at the age of four, and songwriting followed shortly afterward. Amos proved to be a quick learner, and her instrumental prowess earned her a scholarship to the preparatory school at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. While studying at Peabody, she became infatuated with rock & roll, particularly the music of Led Zeppelin. She lost her scholarship at the age of 11 -- quite possibly due to her interest in popular music -- but continued writing songs nevertheless, eventually moving to Los Angeles in her late teens to become a pop singer. Atlantic Records signed her in 1987, and Amos recorded an uninspired pop-metal album called Y Kant Tori Read the following year. The record was a complete failure, attracting no attention from radio or press and selling very few copies; nevertheless, she didn't lose her record contract. By 1990, Amos had adopted a new approach, singing spare, haunting, semi-confessional piano ballads that were arranged like Kate Bush but had the melodies and lyrical approach of Joni Mitchell. Atlantic sponsored a trip to England in 1991, where she played a series of concerts in support of an EP, Me and a Gun.
The harrowing "Me and a Gun" was an autobiographical song, telling the tale of Amos' own experience with rape. It gained positive reviews throughout the media, and both the EP and the supporting concerts sold well. Little Earthquakes, Amos' first album as a singer/songwriter, was released in 1992 and fared well in both the U.S. and the U.K. The same year, she released the Crucify EP, which featured cover songs like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Led Zeppelin's "Thank You." Delivered in early 1994, Under the Pink, the proper follow-up to Little Earthquakes, was an even bigger hit, selling over a million copies and launching the minor hit singles "God" and "Cornflake Girl." Two years later, Amos delivered her third album, Boys for Pele, her most ambitious and difficult record to date. The album debuted at number two and quickly went platinum.
Amos spent much of 1997 dealing with personal matters, including a miscarriage and a marriage. She also worked on her fourth album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, which was released in the spring of 1998. The two-disc To Venus and Back followed in 1999 to coincide with a tour with Alanis Morissette. In 2001, Amos returned with the covers album Strange Little Girls, which also marked her last release for Atlantic.
The next year, she found a new label home with Epic and followed with Scarlet's Walk in October. Her eighth studio album, an autobiographical record titled The Beekeeper, was released in 2005. The massive five-disc Piano collection arrived in 2006, boasting a cornucopia of album cuts, B-sides, unedited and alternate versions, demos, and seven previously unissued tracks, followed by the typically eclectic and hard-rocking American Doll Posse in 2007, an all-new collection of songs that found the artist assuming five archetypal personalities, all of whom were based on feminine gods in Greek and Roman mythology.
As she toured in support of the album, Amos released live digital recordings of each concert as part of the Legs and Boots concert series, which grew to encompass 27 albums. Although each release was made available, Amos also released a "best-of" Legs and Boots compilation in March 2009, having created its track list from various recordings during the tour. Meanwhile, she also focused on new material that had been written during the tour, which she soon compiled into her tenth studio album. Entitled Abnormally Attracted to Sin, the album was released in May 2009 by Universal Republic, Amos' new record label. A holiday album, Midwinter Graces, followed closely behind, appearing before the end of 2009 and garnering warm reviews.
In the summer of 2011, Amos began touring in advance of her next album, the classically based song cycle Night of Hunters. A conceptual work based on familiar motifs by composers Satie, Chopin, Schubert, and Bach, Amos' recording centered on a couple torn apart by life's difficulties and monotonies, and the female protagonist's journey to find wholeness within herself. Amos collaborated on the recording with the string quartet Apollon Musagete, arranger John Philip Shenale, and clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer. Night of Hunters was released by the classical label Deutsche Grammophon in September of 2011; it peaked at 24 on the Billboard 200. Amos' next move was to re-record some of her songs, newly arranged by John Philip Shenale with the Metropole Orchestra. The resulting set, called Gold Dust, appeared almost exactly a year after Night of Hunters; it debuted at 63 on the Billboard 200. In 2013, after several years in gestation, the musical The Light Princess, based on the fairy tale by Scottish seminal fantasy writer George MacDonald and with music and lyrics by Amos, premiered at the National Theatre in London to wild critical acclaim and was nominated for best musical in the prestigious Evening Standard Theatre Awards. The following year, Amos announced her return to pop with her 14th studio album, Unrepentant Geraldines. Heavily inspired by her love of fine art, the album appeared in early May 2014. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine