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‘from the choirgirl hotel’: How Tori Amos Checked In To A New Creative Place
Warner Music

‘from the choirgirl hotel’: How Tori Amos Checked In To A New Creative Place

Born from a deep grief, Tori Amos’ ‘from the choirgirl hotel album’ marked a creative evolution .


In the artwork to Tori Amos’ 1998 album, from the choirgirl hotel, there is a map. It’s whimsical, sinister, surreal: it connects Richard III to scooter rentals, standing stones to vendors of cocaine lip-gloss. “The Choirgirl Hotel, in my brain, is very near this map,” Amos said in 1998. Indeed, there in the right-hand corner, just past the “Nautical Nuns Casino”, it says “final stop before C.G.H.”. But what is the Choirgirl Hotel, and who were the songs that called it home?

Listen to ‘From The Choirgirl Hotel’ here.

The concept: “I have written words and made simple drawings that interconnect”

The idea of songs having their own physical presence was a natural thought to Amos. She experiences a form of synaesthesia, a condition where sensory pathways can trigger one another; for Amos, songs appear visually, as strings of colour. Amos has also discussed making diagrams of her impressions as part of the songwriting process. “For a long time, I have written words and made simple drawings that interconnect,” she wrote in her 2020 memoir, Resistance. “Not every element is utilised, but it’s a way to grow and expand an idea. It can take the form of a map similar to the one in the artwork in the liner notes of from the choirgirl hotel. But it can also take the form of a tarot spread or a medicine wheel or a family tree or a geometric shape.”

If the Choirgirl Hotel has a tangible form, then, so do the songs. Amos saw them as alive and having their own existence outside of her creation of them. While they lived at the Choirgirl Hotel – the album – they grew and changed with every listen and every performance. Amos has spoken about this, too, with older tracks such as Winter – of how her songs evolve, and she learns from them as they age.

The inspiration: “I suffered so much grief”

The creation of from the choirgirl hotel arose from a context of raw emotional pain. “I had my first miscarriage in December 1996. I already had a name for the baby – Phoebe,” Tori Amos said, in a frank interview to She magazine, in December 2003. “When I miscarried Phoebe, I went to the outer reaches of anything that I know, I suffered so much grief. I’d dream about searching for her so that I could bring her back.” Following the loss of Phoebe, Amos miscarried again in May 1997 and once again in November 1999. It was with the birth of her daughter, Natashya, in September 2000 that Amos felt able to fully heal. “It’s hard to explain but, as soon as I saw her, I knew her,” she said. “I felt that she pushed away the ghosts of the other three babies I never had. Now, when I look at her, I see the reason for being here.”

from the choirgirl hotel is infused with the pain of Amos’ first two miscarriages and her lack of belief that she could carry a child to term. Spark references it directly; Pandora’s Aquarium is more oblique, with Amos struggling to rebuild after the trauma. “You know when you’ve cried and cried, and you really can’t cry anymore, so you’re very quiet?” Amos said in 1998. “I started hearing the water. And Pandora – the last song on the record – came to me. She was sort of warning me that there are so many feelings under the rocks that I needed to turn into.”

The music: “It was about getting the musicians to really hear the soul of the song”

Professional Widow, on Amos’ previous album, Boys For Pele, had changed things musically for Amos. When remixed by Armand Van Helden, it became a huge hit (particularly in Europe, where it is still regarded as one of the best Tori Amos songs) and shook up the image of her as a confessional, introverted singer-songwriter. “It did kick my ass a bit,” Amos said in 1998. “I know what Van Helden took and what he did and I think he did some very clever things.”

On from the choirgirl hotel, Amos is integrated within a full band sound (unlike on Little Earthquakes and Boys For Pele), and also incorporating elements of electronica and dance music into her songs. She directed the band in terms of imagery for each of the album’s tracks, and then would leave them alone to see what they came up with. “It was about getting the musicians to really hear the soul of the song, and then giving them freedom,” she said in 1998. “That entails a certain amount of letting go, after you’ve had nearly full control over every sound on your albums in the past.”

Amos even muted her beloved piano at points. “You won’t believe this, but once I started doing this, it was so liberating,” she said. “The piano, she’s very happy. She’s all over this record. But sometimes she only plays for 16 bars.”

The album cover: “I am snogging this massive machine in the corner”

“Picture this,” Amos said in April 1998, revealing the artwork for the album, which was released the following month, on 5 May 1998. “There’s a photocopy office, the fluorescent light is still buzzing and there I am snogging the massive machine in the corner. The only way you can stay on the machine is to have a piece of your body suctioned onto it. It takes seven minutes a picture.”

Created by the photographer Katerina Jebb, the arresting images for from the choirgirl hotel’s artwork were produced by Amos clambering onto a body-length colour photocopier, in order to visually evoke limbo, loss and disappearance. “How could we use photography to capture girls who’d been lost, who weren’t there?” Amos wrote in her first book, 2005’s Piece By Piece. “The daughters and mothers on that album are no longer in their bodies. Elyse [Taylor, at Amos’ record label EastWest] brought in the artist Katerina Jebb, who creates photographs using a Xerox machine, very ghostly, ideal for the project. We were able to create a strong visual, avoid the problem of conventional glamour, and stay true to the text.”

The future: “Some sort of balance for myself”

Tori Amos toured from the choirgirl hotel with her full band, and was so proud of the result that performances from that tour would be included on her next album, 1999’s To Venus And Back. Yet she now needed a period where her songs would set up home again, whether in the Choirgirl Hotel or somewhere new.

“Touring is very external, recording and writing is internal and I have to keep going back and forth between both to keep the scales of Libra in some sort of balance for myself,” she said at the start of 1999. “It’s really important, I think, that you have a balance of both because they feed each other. The energy that I get playing live propels me into a deep well, inside somewhere that I probably couldn’t get to without the shows.” To Venus And Back wouldn’t be long in coming; she did not need too long in the well this time.

“There’s a deep love on this record,” Amos has said, reflecting on how from the choirgirl hotel accompanied her journey of grief and recovery. “This is not a victim’s record. It deals with sadness but it’s a passionate record – for life, for the life force. And a respect for the miracle of life.”

Find out which Tori Amos track ranks among the best 90s songs.

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