Producing Little Earthquakes

Sunday 11 May 2014, by Cécile Desbrun

Released in January 1992, Little Earthquakes has now become a landmark album, but as surprising as it may seem today, the record was a long and painful process for Tori Amos, who had to fight for her creations to see the light of day.

After the failure of Y Kant Tori Read, Tori begged Atlantic Records to drop her, but they wouldn’t. Instead, in the fall of 1989, they asked her to give them a new album for March 1990. After she came back to the piano, she was able to shed her skin and be true to herself. As she spent some time near Carmel in California and in her family farm in Virginia, songs came in and she recorded them with her boyfriend and fellow co-producer Eric Rosse. Unfortunately, when Doug Morris came to hear a few tracks, he didn’t like what he heard. "He said, ’What is this shit?’ and left with the less-than-encouraging comment of, ’I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you. I thought you were going to give me ’Rocket Man.’ I mean, you said you were writing songs around a piano, so where’s ’Rocket Man’?" [1]

After this, Tori was so discouraged she didn’t touch the piano for three months. Instead, she contacted guitarist Steve Farris and, getting back to her Y Kant Tori Read days, she wrote a song called "The Underwear Is Black". At this moment, her close friends Cindy Marble and Nancy Shanks intervened and told her, "Tori, oh my god, you can’t do this. Steve is great, but Lita Ford [2] does Lita Ford a little better than you do." [3] Getting back to Little Earthquakes (which had no title yet), Tori decided to write new tracks for the record and, to fuel her inspiration, created a "faerie ring — like the old Celtic ring" [4] on the floor of her apartment. "I brought in sticks and things from the outside, from nature, and put the things that I was most connected with inside the ring. Whenever anyone came in, they had to step over my magic ring... my friends came by and looked. They didn’t say much to me. They all knew I was doing my faerie shit." Tori also put a set of empty envelopes inside the ring, and made up her mind she would write down a song title on each one of them. One of these news songs, was "Take to the Sky," which was at first called "Russia", and there was also "Flying Dutchman," "Upside Down," and "Sweet Dreams." After having put together eleven songs, she called the record company and told them she would respect the March 1990 deadline and give them new songs. Among those songs were the ones Doug Morris heard a few months earlier, but Tori thought he wouldn’t remember them.

Early in 1990, the heads of the record company were worried about Tori respecting the March deadline, so they sent producer Davitt Sigerson her way. "That just usurped my confidence even more. I said, ’They don’t think I’m capable.’" [5] But Sigerson won’t stay for long and, after hearing a few tracks, he will tell Atlantic that she was doing fine by herself. The record company was willing to go ahead with the album, so Tori went into the studio to record her songs, then sent the tape to Atlantic. When she received a call from Doug Morris afterwards, all her hopes vanished. Her friend Rantz Hoseley (who will later make the UTP and BFP’s tourbooks and edit Comic Book Tattoo), was staying at her place and still remembers this moment. "It was all very celebratory and exciting, and Tori was talking about what she wanted for the album cover and videos and such, and then Doug Morris calls and tells her that he thinks it is complete shit and asks her what the hell he’s supposed to do with this album? I’m standing in the living room, watching her face as she gets this call, and it was just heartbreaking to see, just fucking brutal."

Another idea Atlantic had for this to be a viable record was to replace all the piano by guitars, which of course, was not even an option for the artist. "So, Tori goes to Atlantic and basically begs Morris to release the album or let her "fix" it, (whatever that meant), and he decided that she could submit another version of the album," continued Rantz. [6] One of the things that could have been pivotal to Morris’ decision was that an outside buyer came in and made an offer on the record. "But then Atlantic decided if anybody else wanted it then they did too," Tori wrote in the A Piano booklet in 2006.

So Tori and Eric Rosse went on to write and record a bunch of new songs. The idea was to add new tracks and take some of the originals off so Doug Morris would change his mind and give the record a green light. The songs were recorded directly at Eric’s home studio in Tarzana as they had used all the money the record company gave them to record the tracks which were first submitted to Atlantic Record. "We did those on the shortest shoestring of a budget you could imagine," Rosse told author Kalen Rogers in the Tori Amos: Authorized Biography. "You couldn’t even tie two shoes together with the length of shoestring that we did that on. It showed me how much can be done for very little if you have a tremendous amount of energy and a tremendous amount of commitment to see it through."

Finally, four new songs were recorded: "Girl," "Precious Things," "Tear in Your Hand" and "Little Earthquakes." Rantz Hoseley was still staying at Tori’s place when she wrote "Precious Things" and still has vivid memories of hearing the now famous piano riff for the first time. "I was doing dishes in the kitchen," he told fanzine Little Blue World in their Spring 2004 issue, "and she was plunking about on the piano and all of a sudden there’s that wonderful staccato attack on the piano, that’s the beginning of the song. I dropped the plate I was washing and went tearing in to the living room screaming, ’THAT is IT!’"

Doug Morris made another visit and the songs "Tear in Your Hand" and "Girl" made an impression on him. “I think probably ‘Tear in Your Hand’ was the one song at the time that [seemed most commercial]—and ‘Girl’—that somehow got under Doug Morris’ skin,” explained Eric Rosse to PopMatters in October 2012. The big boss gave his agreement to move forward with the record and had the idea to send Tori in England to launch her in small venues before releasing anything. "He supported Little Earthquakes, and he said ‘be a control freak but be a good one’," Tori told Polari Magazine in May 2009. "I think that even though he and I battled during Little Earthquakes once he got it he really got it. He’s a music man, a songwriter, first and that’s why we click. He talks to me about songs and about content." Tori sang in small venues and restaurants for a few months when she saw the Ridley Scott movie Thelma and Louise in August 1991. After seeing the sexual assault scene, she went on to write "Me and a Gun," which basically launched the project with the release of a first E.P. in the fall of 1991. The song was very successful with music critics and on alternative radio and this airplay gave East West the last big push they needed to plan an album release. Finally, when Doug Morris flew to England to hear the final version of the album, Tori wrote the very last song that went into the record, "China" and, when she sang it to Morris and Max Hole (president of East West UK) in a restaurant, they fell in love with it, so she recorded it with producer Ian Stanley.

The release of Little Earthquakes was now set in the UK for January 1992 and we all know by now what the reaction to it was. Still, looking back, it came very close of never being released and, if another company didn’t show interest back in 1990, or if Doug Morris didn’t stick with Tori by allowing her to turn in a new version of the record, Tori Amos 20-year spanning career wouldn’t have happened. About the first version of the record that was rejected, Tori noted that, ironically, "It was rejected containing ’Crucify,’ ’Winter,’ ’Silent All These Years’ and ’Leather.’ Three of the songs that were clearly pivotal to its success were on the original submission, but when I turned it in, those in power did not get it." [7] Among the songs that she had to take off were "Flying Dutchman" and "Upside Down." "I think out of everything that was taken off the Little Earthquakes track listing, « Flying Dutchman » was the hardest one to lose," Tori wrote in the A Piano booklet. All these songs would be featured as B-sides on the different singles of Little Earthquakes and, when she put together a 5-disc box set of her work in 2006, A Piano, Tori proposed an extended version of the album featuring the rejected songs.

When Tori left Epic in 2008, she spoke to Doug Morris, who was at the head of Universal Republic and he asked her to join the label to release her 10th studio album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, so he was once again her mentor at this time, even challenging her to write and record her very first seasonal record, Midwinter Graces, which was released in November 2009.

information sources

Kalen Rogers, Tori Amos: The Authorized Biography.
A Piano booklet, 2006.
"Spinning in His Own Little World" (Rantz Hoseley interview) Little Blue World, Spring 2004.
Polari Magazine, May 2009
PopMatters, October 2012.

[1Tori Amos: The Authorized Biography, p. 41

[2Lita Ford was the sexy lead-guitarist of American rock band The Runaways.

[3Tori Amos: The Authorized Biography, p. 41

[4Tori Amos: The Authorized Biography, p. 41

[5Tori Amos: The Authorized Biography, p. 43

[6Little Blue World, Spring 2004 ("Spinning in His Own Little World," interview with Rantz Hoseley)

[7A Piano booklet, 2006.