Tori Amos knew she was in for a fight. It was the early ’90s, as she was on the brink of stardom, yet before Amos could get there, she had to believe in herself over those who might mute her instrument.
The singer-songwriter — the woman who had become a Maryland piano prodigy by age 5 — had given her record label a version of what would become “Little Earthquakes,” her breakthrough album. But an executive at Atlantic Records had listened to it and replied with a directive: Silence the ivories.
“Erase the piano?” Amos says today, recounting the sting and the incredulity. “And replace them all with guitars?” She realized this was a creative crucible.
“There were artists who came before me who were legends — Billy [Joel] and Elton were allowed to play the piano and wear leggings — but I had a battle, and that was my battle,” Amos says during a video interview. “We all have different battles, but the piano players who came after me didn’t have to fight that particular battle, because I fought that battle.”
She provided Atlantic with several new songs, but she refused to dial down the volume of her piano virtuosity.
Amos says she had few true friends in Los Angeles at the time, after the commercial disappointment and breakup of her ’80s band Y Kant Tori Read. “There’s no disease in L.A. that people are afraid of as much as failure,” she says. “So I was isolated.” Amos had her agent and her then-boyfriend, producer Eric Rosse. And she had two others who especially supported her — fellow creatives who were insightful sounding boards.
“I fought the battle with two knights at the Round Table,” she says. One was artist Rantz Hoseley, who was living in her L.A. bungalow while he pursued a storyboard job with the then-fledgling “The Simpsons.” And the other was rising writer Neil Gaiman.
Now, Hoseley and Gaiman are figuring crucially into her life again. To help mark the 30th anniversary this year of Amos’s landmark solo debut, they are returning her to the realm of comics.
This month, she and the publisher Z2 Comics — where Hoseley is editor in chief — have released a special project called “Little Earthquakes: The Graphic Album,” which adapts dozens of her songs, including B-sides, as illustrated stories. (It’s also available as part of a package with the vinyl LP.)
Featuring such singles as “Winter,” “Crucify” and “Me and a Gun,” the 1992 album would land on many rock critics’ “best ever” lists and herald Amos as one of the most enduringly influential songwriters and performers of her generation.
Now, the “Graphic Album” features such rock-star writers and artists as Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Bill Sienkiewicz and David Mack interpreting 24 Amos songs through eye-popping sequential panels.
“Graphic Album” arrives nearly 15 years after the Eisner Award-winning comics anthology “Comic Book Tattoo,” also edited by Hoseley, in which dozens of creators produced stories inspired by Amos’s discography. Gaiman says “Comic Book Tattoo” proved influential, drawing other musical acts to the songs-as-comics format. Z2’s other recent art projects have included working with Gorillaz and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Hoseley now wanted to focus on Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” because he is still particularly moved by those songs. He cherishes that time in the early ’90s, during which he says Amos was becoming the authentic performer and songwriter she was meant to be. He even wrote and drew the book’s comic that interprets “Flying Dutchman” — a cut inspired by Hoseley, Amos says.
In its emotional content, the “Little Earthquakes” music is “both comforting and a dagger to your heart,” Hoseley says by Zoom from the Los Angeles area. He believes these songs have lost none of their impact, yet “sometimes it takes a different creative interpretation of something to remind us of that.”
The “Graphic Album” creators delve fully into Amos’s lyrics to produce evocative visions of mothers and mermaids, of anxiety demons and happy phantoms.
One of the most striking pairings is Atwood, as creator of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” interpreting Amos’s “Silent All These Years.” In the comic, beautifully rendered by Mack, a mermaid considers when to use her considerable power against a man rather than surrender strength.
On a recent December afternoon, Amos is positively beaming from her Florida home, where a sign that greets visitors outside says, “Mermaids welcome.” She relishes the book’s visual adaptations.
“It was incredibly moving, seeing how the artists and storytellers were dancing with the muses and the relationships with the songs themselves, which is outside of my relationship with” the music, says Amos, who also has a home in England. She speaks of her songs as if they take on their own forms and lives once she has recorded them. “When they leave my studio at Cornwall and walk down the lane, some have short skirts on and I’m a little embarrassed, and some have a bottle of tequila. They’ll never be just mine again.”
Amos underscores that she was not actively involved in the “Little Earthquakes” comics: “I put my faith in the artists and storytellers — I didn’t want to meddle. Sometimes as writers, once we’ve written something, sometimes we need not to be also the showrunner.”
The song that Hoseley was most concerned about assigning to a writer-artist was “Me and a Gun,” which Amos wrote about being raped at knifepoint when she was 21.
He says they couldn’t leave off that song, yet the challenge became: “How the hell do we handle this because the material has such a personal impact for so many people? There are so many people whose lives have been changed because of that song — who have had their silence given voice through that song — so you don’t want to lock in a narrative that disturbs that so [fans] feel like the song was taken away” from them. Yet he and Amos were pleased with the scripting and rendering by Desi Alicea-Aponte, who depicts a woman at a tiny piano gradually finding strength through music.
Gaiman says he simply had to take on the song “Tear in Your Hand,” which contains lyrics referencing Gaiman himself. Back when Amos was wrestling with the creation of “Little Earthquakes” she asked Hoseley to recommend a comic book from the stacks of them he had in the L.A. home they were sharing. He handed her an issue of Gaiman’s epic “The Sandman” that features the muse Calliope.
Amos was immediately inspired, asking herself: “Who writes stories like this?” She inserted a lyric into her song “Tear in Your Hand” that mentions Gaiman and “The Sandman’s” Dream King.
Hoseley took a cassette of the then-unreleased “Earthquakes” songs to 1991’s San Diego Comic-Con and introduced himself to Gaiman. Once back in England, Gaiman popped in the tape of unreleased “Earthquakes” music without expectation and “was transfixed.” He soon was catching Amos perform at the Canal Brasserie in London. Gaiman recounts that life chapter in the book’s “Afterword” comic, in which he describes Amos as “my wisest friend.”
So what is it about Amos’s songs that allows other artists to find them so fertile for inspiration and interpretation?
“Her songs have always been movies for me,” Gaiman says from Woodstock, N.Y. When he is adapting her music to comics, the lyricism and emotional depth compel Gaiman to sit back and listen and just imagine: “What is there when I close my eyes?”
“Because this is comics, I can make the $10 million rock video that I can’t make,” he says, “because no one’s going to give me $10 million to make a rock video anymore.”