Blood and Sacrifice: The Tragedy Behind Tori Amos’s Lost Vampire Album

The bleeding banshee of ‘90s alternative was writing a concept album about vampirism when personal tragedy took her down a different path.

Music Features Tori Amos
Blood and Sacrifice: The Tragedy Behind Tori Amos’s Lost Vampire Album

Tori Amos, one of her generation’s most acclaimed and prolific songwriters, is famous for harnessing personal trauma and sculpting ingenious music from the fiery wreckage. Her ability to publicly and poetically process private horrors has elevated her from 1990s tentpole alt-pop star into a pillar of hope and meaningful catharsis for countless adoring fans. While Amos’s work concerning her experience of surviving sexual assault is more widely known, her journey through multiple miscarriages is also the subject of some of her most intense and beloved songs. One particular stand-out has become especially forgotten, as it was only ever released via a movie soundtrack.

In 1997—nearly a year after the arrival of her self-produced third record, Boys for Pele—director Alfonso Cuarón commissioned Amos to contribute an original track and backing vocals for his cinematic adaptation of Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. A massive project involving a full orchestra, the undertaking was challenging both creatively and physically for Amos, who was now pregnant again after going through a miscarriage the year prior.

“We were completely committed to making it work. But while I was working on this, I started hemorrhaging,” Amos wrote in her 2005 memoir, Piece by Piece. “It was a three-week project, and the whole time I was bleeding a lot. Twelve pads a day. I was weak and trying not to be too grumpy.” She completed “Siren,” an extraordinary original song for the Great Expectations soundtrack, but her body quickly turned on her. The bleeding continued, and Amos was feeling weak. Still, she had arranged a work trip to Romania to research Vlad the Impaler and vampirism for her conceptually brewing fourth record, and she was looking forward to doing that exploration after the stress of a lengthy film gig. Only when multiple doctors, including her sister, instructed the musical icon to cancel the trip did she agree.

“I was really disappointed about not being able to go to Romania and do the album research,” she continued in Piece by Piece, which was co-authored by music journalist Ann Powers. “I said to Husband, who wasn’t yet officially Husband, that I really wanted to go and immerse myself in Vlad the Impaler, and he said ‘My dear, clearly you’ve already been impaled!'”

It’s evident from the tone of this chapter that Amos and her now-husband, Mark Hawley, shared this exchange with humor. But it still struck me as especially poignant that this woman’s odyssey towards vampirism was cut short by her own pain and blood. Amos miscarried for the second time in May of 1997. By 1998, pop music had undergone a shakeup in the wake of Madonna’s critical and commercial smash reinvention, Ray of Light. The William Orbit-produced record weaponized spirituality and electronica, ushering the underground phenomenon into music’s mainstream. That same year, Cher achieved a massive comeback with the techno-infused Believe, and the Beastie Boys invaded planet Earth with Intergalactic.

By May of ’98, Tori Amos, the ingénue of alternative, would release her own electro-experimental album. From the Choirgirl Hotel debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 and would quickly ship over a million copies, becoming her fourth Platinum record to date. With markedly darker production and lyrics than her previous three albums, Amos was undeniably plugged in this time—her acoustic piano ballads replaced by highly produced soundscapes teetering into the realm of progressive rock. With themes surrounding grief, pregnancy, and the complexities of womanhood, From the Choirgirl Hotel would become Tori Amos’s darkest and arguably most overlooked release.

While not a concept album, the record is thematically cohesive, gloomy and cerebral, with hints of Gothicism in its heavy production and mythic lyrics. There has never been any confirmation backing up the rumors, but some fans claim several tracks—including “Cruel” and “Iieee”—transitioned from the vampire era onto From the Choirgirl Hotel. It would be unwise to take these allegations seriously. However, I still find it fascinating to explore these particular tracks under the bloody lens of vampirism.

“I can be cruel, I don’t know why,” Amos snarls uncharacteristically on “Cruel,” a fan-favorite and the third single off the record. It’s also a staple lip-sync track for world-famous drag queen Raven, who perfectly personifies the song like a hypnotic snake, her mean eyes dead-set upon unsuspecting prey. It’s impossible to know if any themes from her planned vampire album made the jump to From the Choirgirl Hotel. Still, I can’t ignore the album’s heartbreaking allusions to Amos’s miscarriages from the same era and how they drastically changed the creative trajectory of the project. Opening track and lead single “Spark” faces them head-on. Speaking with Q Magazine in 1998, Amos shared how these difficult experiences inspired the haunting song:

“You’re doing anything, thinking, ‘Oh God, maybe if I put a cork up myself, maybe it’ll keep this little life in,’” she says. “That’s why in ‘Spark,’ I say, ‘She’s convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn’t keep baby alive.’ You just start going insane. There’s nothing you can do, so you surrender and then… start again.”

The music video for “Spark” is appropriately dark, showcasing a bound and blindfolded Tori being chased through the woods by suited, faceless assailants. The visual ends, coincidentally or not, with Amos bleeding on the side of the road. Director James Brown initially presented a very different concept, which she politely rejected in favor of a survival story. She shared the following statement on the video via MTV Live with Carson Daly: “You don’t know sometimes where you’re gonna go from one minute to the next. Life that precious… and I think people forget that we don’t know where we’re gonna be in an hour from now. We don’t really appreciate that.”

“Playboy Mommy,” blistering with grief, is a standout From the Choirgirl Hotel track that has Amos singing directly to her unborn daughter. “I’ll say it loud here by your grave,” she wails. “Those angels can’t ever take my place.” The earnestness can be hard to listen to, but it’s impressively honest. This raw and unrelenting emotion is why she’s not for everybody and, simultaneously, why she’s so beloved.

Maybe due to a skipped-over vinyl re-release, From the Choirgirl Hotel has been gradually left out of the Tori Amos legacy conversation. It’s a shame, because critics and fans often consider it her most significant album. A few years ago, Albumism ran an intensive community poll ranking Amos’s top 10 releases. From the Choirgirl Hotel came in first place, a surprising choice considering you’d be hard-pressed to find any of it at your local karaoke bar. Similar to its original vampiric form, Tori Amos’s fourth record has become somewhat lost to pop music history.

Part of the tragedy of Amos’s exclusion from the 1990s vampire canon is how distinctly her artistry would have complemented the gothic tragedy of this era’s bloodsuckers. Before the romance and sexiness of vampire storytelling lost luster a decade later, the 1990s portrayed creatures of the night with pathos and desperation, two things Tori’s work so often conveys like nobody else’s.

In 1994, Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire adaptation seeped star-crossed gay subtext and just two years before that, Francis Ford Coppola unleashed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a horny masterpiece drenched in blood, romance, and the cruelty of love’s desperate longing. One of Amos’s few worthy contemporaries, Annie Lennox, was tapped to contribute the original song “Love Song for a Vampire” to its soundtrack. I’d like to imagine this song is a phantom sister to Tori’s lost vampire record. It’s heartbreaking, eternal and dangerously vulnerable pop Gothicisim.

While we will likely never learn much more about Amos’s vampire era, fans can still access songs blistering with emotional carnage elsewhere in the prodigy’s back catalog. Now approaching its 26th anniversary, From the Choirgirl Hotel evolved into something different: a brooding, blistering and beautiful album that bloomed from the painful experience of losing an unborn child and the grief, growth and survival that followed.

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