An oddity on Little Earthquakes, “China” is a holdover from the Y Kant Tori Read era, where it was recorded under the name “Distance” on a demo tape alongside “Etienne” and “On the Boundary.” This fact makes almost immediate sense when you think about the song, which is about an unsatisfying relationship, in marked contrast to anything else on Little Earthquakes, but very much like most of Y Kant Tori Read. Indeed, its original title played this up further, putting the emphasis on its subject—emotional distance in a relationship—instead of on the deftly shifting metaphor of China, which opens the song in the sense of a country, but in the second verse shifts to china in the sense of dishes.
It’s certainly possible to make too much of this history—the song was, after all, not actually recorded for Y Kant Tori Read, and may well have been deemed musically unsuitable for the project. But it also opens the tantalizing possibility that the Y Kant Tori Read songs were always potentially a lot closer to Little Earthquakes than is assumed. We already noted the degree to which “Etienne” and “Fire on the Side” could have been pressed into service as Little Earthquakes songs, but could things like “Fire on the Side,” “Floating City,” or even something like “Fayth” have thrived as piano-centric pieces? Certainly their later live renditions suggest it possible.
The more baffling flipside, however, is imagining “China” as an overproduced rock mess, given that it is in practice one of the most delicate songs on Little Earthquakes. (Only “Me and a Gun” feels sparser, and, well, “delicate” is not the word for that song.) It ties “Crucify” for the most credited musicians on the album (although two songs have orchestras), but these are all just adding textures in the background of a simple, downbeat piano ballad. It’s worth comparing to “Mother,” the lone song on the album to actually be a straight piano/vocal track, but one that is full of crescendos and moments in which Amos’s vocal take begins to clip the mic. “China” swells occasionally, but save for a couple seconds interlude around the three minute mark there’s not a single moment of aggression or bite anywhere in the song, and imagining otherwise is difficult. It’s worth noting the 1991 Montreux performance, in which this interlude comes with a vocal line in which Amos twice barks “you love to hit me boy” while smashing on the piano before the song slows down again, an addition that practically ruins the song, not least because domestic violence is an utterly shocking escalation for a song that had previously been about emotional withdrawal from a relationship. (The line is not, as some have speculated, a holdover from the Y Kant Tori Read version, or at least it doesn’t appear on the lyric sheet for the “Distance” demo.)
All of which said, comparing “China” to the Y Kant Tori Read material is mostly pretty flattering to the song. There’s a number of clever touches—the shifting central metaphor of China, for instance, or the oxymoron of the repeated line “I can feel the distance getting close”—that would have stood out as album highlights on Y Kant Tori Read. There’s a deftness to it that only appears in flashes in her other work of the time, to an extent that it’s easy to see why “China” was the song that Amos felt it was worthwhile to dust off when putting together the album.
Except it’s not quite that simple. As we’ll see, Little Earthquakes was recorded in three blocks—an initial set of songs recorded with Davitt Sigerson that got rejected by Atlantic, a second batch produced by Amos and her then-boyfriend Eric Rosse, and a third set recorded in London with former Tears for Fears producer Ian Stanley after the album was accepted following the Amos/Rosse recordings. “China” belongs to this third set, with no evidence that Amos had been considering it for the album earlier than that. It’s not entirely straightforward to imagine why she dusted it off at that late point. It plays a non-trivial structural role in the album, breaking up “Happy Phantom” and “Leather” so that it doesn’t go through two short bluesy songs in a row, but with as many solid b-sides as Amos had it’s difficult to see why she’d need to resuscitate a four year old song to fill that gap. More likely, it would seem, is that Amos was by this point low on songs and needed to reach back to the Y Kant Tori Read material to round out the London sessions (which also, notably, contained three cover songs).
Stanley took a markedly different approach to recording than either Sigerson or Rosse, most obviously in recording Amos’s piano and vocal lines in the same take and then adding strings and drums over that singular performance. Cosseted within the strings, the piano has a warmer tone than elsewhere on the album (although, of course, Amos would not purchase her iconic Bösendorfer until 1993, which also means that the London sessions would have been on a different piano than any of the LA-based ones), which gives the song a sense of hope that elegantly contrasts the lyrics. None of this makes “China” anything other than a straightforward ballad about a bad relationship on an album that is reliably more unusual than that, but it’s more than enough to let the song get away with that trick.
The underlying accessibility that this straightforwardness gave the song led Eastwest (Amos’s UK label) to pick it as the album’s second single, releasing a week after the album’s UK launch. The accompanying video was a simple affair, in which Amos lays about on a rocky English beach as an older gentleman builds a teacup-shaped stone caern resembling the one on the singlecover. Subsequently (and in the video’s best image), Amos sits and mimes playing on a piano built out of stones. It’s a simple video, perhaps best understood in one final contrast with Y Kant Tori Read. There the video for “The Big Picture” looked like what it was: an embarrassing misapprehension of late 80s aesthetics. And likewise, the video for “China” looks like what it was: a perfectly competent video for the minor single off of an early 90s album.
*This recording emerged on a 1994 bootleg entitled Little Earthquakes Demos and Outtakes, and is of unknown provenance. It’s possible that it’s the 1987 “Distance” demo, but there are a handful of minor lyrical changes from that version that are not reflected in the vocals, suggesting that this was tracked in preparation for Little Earthquakes, and that the 1987 demo remains out of wide circulation.
Recorded in London in 1991, produced by Ian Stanley. Video directed by Cindy Palmano. Played on every tour.
From top: The opening of the first McDonalds in Beijing (1992), “China” single, still from “China” video