Amos explained to Rolling Stone how rejection and self-discovery fueled this song: "We were on a trip, [producer and boyfriend] Eric Rosse and I, and what had just happened was that Little Earthquakes, the original 10 or 12 songs, had been - let's use this word loosely - rejected. That was the Davitt Sigerson production. Now, a lot of those songs made the record in the very beginning, but when it was turned in, I just don't think it was presented correctly and I don't think they knew what I was doing. So, once [record label executive] Doug Morris got involved and realized what it was, then we had a conversation. I'll never forget it. In Los Angeles. And he said to me, 'I think you need to write and record another track.' I said, 'No. I'll do four. I can't do one because there's too much pressure for that one to be it.' And so he agreed. And he agreed that I could pull the team in, and he let me be at home, producing.
I pulled in Eric Rosse as a co-producer because we had made the demos together and we worked well together. We're sort of like spiritual brother and sister. Although we were together at the time, we're both married with children now. We were very much alike in that we're both keyboard players. After that conversation with Doug, which I thought was actually good news because I embraced it saying, 'Look, if they don't think it's ready, then it's not ready for whatever reason,' we took a trip through the America West. We did Utah into the whole Colorado range. Then we came back down and made our way back. And it was in the Rocky Mountains that I came up with this riff.
I wasn't near a piano when it came up. It started building in my head. I think I had been forming it before we left because sometimes that happens. I'll have a two-word phrase or something like that. But everything came together when I got really ill in the Rockies. Just a fever, came down with something. And I think layers were coming off my life - shields that I had built up in order to filter things. And as that started to get ripped away, these core parts of the self were getting discovered. I was seeing what my structure was made of."
Amos told the story behind the song in her 1998 VH1 Storytellers special: "Precious Things' is a song that came to me when I was living behind a church. And I was about 24 years old. I had a roommate that listened to really raucous music and it started to take me into flashbacks of my grandmother. And she used to put me in a corner and she would read me something, I think from Leviticus, I can't remember. But she was convinced that I was gonna give my soul to God and my body to a man that I would marry. But at five years old I knew that we were enemies. So, in my mind I was always trying to find ways to get away from this Creature. So I thought of things and my mother thought I was a demon for thinking them but I think she would smile out of the corner [of her mouth] because I think she felt the same way. So, behind this church with this music going on and on in my head, I started to really think that maybe just one day I could run faster."
The lyrics also touch upon the singer's expectations for a worthy partner - just because a man can please her in the bedroom doesn't mean he deserves her love. She told Hot Press in 1992: "Just because I'm with a man and because I'm creaming for a man doesn't make him a master, doesn't even necessarily make him worthy of love, of my love. And I now realize, maybe for the first time in my life, that my capacity for love is incredibly deep and that for me to give this to a man he has to fully understand, and respect what that means. Too few do. They're into pillaging, rummaging around, doing a little Viking stuff! But most women these days realize that's not enough, boys! And if some women don't then I hope songs like 'Precious Things' will help open their eyes. And, just as importantly, help open the eyes of some men."
The lyric, "Those demigods with their nine-inch nails," refers to Trent Reznor's one-man-band Nine Inch Nails. Amos invited Reznor to contribute backing vocals to her song "Past The Mission" from her subsequent album, Under The Pink.