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New York newspaper
October 7, 2001
He Said, She Said
With 'Strange Little Girls,' a collection of songs written by men and sung from a woman's perspetive, Tori Amos explores the power of words
By Glenn Gamboa
WHEN TORI Amos was in grade school, her grandfather tried to teach her to become a shape-shifter. The lessons didn't take, but she does remember some of the concepts.
"He would try to teach me how to be a container for a different frequency that didn't seem to be your own," Amos says, leaning forward on the couch in her posh midtown hotel suite. "He would get frustrated with me because I would just want to watch 'Scooby Doo,' but he really had a huge impact on my life. Everything he tried to teach me, I didn't necessarily achieve it all, but he is like a tape recorder. I do remember. Sometimes I can hear him clear as a bell."
The concept of shape-shifting is what fuels Amos' latest ambitious project, "Strange Little Girls," a concept album on which she reworks 12 songs written by men by retelling them from a woman's point of view. The lessons of shape-shifting also fuels her live performances, especially when she hits the road by herself, which is how she will tour to support the new album.
"There are times when you miss playing with musicians you respect," she says. "And there are times when you love the freedom that improvisation gives you. When you're alone, you can change up even before your hands start moving, even before your brain can. You can just say, 'Oh, not working. Moving to another song. Gone. Next.' There is a freedom in that if you use it to your advantage."
Of course, Amos, one of the craftiest artists around, makes the most of her advantages. That means an ever-changing set list. That means a concert crafted specifically for each city, if not each audience.
"When people ask me, 'What is the show going to be like?' Well, I have no idea until 20 minutes before," she says. "What I thought would work maybe six hours prior doesn't work in that city because of events that happened. That could be something joyous like a baby animal being born - who knows? You don't know what it is that's going to affect everybody in that city. It's topical. It changes with the tone of the city. What works in Chicago on one day won't work in Minneapolis the next.
"The thing about doing live performance - it's so different from making records in this sense - you tap into that city's story and history and bloodline and myth if you open yourself," she continues.
"If you could crawl underneath the earth in your mind and study the circuitry, sometimes you just make yourself like a sponge and soak up the information." Unfortunately, what you soak up isn't always positive. And in the days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Amos says, she can't help but deal with the tragedy in her concerts.
"Everybody was invaded in this country on September 11," says Tori, who was in a midtown hotel when the attacks occurred. "It just ripped through all of us and our psyches and our hearts." Amos looks out the window and its view of Central Park as she talks about how the interviews with the children and followers of Osama bin Laden have strongly affected her. They say that if he is killed, they will retaliate and kill thousands more Americans. The cycle of violence is what bothers her most.
"I'm sure if you put some of those kids with some of our kids, some of them would make magic together," she says, her eyes widening as she tries to emphasize the point. "I'm sure some of them would get along better than they get along themselves. Unfortunately, they're brainwashed no differently than some of our youth with some of this right-wing thinking. I mean when some of our youth say, 'I'm gonna [beat up homosexuals] or slice the [women] up.' That's no different from what these people want to do to women and gays. No different. That was happening before September 11, and that was happening in this country." Those words and that violence is what inspired her to pull together the "Strange Little Girls" project.
"When I really picked up the gauntlet was when I was nursing [1-year-old daughter] Natashya and seeing that I had just brought this little human being into a very violent world," Amos says. "It has made so much progress in so many ways - technology, what we can do, what we can achieve. And yet, before and after September 11, when you hear what comes out of our hearts, I mean, my God... what they can do physically to save the heart is amazing, but we're primitive if we talk about what's inside the heart emotionally. So much progress, so little progress. Let's not be seduced by what we call progress." Amos decided to start with words.
"I picked up the gauntlet - to take the words, to take the seed," she says. "You know that saying, 'A man is as good as his word.' Well, you don't remember that saying as, 'A man and a woman are only as good as their words.' Let's face it, our word did not mean the same thing until recently, and it still does not in all places. Taking a man's seed and planting it in a woman's soil to consummate this project is important. These are violent times... there are fighting words. It's in the power of the word that wars can end and wars can begin."
Her most controversial decision was to cover Eminem's wife- killing rap fantasy "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," in which he slits his wife's throat, throws her in the trunk and then takes their daughter to the lake to help him dispose of the body. Amos says that she doesn't feel like covering the song simply adds more violence to the world.
"To me, it's about giving her a voice - the victim was silent," she says, her eyes widening again. Some men, Amos says, took offense to being lumped in with Eminem's character and wanted her to leave the song alone. "They say, 'I'm a heterosexual man and this is not what I'm about and I'm sick of being targeted, Tori.' Some of the men wanted to really talk about it like they were analysts," she continues, with a slight laugh. "They very calmly pick it apart and see its relevance and power and how it really is sort of a picture of domestic violence in our time. I'm sure that this is a story you'd find in any city in America. The one thing that struck me is that not one of them wanted to know how she [the victim] heard it. What about her? Because there was one person who was not dancing to this song." Throughout "Strange Little Girls," Amos provides the female point of view to the song, which previously had been unheard.
"Eminem wrote this song and he aligned himself with a character," she says. "I'm not here to analyze what he's up to and his psyche. He can call his own shrink. Or not. But he aligned with a character that some of them found charming. And some of the women found charming - not my women camp - but the women who think that power is having power over somebody. Some women find that as an aphrodisiac. And we kind of investigate that in 'I'm Not in Love.'" The 10cc '70s pop throwaway about a guy trying to convince himself that he's not in a committed relationship by telling his girlfriend that he's not in love gets new life through Amos.
"[The song] is that dark power dance," she says. "You're not in love? Well, neither am I. You want to play that one? Let's go. There will be a loser. Every five minutes. That might be fun for a while. Until it's not any more. Until the pounding and the scrapes begin to really hurt." The whole process has made Amos rethink her own words.
"It kind of took me into this place of, 'Wow, when I say something, do they really see the pictures that I was desperately trying to paint?' Or are they just seeing some whacked-out sicko thing that I didn't mean," she says. "Were they offended? Sometimes, people will look at me funny, so now I choose my words more carefully than I used to.
"You have to almost do a Carl Lewis with your words. You have to run the 100 meter. I have to race out faster than the words jumping off my tongue. You have to do leapfrogs before you can almost chase them all back in and say, 'Oh no, they're already out.' And you see the look on that person's face and you didn't mean it. But did you? It's exhausting, isn't it?" Amos hopes the album makes people realize that their words sometimes have an unintended meaning.
"You just can't expect someone to see it your way. How are we going to be open if we're not able to see different perspectives," she says.
"In this day and age, where we sit now on September whatever it is, for us to survive with our freedom intact... you have to think with a cool head and a warm heart. Because when your heart has poison, that controls you. You're not in your own power. You're in someone else's.
"The unfortunate thing with American youth or Afghan youth is that if they're in a place of hate, they're the same." To break the cycle, Amos says, people need to look at the reasons behind their actions.
"If only they could see that they're being manipulated by those who make money out of war - these guys on both sides are going to make more money," she says. "When will the youth rise up to how they're being manipulated? If you and I are honest today, I believe that Allah and Jesus are weeping for their children because both really and truly are about love. You show me love in this. Either side. It's not about a side. Jesus and Allah are weeping. And if they're weeping, what do you think their mothers are doing? Everybody has a mother. Even invention has a mother."
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Introducing Tori's 'Strange Little Girls'
ALL OF TORI Amos' "Strange Little Girls" came from male singer- songwriters, "born from male mothers," as she puts it. However, when she gives these female characters her voice and pulls them into her musical world, she changes the songs completely. Photographer Thomas Schenk captured Amos in the various characters for her liner notes.
Original: Sexy Velvet Underground guitar-driven come-on from 1970.
Amos version: Moody reading, spitting out the refrain "I'll come running if you want me" almost as a dare.
'97 Bonnie & Clyde
Original: Murder fantasy rap from 1997 in which Eminem talks about slitting his ex-wife's throat and taking their daughter with him to help dump the body.
Amos version: Strips away the danceable beat to reveal the chilling, disgusting details of the plot.
Strange Little Girl
Original: Dismissive, moody rocker from Cure compatriots The Stranglers in 1982.
Amos version: Anthemic celebration of being a "strange little girl."
Enjoy the Silence
Original: Synth-pop classic from Depeche Mode in 1990 that uses layer upon instrumental layer to build danceable grandeur.
Amos version: Dark and spare look at how women feel when their men believe "words can only do harm."
I'm Not in Love
Original: Cheesy pop throwaway from 1975 in which slick Brits 10cc sing about a guy trying to convince his girl that he's not in love with her, though signs show the opposite.
Amos version: Starkly simple retelling of how hurtful those four words sound.
Original: Jangle-rock nugget from 1984 from Lloyd Cole and The Commotions describing an odd girl in the British band's literary style.
Amos version: A loving, triumphant description of a kindred spirit.
Original: Tom Waits' poetic portrait of barflies and ne'er-do-wells from 1985 that offers that "it's TIME that you love" when people let you down.
Amos version: A gorgeous ballad, filled with motherly pleading that "it's time that you LOVE."
Heart of Gold
Original: Acoustic yearning from Neil Young as he searches for a heart of gold in 1972.
Amos version: Swaggering, fuzzed-up guitar rock sung by twins, who Amos says are into economic espionage and who angrily taunt the loser who'll give up real-life love for some mythical perfection.
I Don't Like Mondays
Original: Detached look at the explanation of a schoolgirl killer who gave the title as an explanation for her crime that the Boomtown Rats immortalized in 1979.
Amos version: Painful look at the world from the girl's point of view.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Original: Psychedelic rock from The Beatles' "White Album" in 1968.
Amos version: Anti-gun tale sung from the point of view of the call girl John Lennon's killer reportedly hired shortly before the crime.
Original: Guitar rock from speed-metal kings Slayer in 1986.
Amos version: Piano-driven ballad slowed to haunting clarity.
Original: Gay anthem that piano balladeer Joe Jackson used in 1982 to question what made a real man.
Amos version: Piano ballad that poses the question again, without the emotional ending that provides the answer.
WHERE & WHEN Tori Amos plays the Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway, Manhattan, 212-496-7070, Tuesday through Thursday. Tickets are $27.50-$45 through Ticketmaster, 631-888-9000.
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