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Music Monitor (US)
Q & A with
by Gary Graff
Songstress Tori Amos talks a walk through America a year after September 11th.
Tori Amos prefers if you don't refer to her new album, Scarlet's Walk, as a concept. "I like to say story," she explains. And as is Amos's wont, it's an epic story, a 17-track travelogue across the United States that offers the kind of distinctive and idiosyncratic creative vision that Amos has brought to all her work since she began recording under her own name with 1991's Little Earthquakes. That, of course, was after North Carolina-born Myra Ellen Amos made her way through Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory (where she was kicked out at age 11 for playing by ear), a stint fronting the late '80s L.A. glam rock band Y Kant Tori Read and backing British troubadour Al Stewart, American Avant rocker Stan Ridgeway and comedienne Sandra Bernhard. During the past decade, however, she's won critical raves and a feverishly devoted audience for her six albums, including the half-life To Venus and Back and last year's interpretive work Strange Little Girls. Scarlet's Walk - Amos's first release for Epic Records after a switch from Atlantic - is response to the events of September 11; she produced it herself in Cornwall, England (near where she currently resides) with regular collaborators Matt Chamberlain on drums and Jon Evans on bass. Under the guise of the title character, Amos recounts her travels around the U.S., introducing us to new landscapes and people, including a stop in the eastern Cherokee lands of her family heritage. Elaborately sculpted and rendered with subtlety and drama, it's a brave set that offers more of the creative "Little Earthquakes" that have marked all of her previous recordings.
So what is Scarlet's Walk about?
It's really about my character - and me. We're one and the same, but i'm sort of taking on this persona, or identity. Scarlet's just a thread; that's all she is. she goes out to see her friend, who's a fading porn star called Amber Waves, and if that's a woman, or America personified, you take it as you will. that's how we start.
Where did the idea for this as a song cycle come from?
It's taken me ten years to do it. I was doing it last year on tour; we were out on the road at a time when a lot of people were canceling. So a lot of people were showing up at the shows. This was a time when people needed a place to gather. People were at the shows for all sorts of reasons. It was almost congregational; they came to be with each other. That I was giving a show was sort of secondary. Then I got a lot of letters and talked to a lot of people on the way in and the way out. This was a time when the masks were down, and certain things were being asked and talked about that might not ordinarily have been. There was a certain amount of inspiration from that.
So is Scarlet's Walk a chronicle, or is there a theme at its core?
It's about real events - really about a woman's search for what she believes in, and for the soul of what America is. Who is this being, really - not this thing that's being pimped out by our leaders, but America. People were seeming to look at "America," not as an object but as a being, almost, a friend, that kind of thing. This is nothing new to many cultures, but to America it was. It's always, "We are Americans," bit what about her, she who is out land? She's been here a lot longer than we have.
Living in England, you have an expatriate's view of America. How did that factor into things?
I think there are two sides of that. One is you get better news about the country when you're out of the country. Some of that was really heartbreaking; going to Europe afterwards and seeing how we're perceived and knowing that a lot of people [in the U.S.] have no idea how we're perceived and would be hurt, I think, and frustrated and worried if they did. So it was with all that information that I was writing the story.
So what was your experience on September 11?
I was in New York City, promoting the last record. Being in the group, in the place where that's happening, you can smell that burning, that smell of wounding, of many people and a being and a land and an ideology... in deep pain. Everywhere you turn it's almost like you're walking through the center of her wound. I was in and out of the city a lot. I wanted to see my baby, who was down in Florida, but at the same time you didn't want to leave New York. It was almost as if you needed to keep a vigil for her, if you could. If you hadn't lost somebody personally, you needed to be there to hold a space, to light a candle, to bring the bandages - not the physical bandages, the emotional bandages.
Did you find different reactions from city to city when you were out on tour?
Yes, and that's what drove me to do [Scarlet's Walk], was that each place, depending on what makes up that place, saw it completely differently. We're one country, but we're a large one and we are affected by our land, by the culture there and by the stories of the people who have settled there. Is it a naval base? Is it a left-wing city? Is it a right-wing city? All those things were there, projecting how they saw this. So the story would shift and change wherever I went. Some people would say, "Why did this happen to us? Why?" Some people would say, "We're mothers. We're frightened for our children," and you'd run into soccer moms who's tell you, "I've never been political until now, and I'm just afraid of what's going to happen." It was a time when the world did change, and America became part of the world. Before then we were isolated; these kinds of things didn't happen to us, not on the mainland.
How permanent do you think that change is?
Well, the seeds are planted. You might have to look into the future to see them really sprout, of course. A lot of betrayal has happened since then; people like my parents - not them, necessarily - lost everything by trusting our own [financial] system. Bin Laden didn't do that. We go back to greed; that is part of our core, too. Unless a generation rises up and questions that, then us being seen around the world as the bully will continue.
These are big ideas that you incorporate into Scarlet's Walk. How did you approack it on a musical level?
I was working with rhythm and tone that came... intrinsically with the land. So in Virginia, for instance, I would pull in certain instruments and rhythms and voicings. The song Don't Make Me Come to Vegas, it's like Blazing Saddles or something, and Sweet Sangria has this whole Mexican revolutionary moment. So a lot of the musical influences are coming from the land itself, and the history.
The experience also has a life beyond the album, right?
Yes. There'll be the Scarlet's Web that does with this; you use the CD as a key and put it in the computer and the maps will come alive. There'll be a photo gallery, and I'll be feeding Scarlet's Web while we're on tour. There'll be sound check music, B-sides... It's kind of like a sonic novel that keeps going in installments. I guess I'm like Tori taking "Scarlet's walk"; I was Scarlet, now I need to go be Tori taking the walk, which will be on the road.
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