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The idiosyncratic singer-songwriter reclaims her roots on Scarlet's Walk
by Chris Chandar
The images that emerge from the journey are at times unsettling, but Tori Amos is intent on chronicling every last stop. Oblivious to her noisy surroundings - a bustling lounge in San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton - she traces her finger across the map that comes with her new album, Scarlet's Walk (Epic), pausing occasionally to cast an intense stare your way, making sure you understand every tale of manic depression, persecution and misogyny.
In person, Amos has the calming presence of a storyteller and sage - seemingly free from the conflict and strife her music has often conveyed. Today she's equal parts Sunday school teacher (on a mission of salvation) and bohemian history professor (happy to smoke a joint with you after office hours). The map she's holding is her textbook, the complex journey of a mythical character named Scarlet on a road trip through America.
It's this journey that provides the framework for Scarlet's Walk, Amos' seventh album and first collection of original material in nearly three years. (Last year's Strange Little Girls was an all-covers album in which Amos tried her hand at everything from the Velvet Underground to Slayer.) On this new album, Scarlet falls in an out of love, uncovers the unsightly missing chapters of history textbooks, and meets a cast of spellbinding characters that help unlock the secrets of this entity which Amos refers to as "America's soul - this being we call America."
Aurally akin to her earlier works, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Scarlet's Walk abandons the vast electronic soundscapes heard on 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel and 1999's To Venus and Back. This time it's back to voice and piano, accompanied by the soft drums of "A Sorta Fairytale" and sweeping orchestration on "Mrs. Jesus" and "Gold Dust" (courtesy of string arranger John Philip Shenale and the London Symphonia) - all of which may lure back fans who abandoned Tori after she discovered the harpsichord and the nightmarish corners of her imaginative mind.
But don't be fooled - Scarlet's Walk is an ambitious take on the illusion of democracy, both personal and political. The stories which comprise the album came to Amos while touring after the events of September 11th, but the most stirring message was delivered by an unexpected backstage visitor.
"A Native American woman came to visit me on the road," says Amos, who in her youth spent much time on her grandfather's Cherokee reservation. "She was older. She wasn't there for the show. She was there to give me a message. And she was able to get backstage, which is not an easy thing to do, especially in those times with [my daughter] running around. She sat down and said, 'Here's the message for you. When the White brother came, he took and took, but he only took the land in the end. This greed has created a hunger for something that nobody can name.' And she opened her arms, and there were tears running down her face and I understood her commitment to earth, to America, to holding a vigil for her soul, to being a caretaker, to being a mother force, a safe harbor, an abundant source that can give, even when so much has been taken. It was very humbling. It was like I came home. And the story began to write itself."
And so our journey begins...
Who exactly is this Scarlet character?
In this story, I just called my character Scarlet because she's weaving through the countrythe word "scarlet," its etymology is a thread. I guess you can say she's based on me or I'm based on herI don't know which one anymore. I don't know where fiction and nonfiction begins and ends now. As I go out on tour, it's almost as if her story is coming true inside myself, in my life.
Her journey reaches all 50 states; were the songs based on your own travels?
It's taken me a long time to take this journey, this road trip. I didn't traverse all this ground in three months. It's tapping into many years of traveling, reading, researching and being pulled, especially last year, to find America's soul - this being we call America. Not how she's represented by our leaders to the rest of the world.. We never like the bully, but people don't realize that that's how we're viewed. And that's scary - to watch the misinterpretation of who we are and how we're read. So [Scarlet's Walk] was a trip where I started to ask questions, to see how other people saw things, and to find out what I believed in.
You were one of the few artists who kept your tour itinerary intact after the events of September 11th. What did you learn from people along the way?
Being out there, going from place to place, hearing how people felt and saw it, [that] was what I put into this work. One thing that kept coming up was, people didn't know if tomorrow would come, or if it did what it would be like. And endings - people that they thought they had ended something with, they realized it wasn't over. It hadn't ended, because it was still inside, within, alive. So I found that, in letters, a lot people were thinking about someone they hadn't spoken to, wondering, "Are they all right? I need to make contact with them."
These messages are from letters your fans pass along to you?
Oh yeah, all the time. In a lot of letters, people harbored feelings for someone for a long time and kept it secret. It's like you still carry this torch. And I found that a lot of people realized things were lying dormant for a while, but they weren't dead. And in death, people discovered what was still stirring. The embers as opposed to the ashes.
Scarlet's Walk possesses an understated yet direct quality that recalls your first two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. What prompted you to take this approach?
Those two records are very structured and Scarlet's Walk is very structured in a classic songwriting style. I guess as a songwriter, you go through different phases. I think there's an organic approach to this record. Boys for Pele also had an organic approach, but the songwriting style was much different, because it was more improvisational. There was a more modern approach on [From the Choirgirl Hotel] and [To Venus and Back], as far as songwriting and, more than anything, sound. So those records reflected the time and what I was experimenting with. And maybe Scarlet has a bit of all that experimenting, but with the songwriting structure.
Given the subject matter, the songwriting at times is intense. Was it difficult to maintain that energy throughout the album?
A lot of times you've got many songs on the go at once. I do, anyway. I think it's like gymnasts at the Olympics probably - the Russian is doing the floor mat and the Romanian gal is up on the beam. And you can imagine [songs like] "Crazy" as on the mat and "Fairytale" is up on the beam. And they're seeing what each other is doing and they're spurring each other on to strive, to do their best. Some people choose to write one song at a time. I find that one motivates another and I don't put pressure on it if I've got more than one on the go.
With all these gymnasts running about, was it ever difficult to keep a level head in creating the album?
Well, think about it. It's very organized. It doesn't get that crazy. I might have 11 songs on the go, but that kind of drives me. That's how I work. I have a lot of thoughts, a lot of images, a lot of different melodies, and I'm trying to find where to put them. Just to give you a comparison, the chef here, Duncan, when we're cooking for maybe 30 people, he's got to have a lot of pots on the go. And he does not get confused. The deal that's going in the fish dish, that's not going in the pasta dish. He doesn't get confused on that level. There's a discipline that comes from writing for years and years.
The structure of this album complements some of your most accessible songwriting in years.
Well, there were a lot of edits and rewrites on this so I could get it to where I wanted it. This is not an improv record. I've done those and that's what those are. It's not that I didn't edit those, but I didn't really sit there and whittle a second verse 17 times like I did on this [album]. I did that with Little Earthquakes. Things were very edited on that. I mean, I had records back-to-back for years. On your first one, you have all the time in the world. Well, actually, after Y Kant Tori Read, I [still] had plenty of time because no one was waiting for my songwriting (laughs). I had all the time in the world! And with this one, I had a little bit of time and I had the cover record on the go, and again, we go back to my Russian gymnast theory. You can say that while the cover record was going on, I was able to be creative and be very disciplined and keep my game up.
On your cover record [Strange Little Girls], you performed songs written by men, sung from the perspective of the women referenced in each particular song. What did doing that album teach you as a songwriter?
I think doing the cover record raised my game as a songwriter because I was dealing with some very powerful material - whether you like it or not. I crawled inside those songs and I felt like I was crawling behind boys' eyes. I was looking out of their eyes like curtains. I did that with myself and with Scarlet.
So is Scarlet, then, a place for you to hide behind?
Maybe that's true. I think that sometimes when you're somewhat of a public figure, people over-analyze what things are about. You need to express them, but you don't want to be picked apart all the time. So in a way, with the cover record, I could take on different identities. Even though maybe they are all a part of me in some way. I could find the part of me that doesn't feel very good about herself. Or find the part of me that can be enraged. Or find the part of me that feels trapped in the back of a car. Or find the part of me that loses my temper so much that I could do something that I would regret forever. You find these splinters of yourself.
In the past, your lyrics have mapped out your own personal conflicts. On Scarlet's Walk, while the lyrics are personal and intense, the story is seen through Scarlet. How much of your own struggles are reflected on this album?
This record is so much about being affected by other people's visions. And it's about listening to other people, whether it's on "Carbon" or "Crazy," and I think it's really about not protecting yourself. (Pauses) Maybe that's not a good word. Why don't we say isolating yourself? She and I really open up to the land and America coming alive. We open up to her spirit. We open up to people there, from all sorts of different backgrounds and the way they see the world, and what they have to deal with on a day-to-day level.
Was creating this album a healing process for you?
I think this record has been humbling. Little Earthquakes was very much about my character in crisis, and that's not really what Scarlet's Walk is about. It's about different people at different times in crisis and ecstasy. I think that I'm not at a place in my life where I'm wondering what kind of woman I'll be. That's not what this is about. Scarlet and I know what kind of woman we are and we're not ashamed of that. But we're questioning what we believe in and what we stand for and what our country believes in. And, can you walk the walk? It's very easy to say that you think a certain way, but can you live it? And she's not really quite sure. It's very easy to have an impression of the world, but once you go out and see it through [other] peoples' eyes and what they had to go through, it does change you.
Is there any worry on your part that people might over-conceptualize this album?
Well, you can't control that. The one thing I hope I've learned is that everybody has to make [the album] their own. On another level, I feel that the story tells itself, especially with the map and the things that are going up on Scarlet's Web [the album website]. There are some journals on the site that are abstract in a way. Because it's more about feelings and it's more about how people have affected [Scarlet]. And I think you will feel this through the melodies and the land and how they link up. There are links there. There are threads there. More than anything, it's for people to let it spark in them what it does. That's what I think a good story does.
A few of the songs on Scarlet's Walk address Native American history and the feeling that there is an absence of a caretaker figure in this country. What inspired this?
If you think about it, people don't really know how to tend this land. They don't know her mythology - the language, the songs. You go to Ireland and they go back 2,000 years and you go to Britain and they go back. You go to France, they go back. You go to Italy, they go back. And there is a mythology connected with the land. Whereas, in American everything is imported. It's not taught in our schools. And I think that the next generation coming up, the one worry that they have is quite pressing... the way that everything is being excavated, what is going to be left for their kids? And it's getting to that place where we've become a taking society. All we do is take. We take and we don't even think about it.
What do we need to give back?
I fully believe each person has their own body map. Each person has their own choice as to what they believe in. I don't think a lot of people know how they see their relationship to themselves, to the land, to the spiritual world, much less the physical world. Because everything is about, what's in it for them? There's no ritual, there's no apprenticeship into soul. And we all know that America is in its terrible 200's, but at a certain point, as we go to the next stage, your generation and my generation are sort of the keepers of that flame or the extinguishers of that flame. Other civilizations have come and gone. There's no reason that ours won't. The Native Americans, their civilization is gone. [The concept of giving back] is not integrated into our schools, it's not part of our spiritual life, it's not part of our culture.
If that is not integrated into our school, then what is?
We're taught to win and we're taught to take. And we're not taught that it can be a win-win. And that's why on "Sweet Sangria," it keeps coming back to: Why does someone have to lose? And in "Another Girl's Paradise," it really tries to go into that, even with women. Why does one woman feel that, if she doesn't get the guy, she's lost? These are just core questions we have to ask ourselves. And I think Scarlet's Walk is just about [Scarlet] finding her core beliefs. And her questioning this within herself also. So I think that the record is based on real people and real events, but there are many layers to it. And I think for the first time I saw people looking at America, not as object, but as a being. And that was the first step. This is the next generation coming up behind us. We're looking at [America] as she was wounded in New York City. You know, laying there having been mutilated. It was a gaping wound that everyone was feeling. While I was there I found that people were feeling sort of "I'm drawn to her." Even if they didn't have people who died, there was the feeling for the soul of the land. And that's what I was hearing from some of the most cynical people I've ever met.
What did you find most disheartening after the events of September 11th?
What I found offensive was when some of our leaders were saying, "If you start asking questions about why this happened, then you don't love America." And that's emotional blackmail. We can't be shamed by that. There are questions that have to be asked if we're going to grow. And another question that people have to ask sometimes is who benefits from some of these decisions when we're being shamed? Usually shamers have so much to gain, or they're covering something up. Always. Just from being part of R.A.I.N.N. [Rape Abuse & Incest National Network], I've been taught that over the years. So many people that have been abused in some way have been shamed. That's because people don't want to be uncovered. So, we're being intimidated into not asking questions and there's a reason why. It's because once we turn over these stones, we're finding something that they don't want us to find. And if that doesn't make the torches light up in the mind of those university students, then you know what? In 20 years time, they'll look back and say, "We were at a crossroads and we turned the light out - we turned our own light out. We can't blame anyone else." So, it's a time when the fires need to be lit in the hearts of those who are our future Martin Luther Kings, our future Sylvia Plaths, the poets and the writers and the future statesmen and stateswomen who realize that we are in a fragile place.
But as history has taught us, those people who light the flames, turn over the stones and dare to ask questions also run the risk of being crucified. Bring it on! My answer to that is: Get off the cross - we need the wood. Bring your matches; I'm ready for you.
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