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Times Online (UK, www)
January 11, 2003

Pop profile: Tori Amos

Tori Amos's latest album, a response to September 11, is her best work in years, says Mark Sutherland


In pop, red hair always spells danger. Just as Geri Halliwell was always going to be the one who split the Spice Girls, so Tori Amos's steadfast refusal to abandon her trademark burnt orange tresses marks her down as one of rock 'n' roll's most enduring trouble-makers.

Stung by a one-off aberration at the start of her career (when she was somehow persuaded that fronting a hair-metal band called Y Kant Tori Read? was a good idea), she has done things very much her way since. Though her spelling has, thankfully, become rather more orthodox.

Even when following the crowd, her own spin will always elevate things above the mundane. Her latest album, Scarlet's Walk, is a response to September 11 -- a claim trotted out by every artist on earth lately, with the possible exception of the Cheeky Girls -- but it is very much the sophisticated dinner party debate on the subject, as opposed to the bar-room bluster of Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi.

Through 18 songs and all 50 states, Amos embarks on -- ahem -- a conceptual journey in search of -- cough -- America's soul. That this, on the face of it, absolutely terrible idea somehow translates into her best work in ages is typical Tori. She has a knack of taking things that look downright unpalatable on paper and converting them into something magical on record.

The world first became acquainted with this in 1992, with her single Me and a Gun, a harrowing, autobiographical account of rape. Since then, be it recording Under the Pink in the house where the Manson Family butchered Sharon Tate or covering Eminem's 1997 Bonnie and Clyde from the perspective of the murder victim, Tori has certainly never been afraid of what Alan Partridge calls "being tarred with the mad brush".

And, while incidents such as declaring her passionate belief in fairies might be viewed cynically as doing her enigmatic image no harm whatsoever, they certainly are not just for show. At a recent American music industry seminar, earnest young women queued to ask her questions along the lines of "You're talented, you're successful, you're beautiful -- how do you do it?" That she chose to reply in fluent, if incomprehensible, psychobabble suggested that maybe she cannot even figure it out herself.

It also explains why her influence on today's music scene seems so negligible for someone who has sold more than 12 million albums -- there are no teenagers desperate to become her on MTV's Wannabes, no hopeful American Idols auditioning with one of her songs.

Emulating the intensity of her live performances would be impossible anyway. Her UK album launch saw her playing in a glorified living room -- with her at one end, the free bar at the other and 100 of the UK's finest liggers in between. Many would have crumbled. Tori simply fixed the crowd with those emerald green eyes and reduced them to spellbound silence.

She has -- as befitting someone with a Scottish Methodist minister father and a part-Cherokee Indian mother -- always had the courage of her convictions. The youngest scholar at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute, she was kicked out for showing more interest in Led Zeppelin than Franz Liszt. Even that youthful transgression paid off in the long run, helping her to become the first artist since Little Richard to make the piano even vaguely sexy.

Not that being sexy is particularly high on Amos's agenda -- at least, not since she changed her name from Myra Ellen Amos at 17, after deciding that her real name would turn off potential boyfriends. A consideration which, curiously, never stopped her from suckling a piglet from her breast on her Boys for Pele album sleeve in 1996.

A walking, talking contradiction? Too right. She happily reveals her innermost secrets in interviews, but never flashes her cleavage in videos. ("I like modesty. I think you can be sensual without showing too much.") She claims never to listen to other people's music, but her Strange Little Girls album consisted entirely of cover versions. And she is a fierce American patriot who lives in Cornwall, rather than Carolina.

But, in a world where our female singer-songwriters are usually blonde and nearly always bland, why play Knock Down Ginger with Tori Amos?

* Tori Amos plays Glasgow Clyde Auditorium, Jan 12 (0870-040 4000); Manchester Apollo, Jan 13 (0161-242 2560); Wolverhampton Civic Hall, Jan 14 (0870-909 4133); London Hammersmith Apollo, Jan 16 and 17 (020-7316 4709)


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