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The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
Saturday, February 8, 2003

A mystical and mighty artist

Tori Amos is a hybrid of hyper rock goddess and spiritual healer. She is also surprisingly strong, writes Kerry Gold.

Tori Amos, seated inside the fancy hotel room that is requisite for a major label signing, wears a T-shirt under her striped hoodie that says: "Overly Medicated Optimist."

It is a glimpse of humour from an artist known as irony-free and earnest, partly because of albums that concern the bleak realities of life, partly because she takes her words seriously.

Amos is tiny and bereft of makeup. Her long red hair is uncombed and scraggly. She speaks slowly and precisely and so dreamily, her mere presence lowers your blood pressure. No wonder she is considered the nurturing godmother to the female singer-songwriter generation.

Amos recalls touring after Sept. 11, 2001, to promote her critically acclaimed and lovely epic journey across America, Scarlet's Walk. For the album, Amos adopts the alter ego of Scarlet and considers the parallels between the Sept. 11 violation of Americans and that of Native Americans. Listening to her explain the strangeness of her tour, you start to feel like an under medicated cynic.

Amos recalls a Native American woman who came backstage to visit "the one who sings." She had a message, she told Amos, although she didn't have a clue who Amos was.

"She said a lot of things," says Amos. "What I can tell you is that she said, 'The ancestors are coming, and they are contacting a lot of people at this time.'"

Amos, whose grandfather was part Cherokee, is open to such mystical communication, tangible or otherwise. Her album traces a fictional woman's path through Joe Average America, complete with a map and chronology that weaves fictional characters into an 18-track song cycle. The classically trained pianist, singer and songwriter, who has tackled personal issues such as her own rape, as well as sexism, relationships and political concerns, has documented a road trip that operates as both self-discovery and anthropological dig. On the album, Amos unfurls the melody lines with her oddly appealing gracious and aggressive playing, making her a hybrid of hyper rock goddess and spiritual healer. As so often with female artists who specialize in exposing their vulnerability, she is surprisingly strong.

For example, she is frank about the three miscarriages that made her and her husband, studio engineer Mark Hawley, doubtful and grief-stricken.

"I was pregnant on the Alanis (Morissette) tour we did together, and that was the third one. I think that's the one that really wiped me out. It was the end for me. I just had enough. We were just trying to get over the loss."

The story ended happily for 39-year-old Amos, when she stopped trying to conceive, got pregnant, and gave birth two years ago to daughter Natashya Lorien named after Lothlorien, the elf kingdom in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. She has no desire to push her luck or energy level by having another child. She's already spent a year and a half without sleep, says the woman whose career output has included such platinum-selling releases as 1992's Little Earthquakes, 1994's Under the Pink and 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel. She has more albums and tours in her, and she knows she could never give enough time to another child.

"After the miscarriages, I realized I wanted to be a different kind of parent, much more what would you say hands on."

She and her family live in a seaside house near Cornwall, England, where Amos has set up a state-of-the-art recording studio. Since she spends an average of seven months making a record, she's happy to have the home base. It also means she can spend more time with her daughter, whose preferences for Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and ABBA have made Amos aware of art that lasts.

Amos, who has played the piano since she was potty-trained, knew early on that she had the required voice. Her ability to capture high notes and twist them voluptuously around her flowing piano lines is testament to that early, natural prodigy. She gleaned more from the classical world than the sugary pop world of, say, ABBA. Still, Amos's critics have often accused her of being "shrill," a word that causes her eyes to widen slightly. It is, after all, an adjective generally reserved for the female voice, a word, she adds, that would never be used to describe Jeff Buckley.

"It is a pejorative," she says. "I mean it's a pejorative for a powerful voice, if you're hitting high notes and hitting hard."

The impact of those notes is a physical release as well, she continues. And she makes it sound as if singing loudly enough could wipe out the unpleasant memories that haunt her.

This is an artist who covered Eminem's disturbingly graphic '97 Bonnie & Clyde, and transformed it into a feminist study of domestic violence.

"You're singing at such a volume, the idea is to almost blow out any cobwebs that are there, that you're hanging onto the past," she says. "Let them wash away."


* This article was also printed in the Vancouver Sun.


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